MEL NICHOLS looks back , in pleasure , on a lost weekend in a Phase Three HO.
Painfully, heartbreakingly, as ideals give way to reality, young journalists
learn that certain stories are too hot for publication. Some can never be
told; others only years after the event took place. This is one of those
It began in the car park of the Ford Motor Company's head office at
Broadmeadows, near Melbourne, one afternoon in the middle of 1971. A
car was waiting there for me in the feeble wintry sun. A mustard Falcon.
One of the first GTHO Phase Threes to come off the production lines; so
new, its existence was still a secret to all but a handful of people outside
Ford. And of those people, here was I about to be handed the keys to the
fastest, most awesome super car Australia had ever produced ….or would ever
Good organization or coincidence - I forget which - had it that at precisely
the same time as the HO was ready I was in possession of one of the first
five-litre (302 CID) V8 Bolwell Nagaris. Indeed, it was the car that had
rushed me from Sydney to my assignation with the Falcon, putting the 570
km of the NSW section of the Hume Highway behind me in the morning,
and accounting for Victoria's 310 km in the afternoon.
Even so, we'd been running late, desperately worried that we wouldn't
make it to Broadmeadows before the Ford people went home, taking the
keys of the HO with them. But it was okay because the mechanics were still
working on the car even as I telephoned, breathless, from Wangaratta to
beg them to wait for me.
And then I was there, pulling in alongside the thing, unwinding myself from
the Bolwell and climbing, gingerly, expectantly, dubiously, half afraid into
the Ford. I can recall not one word the PR man was saying through the
open window as the key slid into the ignition. I can remember only the
tension, trying to stop my leg shaking and the racing of my brain. And then
the trembling of the car and the flick of the Shaker air filter in the bonnet as
the 5.7-litre (351 CID) V8 churned to the starter and shook in its mounts. It
fired, and filled the car park with a thunderclap of exhaust as intimidating
as the snorting of a charging rhinoceros. Then came the popping and
sizzling and gulping as the throttle was prodded and the 780 cfm
four-barrel Holley dumped too much fuel into the unready cylinders. Give it
a little while; I used the time to adjust the mirrors, fine-tune the seating
positions, fidgeted in the bucket and tugged the belt a snitch tighter until it
nailed me to the squab.
And then I dared to move the car away, feeling a little tremble in the left leg
as it fought against that big bastard of a clutch for the first time.
The steering seemed light, lighter than the normal GT, and it made the job
of swinging out of the car park easy, in the wake of the gently burbling
Bolwell, and into the peak hour Broadmeadows traffic. My photographer
friend, Uwe Kuessner, in the Bolwell, trod on it and the fibreglass car
became a yellow streak, charging past the tamer traffic on the wide
highway. Blast him, had he forgotten I was meant to be following him?
So I, too, trod down hard on the throttle pedal. And braced myself. Without
yet completing my arc out through the median strip into the traffic. The car
hiccuped ... shuddered. Then - bloody hell! - it exploded into action. The
front hurled itself forward and upwards like a charging tiger. The back tyres
wailed and the tail snapped 'way out. I speared sideways through the last
of the gap in the central reservation. The opposite lock was on, intuitively -
no time to think about niceties like steering feel now' It flicked straight
again as it lined up in the outside lane of the road towards Melbourne. The
engine's snarling had reached fever pitch. I grabbed second just as the V8
hit its electric rev-cutout. It died momentarily, then picked up again and
simply pelted me forward once more. The senses raced, trying to adjust to
the speed. Maximum revs again. But so soon! Third, and I charged forward
once more. And then it was hard on the brakes, getting a slight twitch
because I was up to 145 km/h ( 90 mph ) in those scant few seconds and about to run
right over the top of the Bolwell. We both slowed right down, both aware of
just how much performance we had on hand, and how cautious we needed
to be. Not because all that go is hard to control. Not at all. But you are so
much faster than everyone else you're out of place in the traffic unless you
The HO had the ability to spin the wheels in first, second or third gears on a dry surface and yet it could be driven quietly and smoothly without the driver being aware of its incredible potential.
So we tip-toed into Melbourne. That early, blood-stirring blast probably did
me a great deal of good. It showed me that the Phase Three was an
eminently easy car to drive, so much more so than either of its two
predecessors, and especially when one considers just how much power
lay just a throttle push away. It was so smooth low down, so docile for a
thumping great V8 with an 11-to-one compression ratio. It was happy
enough to trundle down to 1500 rpm - 55 km/h ( 35 mph )- in top gear, to idle steadily
at 1000 rpm compared with something approaching 2000 rpm in the
Phase Two. I found I was easing up to 2000 rpm, changing up into the next
gear and finally dropping into top at around 55 km/h. And so I came, very
quickly, to feel quite at ease in the HO. Ready to drive it ...
Uwe and I picked up two models early the next morning - a Saturday - and
headed west to take pictures. I lounged in the warmth of the Falcon while
he got on with his work , and I remember how glad I felt that I wasn’t a model , for they
were turning blue out there in the Melbourne winter…….
