Classic Australian Muscle Cars
Would you pay six figures for a 40-year-old Australian-made car? Plenty have
If you had bought a Ford XY Falcon GTHO Phase III – what a mouthful – brand new in 1971, it would have cost you $5300. That was a hefty sum back then. But if you’d hung onto it, and kept it in good nick, you could have sold it in 2007 for around – wait for it – a whopping $700,000.
Such a Phase III GTHO with 40,000km on the clock was sold by Bonhams and Goodmans auctioneers five years ago for $683,650, a new record for a classic Aussie supercar, and there are reports another fell for $750,000 a few months later.
Fast-forward two years to just after the global credit crunch and the same car would have fetched ‘only’ about $350,000: still a tidy boost to one’s retirement fund. Especially if you can find one nearly complete in some shed in the bush – 1557 were made; fewer than 100 remain.
They called it the ‘Hoey’ (for obvious reasons) or the ‘shaker’ (because the air scoop thrust up through the bonnet was connected directly to the engine, so it used to shake relative to the body). It’s the most famous of all the classic Aussie muscle cars, a ‘race homologation special’, built by the factory, which had to sell 200 examples to paying punters before the car could be raced at Bathurst.
Most cars are born and then sold in short order. They depreciate rapidly (rule of thumb: half the original value is toast on their fifth birthday). Shortly thereafter, they fall to obscurity. But some few survive, and evolve to become modern classics. Problem is, it’s hard to tell which of today’s cars will become tomorrow’s hidden treasure.
Back then, in the early 1970s, things were different. If you wanted to advertise milk on TV, you could get a nice girl in a bikini to spray it all over herself. (Nothing sexist; just good, clean fun.) Times were different. Cars came in vibrant colours. They had proper names, not made up ones. (Exactly what is an ‘Elantra’, a ‘Punto’ or a ‘Sportage’ anyway?) Today the hard creases in the bodywork, the fins, the angular projections, etc., have all been lost either to pedestrian protection or aerodynamic efficiency, or both. Some have about as much personality as a dishwasher – effectively becoming little more than whitegoods on wheels.
Maybe that’s why the 1970s will always be something of a golden era for Aussie cars. They were made here, not in America or England, and they formed part of the cultural landscape. If dad was a Holden man, chances were you would grow up to be one, too. Perhaps you looked over the paling fence at a ‘Ford’ family, and wondered how they could have got it so wrong. Perhaps you never understood why they were looking back at you in the same way.
Sports Car World magazine described the Hoey as: “One of the best cars in the world, a true GT that could take on the Ferraris and Astons on their own terms.” It had all the cool bits – a Top Loader four-speed gearbox, a nine-inch Detroit locker differential, a brake upgrade and a huge fuel tank. Its 351 cubic-inch pushrod V8 engine was electronically limited to 6150rpm … but if you knew who to take it to, you could remove that, and it would hit 7000+. Allan Moffat won Bathurst in a Hoey in 1971. (He probably knew who to take it to…)
Brockie – driving the full 500 miles solo, naturally – cleaned up a very wet Bathurst in one of the all-time Holden classics: a diminutive LJ Torana GTR XU-1 the next year, another highly sought after locally made muscle car. It was also the start of the ‘Peter Perfect/Torana’ legend, and the first of five wins in 10 years for the Torana.
The Torana was a distinct departure from previous Holden muscle – a comparatively tiny body with six-cylinder power contrasted harshly with a long-as-your-arm list of Kingswood-based Monaros powered by Chevrolet V8 engines. (The all-time classic Monaro is, arguably, the 1972 two-door GTS HQ 350, powered by a 350 cubic-inch – approx. 5.7-litre – Chevy small block V8. New, it cost $4840. Today it’ll fetch about $25,000 in a private sale, which sounds great … until you factor in CPI cost-of-living increases.)
The LJ XU-1 Torana was a deadest bargain. It offered Bathurst-winning performance 202 cubic-inch inline ‘red’ six and cost just $3579 brand new, a 25 per cent saving compared to the heavyweight 350-cube HQ ‘Munro’. Today, the Torana has turned the tables on the Monaro: a genuine LJ XU-1 will fetch more than $80,000 in good (but not perfect) condition.
