A car that’s been raced by the same driver for 23 years? That’d be Vern Muller’s Falcon.
It’s rare to find a race car that has been competing consistently for the best part of a quarter of a century. It’s rarer still to find one that’s been competing for quarter of a century and had the same owner throughout its entire racing career.
Vern Muller is one of the most genuine racers you will ever meet. He competes on a shoestring and lets enthusiasm take care of the rest. He’s seen several muscle car classes come and go, and has competed in just about all of them. And he owns one of the coolest Falcon hardtops you’ll ever see.
Vern started racing in the early ’80s, in a genuine XA GT Falcon sedan. The XA was really just a warmed-up road car that Vern regularly melted the tyres off in production muscle car races. Back in the 1970s there was a production car championship called the Castrol GTX series. It was a big-time series, in which some major names competed. It went through several different face-lifts, and each time it did, one brand would slowly emerge and eventually dominate.
In the early years it was the Chrysler Charger E49. Then the XA Falcon GT. And, finally, the series saw total domination by a hoard of second-generation Z28 Camaros. Eventually, Motorsport NZ knocked it on the head and the last Castrol GTX championship was held in 1978, won by a guy called Barry Lloyd in a lime green XA Falcon GT hardtop, after all the Camaros had been banned.
Despite its high profile, the Castrol series essentially survived thanks to the large number of privateer teams, who all worked nine-to-five jobs and raced on the weekends. With the downfall of the Castrol GTX series, these privateers eventually gathered together to create a new series for all their old GTX cars. The series was named Production Supercars and was a big hit, both with race fans and drivers. Being the late ’70s/early ’80s, it had a heavy bias towards Australian muscle cars, because they were relatively cheap and plentiful at the time. A few American cars also competed, but they were limited to those with more serious budgets.
Vern arrived on the scene in the ’80s, but quickly realised the XA wasn’t really the ideal racer. He wanted to maintain it as a road car — usually, a good road car makes a bad race car, and vice-versa. It didn’t even have a roll cage. Vern began looking around for something he could build as a dedicated racer, quickly deciding on a Falcon hardtop.
He soon found a very nice, original XA GS factory 351 with four-speed, finished in cosmic blue with silver accents. It had just 75,640km on the clock. Vern picked it up for $7000. This was 1986…
The Falcon was a road car but had been owned in the ’70s by a South Island racer named Cliff Pilling. Although to the best of Vern’s knowledge the Falcon had never done any track work prior to his ownership, Cliff Pilling got in touch with Vern and sent him an old newspaper clipping of him clocking 156mph (251kph) for the flying quarter mile.
Vern and close friend Rick Evans set the Falcon up for the track and had an alloy roll cage fitted. Alloy cages were all the rage in the ’80s, as teams focused more on weight than rigidity, but eventually Motorsport NZ banned them outright.
Vern ran the Falcon in Supercar races, which, given most of the competitors were Auckland–based, were held mostly at Pukekohe, although the series would on occasion venture south of the Bombay Hills. The Supercar series eventually met its demise in the late ’80s, but was soon resurrected.
Centre Of Attention
The Falcon underwent a major make-over following a crash at Ardmore in 1989. This was at one of the huge Wings & Wheels events, which drew enormous crowds. Vern missed Saturday’s practice, and the organisers granted him a few familiarisation laps on Sunday morning before racing began. Keen to learn the track as quickly as possible, Vern overcooked it, and launched the Falcon into one of the large grader tyres outlining the track. Because it was the only car on the track at the time, the 70,000-strong crowd sent up a huge cheer in appreciation of Vern’s efforts to provide them some entertainment.
Following the Ardmore bingle, Vern and Rick decided to tear the Falcon down, have the alloy cage replaced with a chromoly item, and upgrade the front to XC sheet metal. This would then allow them to fit a rear-facing bonnet scoop, as homologated by Ford in 1977. Supercar rules were fairly stringent, and Vern wasn’t allowed to fit a bonnet scoop on the XA nose because the XA was never made available with one fitted from Ford. The bonnet scoop would allow them to run a decent-sized inlet manifold. They could also fit a large duck-tail Cobra rear spoiler.
The face-lift was completed with a new paint scheme, in Cobra White with blue accents and stripes. Paul Spicer took care of the paint work.
Vern and Rick raced the (now) XC Falcon hardtop in the Supercar championship until the series imploded.
By now, classic car racing was growing in popularity, and the Falcon was a part of the growing number of older muscle cars competing in classics. Vern and Rick again upgraded the Falcon in the early ’90s, extending the cage work, making it more rigid; upgrading the brakes; and having the body repainted. Vern then purchased a new house and cut right back on his racing efforts, only competing sporadically and as funds allowed.
All the time Vern has raced the Falcon, Rick’s been right there, helping at the tracks and in the building and preparation of the car. Given that Vern has always competed on a tight budget, the pair tended to concentrate on handling, which has always been the Falcon’s strong point. Rick keeps a diary of all their setup changes and how the car responds, along with lap times and even weather conditions at every track they compete at, and has done from the very beginning. Car owners often struggle to find good people to help them, but Vern has clearly struck gold with Rick.
