COVERING 200 miles in two hours in a Ford Falcon GT-HO Phase III was always going to generate a compelling yarn. But even in 1971, on the no-limit Hume Highway, a photo of the speedo showing 145mph raised eyebrows.
This is how it happened. In mid-1971, having developed a trusting relationship with Howard Marsden (Ford’s competition boss), assistant editor Nichols arranged to drive the first GT-HO Phase III. Even with hindsight, it’s hard to believe that, with the newly launched HQ Holden and VH Valiant creating headlines, an evolutionary XY Falcon seemed relatively unimportant. However, as editor of Wheels, I knew this would be an exclusive.
Nichols and photographer Uwe Kuessner were dispatched south in a Bolwell Nagari to interview Marsden and, we hoped, to test the new GT-HO. The scoop road test appeared in Wheels October 1971 with full performance figures; 14.7sec quarter-mile (400 metres), zero to 160km/h in 15.2sec, and top speed 141.5mph (228km/h) – as proven by Kuessner’s infamous photo. Neither story nor photograph carried any byline and the October cover ignored the GT-HO story.
That now iconic photograph – of Nichols’ hands, thumbs on the steering-wheel spokes at quarter-past-nine, tacho needle at the 6150rpm redline, shaker and Hume Highway visible through the screen – sat above the heading The Biggest Stick. But what of the speedo needle?
Illegal copies of photographer Uwe Kuessner's speedo shot (untouched, left, and doctored) appeared on T-shirts and as posters in the 1970s and 80s.
We simply put the story and photos – including the snap with the speedo at an indicated 145mph (233km/h) – into the Murray Publishers production system. Somebody alerted management to the shot and the arguments, which went up to our managing director, began. Despite knowing there was no speed limit on the Hume, after much robust discussion the art department was ordered to retouch the photograph so that the speedo needle was just shy of 100mph, the caption reading "…almost flat in third".
Nichols’ objective test explained the differences between Phase II and Phase III, went into detail on how the car drove and performed (exceptionally in 1971). Criticism was confined to the lack of a headlight flasher, extreme fuel consumption – around 35L/100km – and, most crucially, brake fade.
Mel wrote the story straight, but I think we both knew that at some stage in the future, under a more enlightened management, we’d find an excuse to run the ‘real’ photograph and tell the story of that drive.
Four years later, in an SCW issue devoted to Australian muscle cars, I persuaded Nichols, then living in London and editing Car magazine, to write the story as it happened. Covering 200 miles (322km) in two hours on the road remains an astonishing feat, yet on that early Sunday morning in 1971 the mighty GT-HO made that trip from Albury to Broadmeadows utterly effortless.