Some people back then just didn’t fall neatly into the two-party-preferred Holden/Ford Australian cultural divide. Chrysler had something for them: The Charger. Few people aged over 45 will ever forget the ubiquitous ‘Hey Charger!’ advertising campaign. It’s all just a nostalgic mouse click away, on YouTube. Look closely and you’ll see a very young Graham Blundell use the pheremone power of the Charger to get the girls, and (even more counter-intuitively) the cherubish face of Hollywood legend Geoffrey Rush explain to his girlfriend why all the young girls are calling out to him while he’s in the Charger…
With the Charger there are two standout models, both short-wheelbase two-door coupes: the R/T E38 and R/T E49 both powered by 265 cubic-inch inline six-cylinder Hemi engines (so-called because of their hemispherical combustion chambers). The Phase II won Bathurst, but the E49 was faster over the quarter mile, and was the most powerful six-cylinder you could buy for three years until Porsche released the 1975 911 Turbo.
That 1972 Hardie-Ferodo Bathurst 500 podium was like a ‘who’s who’ of future Australian classic muscle cars: Peter Perfect on the top in his HDT XU-1, John French in second in a Hoey, and Doug Chivas in an E49 Charger. Third place at Bathurst was the best the E49 ever did – but that hasn’t stopped the E38 and E49 Chargers fetching huge prices today: The E38 cost a little more than an XU-1 Torana at $3815, and later that year the slightly faster E49 was pitched at $4300. Today they blow the XU-1 (but not the shaker) out of the water at up to $110,000 and $120,000 respectively.
Winning races meant selling cars, so the manufacturers set industriously about enhancing performance even more for 1973. Ford had a brain-bending Phase IV GTHO in prototype form. Holden’s engineers were shoe-horning a 5.0-litre V8 into an upcoming XU-2 Torana. Chrysler, too, was deciding what the next logical number in the 38, 49… sequence, with performance accoutrements to match.
Forty years ago, the big three carmakers dropped their quest for building a better muscle car like a hot potato.
Then it all came to an absolute, screeching halt: On June 25, 1972 Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper ran the headline: “160mph Supercars Soon – Minister Horrified.” Experts predicted carnage on Australian roads as a result of the next wave of would-be future classic cars. Then transport minister Milton Morris (the same man who proposed seatbelts for motorcycles) held the blowtorch to Holden, Ford and Chrysler, which all promptly pulled the pin on their ‘race specials’ programs. Then the oil crisis hit, and future muscle cars were, for at least a decade, mere shadows of their former selves.
The classic ‘shaggin wagon’ was popularized in Mad Max, and last produced with the HZ series in 1979. Then, a basic HZ panel van cost $6076. The Sandman option added a hefty $1700 to the bill, but if you ticked all the options boxes Holden reportedly threw in a velvet mattress embossed with the Holden logo. Nice. A 5.0-litre V8 Sandman cost $8768 in 1979, but will still command $10-14k today.
The Leyland P76 was possibly one of the ugliest cars ever, but you could put a 44-gallon drum in the boot. It was assembled at the Leyland factory in Zetland, Sydney, but failed dismally thanks to poor quality control and the 1970s oil crisis. Eight striking two-door coupe models, called P76 ‘Force 7V’ remain around the world, and are highly desired by collectors. Most of the original 56 Force 7Vs were crushed when the factory shut, but the eight surviving examples were never offered for commercial sale. Ordinary P76s fetch slightly more today than they did new in the early 1970s.
MUSCLE CARS: THE BUYER’S GUIDE
Establishing authenticity is the biggest hurdle when it comes to buying classic muscle cars. You need to learn as much as possible about the particular model you’re interested in, and be prepared to take some time confirming all that model’s bespoke components are present. Original paperwork is a real help here, as is confirming that all the numbers match: engine number, rego number, VIN (vehicle Identification number; a unique 17-digit alphanumeric code on the rego papers, original paperwork and a metal plate affixed to the body). Before parting with any cash, consult an expert in the area – there are more replicas in the market today than originals. Beware also of modifications and dodgy restorations – both will almost certainly put a huge dent in value.