It almost seems a tragic coincidence that the same month I said goodbye to the first car I ever bought, my 2004 Ford Falcon XR6, Ford Australia announced the permanent closure of its manufacturing facilities. I can’t even begin to fully cover the more than 50 years Ford Australia manufactured the capable and dependable Falcon; that’s a job for Paul or Aaron Severson. Instead, I’d like to talk about the Falcon I owned.
My Falcon was my second Car of a Lifetime; my first was a 1997 Holden Astra. It became somewhat of a running joke with my friends, and was not exactly the most presentable of rides. Throughout university, I’d been saving up money that I decided to put to good use by buying a car I wouldn’t be a little bit embarrassed about driving. By 2011 I had amassed a reasonable amount of cash, and so started the process of looking for a car. What I really wanted was something big and Australian, with a six-cylinder engine and manual transmission, and within the range of $10,000-12,000 AUD. These criteria leave a car buyer with precious few options: Ford Falcon, Holden Commodore, Mitsubishi Magna, Mitsubishi 380 and Toyota Camry.
I ruled out the Camry and the Mitsubishis fairly quickly. That left the Commodore and the Falcon. The VY was the Commodore that best fit my price range. This 2002-2004 series was a heavy facelift of the Opel Omega-derived Commodore platform launched in 1997 with the VT series. While the sharper, more European front and rear fascias visually updated the VY, the curvy, jellybean 1997-era roofline stuck out to me.
More frustratingly, the interior revisions were merely minor. There was a clean new console with very straight lines and legible buttons but the curvy, cheap-looking door trims remained, and the overall look was very cheap. This disappointed me, being somewhat of an avowed GM man. The 3.8-liter supercharged V6 that powered VYs at the time could be had only with a four-speed automatic; to get a six-cylinder manual VY, I’d have had to settle for the naturally aspirated 3.8-liter V6. Compared with the contemporary Falcon, the VY was not only down on power– 204 hp /225 lb ft vs. to 244 hp / 280 lb ft – but also saddled with a terrible stick shift.
I took a lime green VY S for a test drive, which got off to a bad start when I noticed it didn’t have fog lights, but black plastic-filled fog light slots. Taking it for a spin, I found the power delivery and engine note to be alright, but the stick shift felt like something from a tractor. It was a bulky, cumbersome shifter with a bad feel. I am not sure if there was a different transmission used in the 2004 VZ revision, which also replaced the old Buick V6 with the more powerful High Feature 3.6 V6 of the American CTS, LaCrosse CXS, G6 GTP, et. al. In any case, the VZ was out of my price range, still had an ugly interior and the reviews were not exactly glowing, with some reviewers claiming the engine barely felt or sounded different from the decades-old Buick lump.
As a Holden man who had grown up in a Holden and driven one as his first car, I had to do the unthinkable: Buy Ford. The BA Falcon, launched in 2002, was a heavily revised version of the AU Falcon–probably one of the most reviled Aussie cars in our history, up (or down) there with the Leyland P76 and the four-cylinder Commodores of the early 1980s. Its New Edge styling was instrumental in switching the Commodore’s and Falcon’s places in the sales charts, and never again did the Falcon reign supreme as the best-selling car in Australia, or even the best-selling Aussie car.
It was a striking parallel to the 1996 Taurus launch in America, right down to the shared visual similarities. While the styling has grown on me and hasty revisions had made it a little bit more sane–the 1998 base model Forte had an odd waterfall/electric shaver grille and hideous wheel covers, which were quickly changed–the AU still fell down in one important area: the AU’s interior was a terrible, plasticky, ugly mess.
So, the AU begat an extensive revision that reportedly cost $500 million. Although basic mechanicals, roofline and door skins remained the same, almost everything else was changed. New to the Falcon were crisp, elegant and muscular exterior lines, along with one of the most impressive interiors of the past 10 years. There was a flowing, cleanly-styled centre stack, some colorful trim options on the sporty XR models and a soft-touch dashboard. The BA interior blew the VY Commodore’s interior away.
