In the early 90s Howard Astill was certainly living the dream. He’d just sold his all-conquering aqua XA, ROCK 3, to Chic Henry who raffled it off at Summernats 4 – where it had taken out the two big ones: Top Judged Street Machine and Top Street Machine Overall.
In the lead-up to all this, Howard had negotiated with Street Machine’s then-editor Tim Britten to purpose-build SM a giveaway car. Street Machine would find all the major sponsors (including Ford, Carisma, Pirelli, Roman Autotek, Berger, Rare Spares and Pioneer) and cover the shortfall in materials, while Howard would supply all the labour – with a tonne of help from Mark Sanders (Road Performance Modifications) and Loui Priori. This would all be done in Broken Hill, a 13-hour drive from what was then Street Machine HQ in Sydney.
Howard’s team were given nine months to build the car before debuting it at Summernats 5 in 1992, after which Howard would get to show the car for one year before the lucky competition winner drove it away on Sunday night of Summernats 6.
Deal done, it was time to thrash out specifics. Troy Trepanier’s 1960 Chev PROBOX had just taken the street machine universe by storm, so Tim and Howard both knew they wanted something along those lines – albeit with a Ford badge. It also had to make bold statement, proving that you could build an extremely radical vehicle while still working within the rules required by rego authorities. The vehicle settled on was a retrotech 1963 Compact Fairlane, which Howard named ROCK 4.
Being a giveaway car, ROCK 4 had to be 100 per cent legal in all states. The consulting engineer, Anthony George, made representations to every transport authority and secured the thumbs-up from all states and territories.
The final configuration included a completely custom-fabricated chassis, incorporating a double A-arm front end and four-bar rear. The engine was an HO-spec, injected five-litre from an EB Falcon with its matching four-speed auto.
Howard actually received the engine before the EB had hit the showrooms; the Ford delivery docket stated: ‘SVO Contractor’, which made Howard feel pretty chuffed.
These days, 17-inch wheels would struggle to raise an eyebrow, but in the early 90s that was cutting-edge stuff. Howard recalls: “I spotted the Ferrari F40 at the Sydney International Motor Show and thought to myself: ‘That’s what I want.’” Carisma came to the party with a set of Compomotives that matched the Ferrari’s.
On his way to debut ROCK 4 at Summernats 5, Howard went via Orange for final engineering on the Fairlane; it had to do the brake and noise test. From there he went to the motor registry, got it registered, picked up the plates and headed to Canberra.
Despite the car being barely finished and far from up to scratch, ROCK 4’s debut was a huge success. It snagged a spot in the Top 10, then thanks to strong driving performances, including sixth-outright in the Spear-A-Spud (the elite boys competed with everybody back then), it managed to take out Top Street Machine Overall – this was in the days before the Grand Champion award was introduced.
During 1992, ROCK 4 went on to win Top Street Machine overall at the Brisbane Hot Rod Show, Adelaide Hot Rod Show and Sydney Hot Rod Show. In WA it went one better, winning Top Judged Vehicle Overall at the Perth Western Nationals, beating the more fancied hot rods at their own game. SM labelled it Australia’s winningest-ever street machine.
The final handover didn’t quite go to schedule, with the winner, Wollongong’s Patrick Smithers, not being announced until the July-August 1993 issue. Patrick was a great winner though; he was a committed Ford man, having owned 16 of them.
In the ensuing years, ROCK 4 changed hands a number of times. Howard even bought it back at one stage, using it as a driver, putting plenty of miles on the clock.
This included a Broken Hill-to-Canberra trek for Summernats 17 – where it scored yet another Top 60 berth.