Words: Shane Wishnowsky Photos: Rixsta Sammons
Ever since Rob Claridge was 10 years old he has yearned for a 1969 XW Falcon. There was something about the boxy square lines of the big Aussie sedan that just appealed, and at that early age he decided one day he would own one. He and wife, Lana, have owned some pretty neat cars over the years, mostly modern Fords and Lana’s current daily driven 707hp Jeep Trackhawk – that’s some serious street cred right there!
Rob’s desire to own something a little older though was still front and centre in his mind and one day, while trawling through Trade Me’s listings for classic Aussie tin, he stumbled across a 1978 XC Falcon for sale in Christchurch. While the XC wasn’t his first choice for a classic Ford, it was closer in age to what he really wanted. However, it was two cylinders short for his liking, which thankfully wasn’t really a deal breaker for him.
After many phone calls and photos sent back and forth with the owner, and also after many questions being asked and answered, he took the plunge and bought the Aussie icon sight unseen. We’ve often heard horror stories about ‘take the risk and hope for the best’ purchases, but thankfully for the Lower Hutt couple this was not the scenario — when the XC arrived it was mint and Rob and Lana couldn’t have been happier with their gamble.
Although Rob was very happy with the Falcon, in the back of his mind he still had a burning desire to own an XW; it’s hard to turn off those feelings when you’ve been dreaming about them for over 40 years. So eight months later, Rob found himself yet again cruising the pages of Trade Me, not really looking for anything but hoping something would find him, and there it was — 1969 XW Falcon. He’d finally found it!
Rob says, “My 50th birthday was approaching so it really wasn’t a hard sell with the wife.” It did help that Lana loves her cars too, so there wasn’t really any arm twisting involved. After only recently going down that road with the XC, Rob started the process all over again, and countless phone calls and emails later, all of Rob’s questions and concerns were put to rest. He took the plunge and again bought the car sight unseen off the internet. “The car was registered and had a fresh VTNZ warrant of fitness so I had no concerns buying this car. I was pretty excited awaiting the arrival of this beast of a car,” he says. If only he knew of the disaster he was about to uncover!
“That excitement was rather short lived after I picked the car up from the Bluebridge Ferry late on a Thursday night in May 2021, and began to drive the 20-minute trip back out to Lower Hutt.” For no apparent reason the lights would turn off, then on again randomly, and when they were on they would constantly flicker. “This wasn’t a big thing but something that really needed to be looked into,” he says. Little did he know that this was just the first of many alarm bells that would ring in his relationship with the XW.
With no more dramas (for the moment) encountered on his maiden voyage, he pulled up in the driveway at home. “I picked the wife up and took her for a quick spin — that was the first and last time she would be in the running XW for the next two years.” When he finally put the Falcon to bed, he said he was “a little disappointed, but still on cloud nine having finally purchased my dream car”.
Eager to show off his purchase, he headed north to Upper Hutt to pick up his brother to take him for a bit of a squirt. On his way home Rob was heading under the Silverstream rail bridge, and heard a loud bang. The Falcon lost all acceleration and coasted to an unceremonious stop on the shoulder of the road. While he was waiting for the tow truck to arrive and collect the car for the first of many times — the car would be loaded on and off tow trucks on another 17 occasions during the entire build process— he began to contemplate whether buying this thing had been such a good idea in the first place.
With the erratic behaviour of the lights and now this latest “unexplained explosion”, the car was towed to Rob and Lana’s mechanic at Pit Stop in Lower Hutt for a much more thorough going over and to see if there were any more secrets to uncover. The news was bad, very bad indeed.
With the car up on the hoist, the problems were glaringly obvious. The floor pan was a mess and couldn’t be easily fixed. At some stage in the car’s life, the driveshaft had fallen out or off and beaten everything to death in the process, resulting in a jagged hole in the floor — nice. The gearbox tunnel had also taken a beating: “It had more rivets than a Boeing 747 and looked like a patchwork quilt.” They also discovered that the diff centre had been treated to some “non-industry standard” welding to tie both rear axles together. If they thought that was bad, the icing on the cake was then found — the cert plate affixed to the car didn’t match anything in or on the car. Long story short, there was no way the car should have ever been allowed on the road.
“After all this information was brought to light we entered into negotiations with VTNZ and also had Waka Kotahi involved. We had the car towed to Masterton for a LVVC check and to find out what we were actually in for and what way we were going to go moving forward. After assessing all the information we were given, we decided to go down the rebuild track to give this car the full makeover. Ultimately we had two options — take VTNZ to court to retrieve the purchase price, or bite the bullet and give this car what it deserved being a 54- year-old classic Australian muscle car.”
