Falcon XR GT and XT GT: The Firth Legacy
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Falcon XR GT and XT GT: The Firth Legacy

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By MarkOastler - 21 September 2016
One of the three Firth-prepared XT Falcon GTs thundering through the Snowy Mountains during a special stage of the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon. This car (KAG-003) crewed by Bruce Hodgson and Doug Rutherford and the other two works Falcons stunned the UK bookies by all finishing in the top 10. Image: www.primotipo.com

Although Harry Firth is rightly revered as a 1970s Holden racing legend, his time with Ford in the 1960s is worthy of equal reverence. His pivotal race and rally successes with the iconic XR and XT Falcon GTs ensured their hero status and set Ford on a resolute course to market leadership.

Firth joined Ford as a contracted driver/car preparer in 1962 as the company tried to turn around negative public perceptions of weakness in its new make-or-break XK and XL Falcons by competing in racing and rallying.

Firth’s victory with Bob Jane in the 1962 Armstrong 500 aboard an XL Falcon provided a much-needed boost in credibility and the first glimmer of hope. However, it was Ford’s audacious 70,000 mile Durability Run at You Yangs in 1965 with the new XP Falcons that proved beyond doubt that the Aussie ‘bird of prey’ was tough enough. Firth not only drove countless stints but also prepared the fleet of XPs that saved Ford Australia.

Bob Jane (left) and Harry Firth celebrate their victory in the 1962 Armstrong 500 at Phillip Island driving a works-entered XL Falcon with 170 Pursuit engine. Firth’s formidable skills as a driver, team manager, car preparer and race strategist gave Ford what US racing great Mark Donahue famously termed ‘the unfair advantage’.

His close involvement with legendary Ford managing director Bill Bourke in the joint development of a new V8 Highway Patrol police car and the company’s first GT based on the new 1966 XR Falcon series led to arguably Firth’s greatest success with the blue oval, when he and Fred Gibson guided the new ‘Mustang bred’ 289cid (4.7 litre) XR Falcon GT to victory in the 1967 Gallaher 500 at Bathurst.

The following year Ford commissioned Firth to prepare three new XT Falcon GTs, equipped with larger and more powerful 302cid (4.9 litre) V8s, for the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon. Firth not only designed, prepared and tested them but also drove one with great distinction in the event. The big Aussie Fords stunned the bookies by finishing third, sixth and eighth and winning the Teams Prize.

So this is a story as much about the competition success of the XR and XT Falcon GTs as it is about the genius of the man that largely made it happen - Harry Firth.

The fight for outright honours in the 1967 Gallaher 500 was between Ford’s big XR Falcon GTs in Class D and Alfa Romeo’s small 1600 GTVs in Class E. Here the Bob Jane/Spencer Martin Falcon has its mirrors full of the Kevin Bartlett/Laurie Stewart works Alfa as they duel through the Dipper.

XR Falcon GT: 1967 Gallaher 500
Australia’s annual 500-mile (800km) race at Bathurst for stock standard road cars was designed primarily to demonstrate mechanical durability under the stress of competition. However, Harry Firth knew that mass-production required big compromises in engineering quality to keep lots of cars moving down a production line. And that those gaping tolerances meant reduced performance and poor reliability.

By then Firth was the acknowledged master of pulling a standard road car apart, checking and perfecting every component and rebuilding it to the limit of its factory specification. The result was a Bathurst contender with the hand-crafted refinement of a Swiss watch. It’s been said that a ‘Firth car’ required only the push of a finger to make it roll across a workshop floor, in a dead straight line and gaining speed as it went.

Never was this low-friction expertise in race car-building more crucial than in 1967, when Ford Australia laid it all on the line by backing three of its new and untried XR Falcon GTs in the Gallaher 500. The three works cars were crewed by Harry Firth/Fred Gibson, Bob Jane/Spencer Martin and Pete and Leo Geoghegan.

Although they were considered ‘works’ entries, each team chose to do its own car preparation. Based on previous Bathurst failures by big V8-powered cars like the Studebaker Lark, many expected that the booming V8 Falcons would also be crippled by brake, tyre and wheel failures in trying to keep pace with the smaller and lighter Alfa Romeo 1600 GTVs. 

Fred Gibson pushing very hard through Reid Park in Firth’s superbly prepared XR GT at Bathurst in 1967. This car was so fast across the top that its 289cid V8 started cutting out through McPhillamy Park in the first practice session due to fuel surge in the four-barrel carburettor. Firth’s quick fix was to slightly raise the float bowl level, in a hand-built car he knew like, well, the back of his hand.

