YOU had me at the grille. When the photos for this feature landed on my computer screen, I saw that custom grille and instantly knew the car: Howard Nessen’s XB hardtop. The grille alone symbolises how to create an iconic street machine that will be recognised for decades to come.
This article was first published in the June 2020 issue of Street Machine
How young was I when I first saw it? I had nary a sprout of pubic hair as I BMX’d home with the new Feb/Mar ’84 issue of Street Machine. Among a brace of ’55 and ’56 Chevs highlighted that issue, I spied a feature on a tidy Red Pepper XB hardtop with the headline ‘Key to the Car’, complete with that trademark grille.
“This is actually the fourth time the XB has been featured in Street Machine,” the now 61-year-old Howard says. “It was also featured in Jul/Aug ’91 and Jul/Aug ’95 – and was a SMOTY nominee for ’95 – so surely this is a record or something!”
Howard had lowered the rear leaf springs to tone down the 80s rake the XB sported on the original 14in Enkei rims, but it was back with a vengeance once fitted up with the taller 15x8.5 Center Lines and stickier 295/50 M/T ET Street Radials. It looks like some things are just meant to be!
The XB left the factory as a well-optioned GS Fairmont running 302 Clevo power when bought brand new by Howard’s dad, Ben, in 1974, and was given to Howard as a 21st birthday present five years later. It was a mint car with only 30,000 miles on the clock, but Howard immediately stripped it down for a full respray in the factory Red Pepper hue. Shane Cable hotted up the 302 with a 650 Holley, extractors and Sig Erson cam, and swapped out the C4 for a Top Loader cogger.
A nine-inch conversion was an immediate improvement over the factory BorgWarner for strength, while 4.11 gears kept Howard busy with the newly acquired manual shifts. A mix of lowered front coils and raised rear wagon springs gave it the right 1980s rake, and a set of Auto Drag-style Enkei rims sorted its street cred. It was a quick streeter for those days, with a 14.4-second ET at Calder to its name, but it wasn’t long before Howard wanted more.
“I’ve been mates with Shane since I was 17, and he and Athol Burns at Cable Burns Race Engines have built me six engines over the past four decades,” Howard says. “I eventually get used to the power of each combo, so I need to keep stepping them up.”
Aussie artist Rohan Day designed the XB’s early-90s revamp, based around satin-finish Center Line Auto Drag rims. The Mercedes Midnight Blue body colour was also used in the engine bay and undercarriage detailing. Selected exterior highlights were finished in satin chrome, including the bumper bars and Howard’s trademark grille, though the bumpers were changed to body colour in 2019
The second engine upgrade started with a brand new 351 Clevo, fitted back in ’85, and the 450hp combo pushed the XB to a 12.14@114mph best (SM, Jul/Aug ’91).
The car was cruised and raced in this guise until 1991, when an unfortunate combination of a wet road, too much jandal and a power pole left both Howard and the XB pretty messed up. “I hit the pole head-on at 50mph and it made a mess,” he says. “It was at this time that I met Tony and Elio Bernardone from AE Automotive in Burwood, who convinced me to take it back to bare metal and start again.”
A factory 9in housing has been braced and narrowed 15mm each side. However, the internals are anything but standard: The nodular-iron case houses a 31-spline HRW Detroit Locker that actions Summers Brothers axles, while the 4.56:1 Richmond gearset keeps Howard busy shifting the Tremec cogger
The initial repairs to revive the car post-accident were significant, and expertly handled by Tony. But Howard, with the help of famed Australian conceptual automotive artist Rohan Day, hatched a plan to completely change the XB’s look: EXBEE was born.
“We based the design around a set of satin Center Line Auto Drags, which were going on to replace the Enkei rims,” Howard says. “Anything that was chrome was redone in a satin finish, and I’m talking proper satin chrome – it took me months to find someone to do the bumpers, and it is likely the first car in Australia to have had this done. But as it happens, last year I had them shaved of all mounting bolts, smoothed right up and redone in body colour, so it is just one of those things, I guess,” he laughs.
The revamp included a complete colour change to Mercedes Midnight Blue. Dom at AE liberally applied the fresh hue to the majority of the exterior and undercarriage componentry (including all suspension), as well as the engine bay and associated parts. The rear suspension was brought closer to terra firma to acknowledge the new decade, and it was in this guise that we featured it in SM, Jul/Aug ’95.
The crash did little to curb Howard’s need for speed, so the 351 combo was further tweaked to pump out 520hp, and the XB stayed like this for many years.
Fast-forward to 2018, and Howard was again getting itchy feet. The Top Loader and clutch combo were proving to be troublesome at the strip, so Shane and Athol were again instructed to build a fresh Cleveland, but this time with stroker internals.
Remember the original 302 that was yanked back in ’85? Well, that block sat patiently under a bench for the next 33 years, and was deemed the perfect candidate for the new 390-cube combo.
