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

ford au falcon forte

Ford’s global restructuring program known as One Ford, coupled with unsustainable labor costs, have killed the Australian Falcon. In October 2016, Ford Australia will no longer manufacture cars. Although mortally wounded and close to death, the Falcon was almost shot out of the sky twenty years ago by a different global restructuring program. It took a group of passionate Ford Australia employees to make the case for another generation of distinctively Australian sedans, wagons and utes, although what the 1998 AU Falcon is most remembered for is its distinctive styling.

There were rumblings in the late 1980s that the Falcon should be replaced by a global model in the new decade, despite the immense success of the existing model throughout the eighties. The upcoming ’96 Taurus was at one point floated as a potential Falcon replacement, but Ford went ahead in 1995 with a heavy cosmetic revision of the existing Falcon after Ford Australia President and CEO John Ogden convinced Ford HQ that an Australianized Taurus wouldn’t cut it. Ogden, an American, had succeeded Jac Nasser in this role. The revised Falcon was known as the 1994 EF series, and rather neatly disguised the Falcon’s 1988-vintage body.

ford ef falcon

Ford’s full-size range had dominated the sales charts throughout the 1980s, reaching a total market share record in 1987 of 15.3%. A resurgent Commodore, both larger and with more modern styling than its predecessor, seized pole position in sales in 1988. It was an ominous sign, as the Falcon would only best the Commodore in four separate years after this, although it would remain in the top 2 each year until 2006. While the EF outsold the contemporary Commodore at first, the Holden quickly turned the tables.

For the EF Falcon’s replacement, “Project Eagle” was conceived, and it was an ironic choice of name given Ford Australia was again eschewing an American model. It was concluded that an indigenous Falcon could be developed and still be profitable, despite Ford’s “Ford 2000” global restructuring plan of 1994 having the aim of reducing Ford’s number of platforms and engines across the world. 

ford taurus ghia (2)

The ’96 Taurus was still launched but as a more premium import-fighter, and flopped badly. 10,000 annual units had been projected, but the best it could muster was 2,078 in its first year, with sales slumping further each year until Ford mercifully terminated it. People still loved the Falcon, and the Taurus could not replace it, with Ford Australia seeing front-wheel-drive as a notable impediment particularly for consumers who towed (69% of Falcons had towbars fitted). Also proposed but ruled out was a Ford-fettled Mazda 929, as well as the European Ford Scorpio and American Crown Victoria.

lincoln ls

Ford was working on a new rear-wheel-drive platform in North America known as DEW98, which would underpin the Jaguar S-Type and Lincoln LS. However, Ford Australia concluded it would be too expensive, especially to engineer it to take the Australian inline six that was a Falcon staple for decades. In America, DEW98 was also proposed then rejected for the Mustang.

ford au falcon forte

It was decided the new Falcon – codenamed EA169 – would feature more extensive American involvement than before and ride atop a heavily revised version of the existing Falcon platform, which dated back to the 1988 EA (although even the EA retained components from its predecessor). A total investment of $AUD700 million was made, and the floorpan was all-new except for the cowl and the sedan’s rear rails. Curb weight was down very slightly, and the platform was 17.5% stiffer. There was a new double wishbone front suspension and an independent double wishbone rear suspension was available for the first time on select models. The latter was heavier than the conventional set-up, but provided more balanced handling. Wagons stuck with a rigid axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs.

ford au falcon and fairmont

The AU offered a startling amount of variety. Three body styles. Two different dashboards. An inline six in three different states of tune, as well as an available V8. Two different transmissions. Two different hood designs with five different grilles. Three different rear suspension set-ups.

ford au fairmont wagon

Engines were an overhauled version of the inline Falcon six renamed “Intech” or a mildly revised 5.0 Windsor V8, with a choice of revised four-speed automatic or, on some models, a five-speed manual. The V8 option was deleted from the wagon: if you wanted a bent-eight family hauler, you had to buy a Holden. The base inline “Intech” six was good for 210 hp and 263 ft-lbs and had been modified for greater fuel economy and decreased NVH.

ford au falcon forte sedan 1

Ford Australia realized that it couldn’t depend on fleet buyers. Private buyers needed to be targeted, especially younger buyers and women. One way this could be accomplished was with a fresh design. AU chief designer Steve Park styled a new Falcon that would fit with Ford’s New Edge design philosophy. Ford’s global VP of design, Jack Telnack, described Ford’s new design ethos as “combining intersecting arcs to create surface tension by adding creases to soft aerodynamic shapes.”

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ford au falcon forte interior

The range opened with the controversially-styled Forte sedan and wagon. Ford didn’t want this base model to look like a poverty pack, and gave it a waterfall grille and distinctive plastic wheel covers as well as the sleeker of the two hood designs; air-conditioning was also standard. It received the base interior in either a drab, cheap gray (pictured) or a nicer charcoal.  The Forte wasn’t exactly loaded with creature comforts, initially featuring manual windows all-round, but you could option the V8, a five-speed manual and IRS (although not all three together). There was also a similarly-specified Falcon S available with sportier trim.

ford au falcon futura

The next step up was the Futura sedan and wagon, aimed at family buyers. Ford had dusted off the Futura nameplate in 1993 and applied it to its family-oriented Commodore Acclaim rival. The only engine was the I6 and standard equipment included ABS, cruise control and alloy wheels. Also, it received a more conservative grille treatment despite receiving the lower Forte hood.

ford au fairmont sedan

ford au fairmont ghia interior

The plusher Fairmont sedan and wagon and Fairmont Ghia sedan received the more conservative hood design and a handsome, chrome-framed honeycomb grille, and ditched the black mirrors and amber rear turn signals of the lesser Falcons. There was a different, nicer dashboard design with woodgrain trim and an analog clock, shared with the long-wheelbase Fairlane and LTD models. Fairmont Ghias had standard IRS.

