When drag racing legend Ben Gatt was told his family’s 1968 XT Fairmont was available for sale, he had to have it. The old Ford held too many memories, and he knew exactly what his dad, Paolo (Paul), had desperately wanted to do with the car back in the day. Once he had this family treasure under his care, Ben and some trusted mates rebuilt it over 15 months or so, transforming Mum and Dad’s old XT into a very neat streeter, just like his old man would have wanted.
First published in the August 2023 issue of Street Machine
I’ve known Benny for a good number of years, and jumped at the opportunity to photograph the car. He had the perfect location in mind; we were off to the Gatts’ old family home at Fairfield Heights, Sydney – in Benny’s parents’ old car no less, now completely restored.
Heading towards the old stomping ground, the Ford’s exhaust let out a gorgeous burble when Benny backed off the gas, and a decent dose of mumbo when the loud pedal was activated. On these western Sydney tracks – sorry, roads – the ride was smooth, helped, no doubt, by the seats, but you could feel the XT’s tyres were planted firmly on the tarmac.
“Dad always reverse-parked in the drive, so I will too,” Ben said as we pulled up outside the old home. The traffic made this manoeuvre something of a chore, and Ben needed his daily spinach sandwich to complete the task, as the Ford has no power steering.
The house, built by Paul and some uncles, is the last on the street still standing from the old days. Ben went to school from this house, kept his budgerigars here and even learned to drive in this very XT. He built his first car – a ’28 Model A hottie, with help from his older brother Joe – in the backyard, and dad Paul raced his pigeons from the back shed. So many memories.
Back then, the car was painted white, there was one of those long straight-six engines under the bonnet, and stopping power was poor – drums on all for corners was the norm at the time. But now that Benny had a hold of it, he knew he had to change all that. “All Dad ever wanted was a V8,” he said. “And it had to be red.”
A 302 Windsor was gathering dust in Ben’s workshop. It hadn’t been there ages, but Ben had to have a little peek inside and tweak a few things. So, another real McCoy powers the XT: a Ben Gatt race engine. Interestingly, Ben never dynos his mills; he reckons that if he puts them together correctly, all that’s needed is judicial use of the loud pedal to get all the power needed.
The engine bay has been tidied up and looks better than new, and brakes-wise, XY discs now do the work at the front, with drums still used out back, and the brake booster was moved to the driver’s side. All the electrics are new, as are the bumpers, although the original set is safe in the shed. The factory XT grille is gone, replaced with an original GT item. “I know everything I’ve done is exactly what Dad wanted to do,” Ben reminded me.
But the big-ticket item in any car is the paint – it’s the first thing that hits you – and wow, the paint on this car! Ben’s dad had always wanted the XT to be red, so Ben’s had it coated in gleaming Ford Candy Apple Red. Fortunately, time sitting in that shed had not treated the XT’s body badly. There was no rust, and the previous owner had been careful when he pulled it apart.
There were the usual areas where TLC was needed, but in general, it was pretty good. Ben’s long-time buddy Dean did wonders with the paint, and he reckoned it was one of the best bodies he’d worked on.
To remain true to the old XT’s rather basic factory fit-out (and, I suspect, to show off the new long-range fuel tank), Ben has kept any carpet and sound deadening away from the boot. And there is now no room for the spare – that fuel tank is the proper 36-imperial-gallon one, the kind you need the bank’s authority to fill. That’s a whopping 164 litres of high-octane mumbo juice. But gee, it looks cool.
Inside, the Fairmont is pristine. Everything is black – upholstery, roof lining, carpet and door trims. Just sitting in those seats reminds one of a lazy afternoon in a Jason Recliner, the GT steering wheel is completely in keeping with Paul’s desires, and the overall result is a credit to Ben’s mate Al, who has trimmed it all beautifully.
On the parcel shelf, just like the old days, are a couple of caps. These are special – they were Paul’s. But I have to wonder if Ben’s mum Nina would have ever allowed the famous Paul Gatt racing pigeons to travel on the back seat in this beautiful time capsule?
Well done, Ben – this car is a credit both to you and its history with your family. “Ah, if you’re going to do it, you’ve gotta do it right, I suppose, haven’t ya?” Ben stated simply. He had to have the last word.
1968 FORD XT FAIRMONT
Paint: Candy Apple Red
|Ford 302 Windsor
|Edelbrock intake, 600 Holley vac-sec
|Pacemaker headers, twin 2in system
|9in, 2.7:1 gears
|SUSPENSION & BRAKES
|XY Falcon discs (f), GT drums (r)
|WHEELS & TYRES
|14×6 steelies with GT hubcaps (f & r)
|185/75R14 with redlines (f & r)
Sharon; Owen Webb; Hoody; Jonesy and Steve for the auto electrical brilliance; Dean at Dawn’s Touch-Ups for the body and paint; Al for the trim; Betts Customs; Norm Hardinge at Aussie Desert Cooler; Craig at Craig’s Automatics; Michelle at Rare Spares; Ford Muscle Parts; Bob and Tom at Bridgestone Tyres Smithfield; Steve at Burt Bros for brakes; Joe Vallis for hubcaps, grille, dash and steering wheel; the gang at Westend Performance – RIP Sam; Peter and Sarah for the Cobra air cleaner; Daryl and Sue for finding the car