Video: The last-ever XC Falcon Cobra, restored by Howard Astill

Cobra number 400 cops a full restoration by Howard Astill


Howard Astill isn’t exactly known for his restorations. He’s won Street Machine of the Year, Summernats Top Judged twice, Grand Champion three times and People’s Choice twice (as recently as Nats 35 for Peter Lewis’s XC sedan, which also won a spot in the Top 10) and all of those cars were extensively modified.

This XC Cobra, is a different story. It belongs to Damien Lowry and is car #400. That makes it the very last Cobra produced and one of the very last Falcon coupes.

Damien has owned the car for decades, but it need some love. Once he was in the position to start the project, he approached Howard at a car show, where Tailspin was on display. Howard wasn’t sure about taking on a resto, but he agreed to look at the car and see what was going to be involved.

“I’d actually done a Cobra before, car #24. It was a Bathurst special and it had been in a panel shop for ten years. It had missing parts and was at a standstill. That wasn’t a full resto, we essentially got it assembled and ready for rego. I’ve actually done three Cobras now!”

“I went and had a look and a chat about what he wanted to do,” says Howard.

“He’d owned it since 1985 and stripped the car down 20 years ago. It had been to a shop for a repairs, but he wasn’t happy with it, so he had it blasted and primed some of it. Then it sat. But despite the fact that the car was kept near a salt water lake, the bare metal parts were actually pretty good.”

One of Damien’s stipulations was to use as many original parts as possible. At some point, he’d swapped out the 302 Cleveland and Borg Warner diff for a 351 and 9in diff, he’d had the foresight to hang onto just about everything. Including the original springs!

“Essentially he did what a young bloke did with a car like that,” Howard told Unique Cars. “He drove it, abused it. What appealed to me was when he lowered it, he took the original coils and put them on a shelf. When he took things off the car, they all went on the shelf. So we had the date-matching alternator, starter motor, distributor, all the other parts that were tired but they matched the car. The front springs still had all the markings on them because he took them out when they were four or five years old.

“He brought all the parts over and he had most of the car there,” says Howard. “They hadn’t been stored in the best way, so some of it was quite corroded, but a lot of it we could restore. Damien also had a 302 Rally Pack donor car and we stripped that for as many parts as we could.”

“We then stripped the car to look at the old repairs. We found a lot of patch panelling, bog over rust and Damien made the call to do it right. So the car was stripped right back so we could start putting it right.”

As for Damien, this meant some literally life-changing decisions. “The process started six months before, getting finances in order, working out what I had so I could talk to someone like Howard. Getting rid of stuff I knew I wasn’t going to get to,” said Damien in an interview with Unique Cars.

“It meant looking at the house and thinking what needs to be done to keep it going for the next two years – these are serious considerations! How’s the family, is everyone healthy? Okay, let’s do this.

“I actually mortgaged the house to do the project, so I was utterly committed from the get-go. That’s how serious I was about it.”

He was also very hands-on with the build.

Howard points out there is an art to getting the body just right and not losing its original curves, in the very late stages of preparation. “They end up reshaping the body,” he explains. “Some shops make them too square in places, and lose some of the curves during the final finish before paint. It’s very subtle – there is often a tendency to give the body edges that are too distinct and sharp, and catch the light the wrong way.”

“A few areas get lost. A lot of poly fillers get used – I’m not a fan of poly. For example the step in the drip guard of a Falcon gets lost or reduced, or the reverse curve on the top of the back window in a sedan. The car looks straight, but loses its character.”

Howard aimed for a factory look, without over-restoring the car. That said, his show car instincts kicked in hard in some areas, for example in the rear spoiler, which fits far-better than any factory Cobra! “I wanted the car to look like new car, not restored car.”

Cobra #400 made its public debut at Street Machine Summernats 2019, where it won Best Authenic in the Elite judging.

Damien, who has gone on to work in the car resto industry, told Unique Cars: “It’s eye popping, another level, it looks like a new car. It’s not coated in many layers of paint on everything.

“It was a good feeling, so when it came time to sell and we had to discuss the offer, it was just another thing on this totally fried overworked brain after two years, flat-out. Full credit to my partner for hanging around and not knifing me in my sleep!”