However, the critics had not factored in the inherent performance qualities of the new XR Falcon GT nor three-time ‘500’ winner Firth’s proven genius in car preparation, driving and race strategy. Fortunately, prior to his passing in 2014, Harry shared some fascinating insights into his 1967 Bathurst preparations of the winning XR GT in memoirs immortalised in print by Chevron Publishing:

“Initial preparation was fairly basic - 3000 miles run-in with the car heavily laden to sag the springs (and legally lower the suspension). The car had a few faults picked up in the initial program. Too much weight on the front made the car understeer in standard trim. The fuel tank pick-up had to be put down on the tank base to allow the use of all fuel.

“Distributor advance curves and carburettors were all over the place and we finished up doing an exchange service with the company on these items, as I had one of the few distributor machines around.

“Very detailed work was required on the 289 V8. This was because the manufacturing quality was very poor. Core (casting) flash in the cylinder heads (water jackets) had to be cleaned out or valve seats would distort and engine would overheat. It took 12 to 16 hours per head to fix this. I had found engines, as manufactured and due to high demand, were very ‘green’ in castings and inclined to ‘walk about’ after initial machining, so all would require blueprinting. For instance, crank pins were one per cent out of phase and up to 0.010 inches short on stroke and not well balanced and this took a lot of fixing.

The three works-entered XR GTs set the Mountain alight in 1967. The big V8 Fords re-wrote the record books and shattered perceptions that only small and agile cars that were light on brakes, tyres and fuel could win the 500-mile race.

“Pistons and pins were very tight. Honing bores to straighten them helped and I hand-filed and emery-taped each thrust face down to the right clearance. New rings were fitted as the bore was now larger and would require some bedding-in again. It was not quite as easy with combustion chamber volumes: some of the valve seats had to be recessed further to give a reasonable comparison and then a bit taken off each head to give the required volume to workshop manual specifications.

Valve heads were taken down to minimum size, as this gave the best gas flow. Valves were carefully ground-in and mirror-finished with Brasso. A picked set of valve springs made up the package and the whole engine was now to its best of specification.

“The gearbox and change mechanism were not good and first gear would pick up on the main shaft due to not enough clearance and end-play, so the gearbox was carefully assembled and adjusted and hand-lapped, run-in with thin oil and then filled with special oil containing Anglamol and Lubrizol additives.

Gibson’s career-changing drive at Bathurst in 1967 earned him a permanent seat in the Ford works team. With Firth’s guidance the young gun did the bulk of the driving, all but matched Pete Geoghegan’s qualifying times and set the fastest race lap in equal equipment.

“Suspension location points and geometry were out in some cases and quite detailed work was done. The hardest rubbers that could be found (within Ford’s Autolite spare parts inventory) were used in the bushings. The highest of road springs were put on the driver’s side of the car and front geometry set to give 1.5 per cent positive castor, plus 1/16th inch toe-in and all four wheels put exactly in line. Camber was set at negative (when he arrived at the circuit) as I thought it would pass initial scrutiny.

“I intended to balance every working part of the car after outstanding results from a similar exercise on the Cortina GT used in the 1964 Bathurst race - that is, engine, gears, diff, axles, hubs, brakes, fan, generator, wheels without tyres and wheel nuts.

“The brake pads were specially made in Australia from base asbestos mix and sintered brass chips (Harry’s secret recipe). No one else knew about them or had any. The car was race tested at You Yangs (Ford Australia’s Proving Ground) on the Sunday before the race (on the test track used for the XP Falcon 70,000-mile Durability run). Top speed was 127mph (205km/h) on level and 2min 38.5sec average lap time.”

As expected the Geoghegans claimed pole position ahead of Firth/Gibson; Harry confident in his car’s ability and not showing a winning hand too early. The Jane/Martin GT qualified fifth, with the three works Fords split by two Alfas in third and fourth positions. As expected, in the race the nimble Italian cars were quicker than the new Falcons across the top, but the superior grunt of the GTs left them in their considerable wake on the straights.

Not only that, the top GTs did not suffer the brake, tyre or wheel trouble many had expected and the Geoghegan and Firth/Jane Falcons gradually gained the upper hand with their formidable pace and rock-solid reliability. With top speeds exceeding 100mph (160km/h) up the Mountain and 130mph (208km/h) on Conrod Straight, the four cylinder Alfas were not only outgunned but ironically it was these light and agile cars which suffered wheel trouble.

