The true story of the HO down the Hume

The journalist and photographer behind the most famous photo in Aussie muscle car history tell their story


Originally put together by Craig Parker for issue two of Street Machine Fords, this yarn tells the true story of Uwe Kuessner’s famous HO Down the Hume image, taken for Wheels and published in its October 1971 issue.

The Phase III Falcon is famous for many things, but this tale of covering 200 miles in just two hours – on the less-than-stellar Hume Highway – is one of the biggies that cemented its legend.

Mel Nichols (journalist): Looking at the picture now (it has pride of place on my office wall), I can still see that GTHO shaker cranked over in the bonnet by the torque, and hear the thunder of that mighty 351 Cleveland V8. Ahead, I can still see the old Hume Highway, south of Wodonga, spearing far enough into the distance to let the mighty Phase III run free.

Peering at the instruments, I can still see the tacho cranking past 6000rpm and the speedo nudging beyond 140mph. When I look at my hands on that big, thin wheel, I can feel the car thrusting forward, rock-steady. We were doing better than 140mph but it felt as right as rain. No worries about keeping it all straight on that narrow bit of road, long before the Hume had any multi-lane sections – or 110km/h speed limit.

Hell, running flat out in the GTHO was a fine moment. I understand blokes all over Australia have posters of Uwe’s memorable picture up on their walls, which, more than anything else, captures the magic of the mighty HO!

Even as it was happening, that Sunday in the late winter of 1971, we both knew it was something special. We were running the biggest, baddest piece of Aussie iron yet as hard as she’d go on the open road – not some test track. It didn’t need any words or planning. We found a long straight, and the HO was only too happy to keep charging on beyond 140mph, the 351 eating up miles as it ran hard against its 6150 rev limiter (the optimistic tacho was reading 6700), until the speedo showed a steady 145mph – or a genuine 141.5mph. At which point Uwe popped the correct lens onto his Nikon and climbed over into the back seat. “Just hold her steady, mate,” he said, positioning the camera alongside my head to snap the immortal image.

Going this fast before had needed some sort of exotic like a Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin or the quickest Porsche – all costing heaps more than the Falcon. The Phase III GTHO had taken the era of great Aussie muscle cars, started four years earlier by the XR Falcon GT and Holden Monaro GTS, to a new peak.

Uwe and I were running the first test on the Phase III for Wheels magazine. Before it was released, Ford had let us sneak one out of the Broadmeadows works for a weekend, and after recording performance figures at a favourite bit of empty road in western Victoria, we’d blasted north through the night to Albury. We were on our way back to Melbourne the next morning when we ran her flat for all that time on the surprisingly deserted Hume. The picture we took and the figures we’d recorded – 0-60mph in 6.4sec, 0-100mph in 15.2 and 100-120mph in top in 6.8 – made it clear just how great the Phase III was.

So did our drive from Albury back down to Melbourne. We’d slept in; it was 6.45am and the GTHO had to be back at Ford’s HQ by 9am – some 200 miles down the road. The HO had such strong top-end performance and such dependable handling that we were able – no word of a lie – to polish off the 200 miles in two hours dead. In those days, averaging 100mph was a hell of thing – proving what a mighty cross-country car the Phase III was.

I’ve driven a few cars since then, all over the world, topped perhaps by running 210mph (336km/h) in a McLaren F1, but none of my memories are as good at that Sunday morning thundering down the Hume in that mustard-coloured HO. Priceless.

Uwe Kuessner (photographer): I can’t say that I was overly enthusiastic about picking up the Phase III. An improved Phase II – so what? Mel and I had driven to Melbourne in a Bolwell Nagari. What a rocket that was! Lightweight fibreglass body stuffed full of 302ci V8 – talk about power-to weight ratio!

We left Ford headquarters with Mel driving the GTHO and me following in the Nagari. Well, trying to, at least. The roads leading out of Melbourne in those days should not be confused with today’s freeways. Mel floored the pedal in the Phase III and I tried to do the same in the Nagari. I saw the Ford disappear as if it were rocket-propelled and sitting on rails; I had my hands full just keeping the Nagari on the road, never mind staying with the Ford. The Phase III was something different, to put it mildly. After offloading the Bolwell elsewhere in Melbourne, it was off to Albury. Mel and I had both worked for The Border Morning Mail, so it seemed like a good idea to catch up with some of the folks. It was cold and raining the next morning, but there were half a dozen guys giving the Ford more than a casual glance. Some didn’t even worry about the wet roads and checked out the suspension and whatever else could be assessed from ground level.

After filling the Falcon’s 36-gallon (136-litre) tank to the brim, we headed for the Hume via some back roads, as we didn’t want to alert the local constabulary. Mel was trying for a top speed run for me to record. There were no seatbelts or airbags, unless you counted the two Mel carried in his wallet. My trusty Nikon had no motor drive or auto focus. As Mel floored the pedal, I felt like I was suspended in mid-air in the back seat. My arms needed to be free and not in contact with any part in the car, otherwise vibrations would render the picture useless.

The roar of the 351 Cleveland at full throttle is something I’m unlikely ever to forget. We did make it to Ford HQ with a few minutes to spare, but it wasn’t until a few days later, when the picture hit the editor’s desk, that the proverbial shit hit the fan.

I don’t know when the real picture was first published, but it was quite a consolation to me that in its 40th anniversary edition, Wheels magazine declared it the most famous photograph ever.

Postscript: You’d think that Mel and Uwe would have received a huge pat on the back for capturing one of the greatest moments in Australian muscle car history. Not so! Wheels management spat the dummy and refused to let the real picture be published, fearing political repercussions.

The magazine instead printed a watered-down version of the story and the art department was ordered to retouch Uwe’s photo so that the speedo indicated 104mph instead of the true 145mph. Good thing the truth, and some copies of the un-retouched photos, got out.

For more of Mel’s adventures as a road tester, find yourself a copy of his book, And the Revs Keep Rising: Great Drives in Fast Cars.