The current 390ci stroker is the car’s sixth Clevo combo, and is the healthiest yet with an estimated 600hp at the ready – still with cast-iron 4V heads! The engine is full of quality components that will hopefully see Howard run consistently into the 11s while also offering plenty of reliable street cruising
Its mint condition meant a .020 oversize was sufficient, which, in conjunction with a Scat stroker crank and Scat conrods, resulted in a near-40ci increase in capacity. A healthy Comp Cams solid bumpstick of 0.645in lift and 262 duration issues the wake-up call to the top end via a set of Comp lifters, Crane pushrods and Comp roller rockers. The cam is hidden beneath a port-matched Holley Strip Dominator intake and Quick Fuel 850 double-pumper that bridges the gap between extensively worked 4V closed-chamber heads.
A Shane-modified sump and Moroso high-volume pump keep the good oil flowing, while twin Holley ‘blue’ fuel pumps and half-inch lines ensure a healthy supply of 98-octane.
A GT four-core radiator and stock engine fan have been more than capable of keeping a lid on engine temps, while modified Pacemaker extractors and a twin three-inch system sorts the exhaust needs. The ignition is a proven combo of MSD and ICE products.
The cabin is a mix of business and pleasure, with plenty of standard Ford styling appointments nestled among an owner-built polished rollcage, Speedhut GPS instrument cluster and race harnesses. The seats sport the original 1974 black cloth-and-vinyl trim, which has been kept immaculate since the car left the factory. The XT GT steering wheel with an XW GS centre is a neat touch
Don’t panic; the XB still has the three pedals. The Top Loader has made way for a Tremec TKO600 five-speed, which necessitated a rework of the transmission tunnel and crossmember to ensure the driveline angles of the four-inch steel tailshaft remain spot-on.
The differential assembly is full of goodness, including an HRW Detroit Locker centre and 4.56 Richmond gears in a braced nodular-iron carrier, while the 30mm-shortened housing has been braced and matched with Summers Brothers 31-spline axles.
The factory XB brakes still remain in situ, albeit thoroughly rebuilt, while the FoMoCo suspension scored the same treatment and the addition of CalTrac-style bars to the rear. The design-nucleus satin Center Line Auto Drags remain proudly front and centre, in 6- and 8.5-inch widths and shod in 185/50 Michelin and 295/50 M/T rubber respectively.
Swing open those swoopy coupe doors and you’re met by genuine 1974-trimmed factory black cloth on black vinyl seats – yep, the original pews are still in place and in near-perfect condition. Their surroundings have changed somewhat, with the addition of a Howard-built four-point polished-alloy rollcage, Speedhut GPS speedo and tacho unit and an XT GT twirler sporting an XW GS horn pad. The enlarged transmission tunnel meant new carpet was required, so Boss Trimming custom-made a plush version, while Howard proudly lists the ‘stereo’ as being “a 390 Cleveland at 7000rpm”!
“The car has only covered 86,000 kays since new, although most were driven hard,” Howard says. “But after 40 years, I’m just at the stage now where I want to kick back and enjoy it. It’s outlived three marriages and pissed me off so many times, but every time I’ve threatened to sell it I just can’t bring myself to do it.
“There is no replacing my dad’s XB hardtop; you can never substitute that kind of lineage, and it’s really a time capsule now, brimming with four decades’ worth of blood, sweat, tears and associated memories that can never be equalled.”
Truer words have never been spoken, Howard.
1974 FORD XB FAIRMONT HARDTOP
Colour: Mercedes Midnight Blue
Make: Ford Cleveland 390ci
Block: Factory cast
Crank: Scat stroker
Rods: Scat 350 Chev
Camshaft: Comp Cams solid
Heads: Cast-iron closed-chamber 4V
Intake: Holley Strip Dominator
Carb: Quick Fuel 850 double-pumper
Exhaust: Pacemaker tri-Y modified to 3in collectors, twin 3in system
Ignition: MSD-7AL2, MSD Blaster 3 coil, ICE 10mm leads
Cooling: GT four-core
Gearbox: Tremec TKO600 five-speed, Lakewood scattershield
Clutch: Direct Clutch Services 11in cushion ceramic
Diff: Shortened 9in, 4.56:1 Richmond gears, HRW Detroit Locker, Summers Brothers 31-spline axles
Front: Factory rebuilt
Rear: Top Notch Race Cars CalTrac-style three-link
Springs: Pedders (f); stock, lowered 2in (r)
Shocks: Pedders (f & r)
Brakes: Ford discs (f), Ford drums (r)
Rims: Center Line Auto Drag; 15x6 (f), 15x8.5 (r)
Tyres: Michelin 185/50 (f), Mickey Thompson ET Radial 295/50 (r)
Shane Cable and Athol Burns at Cable Burns Race Engines; Elio, Tony and Dom at AE Automotive; Rodney Cable; Nick at Boss Trimming; Graeme Murphy at Top Notch Race Cars; Colin Murphy; Danko at Adicted Performance; Chris at Speed Pro Dandenong; my sons Tim and Nick for their help over the years; my father for giving me the car in 1979; my partner Marie for putting up with the XB’s priorities; my good mates Rod Mann and Trevor Davis for their encouragement and advice