Gibson and Firth celebrate their historic 1967 Bathurst win. The stunning debut for the new XR Falcon GT left arch rival Holden no choice but to respond the following year with its dazzling HK Monaro GTS 327, triggering an Aussie muscle car war that would rage for decades.

In the closing stages, with two Falcons and two Alfas on the lead lap after a gripping struggle, the Firth/Gibson XR GT was leading the Geoghegan’s XR GT with Ford heading for a dare-to-dream 1-2 on debut.

“We lost a bit of time to the others (Geoghegans) at the middle stop (the Fords had to make three stops) as I elected to change the brake pads so we had full brakes at end and others were in trouble,” Firth explained.

“We used our special pads to full extent whenever necessary and by changing them nothing was left to chance as it was a simple sum - one minute extra on pit stop equals two minutes off race time and some in reserve. Had made this time up by the last stop when we were in front. All except the Geoghegans were backed off with brake problems and they did not seem very happy, having slower pit stops but still going strong and quite quickly.

“I told Fred to stay in the car and do exactly what we signalled and not let the others past if they caught up. After letting the Geoghegans crucify their car to within about 10 seconds I gave Fred a signal to go and he took that back to 12 seconds or so.

“Imagine my thoughts when the Geoghegans were given the flag and (the race organisers thought) we did 131 laps (one more than the total distance of 130 laps). I demanded and got a recount. It was corrected by 7pm but should never have happened as we had our own lap scoring team and they knew full well who had won.”

The XT Falcon GT squad looked professional as they awaited the start of the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon at Crystal Palace. Firth (third from right) said the UK Ford team scoffed at the size and weight of the big Aussie V8 cars - until he lapped the company’s Boreham test track in a faster time than their Lotus-Cortinas! Image: Chevron Publishing

XT Falcon GT: 1968 London to Sydney Marathon
The unprecedented 16,000 km course passed through 10 countries on the first leg from London to Bombay which included England, France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Indian coast. From there surviving cars and crews departed India on a nine-day sea voyage to Fremantle before the final arduous leg from Perth to Sydney. It was an epic challenge.

Interest was naturally strongest in the UK and Australia. More than 800 entries were lodged, from which only 100 were accepted. British teams represented 57 of those, compared to 18 Australian crews. There were also some serious contenders from several European countries.

Ford mounted a major attack with multi-car works teams from the UK (10 x Lotus-Cortinas), Germany/Belgium (3 x Taunus 20M RS) and Australia (3 x Falcon XT GTs). The Falcon crews comprised rally aces Harry Firth/Graham Hoinville/Gary Chapman (rego KAG-001), Ian Vaughan/Jack Ellis/Bob Forsyth (KAG-002) and Bruce Hodgson/Doug Rutherford (KAG-003).

Harry Firth was given the task of designing and testing the three GTs that would proudly fly the flag for home-grown Australian design, engineering and ingenuity.

How times change. The Firth/Hoinville/Chapman XT GT thundering through the Kyber Pass between Pakistan and Afghanistan during the 1968 Marathon. There was no such thing as the Taliban back then. Image: Chevron Publishing

“First up we made a prototype to test the car’s overall performance, weight and ability to be unbreakable (ie survive hitting a large animal at 160 km/h), require minimal maintenance and run hard in all weather conditions,” Firth wrote.

“My personal test of this car was from my Melbourne workshop to Marlo (near Orbost) on the Snowy River. I covered 250 miles (400 kms) in two and half hours at an average speed of 100 mph (160 km/h)! These cars would do 125 mph (200 km/h) fully laden (approx 1800 kgs) with 55 gallons (250 litres) of fuel on board.

“Each body was stripped and fully reinforced with steel tubing from front to rear with large bash plates fitted underneath. All six grille-mounted driving lights were protected behind wire mesh guards fitted to the bull bars. The cars were also equipped with large auxiliary spot lights (one at the base of each windscreen pillar and one on the boot lid for reversing at night). A pair of large grab handles was fitted at the base of each rear windscreen in case we needed to jump on the back and bounce our way out of mud or thick sand etc.

Firth and crew prepare to leave Perth for the second and final leg of the London to Sydney. Note the big crease on the front mudguard caused by poorly-fitted slings when the cars were being loaded by crane onto the ship in Bombay. With the other three corners suffering similar damage, Mr Firth was not amused. Image: Chevron Publishing

“Our cars were set-up to run on fuel grades from 75 to 90-octane due to wide variations in fuel quality along the way. The Windsor series of V8 engines were good, honest cast-iron workhorses but with agricultural cylinder heads and manifolds and were certainly not ahead of their time! They were given detailed preparation with lowered compression ratios, polished combustion chambers etc and ignition advance was easily adjustable to suit different fuels.

