Ford Falcon XC Cobra - Reader Resto

By: Guy Allen, Photography by: Will Horner

Presented by

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Intense, emotional, draining, and hugely rewarding. That's what happens when you take on a massive resto with one of Australia's top car builders

 

Ford Falcon XC Cobra

It’s been a very long road. "I bought the car in 1985 – coincidentally my licence was cancelled a year later." And that is as good an example as any of Damien Lowry’s tumultuous long-term relationship with Cobra number 400 – the very last of these special 1978 Ford hardtops. Over the years the beast was thrashed, modified, then retired and part disassembled and moved around assorted sheds. His friends recall seeing the thing sitting out in the rain at some stage, potentially another car that might be sacrificed to the rust gods.

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However, anyone who thought that underestimated Damien’s determination to see the car live again. Near enough to 30 years down the ownership track, he got a bit of a financial boost and decided that was the time to tackle a project, which he now realised needed outside help to complete.

| Watch the video: Damien Lowry's XC Cobra

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Enter Howard Astill, a former business manager and head of the Broken Hill Chamber of Commerce, who took a dramatic mid-career turn and became one of this country’s most famous and highly-regarded street machine builders. Through his business Astill Design (look it up on Facebook), he continues to build some dramatic and enviable machinery.

The pair met at a local car show in Wollongong a few years ago, with Damien wandering up and asking, "Are you Howard? It must have dented the bloke’s ego," he chuckles. They got talking and Howard agreed to have a look at the project, but there were no promises.

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Howard needed to know there was enough car left to work with and that Damien was motivated enough to follow through. Plus, there was one big issue: this would be Howard’s first concours-style resto. Sure he’d done some spectacular builds, but back to original was a major departure.

However, he did have a soft spot for Falcon hardtops.

| Read next: Ford Falcon XC Cobra 4.9 + FPV BF Cobra 

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"We got married in 1982 and had three Cobras and an XB GT," he explains. "So there‘s been a love for these cars all my life. I went to Bathurst in ’77, followed Moffat. So the love for them has always been there, and here was the opportunity to have someone pay you to help restore one back to original." He agreed to take it on.

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," he says.

| Read next: Ford Falcon XA GT-HO Phase IV

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"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.

"Not to sound wanky, but for me that car has a place in Australian motoring history as the last Cobra and I wanted to do that car justice. It was never about ‘look what we built’, this was about making sure that car didn’t end up at the tip and that car was retained in Australian motoring history."

| 2019 Market Review: Ford Falcon GTHO Phase 1-3/XC Cobra

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From Howard’s point of view, though the shell was rough and most of the car was in boxes, there was nevertheless a pretty good starting point.

"Essentially he did what a young bloke did with a car like that," he explains. "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.

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A 4.9lt V8 was sourced to keep it authentic to the original

"Whilst the down side was the metal, the upside was we had all the bits that could be renovated. And he’d been collecting, so he had sets of doors, a complete sedan that was a GS, for parts. So we had a lot of parts."

| Read next: Holden Torana A9X + Falcon XC Cobra

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Along the way, the engine had been changed from 302 to 351 and a nine-inch diff installed, all of which had to be reversed. But in what proved to be a pattern for this project, the original crankshaft had been retained and was revived. The diff had already been swapped back for a Borg Warner, but now the pair had to find a date-correct one. In the end, they bought three rear ends to make up a good one.

Rebuilding the mechanicals was relatively straight-forward, if at times frustrating. For example the distributor caps are no longer available in the original Bakelite, so you need to find the best one you can and carefully restore it, which is time consuming and expensive.

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Sumptuous, not sporty Cobra cabin

Weirdly enough, finding an original sump proved to be a major issue. Like many, Damien had fitted an aftermarket winged unit and, uncharacteristically, had lost the original. That’s where the internet and social media became invaluable, as people engaged with the project and helped source much-needed bits.

For Damien, this process was becoming all consuming. When he wasn’t working, he was working on the car. How did he feel? "It’s very difficult to describe the process when you’re at this level," he confesses. "It’s like being at the edge of a precipice – once you step off, it’s game-on.

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The very last one off the line. Special

"We had what looked like a good car when we sent it to the sandblaster and then we didn’t any more. After that budget blow-out, you start to see progress and look at components and think that’s looking quite good. So your expectations are rising."

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.

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"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."

There are dozens of anecdotes surrounding the build of this very special car, such as how getting the seatbelts right took a specialist in Perth for the webbing and around a week’s labour back in the workshop. Never mind the hair-raising cost!

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But our favourite story surrounds the glovebox badge, unique to this model. "When I bought this car,’ says Damien, "the glovebox badge was missing – I never had it. I approached Ford, gave them the details and they gave me the Cobra 400 label but not the badge backing.  Then someone got in touch and said, ‘that 400 you’re working on, it’s not the original car. I’ve got the badge and it came off a car at the wreckers’." You can imagine the confusion that created! Howard takes up the story: "When we follow through, the badge was stolen out of the car yard Damien bought it from.

Someone has built a replica and put the badge on it, written it off, and this guy has bought it from the wreckers. It was in a glass case with other badges he’d collected.

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"The guy gave us the badge – it was in pretty good nick. Without Facebook, you’d never find this stuff. That was John Martin, a really nice guy on the NSW mid north coast."

For Damien, the next precipice was rolling the result of all this hard work into the main hall for judging at Summernats 2019. This was where Howard’s previous experience as a winner was invaluable. He was able to coach Damien, then step back and let him enjoy the event. That coaching, however, included one very unusual element: "Think about what you’re going to do when someone offers to buy it."

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In a huge finale to the project, Cobra 400 won Best Authentic against some very stiff competition. And yes, an offer was made to buy it, so the car now resides in a private collection.

For Damien and Howard, nothing takes away the journey of the build and the feeling of exhilaration and achievement. "The biggest thing we tried for with that car, and I think we achieved it, was we tried to make it look like a new car and not a restored car," says Howard.

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Damien and Howard share some memories

"There are subtle differences. It’s mainly in the paint finishes, because today’s paint is so much better than they were new. So you walk up and say, ‘wow, where’s this been hiding?’"

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Damien, who has gone on to work in the car resto industry, agrees: "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!"

THE BUILD:

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Serious fabrication going on here.

 

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The underbelly is ready for its makeover (left). Refurbed rear end ready for refitment (right).

 

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Nuts, bolts, clamps, washers, screws, brackets ready for reassembly into the Cobra.

 

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The gleaming white and blue hues of the Cobra.

 

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Hanging out to dry and the Cobra looks stunning already.

 

From Unique Cars #438, Apr 2020

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