ONE of the most attention-grabbing legends taking part in the Street Machine Summernats 30 celebrations was ROCK 3 – the amazing 1972 XA Falcon built by Howard Astill. It’s incredible to think this amazing machine rolled out of Howard’s Broken Hill garage waaay back in 1989. What’s even more remarkable is the history behind this iconic street machine. Let’s take a trip down memory lane.
In the late 70s and early 80s panel vans were all the rage. Howard’s dad owned the local Ford dealership, so Astill Jr was able to get his hands on a brand new XC pano with a factory 351 and four-speed. With a host of mods, it hit the show scene and won its fair share of awards. A few years down the track, Howard’s good friend Steve Dobson (of Midnight Express panel van fame) told him: “The van craze is dying; you need to get yourself a street machine.”
Howard remembers: “Heather and I had just got married and there were kids on the way, so a sedan made sense. I sold the van, bought Heather a driver, plus a $100 bare shell that became ROCK SOLID.”
The basic formula for all three versions of ROCK was cemented during the build of ROCK SOLID. The tough tunnel-rammed 351 and 4.11:1-equipped nine-inch were both yanked from the panel van, and are still in the sedan today.
Most show cars of the day were nicely painted stockers with some chrome and velour interior, but ROCK SOLID was a cut above. Numerous highlights included twin 450 Holleys, aluminium door trims with Dzus fasteners, aluminium dash, rollcage, ladder bars (with leaf springs), Sherry multi-lever shifter and Recaro buckets. It also sported a host of handmade billet accessories: plug lead holders, steering column shroud, radiator mounts, alternator brackets, fluid lines and grille supports.
“I made it all myself,” Howard says. “Lots of guys wanted to buy bits off me.”
Smoothing was another big feature. The engine bay was welded and smoothed, as was the diff, bumper bars, door handles, underside, fuel tank opening and bonnet mouldings. As for the paint, it was Rock Solid Red, of course!
ROCK SOLID’s very first show was the 7th Street Machine Nationals in Canberra in 1986.
It scored a spot in the Top 60, and Howard was hooked.
“Although I’d had good success, ROCK 1 was a Top 10 car, and I was striving for number one,” he says. Cue the XA’s transformation into ROCK 2. “I probably shouldn’t have painted it the same colour,” Howard admits. “It was a big jump up, but few realised how different the car was.”
ROCK 2 was all detail. Smoothing went next-level; the engine bay was further refined (including the firewall), most of the chassis was boxed and smoothed, and the entire underside was sheeted over for a smoother, cleaner appearance – even the cowl vents and sill seams got the flick.
Engineering-wise, leaf springs made way for coil-overs and a Panhard bar; a hydraulic handbrake was added on the tailshaft; nozzles were installed in the radiator support panel as a fire suppression system; the boot lid opened via gas struts; and all bolts were trimmed flush.
Inside, the rear seat and new door trims copped the Recaro treatment, Howard fashioned a new gauge cluster, and much, much more.
Having missed Summernats 1 because it was at home in bits, ROCK 2 came out swinging. It won Top Judged Street Machine at the 8th Nationals in 1988, followed by Top Undercarriage/Driveline, Top Engine Bay, Top Engineered Street and Entrants’ Choice at Summernats 2 in 1989.
But Howard still wasn’t satisfied. “As successful as ROCK 2 was, it wasn’t dominant,” he says. “ROCK 3 was all about changing that.
We finished the Adelaide Hot Rod Show, went to AIR, ran 14.2@96mph, then took it home and pulled it apart.”
The teardown and rebuild kicked off just six months prior to Summernats 3.
“I decided to go full-show with ROCK 3,” Howard says. “I did everything I had always
wanted to do – provided it improved its pointsscoring capability.”
This time around, Howard also utilised expertise from other builders he’d met on the show circuit: Mark Sanders (engineering), Ralfus (graphics), and Ron Lingard (trimming).
Howard painted the car himself, resulting in a radical colour change to aqua blue, highlighted by Ralfus’s neon graphics (Howard’s favourite part of the car).