So did the performance of the aforementioned 244 hp 4.0-liter “Barra” inline six. Smooth, quiet and with a lot more torque, the BA made me wonder just why anyone would bother with a Commodore V6 or even a supercharged Commodore. This was just the base engine, mind you. An increasingly irrelevant V8 was available, but the big news was a turbocharged version of the I-6. For an old engine, the Barra was fantastic because it had been extensively revised over the years yet had also proved itself a dependable mill. It lent itself well to turbocharging, and the XR6 Turbo pumped out 320 hp and 330 lb ft of torque. I would have loved one if it weren’t for P-plate laws that forbade turbochargers for provisional license holders.
The first BA I sat in at a dealership was a 2003 model: Deepest, darkest metallic green, black leather interior and a sunroof. All for $13,000? It had fairly low mileage, too! I was in love! Sadly, someone else bought it.
Driving that XR6 though, I was hooked. First, with simple features like remote central locking, a six-stacker CD player and power windows, it was a big step up from my Astra in the luxury stakes. But most importantly, it felt solid, planted and powerful. The car drove with purpose. The BA Falcon was a fantastic car, and our premier car magazine Wheels agreed enough to award it Car of the Year. The shifter and clutch in the XR6 were fantastic as well, with fairly short throws and a clutch that was neither too heavy nor too light. It was a joy to drive, and I had to find one.
Good luck with that. Unfortunately, while manuals were probably more common in the turbo and XR8, I had Buckley’s chance of finding a manual, naturally aspirated XR6. Autos were a lot more popular because the XR6 and Commodore S/SV6 were popular company cars.
Someone referred me to an online enthusiast site that had a classifieds section. There she was! There, for just $10k–very much on the low-end of the pricing spectrum–was my future car. A deep purple BA XR6 with a five-speed manual and black/purple interior trim. I did my due diligence and got an auto club inspection organized. I may have been in love, but I guess I’m a pragmatic lover. It was a steal, it drove well, and it was mine after I handed over a cheque. Finally, I had a car I could be proud of! And, most appealingly, the seller had fitted it with a custom exhaust that was throbbing and aurally impressive without being too loud. It was something I never would have paid my own money for, but I sure loved dropping the car into second in a tunnel with the windows down and listening to that intoxicating sound.
Over two years, that Falcon served me well. It had plenty of space for driving friends around, a giant trunk, plenty of power and an air conditioner that could keep an ice sculpture from melting. The only real issue I ever had involved the paint. Ford Australia, despite having been manufacturing here for decades before I was born, seemingly did not know how to make paint that could survive under the Aussie sun. Granted, my car wasn’t always undercover, but the plastic spoiler faded to white and more frustratingly, the roof was starting to go a little bit dull despite my efforts to polish it. The paint quality issue wasn’t limited to my Falcon, and you’ll often see other contemporary Falcons with the same problem.
While buying my car was a time-consuming and frustrating process, selling it was a considerably worse one. Finally though, after weeks of leads that led nowhere, I found a buyer. It required a grand or so to fix a few things and get a roadworthy certificate, but I still feel I came out reasonably well. I’d hoped for $8K, and I got $8K. Actually, I got $5K wired to my account and $2900 in cash because the buyer had reached his daily electronic transfer limit. Ever had almost $3K in cash that you had to stuff into a McDonald’s bag and hide in your backpack for the 2.5-hour train trip back home?
I felt a little emotional on the train ride home. My Falcon had served me pretty damn well. She never broke down. She drove like a dream. In fact, she was driving better than ever after her final service and a rear shock replacement, which made me all the more sad to see her go. It will be even sadder when the Falcon line is discontinued entirely in 2016. The nameplate had its ups and downs over the years but I can say with confidence that, especially from 2002 onward, the Falcon was a car all Australians could be proud of.