4000 Miles of Aussie Dust

Mel­bourne to Perth through the un­for­giv­ing Out­back in an Aus­tralian mus­cle-car le­gend – the Ford Fal­con XB GT

Classic Cars (UK) - - Contents - Words STE­WART PERRY Pho­tog­ra­phy ROSS PERRY

Storm­ing great dis­tances across Aus­tralia’s stark land­scape in a big, brash V8-pow­ered mus­cle car at speed with your mates was a way of life for a gen­er­a­tion of Aus­tralians. Be­ing too young to ex­pe­ri­ence this in its hey­day of the late Six­ties/early Seven­ties, my brother Ross and I, with good friends Mick and Heath, jump at our chance to recre­ate his­tory. In my 1974 Ford Fal­con XB GT with 230,000 miles we’re set­ting off on the quin­tes­sen­tial road trip, 2500 sparsely in­hab­ited miles across the con­ti­nent from Mel­bourne to Perth. Our mis­sion – to at­tend the Fal­con GT Na­tion­als meet­ing, a bi­en­nial gather­ing of hun­dreds of cars from across Aus­tralia that ro­tates be­tween ma­jor cities, and starts in one week’s time.

The GT’S 351 cu­bic inches (5.8 litres) of Cleve­land V8 roars to life and set­tles into a mild throb as we point the big ma­chine into the mis­er­able Mel­bourne rush-hour traf­fic. With four pas­sen­gers, lug­gage, and a small camper trailer in tow, we’re heav­ily laden. This, com­bined with the four­speed To­ploader gear­box’s tall 2.78 first gear, and the fac­tory 3.0 axle ra­tio spec­i­fied for high speed tour­ing – and top speed at Bathurst race­track – ne­ces­si­tates slip­ping the clutch to keep pace with the crawl­ing line of com­muters. An hour and a quar­ter later, we fi­nally set­tle on a easy 70mph cruis­ing speed with the quad seven-inch head­lights shin­ing our path, and rum­ble into our first camp­ing stop well af­ter mid­night.

Play­ing Seven­ties Aussie rock mu­sic through the very Nineties Alpine stereo, we strike out next day into north­ern Vic­to­rian desert ter­rain – an early taste of the flat, dry hori­zon that will be the norm for many days to come. Cov­er­ing high­way miles, the GT is in its el­e­ment. De­spite no over­drive, it’s turn­ing only 2700rpm at 70mph and on a light throt­tle the ex­haust note is a gen­tle back­ground thrum al­most hid­den by wind noise. Road noise is suf­fi­ciently low for happy ra­dio lis­ten­ing and talk­ing with­out yelling – a bless­ing when faced with 40 hours con­fined in close prox­im­ity in the cabin.

By 10am the harsh sun is start­ing to heat up the car, and the wall-to-wall brown vinyl isn’t help­ing. Luck­ily, the XB has the op­tional fac­tory-in­stalled air con­di­tion­ing, so with a cou­ple of clicks of the con­trols and a slight chirp from the belt as the twin-pis­ton York com­pres­sor cuts in, re­fresh­ing chilled air starts to flow. Just on sun­set, as we ar­rive in Port Au­gusta with 400 miles down for the day, idle quality has no­tice­ably de­te­ri­o­rated. I thought I’d licked this nig­gling prob­lem be­fore we left, but it’s resur­faced – the ex­tra load of run­ning the air­con prob­a­bly hasn’t helped.

Our third day sees us travers­ing a red dirt land­scape of iron ore coun­try en route to the sparkling blue of the Great Aus­tralian Bight at the com­mer­cial fish­ing town­ship of Ce­duna. Ahead of us now is the heart of our ad­ven­ture – the true wilds of the Nullar­bor (lit­er­ally ‘no trees’) Plain. Save for a ba­sic road­house every cou­ple of hun­dred miles there is no fixed habi­ta­tion, with the next ma­jor town­ship of Norse­man over 750 miles away. And call­ing Norse­man a ma­jor town is a stretch; boast­ing a pop­u­la­tion around 1000 it’s merely more sub­stan­tial than any­where else we’ll en­counter in the next few days. The lack of civilised comforts is driven home when, not far out of Ce­duna, we lose all phone re­cep­tion – not to be re­gained for an­other two days. It’s re­in­forced when we come across our first set of run­way mark­ings – ur­gent med­i­cal needs in the out­back have to be at­tended by the

Royal Fly­ing Doc­tor Ser­vice, and be­cause of the lack of handy air­fields, emer­gency land­ing strips are marked at in­ter­vals on the main high­way!

