John French reckoned his old Falcon XY GT HO Phase III Bathurst beast was exactly the same when he was reunited with it a few years ago. Only much better
This article on John French’s GT HO was originally published in the August 2011 issue of Street Machine
JOHN French had every right to look forward to a podium finish in the 1972 Great Race. After all, only a blocked fuel filter kept him from an almost-certain second behind his Ford factory-backed teammate Allan Moffat in the 1971 Hardie-Ferodo 500.
But unfortunately for him, Ford had other plans and gave his XY GT HO Phase III to Norm Beechey at the end of 1971, leaving the laconic Queenslander car-less.
Happily, long-time motorsport supporter Bryan Byrt rode to the rescue. Early in ’72, Byrt sold his Ford dealership in Wollongong and relocated to Brisbane, buying out McCluskey Ford at Mt Gravatt and hanging up his Bryan Byrt Ford shingle out front.
Byrt also relocated the purple GT HO Phase III that Sydneysiders Bob Skelton and Phil Barnes had brought home in second place at that ’71 Bathurst and now wanted a local driver to steer it. French was the obvious choice.
“I ran it in a few local meetings, including Surfers Paradise,” French says, “but the main game was always Bathurst.”
From 1970-’72, drivers were allowed to drive the full 500 miles (805km) at Mt Panorama solo, so there was no question of French pairing up with anyone else.
“I’d spent some years racing bicycles on road and track and had won 16 Queensland titles, so I was pretty fit,” he says.
Moffat agrees: “I didn’t find it a strain in 1970 or ’71 to go all the way. In fact it was great to know that you were the only person hammering the machine, so you really had a feel for how it was travelling.”
Just before the 1972 race, however, the Sydney Morning Herald published its infamous supercar scare, which blew the whistle on Ford, Holden and Chrysler building road-legal 260km/h race cars for Bathurst and caused panic among the manufacturers who feared adverse political and public reaction.
In the end they shelved the new cars and in a hasty reshuffling of plans, the main competitors for the 1972 Bathurst race remained similar to 1971, bar detail changes. After the Phase IV was effectively banned, Ford retained the Phase III that, although faster and no less reliable than in 1971, was no longer a current model.
The front of the grid was nevertheless a Falcon lockout. Moffat qualified his factory Ford on pole, ahead of his new teammate John Goss, while French placed the Byrt HO in fourth, on row two alongside Fred Gibson’s Falcon.
However in the race, all the major Fords struck problems and French emerged as the Blue Oval’s saviour.
“We ran strongly from the start but after 20 or 30 laps I ran over debris from an accident just before where Caltex Chase is now and punctured,” French says. “I only realised after I passed the pit entry and had to do a full lap on the flat tyre. That cost me the race.
“I lost a full lap but I gained it all back except for 30 to 40 seconds at the end. By then Peter Brock had too big a lead in the HDT Torana and went on to win his first Bathurst.”
It took nine years before French stood on top of the podium, alongside co-driver Dick Johnson, in the famous Tru Blu XD Falcon.
To make the distance, French had small sandwiches and chunks of banana stored in the Falcon’s centre console during the ’72 race but only drank at the pit stops, which were spaced 30-35 laps apart thanks to the endurance fuel tank.
“I had an even bigger tank,” he laughs. “I lasted the full race without a pee — mainly because I was sweating so much.”
Moffat later admitted that he couldn’t last that long and made use of his Falcon’s floor mat during the 1971 six-hour, nine-minute and 49.5-second Great Race.
“It was during a pit-stop and fortunately it took a long time to fill that big gas tank!” he said.
Fast forward to this year’s Phillip Island Festival of Motor Sport, and French was reunited with his race car for display laps celebrating 40 years of the XY GT HO Phase III. “It’s the same, yet different to when I raced it. It feels the same — in fact any good GT HO today feels much the same as the cars we raced back then because they were just slightly modified road cars, not the night and day different beasts that race today. But it’s different in that it’s much better turned-out today than even when the cars were new.
“I recall that after the 1972 race Bryan Byrt sold my car to a fellow down Tamworth way for $5000 — I’d buy a few of them today at that price! But the car has been restored twice, the last at huge cost, and the paintwork is better in the door jambs and under the bonnet than it ever was new in ’72!
“I only drove it at about three-quarter pace at Phillip Island because we did just five display laps behind a pace car but I’ve had a chance to open it up a bit more on a couple of other occasions and it still brings a smile back to my face. They were exciting cars to drive fast then and they still are!”
1971 Hardie-Ferodo 500: Qualified second, finished 5th in factory GT HO Phase III
Some years ago the car was bought and restored by Queensland-based collector David Bowden but in early 2007 it moved to a Melbourne collector who has around 20 special Australian muscle cars — mostly Falcons — in his stable.
Before it could settle down there, it was sent straight to specialist restoration outift Grand Tourer, run by Neil Thompson, where it was treated to a meticulous bare-metal rebuild.
“There was a lot of bog — lots and lots of bog — in it,” Thompson says. “And when we got through the bog, guess what we found — rust!”
More than $180,000 later, that’s all gone and the old Bathurst warrior is gleaming like the glint in John French’s eye when he took the wheel. They don’t make them like this any more.