ford au falcon xr

The sporting variants were the bodykit-wearing, quad-headlight XR6, XR6 VCT and XR8 sedans. The XR6 received a tweaked version of the inline six with 219 hp and 269 ft-lbs while the XR6 VCT added standard IRS as well as variable cam timing to bring power and torque up to 230 hp and 275 ft-lbs. The IRS-equipped, Windsor V8-powered XR8 had 248 hp and 303 ft-lbs which didn’t represent a huge increase over the impressively torquey six. In 1999, Tickford Vehicle Engineering also created the tuned TE50 and TS50 sports models; these served as a precursor to the now defunct Ford Performance Vehicles range of models.

ford au falcon ute 1

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An entirely new Falcon Ute was also introduced in 1999, replacing the 1979-vintage XH utility. Three body variants were available: a chassis cab, a steel tray and a styleside body. The ute was available with a choice of manual or automatic transmissions and in base XL, mid-range XLS or sporty XR6 and XR8 trims; the base ute undercut the Forte sedan by around $6000, albeit with some feature omissions. Still, utes had the same interior as the sedan and wagon – but for the availability of a column-shifted automatic – and could be optioned similarly, making them much more modern and comfortable than their antediluvian predecessor. Payloads ranged from 1146 lbs to 2579 lbs, depending on the trim, tray style and suspension tune selected.

ford au fairmont 2

Against the Commodore, journalists found the Falcon satisfying. The Holden had sportier handling, but the Ford was seen as a better all-rounder with more steering feel, a smoother ride and a quieter cabin. The Falcon was also slightly lighter than the Commodore, and most importantly had a sizeable torque advantage: the naturally-aspirated I6 was closer to the Holden’s optional supercharged V6 in terms of pound feet, and made the base 3800 V6 look comparatively breathless. Still, some had their reservations about the standard live axle and its effect on handling when coupled with the slightly elevated ride height.

ford au series II falcon forte

Whether it was the tepid reaction to the dramatic styling or the alteration of fleet pricing in anticipation of higher retail sales, AU Falcon sales were slow at first except for the hot-selling ute. Ford reacted quickly by lowering the ride height of most Falcons by an inch in 1999 and made some minor interior tweaks to improve the cabin ambience.  A popular new model was the limited edition Classic, adding the ute’s eggcrate grille and a raft of standard features including ABS, alloy wheels and an upgraded sound system for the same price as the base Forte.

ford au falcon xr6

Many critics actually praised the AU’s design – echoes of the critical reception to the ’96 Taurus in the US – but some were less kind. Buyers were also scared off by the very different styling: despite keen pricing that undercut the Commodore and started under $AUD30k, the Holden widened the sales gap. The two rivals were neck-and-neck just three years earlier, but in 1998 the fresh and hot-selling VT Commodore outsold the Falcon by around 25k units.

ford au falcon forte series II

ford fairmont au wagon 2

Ford hurriedly ordered revisions. The 2000 AU Series II models – sporty XR trim levels aside – all adopted the front-end design of the upscale Fairmont and Fairmont Ghia. To further enhance the Forte’s appeal, it received standard automatic transmission, 16’’ wheels, front power windows and air-conditioning. Further specification changes were made for the late-2001 Series III, but sales had continued to slide each year and sunk to 53,534 units in 2001, a whopping 32k fewer units than the Commodore. 

ford ba falcon

In February 1999, Ford US design boss J Mays flew to Melbourne to work on the BA redesign. The BA Falcon would be a more thorough revision, with more conservative and upscale exterior styling – only the door skins and mirrors were retained – and a higher-quality interior. But while there was a sales uptick, it didn’t reverse the downwards trend. Buyers were leaving the full-size family sedan segment, and even the mighty Commodore would see sales fall 50% between 2002 and 2009.

ford fairmont au wagon 4

It’s tempting for many to pillory the AU Falcon as being an ugly duckling that drove people away from Ford dealerships. However, the styling that seemed so radical in 1998 has aged quite well given the arrival of various “four-door coupes” with similarly swoopy lines, and has arguably aged better than other New Edge Fords like the first Focus and Ka. Meanwhile, the VT Commodore may still look handsome but its jellybean lines seem very 1990s. Their more conventionally-styled interior has held up better, though. Holden was arguably influenced by the AU in one way: the facelifted VX Commodore of 2000 featured greater differentiation in appearance between trim levels, with the upscale Calais no longer mistakable for a base Executive.

ford au falcon xr ute

For used car buyers, AU Falcons make for an excellent choice, generally being cheaper than contemporary Commodores, albeit more expensive than used Mitsubishi Magnas. They are also reliable and fairly well-built, although you’d best stay away from well-worn utes and ex-taxis with hundreds of thousands of miles on the odometer. 

ford au falcon sr limited edition

The AU may have been controversially styled and a poor seller, relative to other Falcons, but the basic car was well-engineered. It took the 2002 BA with its various aesthetic and mechanical revisions to really underscore how excellent an indigenous Australian Ford could be. Ford would go on to introduce a turbocharged inline six, a turbocharged four cylinder and a well-packaged Falcon-based crossover known as the Territory, but they were fighting a losing battle against perception, crossovers, labor costs, and flagging large car sales. Although Ford is closing down its factory in Australia, they are retaining engineering operations. As well those engineers should keep their jobs: they have done some marvellous work.

Related Reading:

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

Automotive History: Australian Auto Family Trees – The Holden Commodore From A-Z VB-VF

Cars Of A Lifetime Number Two: 2004 Ford BA Falcon XR6

Curbside Classic: 1996-98 Ford Taurus Ghia