A 47-year-old Australian muscle car recently sold at an online auction for a small fortune. In fact, it went for more than twice its reserve price. To make matters even more extraordinary, the rusty old vehicle had idled in a roadside shed for the past 30 years, gathering dust. What made this particular car worth so much money?
In the early 1970s, the Falcon XA GT RPO 83 hardtop Manual Coupe was manufactured at the Ford factory in Australia. Only 120 were made, due to the country experiencing a supercar scare at the time. Vehicle manufacturers’ cars were becoming capable of unprecedented speeds, and the Australian government had grave concerns about how safe it was for these ultra-rapid vehicles to be on the road.
Classic cars expert at GraysOnline auctioneers Bill Freeman explained the situation to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in July 2020. He said, “Ford had released the fastest sedan in the world in 1971, the Phase III GTHO Falcon.” The government then stepped in, giving Australian car makers a serious ultimatum.
“The government ended up saying to Australian manufacturers, ‘If you produce 160mph supercars, we won’t give you fleet orders,’” continued Freeman. “By 1973 Ford was all set to launch its Phase IV GTHO, and it had all the parts in the factory. So, Ford quietly put the parts on some GTs under the option code ‘RPO 83’, and that’s what makes this car very special.”
A more in-depth look at this era of the Australian muscle car was published in the November 2003 issue of Street Machine magazine. Automotive journalist Graham Smith wrote, “Sunday, June 25, 1972 is the day that the great Australian muscle car died. The news of its demise was carried on the front page of the Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper.”
The front page headline read, “160mph Super Cars Soon.” Smith continued, “Beneath the headline was a story that quoted the then-New South Wales Transport Minister, the appropriately named Milton Morris, describing the cars planned for that year’s Bathurst [1000 touring car race] as ‘bullets on wheels.’ It spelt instant death for the next generation of supercars.”
Australia’s big three car manufacturers reacted swiftly. General Motors-Holden’s, Chrysler Australia and Ford Australia had all abandoned development on their next wave of “supercars” within six days of the Sun-Herald article being published. Smith wrote, “The most awesome road cars ever planned for production here were to become the stuff of legend.”
Smith continued, “Ford’s Phase IV GTHO was one of those casualties. But as much as the premature death of the Phase IV was mourned, it led to the birth of another hot Falcon GT. The XA RPO 83 soon arose from the ashes of the Phase IV and would become the basis for Ford’s 1973 Bathurst-winning XA GT.”
If you’re wondering where the RPO part of the car’s name came from, however, it turns out that the abbreviation stood for the phrase Regular Production Option. The 83 selection choice was one available on the vehicle’s sister car, the XA GT. In this case they comprised a selection of components that had been earmarked for the now-defunct Phase IV GTHO. But there was a twist: as Smith explained, “Exactly what those components were remains the subject of debate even today, because they varied from car to car.”
“Whatever they were,” continued Smith, “it has made the RPO 83 XA GT one of the most sought-after GTs recently, as GT fans have come to realise they were as close you could get to a Phase IV without shelling out the big bucks needed to get your hands on a real one.” The RPO 83 wound up becoming a very desirable item on the muscle car market. This is a far cry from the humble manner in which it was initially released, however.
Smith wrote, “There was no fanfare when Ford unleashed its ‘special’ XA GT in 1973. No announcements, no press releases to the media, they simply slipped it out to dealers and told them to keep quiet about it.” After the controversy surrounding their Phase IV model, Ford didn’t want to broadcast that they were still releasing another supercar with some of the Phase IV’s parts.
“If you were tipped off to the existence of the RPO 83, you could get yourself one hell of a rocket for which you didn’t have to shell out any more than the price of a regular GT,” continued Smith. “You needed a pretty sharp eye to pick an RPO 83 from the GT crowd, as there were no badges to identify them.” But what would clue buyers in that they were looking at an RPO 83?
Well, in this case the devil was definitely in the detail. One signifier that a Falcon was the rare RPO 83 variety was the choke knob on the dashboard; other clues lay under the bonnet. Eagle-eyed car buffs could identify them by spotting their 780 Holley carburetors. In his article, Smith further explained that the souped-up Falcons had “a modified oil pan with additional baffles to prevent oil surge, and a modified clutch pipe to prevent overheating of the clutch fluid.” In addition, some RPO 83s had cast-iron exhaust manifolds and/or rear disc brakes.
