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Monster snakes: 1978 Falcon XC Cobra

17 July, 2007


Published in New Zealand Classic Car Issue No. 197

Words: Steve Holmes & Tim Nevinson

Photos: Jared Clark & Quinn Hamill

In the days before satellite TV and world-wide distribution rights for sporting broadcasts, Europeans knew little or nothing about racing down-under — other than the Tasman Series for single-seaters, which was covered in the specialist press. However, when Belgian Le Mans and Grand Prix-winning driver, Jacky Ickx, tied up a deal to run at Bathurst (something else the Europeans knew little about) with Allan Moffat — and won it — the European motoring press was intrigued, and the XC Falcon that Ickx co-drove got exceptional coverage in the European specialist press.

To Europeans the Falcons looked superb and brutal, and they suddenly woke up to Bathurst, Aussie muscle cars and the high level of competence in the Australian touring car scene. Soon the names of Moffat, Brock, Johnson and Richards would be part of a V8 telefest for viewers to look forward to in the cold European off-season.

Ford’s bold XC Falcon Cobra has become highly desirable by collectors of rare Australian muscle cars. However, desirable as it may now be, its rarity came about due to it being undesirable when new!  By 1978, sales for Ford’s big Falcon hardtop had all but ground to a halt. The creation of the Falcon Cobra hardtop was merely an exercise to get rid of the last remaining hardtop body shells, before the arrival of the new XD model Falcon.

Hard Sell

Ford Australia introduced a two-door hardtop coupe for the first time when it released its shapely XA model in 1972. General Motors-Holden was the first of the three Australian manufacturers to produce a two-door coupe, when it debuted its Monaro in 1968. The Monaro received rave reviews, with its swoopy styling which contrasted heavily with Holden’s boxy HK sedan. Chrysler hit the market in 1971 with its massively popular, budget-priced Charger.

When Ford finally released its two-door hardtop, interest in big Aussie coupes was already waning. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact all three manufacturers were now building four-door models that featured sporty styling and possessed heavily raked A and C-pillars, but with the added convenience of having two extra doors.

On release, the Falcon hardtop received mixed reviews. It was heavily influenced by Ford’s US vehicles, with slim side glass, a massive rear overhang, near horizontal C-pillars, and bulging rear wheel wells which, even on the GT, looked under-tyred.

By the time of the XB model release in 1974 world automotive styling trends had changed dramatically, and Ford struggled to keep up.

As highly respected Australian motoring journalist Joe Kenwright wrote, the XB hardtop looked “very dated, and behind the eight ball, as Australia was flooded with new designs that had deep side glass, black detailing, wheel arches filled with rubber, and little chrome.

“The XB Falcon 500 hardtop with its bulky rear sections hanging over skinny cross-plies, empty wheel wells, shallow side glass and big chrome bumpers looked like a tugboat sitting on matchsticks.”

The Goss

GT sales were slow from the outset, rarely exceeding 500 cars per year initially, but high insurance rates drove sales to a near standstill. In 1975, the second year of the restyled XB model, Ford sold just 123 GT hardtops.

The brilliant John Goss Special was released in 1975, in two batches, to try and boost flagging hardtop sales. Designed by John Brit, these specials received a clever paint scheme, in which the dark paint on the bonnet wrapped over the front guards by a couple of inches, then ran along under the side windows to give the impression of the side glass being deeper than it actually was. The chrome bumpers were painted white, as were the 12-slot wheels.

Ford sold more than 800 John Goss Specials in 1975, significantly more than GTs sold in either two or four-door form. Ford dropped the GT name with the introduction of the XC, in 1976.

Four-hundred XC Falcon Cobras were built. They were marketed as a limited edition model, but in fact the reason there were 400 of them was simply because that was how many Falcon hardtop body shells Ford still had waiting to find new buyers.

Its boxy, new European-styled XD Falcon was due for release in March 1979, and Ford dealers needed to clear their showrooms of old stock.