The first hurdle the couple encountered was finding someone who wanted to and was willing to do the work required to make the car safe and driveable for them. “We found most shops only want to do part of the work — we knew that the engine had to be done and the floor and panels fixed but the rest was just guesswork. The car actually sat in our garage for three months while we were getting pricing, and I then reached out to a friend who is involved in a hot rod club and asked him if he knew of anyone.” He was given the names of Joel and Justine from Arcus Performance in Upper Hutt, and it was here that the rebuild would begin.
The car was loaded onto a tow truck again and shipped north for a full and thorough inspection. The Falcon was completely torn apart and Joel, along with Rob and Lana, went through it piece by piece to see exactly what they were in for. Rob says while the Falcon essentially had good bones it was far from ideal. When Joel pointed out the mess that was the car’s wiring, it was a real eye opener to them to see just how bad things were and how dangerous it really was, especially as they had planned to use it as a Sunday cruiser transporting their kids and grandkids around.
Joel and his team stripped back the car to a bare shell and sent it off to Gateway Autobody in Masterton to totally rebuild the floor and to eliminate the small amount of rust that had been uncovered. Thankfully the majority of this was confined in the area directly under the rear window — finally some positive news. When they had done their bit, they in turn shipped the freshly painted and better than new shell off to Supreme Autobody refinishers to paint the engine bay.
While the body was over the hill getting sorted, the ‘clevo’ was in for one hell of a birthday by the boys at Arcus. Wanting a bit more power at his disposal, the decision was made to go bigger; there’s no replacement for displacement, as the old saying goes. The 351 block was readied to be stroked and now displaces 396 cubic inches. An all-new rotating assembly was bolted inside the freshly machined block ready to release its newly acquired horses via CNC ported TFS cylinder heads, and completing the top end is a hydraulic roller cam mated to roller rockers. Bolted to the sides of the heads are a pair of Pacemaker headers feeding exhaust fumes and glorious noise rearwards through a bespoke 3-inch stainless steel exhaust. A Ford Cleveland tunnel ram manifold nestled in the valley of the engine is topped by a pair of 650cfm Brawler Street carburettors, topped with chromed “filters and flower pots” poking out the hole in the bonnet giving the car a tough new look.
The four-speed toploader was also rebuilt by Arcus, and a McLeod twin plate clutch was jammed in between the box and the back of the motor feeding power to the now properly repaired 3.5:1 ratio Truetrac LSD-equipped factory 9-inch diff. The 31-spline axles transfer power to a pair of 275/40 R17 Falken tyres wrapped around a set of 10-inch wide black with polished chrome lip Simmons V51 wheels. The factory suspension front and rear has been retained, the only difference being the rear now sits two inches closer to the ground, thanks to lowering blocks. Stopping duties have been upgraded to Wilwood everything; discs, callipers, and master cylinder are all new but more importantly make the car a hell of a lot safer than what it was like when they bought it — not that that was hard.
Moving inside, Cover Me recovered the factory seats to give things a fresh new look and new car smell. Everything else remains factory apart from a Hurst shifter on gear change duties, poking through a hole in the floor that was supposed to be there.
Suffice to say, a new wiring loom was definitely required to replace the abomination the car came with, and Rob and Lana could not be happier with the job done by Paul at Hutt Auto Installations. Every wire that could be hidden has been — even the horn can’t be seen in the engine bay as “it’s nicely tucked away, hidden up under the front guard”.
While Arcus Performance did the lion’s share of the rebuild, due to unforeseen circumstances they couldn’t complete the job. The 90 per cent finished car was then loaded onto a tow truck (hopefully for the final time) and delivered to Tony and his team at AJ Engineering to finish and commission the build. Tony’s keen eye for detail and finishing touches have only added to the high-quality build that Joel and his team started 18 months ago.
With the car now finished, all that is needed is a fresh and legal cert to be done and it will be back on the road for the XW. To say it’s been a bumpy ride is a little bit of an understatement but thankfully that is all in the past. So now everytime Rob and Lana open the shed door and look at their better-than-new Falcon sitting there, they can be assured that when they turn the key, and load up the family, there will be no more flickering lights, no things that unexpectedly go bang, but more importantly, no more trips home on the back of a tow truck!
This article originally appeared in NZV8 issue 217