History tells us Mel Nichol’s great HO Down the Hume story is a Wheels’ magazine original. Not quite. In fact, Mel’s still evocative words first appeared in the October 1975 issue of Sports Car World magazine, sister to Wheels.
This is how it happened, 50-years ago. In mid-1971, having developed a trusting relationship with Howard Marsden, Ford’s competition boss, assistant editor Nichols arranged to drive the first GT HO Phase 111. Even with hindsight, it’s hard to believe that with the newly launched HQ Holden and VH Valiant creating headlines, an evolutionary XY Falcon seemed relatively unimportant.
However, as editor of Wheels, I knew this would be an exclusive. Nichols and photographer Uwe Kuessner were dispatched south in a Bolwell Nagari to interview Marsden and, we hoped, to test the new GT HO. The scoop road test appeared in Wheels October 1971 with full performance figures – 14.7second quarter mile (400metres), zero to 160km/h in 15.2seconds, top speed 141.5mph (228km/h) – with Kuessner’s now infamous photograph. Neither story nor photograph carried any by-line and, incredibly, the October cover ignored the GT HO story.
That image – of Nichols’ hands, thumbs on the steering wheel spokes at nine-15, tacho needle at the 6150rpm redline, shaker and Hume Highway visible through the screen – sat above the heading The Biggest Stick. But what of the speedo needle? We simply put the story and the photography – including the snap with the speedo at 145mph (233km/h) – into the Murray Publishers production system. Somebody alerted management to the shot and the arguments, which went up to the Managing Director, began. Despite knowing there was no speed limit on the Hume, after much robust discussion the art department was ordered to retouch the photograph so that the speedo needle was just shy of 100mph, the caption reading “…almost flat in third”.
Nichols’ objective test explained the differences between Phase 11 and Phase 111, went into detail on how the car drove and how it performed, exceptionally in 1971. Criticism was confined to the lack of a headlight flasher, extreme fuel consumption – around 35l/100km – and, most crucially, brake fade. Mel wrote the story straight, but I think we both knew that at some stage in the future, under a more enlightened management, we’d find an excuse to run the ‘real’ photograph and tell the story of that drive. Four years later, in an SCW issue devoted to Australian muscle cars, I persuaded Nichols, then living in London and editing Car magazine, to write the story as it happened. Today covering 200 miles (322kms) in two hours on the road remains an astonishing feat, yet on that early Sunday morning in 1971 the mighty Phase 111 made Albury to Broadmeadows utterly effortless.
Twenty-five years after Nichols’ drive in the Phase III, Michael Stahl talked to the two blokes behind that photograph.
Uwe Kuessner told Stahl, “I’ve taken millions of pictures, before and since the Phase III, but even today I still get people saying to me: ‘Hey – you’re the guy who took that photo.’”
Nichols declared, “That test still stands among the best two days of my life. In fact, on the wall of my office I have only three framed photographs of cars I’ve driven; one is of me driving a D-Type, another is in a Porsche 959; and the other is Uwe’s picture of me at the wheel of the GT-HO.”
Illegal copies of Kuessner’s speedo shot appeared on tee-shirts and as posters through the 1970s and 1980s; the HO Down the Hume story is available on the internet, often without any acknowledgement. For a time, it almost seemed as if Street Machine magazine owned the photograph. Finally, in 2011 Wheels made it into a limited edition poster, signed by Uwe Kuessner and Mel Nichols. My framed copy – number 4 of 141 (after the top speed) – is on the wall behind my desk. And a Phase 111 recently sold at auction for $1.15million.