Howard Astill’s Rock Solid XA Falcon in the build – part one

Howard Astill talks us through the evolution of his iconic XA Falcon


In the March edition of Street Machine, we feature Howard Astill’s legendary 1972 XA Falcon and the evolution it went through in the late 80s and early 90s, first as ROCK SOLID and then as ROCK SOLID 2 and ROCK 3. It’s one of the most iconic street machines in our sport, as proved by the enthusiastic reception that greeted its reappearance at Summernats 30 after a long hibernation.

Here, Howard himself tells the tale of ROCK SOLID 1 and 2. In part two of the build, Howard takes us through the car’s transformation from ROCK SOLID 2 into ROCK 3.

Rock-history-01Rather than purchase all the parts separately, Howard bought three separate shells to build ROCK SOLID. Typically donor cars like this cost only $100 back in the day. The basis for ROCK SOLID was originally purchased new in Broken Hill and was a bit bashed about, but pretty good rust-wise.

Rock-history-02“I paid 50 bucks at the 7th Street Machine Nationals to have this photo of my car taken in front of the banner,” Howard says. “They had a set-up where you drove in, they took the pic and you drove out. The poster was sent out to me later in the post.”

Rock-history-03This is the original ROCK SOLID engine bay nearing completion. “The Cigweld Transmig in the background is a pissy 140-amp unit, which I still use today!” Howard says. “I never had a rotisserie back in those days; we just rolled it over onto a couple of tyres. I quickly learned that’s a bad idea, as I had to fix all the dents in the sills.”

Rock-history-04Mocking up the engine bay for ROCK SOLID. “I was told the longer you leave high-fill the better it gets, so I let it harden up for a full year; this avoided any shrinkage issues down the track,” Howard says. “This is the very first engine that went in the car. My mate who worked at the local Ford dealer helped me build it, and it’s essentially the same engine that’s in the car today.”

Rock-history-05Like every street machiner, Howard loves buying bits for his car. After returning from a very expensive trip from Broken Hill down to a big speed shop in Melbourne, he was so proud of all his shiny new goodies that he laid them out on the lounge room floor and photographed them. Dig the brand-new 80s curtains and carpet – they’re the same colour scheme as the Falcon!

Rock-history-07“No, the car was never going to be black,” Howard says. “I read that if you paint your car black you can see all the problems that need fixing. The shed behind is where we built ROCK SOLID 1 and 2.”

Rock-history-08“All the cool cars had ladder bars, so ROCK SOLID 1 had to have them,” Howard says. “I know now that you can’t use ladder bars with leaf springs, it was more about looking good than working. I look back at a lot of things we did and wonder: ‘What the hell was I thinking?’”

Rock-history-09“I stopped in at Mum and Dad’s house on the way home from the painters,” Howard says. “The Fairlane was my wife Heather’s family daily. It was brand new, with a few mods like the wheels. It might have only been a six-cylinder but we hunted it around.”

Rock-history-10One of the first times the painted and polished car saw the sun. The Rock Solid Red was a custom colour, which Howard had selected from a car he’d seen in a US hot rod magazine. He took the photo to the local paint guy and asked him to match the colour. The daily driver was normally parked in this spot, as there was always a show car parked in the garage – either being built, rebuilt or getting freshened up for the next show.

Rock-history-11This is at Howard’s brother Reg’s place, who lived a couple of doors up the road – Reg is in the blue T-shirt and his mate Clifford is in the grey overalls. Seeing as Howard didn’t own a skyhook or engine hoist, he had to roll the Falcon down to Reg’s whenever he wanted to pull the motor out. Reg’s garage was a big set-up, as he was a serious power boat racer – you can just see the boat extractors hanging up under the Moroso sign.

Rock-history-12“Out the front getting loaded up onto the trailer before heading to my first Summernats – Summernats 2 in 1989,” Howard says. “The F100 in the background was owned by my painter, Gary Dart. He painted ROCK SOLID the first two times and was the guy that taught me to paint. The red Magna was Kym Hooper’s. He was my welder and the guy who taught me to weld – it’s all his fault.”

Rock-history-13Rock Solid on display, out on the trotting track in the show ’n’ shine at the 7th Street Machine Nationals, Canberra. The car became absolutely putrid in no time, so when Howard later found out he’d made the Top 60 hall, he took it around to the horse stables and rinsed it off with the firehose.

Rock-history-14A fully detailed and tunnel-rammed 351 Cleveland was a big deal in 1986. The stout 30thou-over Clevo ran a Weiand ram, twin 450 Holleys, ported and polished 2V closed-chamber heads, 4V TRW single-groove valves, Crane Fireball cam, SpeedPro forged flat-top pistons and Mallory ignition. About as good as it got back in the 80s.

Rock-history-16“The judges suggested that if I chromed the front end, I’d score more points,” Howard remembers. “So for ROCK 2, I obliged and chromed everything – even the brake rotors! I’m pretty sure this shot was taken at the Victorian State Titles. It was about then that I’d started to get serious about taking photos of the car. Mind you, I still had a lot to learn, as you can see the reflection of the tripod and my legs in the shine of the guard.”

Rock-history-17And the first rebuild begins! Howard gets serious with ROCK SOLID 2. “You can tell by the blue cross-brace and the string line up the middle that I come from a building background,” he says. “My father’s a plumber and a builder and we really were making it up as we went.”

Rock-history-18“That big centre sheet was bloody heavy,” Howard recalls. “I got a local fabrication shop to roll it up for me out of 1.6mm. It weighed a tonne, but we got it in there somehow. I know it’s overkill, but back then we didn’t know what was necessary, so we erred on the cautious side.”

