“Have you got half a million in your pocket?” asked barefoot Tom Prior with a gap-toothed grin. “You can have that if you do.”
He gestured towards a bubble-wrapped red-trimmed white 1970 XW Ford Falcon GT 351c, built in Australia and arguably the best muscle car in the world in its time. It was his open garage among more than 30 classic veteran and vintage Fords. Remains of hundreds more were just outside.
Above the bubble-wrapped gem a sign wired to a rafter said: “ Motor- Cleveland 351, 4 main bearing crank, TRW forged flat top pistons…4v heads, Medelon single groove stainless steel valves, triple valve springs, Viking 100 cam, intake manifold Strip Dominator, Genie extractors, heads intake manifold and extractors, port & polished & bench flowed …. 9in diff 3:1, 4 speed top loader. Dyno-tuned to 675 hp.”
Music to the eyes of anyone with a mechanical bent, I was assured.
Tom is the BP agent in Chillagoe. Tucked away in a side street, a couple of bowsers are surrounded by a Ford fancier’s paradise.
Old cars and trucks gleam despite the dust, the sheen aided by Tom’s welcoming sign in red capitals “SLOW DOWN TOO MUCH BLOODY DUST”.
Tom Prior, 75, was the general carrier for Chillagoe from 1957 until five or six years ago. His old favourite workhorse, a dark blue 1946 V8 Super Delux coupe ute, has pride of place in his collection of preserved Fords. (SEE PICTURE ABOVE)
“She hasn’t been tuned for 35 years but I bet she’ll tick over first start.” It did. So, apparently did every other machine in his collection, including a 1942 Ford ex-army truck that he swore was brand new.
We only went to seek out Tom because Phil liked BP fuel. We drove around the back, wondered if we had come to the right place, saw a couple of bowsers – then our jaws dropped. Millions of dollars of restored Ford cars and trucks. Finally Tom appeared. By that time the boys were looking at a couple of vehicles – and Tom started talking about his life-long love affair with Fords.
They were the only vehicles to have out here in the west, he asserted. He found out long ago nothing else was tough enough. The only reason the other brands were going was because there was bitumen.
He patted a 1958 green 18cwt Freighter. “You’d drive around Australia in this in top gear. In the next couple of years I’m going to drive it around Australia.”
Signs of Tom’s adulation for Ford are everywhere. “Ford trucks are built stronger to last longer”. And “Old Fords never die. They just are cheaper to service.”
A 1928 Model A with a polished timber tray has a label saying the engine and chassis were built in Canada for British Colonial distribution and the body built in Australia. It has travelled 780 miles since restoration.
A gleaming red and white 1965 Shelby Mustang sits opposite a brown Pilot sedan from the late 40s. “Look at the size inside this,” said Tom proudly opening the front door of the Pilot. It is roomy, I agree. He opens the back door with its rope interior handles. “You could hold a dance in here.” I nod enthusiastically.
The sign on the Selby Mustang says 10,000 were sold the day the iconic car was launched on April 16, 1965. Another 11,000 were ordered. Within a few months Ford dealers were almost stampeded by buyers wanting the sporty car.
Mustangs were the only Ford to outsell the Model T. The Mustang car club is the biggest in the world.
Rita and Ed from San Diego, on their second day in Australia, were wandering around with their eyes glazed. We were shaking our heads; they were starting to wonder if they had stepped into another world.
“Do you think he will actually sell us some fuel?” said Rita anxiously after close to an hour.
By then the boys had their heads inside a 1958 Ford F8000 powered by a supercharged Cummins. The truck had done million and a half miles, said Tom, 90% of it in rough conditions and “look, there’s no play in the steering wheel”. No play in the door hinges either.
A Ford Jeep, left hand drive and in A1 nick, and a Ford Blitz were nestled near the F8000.
Tom had used the F8000 hauling for Dillinghams mining when they were on Fraser Island. “They had a mine on the Palmer River up here too and I used to cart gear back and forwards for them.”
A couple of acres of rusting old Fords are the other side of the fuel pumps that finally came into use to poke into Isabel, Narelle and Thelma. Tom didn’t have an electonic record of each tally so he wrote it in biro on his hand.
“People say I should write a book. But all this.” He waved his hand at the garage and wrecking yard. “That’s my book.”
He sold us some fuel for our bowser-less journey of close to 600km but not much else was for sale. Tom, a widower who says sadly he lost his wife a couple years ago, said he had sold a few things a while back but he won’t part with anything anymore, despite overtures from fanatical collectors.
We had been told the top road we were taking from Chillagoe to Karumba was pretty rough with bulldust and rutting.
“The road to Karumba!” snorted Tom. “I drove it a couple of weeks ago. It’s like a highway.”
We were out on the highway a couple of hours later than we expected and still talking about Tom when we turned south at Dunbar station. Actually, we are still shaking our heads about that encounter of the Ford kind.