The total number of RPO 83s made by Ford is uncertain, but the best guess is 252; of these, 131 were four-door sedans, while 121 were coupes. Smith’s article noted, “Most were built in August 1973, and were released later that same month or early in September. Because Ford said nothing at the time, few buyers knew what they were getting.”
Smith spoke with a man named George, who owned an RPO 83. Fittingly, he wasn’t aware of this when he bought his Wild Violet XA coupe in the 1990s. He was simply in the market for an XA GT coupe. He said, “I was into XA and XB coupes. They’re tough-looking cars, much tougher than the four-doors.”
Eventually, George sold this Wild Violet RPO 83 to a buyer, in order to finance other car projects. However, he made sure to include a clause: he had first refusal if the new owner ever decided to sell the RPO 83 on. In the end, that is exactly what happened, and George bought the car back. He said, “I like their rarity and collectability.”
There was something else that added to the allure of the Falcon XA GT RPO 83 hardtop Manual Coupe over the years, though. It was an early model of the car that would be immortalized as the “Pursuit Special” in George Miller’s iconic 1979 film Mad Max. The movie vehicle was a modified Ford Falcon XB GT, which was assembled at the Australian Ford factory later in 1973.
The Australian model was notably different from the corresponding Ford Falcon manufactured and sold in America throughout the 1960s. In essence, it was Australia’s version of the iconic Ford Mustang, but buyers could purchase it in a selection of body styles. It also came with either two or four doors.
In July 2020 one of the Australian 1973 Ford Falcon RPO 83 coupes was sold at auction. Amazingly, it had sat in a dilapidated shed, covered by chicken wire, on the side of the highway between Brisbane and Toowoomba for over 30 years. In fact, locals had given it a clever nickname. They called it the “Chicken Coupe.”
Over the three decades that the vehicle spent in the shed, it had gathered huge amounts of dust and detritus. But that was not enough to deter car enthusiasts. As Troy Postle, president of the Falcon Cobra Club of Queensland, put it, “Underneath all that dirt and rat poo is a classic.”
Intriguingly, the vehicle was one of only two RPO 83 coupes with its specific paint job. It was painted in a shade known as MacRobertson’s Old Gold, which is a vibrant orange color. The color was a reference to the iconic Australian chocolate maker MacRobertson’s, responsible for national favorites like the Freddo Frog and Cherry Ripe.
The car was owned by a man named Gordon Stubbersfield and it was last deemed roadworthy in 1988. Over the years, Stubbersfield had been approached by countless collectors who wanted to buy the vehicle, but he was always steadfast in his refusal to sell. Postle explained Stubbersfield’s reasoning to the ABC.
“It was the car he got married in,” said Postle. “He loved the fact people could see it from the highway, and especially loved when people would pull up and strike up a conversation about it.” Regarding the possibility of selling, Postle further elucidated, “He was adamant he didn’t want it touched: he loved it as it was.”
The car club president continued, “A lot of people had a go at Gordon for letting it sit in the shed gathering dust, but it could have been a lot worse. It could have been written off or parked under a mango tree and rotted away. It’s possibly one of the most original RPOs out there – it’s never been touched.”
Stubbersfield died in 2019 and his estate subsequently decided to sell the vehicle at a GraysOnline auction. It fetched double the amount of its reserve price, selling for a whopping A$300,909. That’s a whisker under $220,000 at current exchange rates. The buyer unfortunately didn’t publicly reveal themselves or what their plans were for the classic car.
Postle noted that Australian car-lovers were still actively looking for other classic finds such as the Ford Falcon RPO 83. He told ABC, “There is no doubt in my mind there are plenty of old Fords and Holdens and Valiants out there in sheds. Their value has doubled in the last five to six years.”
The car club president added, “They’re starting to get out of the price range of your normal car enthusiast and going into private collections.” He believed Stubbersfield would have been happy with his estate’s decision to auction the car, commenting, “I think Gordon would be looking down on us very impressed with the price his pride and joy got.”
