Automotive History: A Tribute To The Australian Ford Falcon

The last Falcon sedan and ute. Picture from carsguide.com.au

I started writing this article as news came through that the very last Ford car to be produced in Australia had started its journey down the production line, on October 6 2016.  It has been quite the varied run after what was such a promising beginning, but after 3 years of waiting since the announcement, the end finally came and the production lines fell silent.

This article will present a brief overview of the Falcon’s evolution, focusing more on the high points than the low and mostly using Ford advertising and brochure images.  I will write some more about the Falcon in future with some more details, but for now enjoy a quick tour through 56 years of history!

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The initial story of the Falcon is quite well-known, with Robert MacNamara’s exercise in pragmatism having quite the troubled debut down under.  While the design was more modern, the durability could not match the market-leading Holden.  Ford had invested heavily on the Falcon, with a late change from the original English Zephyr as well as building a large new factory in Broadmeadows on the northern outskirts of Melbourne to cater for the planned increase in production.

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Having gained a poor reputation, it took years of hard work and a huge gamble to get the Falcon to really find its place in the market here.  I recently had the chance to drive around the ride and handling course used for the infamous 70,000 mile Durability Run of 1965 that marked a real turning point, and as a result I have a new appreciation for what was simply an incredible achievement.  In a slightly newer V8 Falcon on some touring laps we didn’t see a peak speed of much more than the 70 mph that the XP Falcons averaged in 1965!  The photo above is the 1-in-4 approach to a blind sweeping corner at the top of the hill.

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The run was initiated by Bill Bourke, but he had not seen the brand new You Yangs proving ground (located just north of Geelong) and his assumption that it was just like the US ones was not yet correct; the high speed track had not yet been constructed!

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The cars were being pushed so hard that it got to the point where tyres were being flown in from around the country and the entire output of the local Dunlop tyre factory was being sent to feed the cars, 4 of which ran off the road and rolled over.  One hit a 2-1/2 ton boulder hard enough to move it, but all were patched up and running at the finish.  It could have easily ended in disaster, but as the nine days rolled on the Run gained national news coverage each night as the drama unfolded.

While it flopped in North America, the second generation car hit its straps in Australia with the expansion of the longer wheelbase Fairlane that started the beginning of the end for the Imported full-size cars and the golden GT that started the local muscle car scene.

The Falcon was on a rocket in those years, culminating with the 1971 GT-HO Phase III that would wear the crown of the fastest four-door car in the world at the time with a top speed of 141 mph.  The photo above comes from the Wheels magazine road test, and was re-touched before publication to show a speed of 100 mph (top speed in 3rd gear) to try and avoid controversy.

The GT-HO was built to race at Bathurst of course, and just how good the car was is obvious by lead factory driver Allan Moffat getting pole for the 1971 race with a lap 3 seconds faster than previous year, as well as 5 of the top 6 cars being HOs.  The picture above includes the second place car 62, the first of 9 cars one lap down.  After a furore in 1972 about how fast the ‘homologation specials’ were getting, the racing rules removed the requirement for cars like the HO and it would be approximately 25 years before there would be a faster car built in this country.

When the Torino replaced the Falcon in the USA the decision was made for the Falcon to go it alone in Australia with an evolution of the existing format for the 1972 XA model, and as the decade went on the Falcon would steadily overhaul Holden in sales.  The new emissions regulations of 1976 were addressed with the new XC model via a redesigned cross-flow cylinder head rather than simply retarding cam and ignition timing, so that power levels didn’t drop.

The Falcon also featured in the most famous motorsport event in the country thanks to an iconic helicopter tracking shot of Allan Moffat and Colin Bond cruising to a 1-2 finish in the 1977 Bathurst 1000.  The cars were still very close to their road-going origins, and Moffat’s car ran out of brakes completely several laps from the end, to the extent the piston seals came out of the calipers.  He had a large margin over his second-placed teammate who in turn was well over a lap in front of the third-placed Holden Torana.  As Moffat slowed, Bond came up to his tail and held station for a formation finish.

There were around 100 of the dressed-up Sundowner panel vans built

While planning the next generation Falcon, Ford learned that Holden were going to transfer to a new, smaller Opel-based car in response to the fuel crisis; this set off a mild corporate panic with extraordinary lengths being taken to shed weight and increase efficiency.  The 1979 XD Falcon was 130 mm (5”) shorter and 100 kg (220 lb) lighter than the XC, with another 31 kg (66 lb) to come with the alloy cylinder head that was introduced on 6-cylinder engines in 1980.