In around 2004 the Falcon was brought out again, for the growing Auckland-based Northern Muscle Car series. Although the Falcon was still only raced sporadically, it was competitive every time it appeared. Throughout its competition life, the Falcon had run a 351ci Cleveland, producing around 500hp. Vern, like many who race the venerable Cleveland with its thin walls, was eventually let down when a bore collapsed. Vern spotted an ad in Speedsport magazine for the 6.0-litre V8 engine from Mark Porter’s old Jaguar XKR TraNZam car. After Mark had moved to Aus to compete in the V8 Supercar Development series, his Jag was sold to a buyer in South Africa.
The engine is a real work of art, being a Roush Motorsport-built unit, based around a Ford Motorsport block. Although Vern hasn’t had it dynoed, he figures it puts out around 650hp. As the Porter Jag was a lot lighter than the heavyweight Falcon, and enjoyed much better grip, it’s a peaky motor that Vern has had to hone his driving to, but now teamed with the big Ford’s superb handling, it has completely transformed the car. It’s also one of the best-sounding cars on the track, with the screaming small block Ford barking happily up in the high rev range.
In the last couple of seasons Vern has extended his racing activities to the Central Muscle Cars series, where the Falcon runs in the Group 1 category. He took in a round at Taupo in the 2007/’08 season and knocked the front spoiler off during practice, which messed up its handling. But that weekend spent getting a handle on the tricky new Taupo layout put him in good stead when the series returned there this season as part of the A1GP event. There, Vern had one of the front-running cars all weekend.
Remember The Setup
Other than its excellent Taupo outing, Vern was also a front runner at the December Pukekohe round. A broken hand took a chunk out of his season’s racing activities, but he returned for the final round at Manfeild. Though he had not run at this track since 1991, Rick’s old notes proved invaluable. Vern didn’t turn a wheel in anger until qualifying, yet still placed the Falcon fifth on the grid in a healthy line-up of cars. In race one he dropped down to seventh after a tardy start, then put his head down and began picking off the guys in front, one after the other, to wind up third behind Shane Wigston’s flying HQ Holden and Greg Honnor’s wickedly fast ’65 Mustang.
Future plans for the Falcon include placing it on a diet. It’s still a full steel car, weighing nearly 1700kg, with no lightened panels whatsoever. Of course, having glass moulds made for the bonnet, boot lid and front guards costs money. So, for that matter, does racing a car like this. So Vern is actively seeking financial support from potential sponsors. Kumho Tyres has already come on board.
The Falcon is currently undergoing a winter freshen-up before it’s loaded into a container and sent to Australia to compete at this year’s Australian Muscle Car Masters. The Aussies are nothing if not passionate about their muscle cars of the past, and you’ll find no better example than Vern’s bellowing XC hardtop. Particularly in full flight.
1977 Ford Falcon Cobra – Specifications
Engine: Ford small block, 6.0-litre ex-TraNZam engine, Ford Motorsport block, forged Ford Motorsport crank with 3.5-inch stroke. Carillo rods, JE pistons (060” overbore), roller cam, four-stage dry sump pump, custom dry sump pan, ATI racing damper, Robert Yates Racing Ford Motorsport heads, Del West titanium valves, T&D shaft-mounted roller rockers, Isky springs, carbon fibre rocker covers with internal oil spray bar, Ford Motorsport (Edelbrock) manifold, Braswell 3G modified Holley carb, MSD6AL ignition, MSD distributor, AFCO aluminium radiator, Fluidyne oil cooler
Driveline: Close-ratio toploader, converted to a dog ’box with a straight-cut Pfitzer gearset, triple-plate 7.25-inch clutch (built by Derek Price from Performance Transmissions), one-piece Tilton flywheel, Ford nine-inch diff, Steelie Gears LSD centre, ROMAC floating hubs with 31-spline axles. Two-piece driveshaft
Suspension: Leaf-sprung rear with tramp rods fitted under the springs. Bilstein shocks, Panhard rod, Lovells sway bars, standard upper front arms modified to allow fitting of coil-over platforms, all rubber bushes have been replaced with either urethane or spherical bearings.
Brakes: Wilwood old-style six-pot GN callipers, 330mm rotors, Wilwood four-pot Superlite rear callipers with 305mm rotors. Wilwood adjustable pedal box
Wheels/tyres: 17×10 and 17×11-inch Retro rims, Kumho V700 275/40R17 front and 315/35R17 rearPerformance: Approx 650hp (485kW) I would like to give it a skid at the drag strip some time.” Pukekohe 1:03, Taupo 1:39, Manfeild 1:15. (Kumho tyres)
Vern Muller – Owner Profile
Occupation: Steel mill shift supervisor
Length of ownership: Since 1986
Cars previously owned: Bathurst HK327 Monaro, Falcon XA GT, XE ESP Fairmont Ghia, SS Commodore.
Thanks: “My wife Kerry and children Nick and Sarah for their tolerance and support. Rick Evans and his wife Ingrid and their children Mitchell and Hannah for their ever-present help since I started racing 25 years ago. Derek from Performance Transmissions for the awesome gearbox. Kumho Tyres. Wes and Leonard from Franklin Bearings for the constant flow of parts. Calvin Andrew from Craftsman Engineering for the nice fabrication. Dean Perkins, who’s always happy to lend parts and advice.”
Words: Steve Holmes Photos: Dan W/Stew Wood
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