But there were plenty of other changes, too: OZNOS nitrous (never used); stainless-steel twin A-arm front end with coil-over struts; fourbar rear; braced diff housing; the Clevo’s heads and block were filled and smoothed; the door handles were eliminated. The build was very rushed in order to have it ready for Summernats 3, but it nonetheless picked up Top 10, Top Mild Custom, Top Interior and Top Graphics.
After a year’s refinement, ROCK 3 brained ’em at ’Nats 4, bagging both Top Judged and Grand Champion! That year, Chic Henry bought ROCK 3 off Howard to give away to a lucky punter. Shortly after hoisting the Grand Champ sword, Howard handed the keys to 18-year-old Mario Montalto, who still owns it today!
Mario was initially reluctant to bring ROCK 3 to Summernats’ 30th anniversary celebrations, but he and Howard had remained friends over the years and Howard made him an offer too good to refuse.
“I really wanted people to see the car again,” Howard says. “I told Mario I’d clean and detail the car for free, with one condition: I got to return it to how it won Grand Champion.”
It was a bigger job than Howard anticipated.
There was minor panel damage, the underside was beat up and filthy from oil leaks, and the paint, polish and chrome had all deteriorated.
“The original idea was to give it a quick onceover,” Howard says. “However I started buffing the body, sanding the bad bits with 1000-grit, others with 3000, and it started to come up good. One thing led to another and as usual I got carried away.”
All the rusty bolts needed cleaning up, but rather than disassemble the car, every second bolt was removed, treated with Deoxidine, polished and re-installed. The process was then repeated for the remaining bolts.
Many parts, including undercarriage items, the grille, bonnet scoop and NOS fittings were repainted. Some of Howard’s one-off billet pieces had oxidised, so they were removed and repolished.
“I polished the tunnel ram without taking it off,” Howard says. “Cleaned up the carbies, then hand-painted the engine block with a small brush.”
The car had rolled off the tilt tray at Howard’s place on 19 December last year, and by the time Kylie and Adam Perry (Tailspin) picked the car up on 2 January to take to Canberra, Howard, along with Darren Blackman and his neighbour Dave, had put over 100 hours into it.
At Summernats 30, ROCK 3 sure looked the part on display in the Meguiar’s Pavilion, attracting a constant crowd all weekend.
Thanks Mario for letting a whole new generation of street machiners see this incredible car again, and good on you Howard for burning so much midnight oil getting it back into shape. s
1986 7th Street Machine Nationals, Canberra Top 60 1986 SA Hot Rod & Street Machine Spectacular 2nd 1971 & On 1986 Riverland Cruise Top Street Machine, Entrants’ Choice, People’s Choice 1986 8th SMASA Show ’n’ Shine, Adelaide Top Sedan 1987 Vic State Titles Top Street Machine Overall, Top Engine 1987 SA Hot Rod & Street Machine Spectacular Top Mild Custom 1988 8th Street Machine Nationals, Wagga Wagga Top Judged, Entrants’ Choice 1988 SA Hot Rod & Street Machine Spectacular Top Engine 1988 Rickshaws Hot Rod & Performance Show Top Street Machine 1989 Summernats 2 Top 10, Top Undercarriage/ Driveline, Top Engineered Street Machine, Top Engine Bay, Entrants’ Choice 1989 Melbourne Hot Rod Show Top Exhibition Vehicle, Top Engine Bay 1989 8th Victorian Custom Car Spectacular Drivetrain, 2nd Overall 1989 9th SMASA Show ’n’ Shine Top Street Machine of Show, Best Ford 1989 Vic State Titles Top Judged, Entrants’ Choice 1990 Summernats 3 Top 10, Top Mild Custom, Top Interior, Top Graphics 1990 Melbourne Hot Rod Show Top Street Machine 1990 10th SMASA Show ’n’ Shine Top Street Machine, Top Interior, Best Engineered 1990 9th Street Machine Nationals, Wagga Wagga Top Street Machine Overall, Entrants’ Choice 1990 Brisbane Hot Rod Show Top Sedan, Top Engineered, Top Custom Paint 1990 SA Hot Rod & Street Machine Spectacular Top Street Machine Overall 1990 NSW State Titles, Penrith Top Street Machine Show Class, People’s Choice, Top Engineered 1991 Summernats 4 Grand Champion, Top Judged, Top Sedan, Top Engine Bay, Top Undercarriage