London to Sydney Marathon Ford Falcon XT GT

By: Mark Higgins, Photography by: Mark Bean, Ford Australia

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Ford Australia's London to Sydney marathon mastermind

The name John Gowland may not be the most recognisable name in motorsport but in 1967 as Ford Australia Racing Team Manager, he delivered the first Falcon victory at Bathurst and the following year he backed that up with the prestigious Teams Trophy in the gruelling London to Sydney marathon.

While being the brains behind these milestone successes, Gowland wasn’t a motorsport veteran. He wasn’t even a Ford veteran. By the November 24 start of the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon Gowland had been with Ford for a mere three years and was just 26 years old.

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Ford contracted Harry Firth to prep the three-car factory assault using the big, brawny and basic Falcon XT-GT for the 25-day, 10,373-mile trek across the continents of Europe, Asia and Australia.

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The Falcon was chosen as the marathon finished in Australia, the Falcon was the biggest seller in Ford’s arsenal and success in this event would give sales and the brand a major boost for months to come.

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Bumped and bruised, but covered in history

KAG 003 is the original Victorian registration of the car gracing these pages. It finished sixth outright in the hands of Bruce Hodgson and Doug Rutherford. Sister cars KAG 002 piloted by Ian Vaughan, Bob Forsyth and Jack Ellis finished on the podium in third with Harry Firth, Gary Chapman and Graham Hoinville in KAG 001 crossing the finish line in Sydney eighth outright.

It was a remarkable performance that took a lot of planning and pinpoint execution with many ups and downs along the way as John Gowland explains.

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"The London to Sydney program was pretty overwhelming. We had a three-car team of XT-GT Falcons prepared by Harry Firth and Ken Harper plus a test car that covered many miles. One weekend it went from Melbourne to Perth to Alice Springs and on the way home blew a diff apart at Ivanhoe in southern New South Wales.

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Qantas, a team sponsor, airfreighted the cars to England and around then John received a call from Ford Great Britain’s Competitions Department who thought their Aussie outpost had lost their minds for building cars that resembled tanks and were almost as heavy by the time the specialist rally gear had been added to them.

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"I told them the marathon ran across Australia and we were very aware of what lay ahead. While we won the Team’s prize and I believe we would have done better had one of the drivers not refused to have the axles changed in Bombay. Subsequently it ran a bearing and didn’t please me at all. We could well have got third, fourth and sixth," said Gowland.

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Preparation of the XT-GTs included blueprinting the engines and checking the gearboxes after coming off the production line. The axle housings were beefed up and there were special shocks and springs. There were also driving lights – adjustable from the cockpit, a bull bar, headlight washers and water-cooled front discs. There was even a toilet in the back. To ensure the crews didn’t get sick Ford took Australian water across the world. It was put into cans and stuffed around the interior of each car.

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A safe was welded under the rear parcel shelf. When Gowland did a recce he collected correct currency from each country so the crews didn’t waste time exchanging to the local currency. However this didn’t go to plan with Gowland being arrested in Kabul in Afghanistan. He was accused of being a gold and drug smuggler, stripped searched, and his luggage taken.

"After a long while they realised their mistake and the Assistant Customs Commissioner greeted me at the airport after the ordeal and said how sorry he was and gave me his driver and Mercedes for the next two days while I was there. He also invited me to have dinner with he and his wife that night.

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Lot of gear was retrofitted

"They were very apologetic, and they also said when the event came through, ‘No Ford Australia car would have any restrictions going through Afghanistan." Let me tell you, in those days Kabul was a pretty wild old spot and there were certainly terrorists and cannibals up in the area," Gowland said.

The XT-GT test car was built in March 1968, followed by the three competition cars, KAG 001, 002 and 003 taking roughly three months to prepare.

Gowland followed the event with his Ford colleagues from Great Britain and Germany, that also had cars entered in the marathon.

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"We joined Ford Britain and Ford Germany and jointly chartered a Gulf Stream Turbo prop aircraft. We departed London and then leap-frogged right through to Bombay. Joining me was Ken Harper, our team mechanic and we did what we could for the teams when we met up with them at various stops all over the world. We left that plane in Bombay. I flew to Perth via Singapore while the cars and crew went on the ship from Bombay to Perth and in Australia we chartered two King Airs from Stillwell Aviation for the Perth to Sydney leg." Added Gowland Servicing was often performed by the crews throughout the event, other times servicing was at Ford dealerships and/or at airports where the cars from Australia, the UK and Germany met up with the Ford chartered aircraft.

"Ford Germany ran two-door Taunus’ and the UK entered five Lotus Cortinas, said Gowland. "They were lovely cars, but a little fragile, whereas the Falcon GTs just kept plodding along and scored a tremendous result."

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As they hadn’t been seen for years it was thought, apart from the Ford-owned car that Ian Vaughan drove, the other two had vanished.

Imagine the surprise of attendees at the 2019 Retro Rally Festival when KAG 003, the Bruce Hodgson/Doug Rutherford XT-GT showed up.

Even more impressive was the sight of it alongside its two sister cars marking the first time the three had been together since the end of the London to Sydney Marathon at Warwick Farm NSW December 17, 1968.

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The finishing touch

Muscle Car Warehouse owner Parry Bitsikas recently acquired KAG 003. "I have wanted this car for a long time," said Bitsikas. "I was born in 1968, the same year as the marathon and it is a very special piece of Australian motoring history."
Asked if he will be restoring it Bitsikas said "No way, the value of this car is the original condition it’s in. And I won’t be selling it. It has such an amazing history."

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The three cars reunited in 2019

But the final word goes to driver Bruce Hodgson who remembers the London to Sydney Marathon, "As three weeks of torture, with virtually no sleep and great satisfaction at achieving a top position." We’ll have an extended interview with Hodgson in a coming issue. Meanwhile if you want to feast your eyes on one of Australia’s greatest rally cars make an appointment with Parry at Muscle Car Warehouse, tel (02) 9553 8965.

 

From Unique Cars #447, December 2020

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