The GT de­vours the miles with cus­tom­ary ease, even if for the most part a lit­tle slower than its de­sign­ers in­tended. Dra­co­nian en­force­ment of speed lim­its rules out cruis­ing at high speed th­ese days, at least with­out risk­ing an ex­pen­sive ticket. Al­though the Eyre High­way is the only ma­jor road within 1500 miles it’s still only one lane ei­ther way. Thank­fully for us over­tak­ing is a breeze be­cause aside from a plethora of (painfully slow) car­a­vans ac­com­mo­dat­ing Aus­tralia’s tribe of ‘grey no­mads’ wend­ing their way through re­tire­ment, mas­sive road trains are a com­mon sight. Th­ese are prime movers with triple trail­ers (max­i­mum length 175 feet) and top speeds lim­ited to 62mph rather than the 70-odd we’re do­ing, and un­der­stand­ably re­quire quite a bit of space to get past. In fair­ness the GT’S mo­tor is not quite stan­dard, with some mild breath­ing mod­i­fi­ca­tions car­ried out when I re­built it a few years back, free­ing up around 100bhp with­out sub­stan­tial im­pact to its mild char­ac­ter or fuel mileage. Click the shifter into third, roll on the throt­tle, and a con­fi­dent surge to­wards the hori­zon is ac­com­pa­nied by a pleas­ing roar from the twin 2½in ex­hausts. By the time we draw level with the road train cab the tachome­ter nee­dle is rapidly ap­proach­ing the 6000rpm red­line, and it’s time to shift into fourth just as the speedome­ter crests 100mph.

Deso­late scenery aside, the Nul­la­bor boasts a num­ber of off­beat fea­tures. Among them is the world’s long­est golf course, which stretches 855 miles – and Mick is de­ter­mined to play as many as pos­si­ble of its 18 holes. An­other record is the long­est piece of straight road – over 90 miles with no need to slow for even the slight­est de­vi­a­tion. Re­gard­less, reg­u­lar tee­ing-off means we are still 50 miles from the next road­house as dark­ness starts to de­scend. We dis­count the hazard of wan­der­ing feral camels, but the risk of hit­ting na­tive wildlife is very real be­cause the an­i­mals scout for food af­ter the day’s heat. Kan­ga­roos have a propen­sity to hop un­pre­dictably into the path of ve­hi­cles, as abun­dant road­kill tes­ti­fies).

I slow to 50mph, which feels like a crawl, and in­deed it’s not long be­fore we spot mobs of kan­ga­roos and emus. For­tu­nately, no close calls, and with re­lief we reach the Western Aus­tralian bor­der road­house. Pulling into camp, the GT’S head­lights ef­fec­tively il­lu­mi­nate my teenage dream car – a 1969 Ford Fal­con XW GT painted Starlight Blue. Be­fore we even have our tents up, its own­ers come over to say hello and chat about our re­spec­tive progress. Day five, and we de­cide to push on for an­other 450 miles (once more with manda­tory golf­ing stops) to ar­rive in Norse­man at sun­set, look­ing for­ward ea­gerly to a shorter day’s travel to­mor­row. We im­me­di­ately spot a Ford Galaxie com­plete with a pe­riod car­a­van in tow, and it doesn’t take us long to in­tro­duce our­selves. Shar­ing a BBQ we learn it’s a ’64 model pow­ered by a 390 FE big block, also head­ing west from Vic­to­ria al­beit at a slightly more leisurely pace. There’s noth­ing like cov­er­ing thou­sands of miles on largely va­cant roads to foster in­stant ca­ma­raderie be­tween fel­low trav­ellers, es­pe­cially car en­thu­si­asts.

At this point we es­chew the most direct in­land route to Perth for a change of scenery and a swim at Esper­ance’s pris­tine white sands on the coast 160 miles to the south, fol­lowed by a gen­er­ous tast­ing at the lo­cal brew­ery.

The GT still isn’t idling well and now the over­all run­ning is an is­sue, so I bite the bul­let and fit new spark plugs at break­fast next morn­ing while the engine is still cold. This seems to fix the prob­lem, at least for now. Chang­ing plugs on the right bank is easy, but the left is very chal­leng­ing to do with­out draw­ing blood, or prior train­ing as a con­tor­tion­ist.

Next up Al­bany, an early mil­i­tary out­post and whal­ing sta­tion, and our fi­nal stop be­fore Perth. De­spite mul­ti­ple lo­cal at­trac­tions, we can’t linger and have to straight­line it to make in time for Fal­con GT Na­tion­als scru­ti­neer­ing – strictly no repli­cas are al­lowed. The event will take us through three fas­ci­nat­ing days of car dis­plays with 200+ other Fal­con GTS, out­ings in con­voy driv­ing the Perth hin­ter­land, and a visit to an amaz­ing pri­vate Ford col­lec­tion hous­ing at least 100, mostly Aus­tralian, mod­els.

But first, a thor­ough clean is in or­der. The high-pressure hose of a com­mer­cial car­wash is crit­i­cal to shift lay­ers of dead bugs, fol­lowed with a de­tailed clean and wax. Mick even does the engine bay, a treat­ment the GT isn’t used to.

