This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of Street Machine
WELL, this is pretty freakin’ cool. It’s a warm, sunny Friday arvo. It’s my birthday. I’m sprawled on a chair in the shade of the longest pub veranda in Australia, sipping an icy-cold beer with my mate Brad and his crew, who have just cruised into town in a Falcon GT tribute and a Torana SL/R 5000. Tops!
Since starring in Running On Empty more than 35 years ago, the FOX1 Dodge Challenger has been through a few hands. These days it’s owned by two fellas from WA, Jason Turner and Dominic D’Agostino. Obviously it came a long way to be at the ROE Festival and was a huge boost to the event
And it gets better. Rumbling down the main drag past the pub is a black-with-yellow-stripes Dodge Challenger and a sweet-sounding blown ’57 Chev – spotto! People are standing, cheering and clapping, as riding shotgun in the Challenger is actor Richard Moir, who played tough-guy street racer Fox in Running On Empty. Crikey! I didn’t even realise that this was a life goal until a few seconds ago, but I’ve just ticked it off the list.
This awesome scene outside Cobar’s Great Western Hotel is all due to the inaugural Running On Empty Festival. If you don’t know what I’m talking about – and you’re excused if you’re younger than, er, middle-aged – Running On Empty, a slightly cheesy but classic Aussie car flick from 1982, had a street race between Fox in a Challenger (in fact, this one) and Mike in a blown ’57 Chev as its final climactic scene. Cobar’s significance in all this is that it’s around here that the rural scenes of the movie were filmed, including the country servo where legendary Aussie actor Max Cullen as Rebel uttered possibly the most famous words ever in an Aussie car flick: “Green. Green is nice!”
Seeing Running On Empty as a kid was a life-changing event for some of us, while for others, it’s taken a while for ‘corny’ to be replaced by ‘iconic’. But that’s what has happened in the almost four decades since the film was produced, largely due to these two cars. The Challenger with the FOX1 plates that I’ve just respectfully raised my schooner to is the original from the movie. The blown ’57 Chev behind it is a ripper tribute car – one of a few, along with a stack of other cool Aussie and US muscle cars cruising here this weekend.
These cars – and plenty of people – have come a long way since word about this Running On Empty Festival began to spread. These days, FOX1 is based in WA, and the BLOWN57 tribute has arrived here after a 10-hour tow by its owner, Queenslander Mark McLean.
Of course, they’re not the only long-distance tourists; getting to do a Great Australian Road Trip is a big part of the fun of attending.
Grab a map of Oz and Cobar sits on the red dirt of outback NSW, about mid-way between Adelaide and Brisbane. Sydney and Melbourne are a decent day’s drive away, too, so the ROE Festival is a ripper reason for a long-haul cruise.
Street Machine’s Scotty, Paul and the photographers cruised here in the just-completed Carnage Dodge Phoenix. My mates Brad, Joe, James and Lynton have spent two relaxing days driving up from Adelaide, luxuriating in the V8 rumble of their red SL/R 5000 and blue GT replica, overnighting at the iconic Silverton Hotel west of Broken Hill, right in the middle of Mad Max country! For the people I’m camped beside in the Cobar caravan park, the ROE Festival has made a perfect bookend to their terrific week-long cruise that began with the HK-HT-HG Holden Nationals in SA the previous weekend. I was supposed to be swagging in my shed-find Commodore wagon, but engine problems meant it had to stay home. Still, even in something late-model-white boring, my eight-hour drive under a big sky was good for the soul.
As the sun sets, the Dodge and the Chev – and plenty of others – do a few laps as people arrive. While those two are undoubtedly the heroes, it’s great see the effort that people have put into replicas of other cars from the film, too – The Gazzard boys’ EK Holden; the RAMMER 1950s Chev; even the blue XB Falcon cop car from the movie has a couple of tributes cruising in Cobar.
But although there is a good crew of Holden HK-T-G cruisers in town, we don’t see one yellow early Monaro like the one in the film. Maybe it’s because that car came to a fiery demise in the movie’s opening scenes when its “he’s just a bad loser” driver crashed and burned after being defeated by Fox.
Friday night is drive-in movie night. Guess what we watch? Yep, Running On Empty on a (not so) big screen at the local sports ground. Up the back are dozens of cars, drive-in style, with plenty of space for picnic blankets on the grass down the front.
The Rebel’s Garage site used in the movie is at Canbelego, about 45 kays out of town, so that’s the destination for a cruise on Saturday morning. After pics are taken at the huge ‘Cobar’ sign at the east end of town, our kilometres-long convoy of cars continues on.
The building used as the outback servo in the movie has unfortunately been demolished, but the Cobar Men’s Shed mob have set up a tribute, complete with old-style fuel bowsers, offering a bright and breezy backdrop for some memories from some of the film’s stars, and, later, a stack of pics of people with their cars.
After that, it’s back into town for an all-makes show ’n’ shine just off the main street and more laidback cruising all afternoon.