Another Australian classic car enthusiast came forward in the aftermath of the sale of the Chicken Coupe. Incredibly, mechanic Hagen Zerk revealed that he owned the sister version of Stubbersfield’s vehicle, and his was in considerably better condition. Zerk, from Port Lincoln, told the newspaper Daily Mail Australia that his wife had bought the car for him in 2003 for just A$8,000 (about $5,800) in Queensland.
Zerk also told the outlet that he had been keeping an eye on the sale of Stubbersfield’s Falcon RPO 83 with great interest. He said, “I had been following the sale and I thought it was gonna go for A$150,000 to A$200,000 (about $110,000 to $145,000) but it went higher.” He added, “I have been trying to track the buyer, because it’s the sister car to mine.”
With the intention of racing the vehicle, Zerk poured two years and A$40,000 (about $30,000) into restoring his car’s interior and exterior. He removed all the paintwork, before building it up again, which he said would have cost him A$150,000 (about $110,000) if he had paid another professional to do it. Once he started to enter the car in races, however, he noticed something interesting.
The Falcon RPO 83 was receiving a lot more attention than he anticipated, and its valuation was rising steadily. Zerk therefore made the decision not to race the vehicle, instead using it as a show car. However, he didn’t let it simply become something to be photographed; he made sure to drive the vehicle himself, including along the coastline of Western Australia.
“I built it to be used, not showed,” Zerk told Daily Mail Australia, “and I am not one to leave it sitting in the shed.” This comment was perhaps a thinly-veiled criticism of Stubbersfield and car owners like him who let their vehicles go to ruin. He added, “If it gets worn during use, I can always restore it again and pass it on to my children.”
In a testament to car enthusiasts’ enduring love of the Falcon RPO 83, Zerk revealed that he had received two substantial offers over the years from interested buyers. In the 2000s, a buyer from Perth tried to offer cash and a trade-in vehicle, but Zerk’s wife advised him against selling. It was a big decision, because the man’s offer was potentially life-changing.
Zerk revealed, “I can’t remember how much it was, but I remember joking to my wife it was enough to pay off the house and get a jet home. But she told me not to sell it. She said I would just get another car.” Then in 2018 a buyer from New Zealand offered between A$200,000 and A$300,000 (about $145,000-$220,000), but again Zerk said no.
A third 1973 Ford Falcon XA GT RPO 83 model was also auctioned in 2020. This one was special because it was one of only 11 manufactured with a Wild Violet paint job. It only had five owners, one of whom had kept it stored away for 18 years, off-road and unregistered. Therefore, it only had a scant 91,000 miles on the clock.
Lee Hames of Lloyd Auctions told website news.com.au why he thought vehicles such as the RPO 83 had been selling for such huge amounts. In his opinion, buyers saw the cars as historically significant pieces of Australian automotive history. But they were also investments that would serve them well in the future.
Hames said, “If you look at the number of records broken over the last couple years you can definitely see a trend in demand for a secure yet enjoyable investment. Cars in original condition, with chrome bumpers, celebrity affiliation or prominent history or rarity seem to be the assets that are rising in value the most consistently.” He felt that RPO 83 cars were becoming particularly hot items for collectors.
Stubbersfield and Zerk’s RPO 83s are the only two examples of that particular MacRobertson orange model ever to have been sold in Australia, which speaks to their rarity. GraysOnline classic car specialist Rian Gaffy told Daily Mail Australia, “A lot of the Falcon coupes suffer badly from rust, plus a lot of them got written off in crashes and quite a few got stolen.”
Gaffy believed this scarcity was why Stubbersfield’s Falcon had sold for such a high price, despite it being off the road for 30 years and suffering from panel deterioration and rust. More than 120,000 interested parties watched the online auction and Gaffy felt he could see the car’s aesthetic damage was fixable. Overall, the Chicken Coupe still had the bones of a good vehicle.
In a statement released to the media, Gaffy spoke warmly about the vehicle. “This car is as Australian as it gets. From its accidental birth after the supercar ban, to its decades in a shed surrounded by chicken wire, to its color scheme that honors a local chocolate company, it’s a uniquely Aussie story surrounded by rumors and legend.”