The net result of the hard work was the Falcon used the same amount of fuel as the smaller Commodore, an important factor that lead to Ford taking sales leadership in 1982.  The locally-produced Cleveland V8 was dropped at this time however, to be replaced by an EFI version of the 4.1L (250ci) six.  Surely though this had future repercussions when Holden and Peter Brock’s HDT continued to produce cars that would inspire life-long enthusiasts.

The next-generation EA Falcon that debuted in 1987 was a dramatic but uneven update, with high points being a handsome new body and strong performance from the new SOHC engine with multi-point fuel injection.  On the other hand the new 4-speed automatic wasn’t ready in time and there were a few significant problems that let the Commodore back in for market leadership.

They were soon addressed, and as was the case 30 years earlier there were plenty more significant upgrades introduced from the return of the V8, bodyshell strength and safety equipment upgrades, a new sporting focus with XR models saw Falcon hit top spot again.  There was a special edition 25th anniversary GT, the first for 16 years.

The XR6 debuted in 1992 with 161 kW (216 hp) and remarkably performed just as well as its V8 brother which had just 5 more horsepower and a bit more weight.  Handling benefited from the lighter engine weight, and in the days of huge fleet sales you might even sneak one past the fleet manager because it wasn’t a V8.

After 8 years of Group A racing with imported Mustangs and Sierras representing the Blue Oval, 1993 saw the return to a new, “traditional” 5.0L V8 sedan formula and instant success for the Falcon in the hands of Glenn Seton (1993 ATCC champion), Dick Johnson & John Bowe (1994 Bathurst 1000 winners), and former F1 world champion Alan Jones.

The 1994 EF mid-cycle refresh, with different ‘faces’ for different models as seen above, marked the start of a good time for the Falcon, averaging 75,000 units per year and performing well enough for the US-expat CEO John Ogden to be won over and support the local executives’ plan for the next generation Falcon.  If nothing else this was due to the absence of any alternatives that would perform as well in the market; both the Taurus and Mondeo were tried but sold poorly.  Unfortunately it is reported that Ogden’s career suffered on his return to Dearborn because he had failed to toe the corporate line.

The subsequent AU Falcon of 1998 was ambitious and innovative in many ways, but thanks to controversial ‘New Edge’ styling and mis-judging of aspects of the model line-up it was less successful – as in 1996 Taurus successful.  In particular the base model (pictured) was poorly-received and a change to the fleet sales approach didn’t help, and sales were declining in the face of Holden’s booming VT Commodore range.

The new President of Ford Australia, Geoff Polites acknowledged in the company’s internal newsletter in 1999 that they had got the strategy and styling wrong, and behind the scenes changes were being rushed into production.

On the other hand, from nearly being cancelled several years earlier the ute really took off with its larger cabin space and a new rear chassis setup that allowed for a range of body styles to be fitted even if some no longer regard it as a true Coupe Utility.

The sporting XR variants were a bright point too, thanks to double-wishbone independent rear suspensions on the XR6 with variable cam timing and the XR8.  Both could be had with a bi-plane rear wing if you wanted some downforce for your daily commute weekend track outings.

Left, a T3 series with the 347 stroker engine, right is the 1999 original version.

Not quite so successful, but something that did evolve into a worthwhile halo was the Ford Tickford Experience, or FTe.  In competition with the established Holden Special Vehicles, FTe initially supplemented the family hotrod XR8 with some understated executive expresses.  The debut of the LS1 engine in HSV’s in particular proved that a more extroverted offering was necessary, so the locally-built 295 hp 5.0 was upgraded to a 5.6L (347 ci) stroker with 335 hp and 390 lb-ft, enough to put HSV in its place.

If the AU was the least successful Falcon since the 1990s Recession, in 2003 the BA achieved the highest annual sales of any Falcon since its peak in 1985 before the import tariff reductions began.  This was due to additions to the model range such as the XR6 Turbo, RTV ute and the return of the GT (under the guise of the Ford Performance Vehicles, a partnership with Prodrive who had taken over from Tickford), with its Australian-built 5.4L DOHC V8.

Success on the road was echoed by renewed success on the racetrack with Marcos Ambrose winning enough that he moved to the US and NASCAR in search of more challenges.  Another notable upgrade was the introduction of the ZF 6-speed automatic gearbox on the BF model XR6 Turbo and XR8, as well as the FPV range.

