ASIDE FROM THE fact that it’s hung, rather precariously, from the roof of a man cave tucked behind a strawberry farm in Cobram, Victoria, the twisted and demented XY body doesn’t look much different to every other clapped-out, rusted-through car carcass you’ve ever seen.
You could easily write it off as junk; a forgettable wreck with faded yellow paint and chipped black pinstripes. Until, that is, you read the sign that’s leant, almost apologetically, against the row of tightly stacked motorbikes parked below.
“This is the remains of the HO Down the Hume” it decrees.
That piqued our interest, too.
Few cars wield such significance in Australian motoring folklore as the Phase III, and even fewer still have the gravitas of the one driven down the Hume, at 141.5mph, by Wheels deputy editor Mel Nichols back in the October edition of 1971.
Mel’s masterfully crafted story, entitled ‘The Biggest Stick!’ remains one of the most significant features published by this magazine, yet the image that accompanied it, snapped by photographer Uwe Kuessner, achieved even greater notoriety. Shot from the backseat, it showed the Phase III’s speedo and Mel’s hands steadfast on the wheel as the then-single-lane Hume highway rushed through the screen.
So controversial was the image that Wheels’ publisher at the time demanded the dials be retouched to indicate a more modest velocity. But when readers finally learned the truth in 1975 – that Mel had run flat out with the speedo off the clock, the 351-cube V8 hard against the 6150rpm rev limiter and the “shaker cranked over in the bonnet by the torque” – it added yet another spark to the so-called ‘Supercar Scare’ controversy that rumbled through the Aussie landscape in the early ’70s.
I’ve been thinking about that ‘scare’ quite a lot this month. It was the inspiration for our ‘They should be banned!’ cover line, which riffs off the public outrage and government reaction caused by the now-infamous high-performance homologation specials being developed by the ‘big three’. It isn’t difficult to draw parallels between the Phase III, the XU-1 Torana, Valiant Charger, and even Ford’s stillborn Phase IV, with our cover stars.
Like their ancestors from the ’70s, the HSV Camaro ZL1 and Shelby GT500 are the pinnacle of their respective ranges. They’re also an astonishing reminder of just how far the modern muscle car has progressed in the intervening 50-odd years.
Where the Phase III shocked with its 283kW/515Nm 5.8-litre V8, its modern two-door cousin has double the power and 50 percent more torque (523kW/865Nm). And where Ford’s ’70s hero could hit 100km/h in a blistering, chassis-twisting 6.4sec, that number now seems quaint as the ZL1 and Shelby reach the tonne in just 3.5. And yes, there is almost certainly a portion of the general public who would deem that level of power and performance outrageous in this era of Nanny States and speed-camera infestations.
Then there’s the rest of us, who think this pair and their ilk are something to be celebrated. In today’s age of electrification and emissions controls, the ZL1 and Shelby are proof that the time-honoured, monster-grunt muscle-car recipe is continuing to thrive, at least for now.
And as for the trashed Phase III that Mel drove? The story goes that after being driven by the press, the GT-HO was stolen in Sydney and disappeared, only to be found by Ford enthusiast Darren Hayes while he was pig hunting on a property near Condobolin NSW, in 2015.
Hayes has done his research and tells us that a process of elimination has him convinced that his miracle paddock find is the stripped and butchered remains of the hero car from Wheels’ most famous photograph. We are following this up, so stay tuned.
One final topic I’d like to address regards last month’s magazine. I’m sure you noticed the lighter paper stock compared to our COTY edition, which debuted our new look and the move to heavier, glossier paper.
The flimsier stock was a mistake, and sadly one outside our control. It was a simple error by an employee at our printing house who fed the wrong paper into the machine. Happily, normal service has resumed this month.