The brains behind the Falcon Cobra actually belonged to Edsel Ford, great grandson of Henry Ford. Young Edsel was working in Australia at the time as assistant managing director of Ford Australia. He rightly figured a boldly-styled version of the hardtop — with clear links back to Shelby’s Cobras and Mustangs of the ’60s — would help get the last hardtops out the door.

His brash American approach to the Falcon Cobra styling is what makes them so unique — it is unlikely any Australian designer would have been so bold.

Ed Sells

Edsel Ford created the Cobra Falcon concept, but the design was left once again to John Brit, who styled the John Goss Special colour scheme. Brit created Bold Blue twin stripes running over the length of the bonnet, roof, and boot lid, and blue accents over the wheel arches and sills, over a Sno White base.

A vacuum-formed front air-dam was fitted, along with a wrap-around three-piece rear spoiler. The bumpers were colour coded. The wheels were 15-by-seven Bathurst Globes. Disc brakes were fitted all round, as was a limited slip diff, twin exhausts, a tinted and laminated windscreen, and tinted back lights.

A Cobra snake decal was added at the rear of the front guards, with a Cobra name decal on the boot lid. The interior featured tasteful black/blue woollen cloth seats and a sports steering wheel, and each car came with its own individually numbered die-cast plinth, mounted on the glove-box door.

According to Ford’s product planning manager, Ian Vaughan, the Cobras were all painted Bold Blue, with the Sno White paint applied over the top, and masked off so the blue showed through in the stripes and accents. The John Goss Special Falcons were done in a similar fashion, with either Emerald Green or Apollo Blue applied first, and then the white put over the top. The difference is that the John Goss Specials kept either the green or blue colour in the engine bays, whereas the Cobras had their engine bays painted white.

The Cobra Falcons were made available with a number of different engine/transmission options. Car 001 was a promotional car with a 4949cc (302ci) V8, and an auto transmission. Numbers 002-031 were Bathurst homologation specials, fitted with race upgrades for the Group C race cars. They were all 5752cc (351ci) V8 cars with four-speed top-loader manual gearboxes.

The upgrades were simply the modifications homologated for the XC 500 GS hardtop, which first appeared in race competition in September 1977. These cars differed outwardly from the other Falcon Cobras through their rear-opening bonnet scoop, which was also a part of the September ’77 XC homologation. They also featured items such as a transmission oil cooler, strut braces, an idler arm brace, an electric fan kit, heavy-duty radiator, left side anti-tramp rod, reworked rear wheel housings, and a long-range fuel tank.

Rare Birds

Cars 032-041 were 5752cc manuals with air conditioning and power steering. Cars 042-080 were 5752cc manuals with air-con, power steering, and power windows. Cars 081-200 were 5752cc autos with air-con, power steering and power windows. Cars 201-300 were 4949cc manuals. Cars 301-360 were 4949cc autos with air-con and power steering. And cars 361-400 were 4949cc autos with air-con, power steering, and power windows.

Of all the Falcon Cobras, the Bathurst Specials (002-031) are the most sought-after, and fetch the highest prices, followed by the 5752cc manual cars. However, Falcon Cobras are so rare, and they so rarely come on the market, that when one does come up for sale it is sold very quickly.

There are thought to be less than 10 Cobra Falcons in New Zealand. Of all Ford Aus
tralia’s Bathurst Specials, starting with the Falcon XR GT, the Cobra was the last to gain popularity with collectors. This is thought partially to do with the lack of a GT badge. Critics considered the Cobra to be merely a marketing run-out exercise which, in effect, it was. Also, its bold colour scheme was something of an acquired taste which many felt belonged in the 1960s. Now, of course, they are highly desirable.

As a race car, the Falcon Cobra had a brief and somewhat under-whelming career. As the homologation upgrades for the Cobra were exactly as per the XC 500 GS, Allan Moffat’s Ford works team simply repainted its two 500 John Goss Specials — driven by Moffat and team-mate Colin Bond — in Cobra colours. In fact, both these cars actually started out as XB race cars, the team didn’t even bother changing Bond’s vertical XB rear indicator lenses to horizontal lenses, as fitted to all XC Falcons.

