Australian Modern Classic: 1974 Ford Falcon XB GT Hardtop

It’s our annual look back at an Aussie Classic, and this time we focus on one of the best looking cars ever built in this country – a 1974 XB GT Falcon Hardtop.

Modern Classic Review – the CarAdvice team take time away from Australia’s new car landscape to look at machines we consider true modern classics.

Today we’ll wind the clock back a little further than usual, to give time to a properly iconic Australian classic. Is there something on your radar? Let us know what modern classics you would like to see the team review.

Modern Classic: 1974 Ford Falcon GT Hardtop (XB)

When the chance comes to talk about an iconic Aussie car, few wear the title better than a fiery red XB GT Hardtop. In this case, an unrestored Red Pepper 1974 XB GT Hardtop with a long history of one-family ownership.

Trainspotters and die-hard fans will often debate production numbers and provenance – that’s all part of the appeal of muscle car history regardless of the brand – but prevailing wisdom suggests that between 1973 and 1976, 1950 XB GT sedans and 949 XB GT Hardtops were built. Fair to say, then, that these cars are quite rare.

The fact that they were seen as nothing more than a daily driver back in the day, means plenty didn’t make it out of the ’70s or ’80s either. There wasn’t the thought – or the means really – to mothball cars back in those days in the hope of future desirability. They were simply used like any other car.

You’ll often read about the lack of two-doors in our local market compared to the fodder that was offered in the United States. In many ways, our domestic market followed US trends, often with a unique twist on design, but one thing we never had in large numbers was a proper array of two-door metal. And often when we did get a stylish two-door, it missed out on the factory V8 engine made available stateside.

There were exceptions, of course, Holden’s Monaro and Chrysler’s Valiant among them, along with Ford’s big V8 coupes into the mid-1970s. Through the ’70s, though, one factor remained strong – success at Mount Panorama almost certainly guaranteed success on the showroom floor.

In the case of the XB, though, which didn’t win at The Mountain, modern popularity hasn’t been aligned with Bathurst 1000 success, even though it took some time to get there. The XB Hardtop was pretty handy with a certain Alan Moffat behind the wheel, though, winning the 1976 Australian Touring Car Championship, but Bathurst was always the big one. The Falcon nameplate went all the way back to 1962, though, in a racing sense, when Harry Firth and Bob Jane won the Armstrong 500 at Phillip Island in an XL Falcon.

The early days at Bathurst were dominated by Ford – Cortina not Falcon, mind you – and it wasn’t until 1967 when Harry Firth and Fed Gibson won the Great Race in an XR GT Falcon that the nameplate returned to the top step of the podium.

1974 Ford Falcon GT Hardtop (XB)
Engine configuration 351 cubic inch Cleveland V8
Displacement 5.8 litre (5750cc)
Power 224kW @ 5400rpm
Torque 515Nm @ 3400rpm
Transmission 4-speed manual
Drive type Rear-wheel drive
Kerb weight 1394kg
Power to weight ratio 161kW/t
Fuel claim (combined) Who cares!
Turning circle 11.8m
Length 4808mm
Width 1969mm
Wheelbase 2819mm
MSRP (in 1974) $6113

1970 and 1971 are well remembered for the success of the thunderous Phase II and Phase III victories, thus sealing the legendary fates of the XW and XY models. XA GT two-doors went back-to-back in 1973 and 1974, followed by a gap until the 1977 win by Allan Moffat and Jacky Ickx in an XC Hardtop.

A lack of Bathurst success didn’t deter the owner of this 1974 XB GT Coupe, though, or his father, which is where the story really starts. Dave DiRado is the first Australian generation descendant of an Italian immigrant, who came to Australia in the 1960s searching for a better, more prosperous life. And, if you define prosperity by the cars that lined the DiRado driveway in the following decades, then DiRado senior succeeded in big style.

With the Italian surname, you might assume that young Dave would have grown up aspiring to own something exotic and Italian. But like many new migrants, his father was fascinated by the local market, and the cars that signified the freedom they never had in the countries they left.

There was always a healthy respect for the automotive art of the home country in the DiRado household, but Australian cars were something entirely different. That love of the Australian V8 left an indelible mark on an impressionable Dave.

Dave’s dad worked hard to be able to afford one of these local products, and once he’d set up his business, he bought an XR V8 as his first new Ford. As each new Falcon V8 was released, he traded his way into the new model.

Dave was born in 1973, which coincided nicely with the arrival of an XB Falcon sedan in the DiRado driveway. Those of us born in the ’70s invariably have some (in hindsight) cool stories to tell about what our parents drove at the time, but being ferried home from hospital to the tune of a 351ci Clevo is up there with the best of them.

Maybe the petrol fumes were a little stronger in the back seat?

“I remember being five years old and loving the XB shape,” Dave says. Seems his dad did, too, because he effectively got ‘stuck’ at the XB model. “He had the sedan, which was Red Pepper as well, a ute and a panel van,” Dave says.

There was a fourth XB that made its way into the DiRado household, too, an XB Fairmont Hardtop. “My dad saw it on the turntable in the front window of a Ford dealership,” Dave says. “It was a colour called Walnut Glow with a Chamois interior, with cloth inserts, optional wheels and a removable ‘picnic’ radio.”

The same day that he drove past, Dave’s dad drove that car home. And then proceeded to use it as its maker intended. As I stated above, back then these cars were used, and used well. Most owners loaded them up, went on family holidays, towed with them, took rubbish to the tip in the boot, and absolutely used them daily. Dave’s dad was no different.

Once it had finished its service, Dave’s dad sold the coupe – much to Dave’s childhood disappointment. “I was upset – for quite some time,” Dave says now laughing. “Dad used to tell me that we’d find another one at some point, though. Probably just to stop me complaining.”