And then it was time to start work with the HO. The only open bend we
could find was not all that tight. I did one run and found that even 145 km/h
( 90 mph ) was too slow to make the car move. It just sat there, hugging the road.
Doing nothing. Again: This time flat in third at 170 km/h. ( 105 mph ) Again no
understeer, no oversteer; just a little body roll and the nose lifting jauntily I
went to 180 km/h ( 110 mph ) in fourth on the next run and it was still just as uneventful,
but I daren't go faster because I wasn't yet entirely sure where the limits lay,
even though I was getting a pretty good idea. And should I lose it of upwards of
one-one-oh - well………
So I ran performance figures instead, ticking off the gear maximums at the
6150 rpm redline at 79 km/h, (49 mph ) ,117 km/h ( 73 mph ) and 167 km/h ( 104 mph )
with top's maximum unreachable in the space. Then there was the acceleration:
Experimentation showed that the clutch had to come out at 2700 rpm -
nothing more and nothing less. If I dropped it at 2500 rpm the engine died
a little against the grip of the wheels. If I popped it at 3000 rpm there was
wheelspin for around 200 metres, again wasting time. So 2700 rpm it was.
And 0-160 km/h ( 0 - 100 mph ) in 15.2 seconds came up on the watches. But so
effortlessly ,and I filed away some more information about the HO; noted some more points that took me closer to it, and prepared me for what was still to come.
It began to rain, and we took the girls back to their flat and crossed
Melbourne to Dandenong to return the Bolwell. In the week I’d had the sports car I’d learned to respect it and enjoy it very much, and it was a sad parting.
But what the hell, we still had the HO, didn't we?
Indeed yes, and unbeknown to us at that moment, we were soon to subject
it to one of the most exhilarating tests it would ever undergo on the road; to
use it for what I suspect is one of the most remarkable journeys ever run in
Australia. To thunder it flat for miles and miles in a drive etched for ever on the memories of the
two of us who did it. But for the moment we found ourselves tooling quietly
through the cold Melbourne drizzle. Saturday night. No plans. No
enthusiasm. Then something - I don't know what made one of us suggest
going to Albury, 320 km ( 200 miles ) away on the Victoria-NSW border.
We’d both worked there at different times , for the local newspaper. Both of us liked the place and both of us still had friends there.
So we gunned the HO around, hit Elizabeth Street and headed north into
the night. It was 7.30 p.m.
The rain grew heavier and the night nastier. There wasn't much traffic, and
what there was, was going the other way. I don't recall much until we were
past the little Hume Highway town of Seymour, but I expect we'd been
alone with our thoughts and the murmur of the radio, soloist to the steady
background swish of the wipers, the hissing of the tyres and the downbeat
throb of the V8. I only remember the ease of driving the car; how much at
home I now felt in it, with a real idea of its capabilities now forming clearly
in my mind. How comfortably it carried us, its lights hacking through the
night. And then came the long, fast bends you strike after Seymour. Open
bends. And I can remember the way the car just seemed to think itself
through them, undeterred by the rain and traveling at ever-increasing
speeds and showing me how strongly it could grip and how finely it was
And the next thing I can recall and oh, how startlingly clearly I can see it in
my mind's eye four years later - is one particular bend on that deserted, sodden
road. A bend that's just a simple kink at 110 km/h or even 125 km/h, but a
curve requiring careful choice of line and steering and power usage at
much more. Especially in the wet.
I flicked a glance at the speedo as we came into it now in the HO. I barely
believed it - 200 km/h. But there we were, rock-steady, the car just slicing
on through, set up by the merest throttle lift then kept on line with gentle
pressure on the pedal once more, and the tiniest smidgen of steerage on
the big wheel. Everything about it was so clean, so beautifully and clinically
balanced, like walking on a razor's edge and feeling the elation of not
slipping off. And that moment remains as one of my high points in years of
road testing. It was so perfect - so perfect it was almost nothing.
We continued on holding 200 km/h for what seemed like dozens of
miles, and the only reason we didn't go faster was that at precisely
202 km/h the windscreen wipers began to lift off.
Then we were in Albury, purring gently through the glistening streets after a
run that contained nary a sideways twitch, never a sliver of understeer, not
one zizz of wheelspin. It was exactly 10 p.m. We had covered the distance
faster than either of us would have imagined possible even in ideal
conditions, let alone amid the elements' atrocities of that night. Yet it was
also the tamest, most uneventful trip either of us had had from Melbourne to
the border. We were into the inner sanctum of the GTHO's world.
And there was even more to come the next day. Our arrangement with
Ford was to hand the Phase Three back at nine o'clock on the Sunday
morning and then get a lift back to Sydney with a Ford employee who
happened to be driving from city to city that day.