Pre­vi­ous GT Na­tion­als have in­cluded mo­tor sport, but dis­ap­point­ingly noth­ing is or­gan­ised this time – I’d much rather ex­pe­ri­ence th­ese cars at full noise than in a static show. To make up the deficit, as part of a post-nats

‘While driv­ing the Nullar­bor is a great ex­pe­ri­ence, once is prob­a­bly enough in such a short time’

extended holiday taking in the Mar­garet River wine re­gion, we de­cide to in­cor­po­rate a track day at Col­lie Mo­tor­plex. It’s a joint ef­fort be­tween the Porsche club of WA and the Holden Spe­cial Ve­hi­cles club, and on ar­rival we’re pleased to see an eclec­tic mix of ev­ery­thing from Triumphs to Alfa Romeos.

Save for a rear anti-roll bar and up­rated front anti-roll bar, the XB is stock. While it’s no pur­pose-built sports car, it be­lies its fam­ily-car roots and weight on the track, prov­ing sur­pris­ingly handy. It has am­ple power, good brakes, and while it rolls around a lit­tle, it’s very pre­dictable in re­sponse – some un­der­steer on the limit pro­gress­ing to power over­steer with a lib­eral throt­tle ap­pli­ca­tion. The big­gest let­down is the power as­sisted steer­ing; great at slow speeds, but it lacks feel for per­for­mance driv­ing.

Dis­ap­point­ingly, our day is marred by mi­nor me­chan­i­cal dra­mas. Firstly, the on­go­ing ig­ni­tion is­sues cause the engine to fall flat above 4500rpm, ne­ces­si­tat­ing a stop to cool down enough to change plugs again. With that re­solved we pick up the pace, but it quickly be­comes ev­i­dent we have a brake is­sue not ap­par­ent at road speeds. The pads in the car are an ag­gres­sive street/mild track com­pound that re­ally bite when hot, and by the sec­ond lap at full pace are shud­der­ing vi­o­lently. The bon­net dances around vis­i­bly, though thank­fully the fac­tory-fit­ted hood pins re­as­sure me that it isn’t go­ing to come loose. Frus­trat­ingly, it stops me test­ing the car’s lim­its any fur­ther, but de­spite the set­backs it’s fan­tas­tic to drive a new track.

Pres­sures of real life ne­ces­si­tate freight­ing the car home and fly­ing back for work on Mon­day. In truth, while driv­ing the Nullar­bor is a great ex­pe­ri­ence, once is prob­a­bly enough in such a short time. From the coastal town of Bun­bury, around 100 miles south of Perth, we’re on the road early to drop the car at the freight de­pot and head to the air­port. For old time’s sake we make one last stop in the Hill­man sub­urb where the GT was de­liv­ered new in 1975. As we pull up, the cur­rent home­owner emerges for a chat. It turns out he’s a car buff with his own Ley­land P76 V8, and bought the house from my car’s orig­i­nal owner – handy be­cause he helps me trace the car’s his­tory.

As we go to leave I at­tempt to se­lect first and re­alise I can’t. Mi­nor panic en­sues be­cause we can’t af­ford to break down now with only just enough time to catch our flight. I gin­gerly reach un­der the car, avoid­ing the hot ex­haust, to try fid­dling with the ex­ter­nal shift link­ages. But given the GT’S low slung body I can barely reach them. In des­per­a­tion I jump back in to try let­ting the clutch out to see what gear we’re stuck in. It seems to be third, and de­spite the trailer’s weight the car pulls away – thank­fully there’s plenty of torque just off idle. It’s not ideal, but we de­cide to search for some­where we can gain bet­ter ac­cess. A shop­ping com­plex with tall gut­ters en­ables us to park on the tilt pro­vid­ing enough space to get a de­cent grip and free the link­ages. We make the dash to the freight de­pot and air­port with a few min­utes to spare.

In 19 days our 43-year-old grand tourer has cov­ered al­most 4000 miles, crossed an arid con­ti­nent, shone on dis­play, and even hit the race­track, all with only mi­nor grum­bles. The XB GT has lived up to Ford’s pe­riod slo­gan ‘The Great Aus­tralian Road Car’.

The band of broth­ers brace them­selves for 40 hours co­cooned in brown vinyl

Sign of things to come: 4000-mile road trip across Aus­tralia means a lot of sky

Quad head­lights – Ideal for coun­try night time driv­ing

Fel­low Fal­con en­thu­si­asts in their 1969 XW GT also head­ing to the Na­tion­als

Fal­con needed two new sets of spark plugs

The 351ci (5752cc) V8 proves ideal for high­way cruis­ing

The Fal­con takes a well-de­served rest at the wa­ter­side in Port Au­gusta

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