Even though he was only six years old at the time, Dave knew he wanted a Red Pepper XB Hardtop, with a black interior – pretty specific for one so young. Quite a few years later, Dave’s sister and her husband purchased that exact car, a 1974 Red Pepper XB GT Hardtop. You can see the ‘DiRado Ford malaise’ is actually quite serious.

“It was the right colour, it had the right interior, it was a GT and it was manual,” Dave says. Still, Dave was young, and there was a major issue. He didn’t own the car, his sister and brother-in-law did. Dave wasn’t going to be deterred, though – the mark of any keen car enthusiast no matter how old we might be.

Fortunately for Dave, they didn’t actually drive the car much in the ensuing years, and so, at age 17, no doubt with the enthusiastic support of his father, Dave did a deal with his sister and brother-in-law and became the beaming owner of a 351ci-powered GT Falcon. Built in January 1974, it was fitted with one of the last big port Cleveland V8s produced. “Thankfully I didn’t do anything silly to it,” Dave says. “I put a stereo in it, but anything I did do, I made sure I could easily reverse so there was no lasting damage.” Clever boy…

Interestingly, and perhaps due to the potent nature of the car, Dave’s dad suggested he find himself a more, let’s say practical, daily conveyance, and thus reserve the XB for weekend duties and special occasions. The big coupe stayed in the garage for quite some time after that, driven rarely and not clocking up bulk mileage (it still has less than 20,000 genuine miles). It stayed that way until a few years back when Dave realised that the enjoyment of owning a classic car is in the driving, and despite its obvious value, he was determined to drive it.

“Dad passed away in 1999, and I came to the realisation that the last time we drove the car together was in 1995 coming home from the nursery with a boot full of fertiliser,” Dave says. “I wish I’d kept it on the road over the years so that we could have driven it more together.”

There’s a tendency with collectible muscle cars to hide them away, but for the legion of current fans, there’s a lot to like about owners like Dave who commit to driving them so that they can be seen and admired on the road.

The XB GT is quite significant in historical terms, representing the last chapter of what has become the legendary GT Falcon story. It was restyled and toughened up in comparison to the XA it replaced, and had the option of four-wheel disc brakes. With 300hp on offer at 5400rpm, the quarter mile was dispatched in 15.8 seconds and top speed was a theoretical 200km/h. An LSD was standard, along with either a four-speed manual or three-speed FMX automatic.

Dave’s car is an interesting one, in that it never actually went to a Ford dealer when it was first bolted together. Assembled and marked to be sent to Hillcrest Ford in South Australia, the XB GT was a Ford head office car, where it acquired its first 10,000 miles or so, presumably in the hands of an executive.

It’s a genuine GT, matching numbers, with Red Pepper exterior and options that include cloth inserts, tinted glass, a rear demister, air-conditioning (which works beautifully), a two-tone bonnet and sports road wheels. Those wheels are the ones you see in these photos.

The engine is the now legendary 4V 351ci Cleveland V8 with the aforementioned big ports, with a four-speed Toploader manual gearbox, and the big fuel tank from the factory as well. The only changes Dave has made are concessions to drivability, like the carburettor and air cleaner for example, which actually allow the big V8 to breathe properly.

The XB had been involved in a minor bingle back in the late ’70s, so by the time Dave took ownership, it had received a repair to sort that out. But it’s otherwise original externally as well, and shows that priceless patina of a life well lived but looked after.

I’m a sucker for an unrestored car of any type or vintage, and would preference battle scars and wear over a million-dollar paint job any day. Dave’s XB is damn-near perfect in that sense, in that the paint retains its lustre, but it’s not so overly restored you’re scared to stand next to it.

Dave’s got the usual horror stories to tell, too, as we all do invariably when you delve into classic vehicle ownership. An engine freshen-up went south a while back, leading Dave to lose faith and park the XB for almost 10 years.

Now, though, the engine has been rebuilt properly – and most importantly reliably – such that Dave can drive his XB whenever the mood takes him, no matter the weather. The 351 now starts first time every time, doesn’t overheat, doesn’t mind traffic, and isn’t cantankerous. Just like it would have been when it was new.

Dave is so enamoured with classic muscle cars and finding them the right home, he and a mate left their corporate jobs behind and started InnCarNation, a business that will source, sell, restore or assist buyers in their muscle car journey. You can see some of the fruits of their labour in the workshop in these photos. Needless to say, the boys are busy.

I stand next to the GT listening for the first kick of the 351, after admiring it in silence for a while. It fires to life easily, settling into a lumpy idle and running just like you’d expect a decades-old V8 to. A hint of petrol fumes but not running overly rich either. There’s a sensation with an old car like this that no new car can match, for all their appeal and modern amenities.

As Dave peels out for the driving shots, I’m struck by how smooth and cruisy the XB is. Even with a manual gearbox, it just lopes along effortlessly. Like most old cars, the beauty in it is that you don’t have to drive it hard to sense the enjoyment. The cabin retains the same beautifully aged patina as the exterior, but everything works and functions like it should.

Dave respects the XB, but he isn’t ridiculously precious with it either. It sounds sensational even barely off idle, and there’s no doubting its presence on the road – even more so in the sea of homogenised plastic the modern design palette can sometimes offer. The exhaust note as it fires down a country road is intoxicating.

“I’ll never sell it of course,” Dave says. “Everyone says that with their classic car, but I mean that for this one. I don’t want it to ever be a dedicated show car or a trailer queen either, I just want to keep driving it. It’s not perfect like the restored ones that you see at shows, but in one sense these cars never were perfect, even when they were brand new.”