What a ripper weekend: wide open spaces under a big sky, and three great pubs and a couple of terrific clubs to eat and drink in. Let’s hope co-organisers Ben and John (see breakout, p78) and their loyal Cobar locals can sort out another cruisy weekend in the spirit of the Running On Empty Festival.
THE Running On Empty Festival was co-organised by Ben Hewlett and John De Bruin. Ben is no stranger to street machines and organising stuff; while serving in the Australian Army he was chief mechanic on the Project Digger Ford LTD (SM, May ’10). These days he lives and works in Cobar.
“Years ago my brother Tom said: ‘Hey, did you know some of the scenes in Running On Empty were filmed here?’” Ben recalls. “I thought it would be really cool to have some sort of festival here for Running On Empty.”
But there was a more honourable reason for the festival. “In 2015 it was the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli and my mate John De Bruin and myself were trying to get money together for a war memorial. We needed a fundraiser.
“To cut a long story short, we put it up as a Facebook page and we thought we might get 150 or 200 people interested. It must have been a good idea, because we had about 3000 people show up!”
CATCHING THE FOX
THERE is surely no better sound to an actor than loud applause, and Richard Moir received plenty over the Cobar weekend. This bloke was a regular on Australian movie and TV screens in the 70s and 80s, starring in The Odd Angry Shot and Round The Twist among others, but for us car nuts he’s Fox, the no-bull Challenger-piloting street racer from Running On Empty.
Now in his 60s, for nearly three decades Richard has suffered from Parkinson’s disease, a bastard condition that affects muscle control and its sufferers’ ability to speak, walk – everything.
But with the support of carers, Richard made the most of the weekend, doing plenty of cruising in the passenger seat of the Challenger while wearing the distinctive black hat and tinted round glasses of his ROE character. It was an astonishing effort and an honour to witness. What a frickin’ legend!
AMONG countless stage and screen roles over the past 35 years, actor Terry Serio has played Aussie rocker Johnny O’Keefe in the mini-series Shout! and Bob Hawke and John Howard in Keating! The Musical, for which he won a Helpmann award. But Running On Empty was a young Terry’s first major acting gig, and it’s been part of his life ever since.
“To this day, I really don’t think the Australian film industry actually realises what a ‘thing’ Running On Empty was,” says Terry. “The central characters, Mike and Tony and Rebel, they simply loved their racing and their fast cars, and I think that struck a chord with people.
“I’ve been chased through airports by people quoting the lines from the film at me,” he laughs. “I’ll be putting my bags on a trolley and people will say: ‘PISSOFF!’ to me and security dudes are like: ‘Whoa – what the hell is going on here?’
“After a decade of this I started thinking: ‘Wow! This movie – it’s transcended generations.’ It’s the only film I’ve ever done that has that degree of what you would call ‘resonance’.”
THERE were a few cool black Chevs cruising Cobar, but none were closer to the movie car than this ’57 (above, behind Running On Empty star Terry Serio), owned by Mark McLean. “It’s the closest to the real one in Australia,” he claims.
“I saw the film as a teenager and I remember saying: ‘One day, I’m gonna own one of those!’”
And it happened: as an adult, Mark has built and modified several ’57s over the years. This one was bought a decade ago to build into a BLOWN57 tribute, right down to the rounded rear wheelarches seen on the movie car. Most other details are correct, too, such as a metal mountain poking through the bonnet, the satin paint, the missing front bumper and the de-chroming.
The car remains streetable, although it doesn’t get street-driven too much. But with its blown big-block Chev, it’s a regular at events like Powercruise, and has run a 10.6 at Willowbank.
1. Hunter Valley local Dan Murphy has owned this ultra-rare, Australian-assembled, right-hand-drive ’68 AMC Javelin SST since his teenage years, and began restoring it in 1998. “I had it painted back then, but life got in the way of finishing it, so it sat for about 15 years,” he says. “But I threw everything at it for my 40th birthday.” It’s powered by a G-Force-built 360ci AMC V8. “I chose the green to piss off a girl I was dating at the time,” he laughs. “Plus, of course, ‘green is nice’!”
2. Russel Soper brought his black HQ Holden all the way from sugarcane country around Mackay to the red soil of Cobar. By the time he’d arrived back home he’d pedalled the red-headed 355 stroker Holden-powered four-door 4600km. It’s continuing the tradition of ‘regular driving’ begun by his grandparents when they bought the Quey new in Ayr, North Queensland.
3. Alan Potter pieced together this tribute RAMMER (the car that rammed Mike’s GTHO into the rear of a truck before it was doused in petrol and set alight, almost “burning the snatch”) from a ’49 Chev. Alan is also the owner of the Foxy Lady panel van and has built many incredible Mad Max replica vehicles.
4. Rightio, so Mike’s XY Falcon GTHO in Running On Empty was red, but Willy Benter’s yellow XY GT looks a little like Mike’s after the Gazzard boys had finished with it! Willy’s is a South Africa-spec Fairmont GT – just about identical to Aussie GTs – which he bought from an Adelaide importer about a decade ago. Having being in storage since then, the car was back on the road just in time for the road trip from Willy’s home in Warrnambool to the festival and back.