Again the Falcon’s success was enough to see the next generation car approved – the FG.  The excessive roundness of the cabin’s ‘greenhouse’ was addressed with the roof cant/side rails moved outwards, reducing the ‘tumblehome’ of the side windows (and making the roof wider), and the rear door in particular opened much further and had a wider opening to eliminate a shortcoming of the previous model.

While it was an excellent car, it unfortunately did not have much of an impact in the market.  Perhaps partly because the look of the new car had been pre-empted by the final BF Series 2 facelift, as well as the impact of substantially rising fuel prices.  Also former private buyers of the station wagon were mostly now buying the Territory SUV.

Since 2000 the Falcon could be had with a dedicated LPG (liquid petroleum gas, mostly propane) engine, but in 2011 the long-awaited EcoLPi system hit the market.  This specially-developed system is unusual because the LPG is injected in liquid form instead of as a vapour in most LPG injection systems, so it provides an intercooling effect as the liquid vapourises within the intake tract – power and torque actually increased over the normal petrol engine.

In spite of falling volumes, the master plan was still in effect.  There was some more range extension in the form of the 2.0L Ecoboost 4-cylinder engine – a first for the Falcon, and perhaps a preview of what was coming for the Mustang.  This had 179 kW (240 hp), but was also 70 kg (155 lb) lighter – notice the fresh air between engine and radiator above.  Overall performance was similar to the six but of course fuel economy improved; too bad hardly anyone bought them.

The last new engine was a supercharged version of the new 5.0L Coyote V8 from the Mustang, which echoed 1966 and 1991.  This engine was conservatively rated at 335 kW (450 hp), not taking into account the overboost function.  A final version of the revered GT badge was the GT-F that had 351 kW, echoing the cubic inch count of the GT’s heyday.

The final FG-X facelift was very much a minimalist update, with new front and rear bumpers but no changes to actual sheetmetal other than the hood, and very little change inside.  The XR8 was to return, mostly because it removed the need to create a specific body kit for FPV models.  This also cut the price, so it became a bit of a bargain in terms of the performance per dollar ratio.

The Falcon had a final send-off special edition in the Sprint version of the XR6 Turbo and XR8.  It is testament to the local organisation that these limited-production cars have had yet further suspension and driveline tweaks that saw it hailed as the best yet.

While the move away from fleet sedans towards SUVs, dual-cab pickups and ever-growing ‘small’ cars may have undermined the Falcon‘s relevance in the marketplace, it has made a huge contribution to the Australian automotive landscape and has been one of the most beloved vehicles we’ve seen.  Whether it be basic robust transportation, a flashy road-burner or a luxury cruiser, the Falcon range was able to fulfil a lot of needs for a lot of people for a lot of years.  Australia will be poorer for its absence.

In the end there wasn’t be any hoopla or media throng when the final vehicles rolled off the line, but rather the occasion was marked by the workforce without any external attention.  The same scenes will be repeated soon at Toyota (October 3) and Holden (October 20), as well as many supply chain companies which really made it impossible for any one of the three manufacturers to remain on their own.  There has been a lot of support for the workers who will need to find new jobs in other areas, but I don’t think you could call the process easy.  Some elements of the automotive industry will continue, such as suppliers who have gained international contracts and local truck manufacture, but on a much smaller scale.

Ford Australia will continue selling imported vehicles, with the Ranger taking over the position of highest seller, as well as research and development as part of the global Ford network on vehicles such as the next Ranger and others such as the Chinese-market Taurus.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to the Aussie Falcon over the years, it wasn’t always perfect but overall it was put to a lot of diverse uses, and was a real strong workhorse of a car that has served the country well.

 

Further Reading:

CC Cinema: The Australian 1960 Falcon Is Born

Curbside Classic: 1998-2002 Ford AU Falcon – Proven Mechanicals, Avant-Garde Styling

Automotive History: Fords Falcon Platform From Falcon To Versailles In 18 Different Wheelbase Lengthtrack Width Variations

Farewell Falcon: Ford Australia To Cease All Car Production By 2016

CC Comparisons: Last Of The Australians – 2007 Holden Calais V vs 2009 Ford Falcon G6E

Large and in Charge: A Visual History of the Aussie Ford Fairlane and LTD