Curbside Capsule: 1996-99 Ford XH Falcon – Closing The Barn Doors On The Panel Van

(first posted 11/6/2017)       With Holden Ute production having ended this year, the Aussie ute is now officially dead and joins the Aussie panel van in the automotive graveyard. Unlike American-style sedan deliveries, Aussie panel vans weren’t just wagons with blanked-out windows. Instead, they were based directly on a ute body and were typically taller than a wagon. This is the last Aussie production panel van, the Ford XH Falcon.

To those of you who are unfamiliar with Australian series designations, each redesign or facelift brought with it a new series code and these weren’t always in order. The XH Falcon was actually sold alongside the EF Falcon sedan and wagon but had a different series code for good reason.

While the front of the XH may look identical to the EF sedan and wagon, aft of the A-pillars is entirely different. That’s because Ford never engineered a ute or panel van version of its 1988 EA Falcon or any subsequent series of Falcon until the 1999 AU. This meant the XF Falcon ute and panel van, descended from the 1979 XD Falcon, was trotted out each year to keep Ford in the marketplace.

Holden hadn’t engineered a ute or panel van version of its ’78 VB Commodore or any subsequent series until the 1988 VN begat the 1990 VG Utility (but no panel van). That had left the coupe-utility market entirely to Ford for much of the 1980s. Now, the tables had turned and Ford Australia didn’t have the money or the motivation to spin off a ute from its new large car. The difference was Ford stuck it out anyway and kept offering its old ute and panel van.

The XG Falcon ute and panel van (1993-96) looked little different from their XF predecessors but were helpfully updated with Ford’s new OHC 4.0 six and four-speed automatic, a one-tonne option, and optional anti-lock brakes. Ford also introduced the sporty, Tickford-tuned XR6 ute. Alas, there would not be a sporty panel van in Ford’s lineup.

In 1996, Ford gave the old girl one final update. Front styling was similar if not identical to the EF—the front quarter panels didn’t have the EF’s feature line as the old ute’s doors had to be reused. Under the skin, the EF’s SLALS (short and long arm, long spindle) suspension was added, as was its rack-and-pinion steering. As the back was unchanged, this meant the XH still used a semi-elliptic, leaf-spring rear suspension. However dated this may have been, it gave the Falcon a load-carrying advantage over the Commodore to the tune of 242 pounds (and even more if the One Tonner option was selected).

Ford had axed V8 engines from its Falcon lineup way back in 1982, even though Holden continued to offer them. They had returned in the EB Falcon of 1991 but a V8 wasn’t available in the old ute until the XH Series II of 1997, introduced in the twilight of this long-running platform’s years. Again, the panel van was left out of the fun and stuck with the 4.0 inline six and just one trim level, the Longreach GLi (named after a rural town in Queensland).

Panel vans had once been a hot ticket item in the 1970s but, as exemplified by Ford’s refusal to offer the sporty new XR6 and XR8 trims in van form, they had dwindled in popularity by the 1990s and were no longer seen as cool. In contrast to the striking special edition vans of the 1970s, like the Ford Sundowner and Chrysler Valiant Drifter, the XH Falcon panel van received just one special edition: the bloody boring Tradesman, which just added some options as standard. There were no wild decals or retina-searing paint, just standard air-conditioning and some different wheels that were kind of interesting, I guess…

With the discontinuation of the XH Falcon, Ford stopped offering a panel van after 38 years. Holden briefly excited panel van fans with its 2000 Sandman concept, dusting off a nameplate from the height of the panel van’s popularity. However, it never reached production.

Like shag carpeting and bell bottoms, what was popular and trendy in the 1970s was now uncool. The last Aussie panel vans were almost exclusively boring, white vehicles used for work and not by cool young guys going to the beach to do drugs and women. Dual-cab utes may be the hot ticket nowadays but they have a lot less privacy…

XH Falcon photographed on Chapel Street in South Yarra, Melbourne, VIC. XG Falcon photographed in New Farm, Brisbane, QLD.

Related Reading:

Automotive History: A Tribute To The Australian Ford Falcon

Automotive History – The Aussie Ute