Confusingly, both Moffat Cobra Falcons featured the oval Ford logo in the centre of the grille, as fitted to all Fords from 1978, as well as the individual F-O-R-D letters at the tip of the bonnet, which were then phased out.

Tight racing

Moffat and Bond had soundly whipped the Holden teams throughout 1977, finishing first and second in the Australian Touring Car Championship, and first and second at Bathurst. This prompted Ford’s sales and marketing team to — somewhat arrogantly — rest on its laurels, and offer Moffat the same amount of money to defend his title in 1978.

Moffat knew better. He knew Holden would up its game-plan and come out fighting in ’78, and pleaded with Ford to increase his budget. It flatly refused. He was proven right.

Throughout the ’78 ATCC, the two Moffat Falcons continuously blew motors as they struggled to keep pace with the flying Holden Torana A9Xs. Out of desperation Moffat fitted illegal roller rockers, which allowed him to win round four of the series at Sandown. However, when officials pulled his engine down following the race, and found the illegal items, they slapped him and team-mate Bond with a six-week suspension. But the season ended on a high, with Moffat winning the penultimate round and Bond winning the final, though the big Fords were clearly struggling. The privateer teams fared much worse.

The Falcon Cobras raced just four times, from round two to round five of the six-round 1978 Championship of Makes, the annual endurance series which followed the ATCC. Looking resplendent in their new Cobra liveries, the two Moffat Falcons retired early at the opening round at Sandown, the traditional warm-up for Bathurst. At Bathurst they battled early with the Toranas of Bob Morris and Peter Brock, before both cars retired again before half distance. Bond managed to win round three at Adelaide Raceway, although Moffat blew another motor. Bond had built a healthy lead, but his motor began to fail towards the end. However, he limped home to win.

Bond’s victory would be the last major championship win for a Falcon hardtop, as Toranas dominated the results in 1979.

Round four, and more misery. Bond’s engine blew, and Moffat struggled with tyre troubles to finish a lowly seventh. Sadly, the Falcon Cobra was a victim of Ford Australia’s attitude to racing by the late ’70s. It withdrew all support for motor sport from 1979.

The Falcon XC Cobra may have been a marketing exercise to rid Ford of unwanted, slow-selling hardtop body shells, but it is also the last car Ford Australia built that had a direct link between the cars which competed at Bathurst, and those customers could purchase off the showroom floor. For this reason, they are the last in an 11-year line of very special Ford performance cars which began in 1967, with the XR GT.

Kiwi Cobras

Those of you who have taken an interest in the local racing scene over the last 35 years should need little introduction to George Sheweiry. George had a XT GT Falcon when he was 16-and-a-half years old. He went on to race a GTHO in the Castrol GTX Series, a Cobra in the Pennzoil Production Saloon Series, and a Mustang in pre-’65s. George also raced TransAms and competed in the Air Pacific Sports Sedan Series. Muscle Cars are in his blood and his son, George Sheweiry IV, has already started racing in a Capri and a hot Reliant Scimitar.

George built a Falcon Cobra replica back in 1978, using an XA Fairmont and a bonnet scoop made from one lent to him by McMillan’s Ford.

George champions the cause of the Production Muscle Cars Group. They are what they say they are. It’s a race series for owner/ drivers who don’t want to compromise their muscle car’s identity and collectability by heavy modification, or damage them in overly competitive biff-and-bash racing. You don’t need a roll-cage and your car has to keep its interior trim. Road tyres have to be used, and suspension modifications are severely restricted.

Engine modifications are allowed but, within reasonable bounds, the original type of block and cylinder head must be used. In George’s case the engine of his XC is a stock crank stroked 6162cc (376ci) Cleveland with forged Ross racing rods, roller cams and flat tappets. The valves are stainless steel, and the inlet manifold is a Victor single-plane unit with a single four-barrel Holley sitting on top, fed by a cold air box.

Finally, and most importantly, the sump has a roof, 51mm above the pan, with baffles and trap doors let into it to prevent oil surge.