But we slept late, and at 6.30 am we were 320 km away from our
rendezvous! The beast fired up easily, shattering the chilly silence of the
town and we found a garage and stood back while almost a full 164 litres
(36 gallons) sloshed into the huge tank. While the attendant counted the
money I worked out our consumption. It had been precisely 2.8 km/1
We checked the tyre pressures, polished the windows clean, and at two
minutes past seven we left for Melbourne.
The morning was as perfect as the night before it had been foul. We went
full out through the gears as we cleared the last speed limit of the border
town complex with the HO now warm and ready, thundering past a couple
of cars and a semi. The car's nose was thrusting forward and upwards with
the power once more, we were again enjoying the feeling of being pressed
back into our seats as the thing was given its head. At last it was free of
any and all restrictions. There was only open road ahead.
Again we chewed up the kilometres and spat them out. In remarkably short
time we were striking the long straights of the Hume about 225 km (140
miles) north of Melbourne, and with the speedo steady on 200 km/h I
squeezed down still farther on the accelerator as the ribbon of road
speared straight ahead far as the eye could see.
The shaker heaved in the bonnet, the car sort of shrugged and the nose
rose up even further from the road. It might have been a tiger kicked
awake; the noise alone said that. The speedo needle went determinedly
around the dial, and soon it was showing 233 km/h ( 145 mph ). A true 227 km/h.
( 141 mph ).
But whoa! The engine started missing; fluffing and farting. For God's sake -
the rev-limiter! We'd run right up to it. In top gear. A full 6150 rpm (the
tachometer actually said 6700rpm; it was a little optimistic).
And if I kept my foot hard down that hoary great V8 just kept thumping away
against the cutout, straining for even more. So once Uwe had shot some
pictures over my shoulder, to prove it really was happening, I lifted off a
fraction to back it off from the limiter at a neat 225 km/h ( 140 mph ).
For minutes, for mile after mile, we stayed like that. The car was
like a locomotive on rails, never deviating an inch from its path. The
messages from its rock-steadiness came back through the wheel and the
seats as unmistakably as pinpricks.
I remember how I felt. Relaxed, but razor-sharp, peering ahead a kilometre
and more; my eyes, my brain, my nervous system forcibly lifted to a new
height to deal with the speed. You feel so competent ... so potent. Your
mind seems to magnify everything, to pick up an extraordinary amount of
information and to digest it amazingly quickly. It's called concentration, and
A car appeared up ahead. Well over a kilometre back from him I edged out to the centre line, indicator winking and lights full on . Hands a little tighter on the wheel, foot ready to dive for the brake. Just as we closed on him I lifted off a little and lost 16 kph ( 10 mph ) . I flattened the big bastard again when we were right along side to blast clear. I reckon he was doing about 80 kph ( 50 mph ) , a farmer and family on their way to church more than likely.
A few miles later there was another car. A red Falcon. He was going a little faster, but we still passed him as though he were standing still, and I wondered how it looked and sounded and felt for him , to have nothing in his mirror and then suddenly a mustard streak bellowing savagely past to leave him twitching in its wake.
Road conditions and traffic allowed us to keep the HO close to its
maximum speed for many more kilometres. But nearing Melbourne we
came back closer to 160 km/h ( 100 mph ) most of the time, using the tremendous
top end acceleration to maintain a fantastically high average and to
overtake in a quick rush of power and safety, since our exposure time was
so brief and our controllability so vast. We toyed briefly with the
stopwatches again, finding out to our amazement that 160 km/h ( 100 mph ) to 193
km/h ( 120 mph ) took a paltry 6.8 seconds and 193 km/h ( 120 mph ) to 225 km/h ( 140 mph )just 8.9 seconds. And that is top-end performance, with all the excitement and advantages it
entails, and simply unavailable in anything else this side of a Miura or
Daytona or BB or Countach unless you can somehow lay your hands on one of the wilder , tall geared US supercars of old.
Stunned by the car, amazed yet again at such an extraordinarily rapid but
effortless trip, we pulled at last into Ford's offices at Broadmeadows, back to where it had all began a day and a half before. It was one minute to nine.
Neither of us spoke. We just shared the silence of the moment, feeling a
special sort of elation. Then we lifted our gear from the HO and locked it up
and left. The Falcon GT taking us back up the road we had just devoured felt like a Volkswagen; all I could do was to flop back in the seat and think about what we had just achieved - almost 320 km ( 200 miles ) on Australia’s busiest road in a little under two hours - and the car that had done it.
I began to think how I'd write the story, not yet realising that there was no
way I could tell it all. I began to dream of another story. A race, full out, no
holds barred across the Hay Plain in NSW. Between Australia's finest GT
and the Lamborghini Espada, Italy's finest four-seater. It almost happened
too, but with the Phase Four HO and not the Phase Three. We had it all
planned, but then the politicians, remembering the hysterics of the Sunday
newspapers when they had finally gotten wind of the Phase Three HO's
pace through the figures listed with my abridged story in WHEELS, killed
off the Phase Four before we could stage it. I only wonder now if those
same politicians and newspaper beat-up merchants ever really knew what
the old Phase Three HO's capabilities really were.
Now, at last , the story has been told.