Rock-history-19The ROCK SOLID 2 build was all about boxing in anything that hadn’t been already. Note how the engine mounts have been trimmed down and smoothed off; the sway-bar mounts have also been boxed in. Lots of areas were tidied up as well, such as the removal of the lip across the upper edge of the firewall.

Rock-history-21In the mid-80s this was about the smoothest, most sanitary underside in the business. This was also the first time Howard had ever sprayed 2K high-fill. Howard copied the roll-over frame from something he’d seen in Street Machine – it made working on the underside a whole lot easier. Today’s rotisseries are another step up again.

Rock-history-20Beaut safely gear and high-tech set-up, eh? The safety shorts are non-flammable and non-tearing, while the floor was wet down to keep the dust at bay. Once again painter Gary Dart was called upon to work his magic with the spray gun, but Howard painted most of the parts – the first time he’d sprayed two-pack.

Rock-history-22While ROCK SOLID 2 retained the chrome-plated ladder bars, the original leaf springs made way for coil-overs – with a very short Panhard bar. ROCK 2 also saw the introduction of the hydraulic handbrake. The caliper and disc were from a Kawasaki 900. To mount the disc, a steel plate was welded to the cast-iron yoke, then machined square, while the small caliper hangs off a billet bracket secured by the pinion retaining bolts. Howard commented that it’s not very efficient.

Rock-history-23“I must have bought a lot of stickers,” Howard says, “as I didn’t own many of those parts.” A closer inspection of the engine reveals a selection of Howard’s handmade billet accessories, including the alternator bracket and plug lead holders. The unusual-looking polished water pump is an off-the-shelf alloy piece with all the redundant lumps and bumps linished off.

Rock-history-24Eventually Howard got sick of pushing the Falcon down to his brother Reg’s place to pull the motor in and out. His solution was to weld a piece of reo bar to the steel reinforcing above the garage door. “The boss, Heather, is keeping an eye on proceedings,” Howard says. “She’s pregnant with our second child, Louise.”

Rock-history-25“ROCK SOLID 2 was painted in Spies Hecker 2K, straight over the original acrylic – and it fish-eyed like crazy,” Howard says. “We were advised to add silicon drops to counteract this, which created runs everywhere. There wasn’t time to fix it properly before Summernats, so the whole car was colour-sanded until the runs were gone.” According to Howard, it was a nightmare and everyone said it wouldn’t work, but it ended up making the car better. “With all my cars now, I start with 800-grit, then go to 1200, 1500 and 3000,” he says.

Rock-history-26“During Summernats 2, I went up to visit some friends at the Carotel, just up the road from Natex [now Exhibition Park],” Howard says. “This shot was taken just out the front. It was back in the day when everybody just drove around Canberra.”

Rock-history-27ROCK SOLID 2 out the front of Howard’s Broken Hill home. The freshly finished build looks a million dollars and is about to head to the 8th Street Machine Nationals, where it picked up Top Judged and Entrants’ Choice.

Rock-history-28“One of the scariest things you can do is jack up your show car on grass to put it on chassis stands,” Howard says. “The things we did – it was hairy, to say the least. This is about 1989, and the poles used in the display were left over from my panel van days. I made them in 1978 and I think I still have them ’round here somewhere. Also the display board was hand-written by a sign writer; there was no computer-cut graphics in those days.”

Rock-history-29This is at the Riverland Cruise, Berri, SA. “It was a two-day weekend,” Howard says. “I actually took ROCK SOLID on the Poker Run, or Observation Run.”

Rock-history-30Lou Priori and his Torana, along with ROCK SOLID 1 at Lake Eildon, Victoria. Lou helped a lot over the years and had a lot to do with ROCK SOLID 2 – unfortunately he was overseas for most of ROCK 3’s build. Lou’s Torana was later rebuilt and was featured in the Oct/Nov ’94 issue of Street Machine.

Rock-history-31Back then there were no car shows Broken Hill, so no one in Broken Hill had seen ROCK SOLID. To showcase the car, it was set up with full display in the showroom of the local Ford dealership – here it is parked out the front ready to go inside. Howard even took an ad out in the local paper letting everyone know to come along for a look.

Rock-history-32At the 8th Street Machine Nationals, Wagga Wagga in 1988, where ROCK SOLID 2 took home Top Judged. Here’s Howard warming the hides for a run in the go-to-whoa.

Rock-history-33Adelaide Hot Rod Show, 1988. “Back then they had very good money for Best Individual Display,” Howard says, “but it had to have a theme. I was a member of the Dick Johnson Fan Club, so my display represented a Dicky Bathurst pit stop. It used the same colour scheme as his 1988 Sierra, and it had an overhead gantry for the rattle guns and a homemade fuel churn. I borrowed all the Shell gear off my mate at the local servo. It was a pain in the arse to put up, but won Best Individual Display everywhere I took it. You had to do everything you could to fund your hobby back then.”

Rock-history-34Even by today’s standards, the underside of ROCK SOLID 2 looks very slick. “I’m pretty sure this was the 1989 Adelaide Hot Rod Show,” Howard says, “so this is what it looked like before I chopped it up to create ROCK 3.

Rock-history-35ROCK SOLID 2 at a photoshoot for Street Machine, with photographer Warwick Kent, on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. “The biggest headache on the shoot was digging all the pebbles out of the tyre treads!” Howard says.

Rock-history-36ROCK SOLID 2’s engine bay at its very best. “I’d bought a new camera at about this stage, so I got a bunch of great pics from the fresh build,” Howard says. “As my photography improved, I started taking a lot more photos – I have way more shots of ROCK 3 than any of the earlier builds.”