It feeds the redoubtable four-speed top-loader through a triple-plate race clutch. At the back, all the grunt is absorbed by a Detroit locker. By the time it’s fed through to the 13-inch-wide rear tyres, the output is down to a miserly 373kW (500bhp).

Big Wheels

Both the front and rear wheels are 17-inch diameter, but the fronts are only a skinny 11 inches wide. George found a set of Porsche wheels that looked the part and got Arrow wheels to modify them to suit, before fitting Michelin road tyres to the rims.

Under the rules of the race series, suspension pick-up points can be modified by up to 10mm, and 816kg springs with Nolathane bushes and Koni shocks keep everything from becoming too unruly. Getting rid of the significant momentum is left to standard diameter but after market rotors — 29mm wide on the front and 25mm on the back — and a brake bias unit.

George’s Cobra is #211 of 400, a 1978 car that has done 41,842km (26,000 miles), 4828km of them racing. He found it in 1983 at Gary Keith’s, in Hamilton, with a $20,000 sticker on it. He got it for $19,000, and set about the modifications to make it fast, safe, reliable and also able to be returned to standard without too much effort. I suspect $19,000 wouldn’t even pay the deposit these days.

Twin Cobra

Thirty-seven-year old Mike Oldham was an apprentice at George Shewiery’s electrical company in 1985, soon got embroiled in his boss’ motor sport passion, and has been racing since he was 16. He had an XY GTHO replica straight from school, and raced that and a Ford Capri.

He found his Cobra, #108 of 400, about 10 years ago in Kaurau, near Taupo. It was rough but running, and has since been built up to a similar specification to George’s car — over a period of two years. Mike’s Cobra doesn’t have a sump roof like George’s, but has extra baffles and ‘wing’ extensions to the sump, with an Accusump accumulator to ensure he always has oil pressure.

Mike’s car runs Eagle rods and JE Pistons. Bob Homewood’s dyno recorded 373kW (500bhp) at the rear wheels from Mike’s power unit. While they look similar to George’s, Mike’s wheels weren’t donated by a Porsche, but were completely made up by Arrow Wheels, and he has mounted big fat Pirellis on them.

Using this car Mike has been Production Muscle Car Champion two years in a row, 2005 and 2006.

The amount of work, money and time that has gone into these two cars is mighty, and not without some sacrifice from both men, their families and friends — who either get ignored, or muck in
and help out in the workshop and at the track. Mike and George made it obvious that such efforts are truly appreciated.

Memory Fast Lane

These two cars definitely bring back great memories of 1977, with the cars of Moffat/ Ickx and Bond/ Hamilton storming down Con Rod Straight side by side on the last lap of the Mount Panorama classic in 1977.

On that day, the two Falcons finished first and second — only 0.1 seconds apart. You can see these two Falcon Cobras re-enacting that scene at most classic race meetings at Pukekohe, along with some really choice V8 muscle cars that look, sound and go just as they were meant to — fast and awesome.

Their last meeting of the season takes place on May 20 at Pukekohe Park Raceway. If you have got a muscle car go and have a look — you could be on the track with these Cobras next year!

The Jowett Jupiter turns 70

John Ball has always enjoyed tinkering with old boats and cars. He’s old enough to think having gearbox parts on newspaper on the floor of his bedroom, while the relevant car sat waiting on nail boxes, was a normal part of growing up. His passion has always tended towards old British bangers. He reckons he’s fortunate not to have got caught up in the American muscle scene.
John’s love affair with this Jupiter started in December 2015 when, with some time on his hands during a Christchurch trip, he searched online for ‘cars, before 1970 and in Christchurch’.

A passion for classics and customs

In the highly competitive field of New Zealand classic and custom restorations, reputations are won or lost on the ability to maintain consistently high standards of workmanship. A company managing to achieve this is D A Panel beating Ltd, of Rangiora near Christchurch. Is your classic or custom car restoration stalled, or in need of a refresh, or perhaps you are looking for experts to rebuild that recent import project out of Europe or the ‘States?