Each car had two fuel tanks mounted in the boot. One carried 20 gallons (90 litres) of high-octane petrol for competitive ‘Special Stages’ and the other carried 35 gallons (160 litres) for fuel of whatever country we were in (down to 75-octane in places) for the transport sections. Each was also equipped with a large water tank which provided water for windscreen washers and my cooling system for the front brakes (ie a system of water lines and nozzles pressurised by a small pump which sprayed a fine mist onto the disc rotors if brakes got too hot on competitive stages).

“Each car was equipped with three Recaro bucket seats – two up front and one mounted centrally in the back which could be fully reclined for sleeping on the move. A toilet (potty) was mounted behind the front passenger seat. Space was at a premium so all door linings were removed to provide extra carrying capacity. Two spare wheels were mounted behind the driver’s seat with all the wheel-changing equipment carried inside that rear door. A spare engine radiator was bolted inside at the rear of the roof. Other spares were bolted to the rear floor with one of the cars carrying two spare axles. Small amounts of cash in all the different currencies required (for tolls and other emergencies) were carried in a special safe under the rear parcel shelf.”

The Vaughan/Ellis/Forsythe XT GT thundering through the Flinders Ranges on its way to an outstanding third place in the Marathon. Note the large cooling vents in the steel bumper to aid engine and brake cooling and the substantial underbody armour to protect engine and gearbox.

Because the crews wanted to have their own menu of ‘safe’ food and water the whole way, the door cavities were used to store food rations and drinking water. Packs of rations, fresh clothes and spare parts were also distributed to each major centre along the route so that new supplies could be loaded as required and old clothes disposed of at each stop. Some Ford crew members also flew to the UK to do their own survey of the first leg from London to Bombay. The planning by the Aussies was impeccable.

98 cars and crews departed London on November 24. The Falcon team’s plan was for all three cars to be in the top 10 when they reached Bombay, leaving them well positioned to challenge for the lead in the final leg across Australia where the XT GT’s effortless speed and ruggedness on home soil would ram home a winning advantage.

Only 72 of the original 98 starters reached Bombay led by the flying works Lotus-Cortina of Roger Clark and Ove Andersson. As the depleted field departed India aboard the SS Chusan on December 5 headed for Fremantle, the silver works Falcons were in seventh, 10th and 11th places.

During planning of the Marathon cars Firth specified stronger nine-inch diffs with Detroit Lockers, larger Mustang brakes and Minilite magnesium wheels, but Ford said no. He claimed that decision cost a potential win, because the friction materials used in the standard clutch-type limited slip diffs “passed out” at half distance and his rear wheel bearing failed in the crucial final stages. Not sure if that loose driving light went the distance either. Image: Chevron Publishing

They performed superbly in the high-speed dash across Australia, surging up the leader board as others succumbed to crash damage and/or mechanical failures.

By the time the leaders reached the final thrilling stages in NSW the Firth and Vaughan XT GTs were in the top five, only for Firth’s car to suffer a broken rear wheel bearing between Cooma and Nowra which cost him almost one hour in repairs and any chance of winning. The Vaughan/Ellis/Forsyth car ended up being the highest-placed Falcon, finishing third behind Paddy Hopkirk’s works Austin 1800 and Andrew Cowan’s winning Hillman Hunter.

It was a stunning result for the XT Falcon GTs. All three finished and all were in the top 10. And by claiming third, sixth and eighth, they also won the prestigious Teams Prize plus a big cash bonus for being the best performing Australian crew.

Ford Australia’s marketing men, under inspirational company boss Bill Bourke, went into overdrive after the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon with double-page magazine spreads celebrating the XT GT’s phenomenal achievement on the world stage.

Only 56 of the original 98 starters made it to Sydney on December 18, after driving more than 16,000km across 11 countries in 11 days. If there had been any lingering doubts about the ruggedness of Aussie Falcons before the Marathon, they were finally erased.

“The wheel bearing failure in Australia was the only mechanical trouble we experienced in the entire event (and that was because new bearings were fitted to Vaughan’s car in Bombay but not Harry’s!) and we finished 3rd, 6th and 8th outright against the best rally cars and works teams in the world,” Firth concluded. “We were a bunch of amateurs compared to them, so to have done so well was immensely satisfying.”

Harry Firth may be gone but the legacy of his time with Ford Australia in the 1960s and his famous successes with the XR GT and XT GT Falcons will never be forgotten.