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Ford’s Falcon takes the cake
Through seven generations over 50 years, Ford’s local hero has moved a nation
28 Jun 2010
By IAN PORTER
FORD Australia’s Broadmeadows plant in Victoria paused to celebrate 50 years of the locally made Falcon today, with dignitaries cutting a massive blue-oval cake to mark Australia’s longest running nameplate that has been fixed to almost 3.5 million cars.
According to Ford, those cars have clocked up about 450 billion kilometres in customer hands since the first of its kind rolled off the production line in 1960.
Back then, the excitement was almost overwhelming for motoring enthusiasts: Ford was going to make the US Falcon in Australia to tackle the dominant Holden range, which had reined supreme through the booming 1950s.
Holden had never had to try hard to win market leadership and, in 1960, was still serving up the same old 2.2-litre straight six engine first seen in the 48-215, although power had edged up from 60bhp to 72bhp over the 12 years.
Press reports indicated the Falcon would not only offer a larger, more powerful engine that would put Holden’s “grey” motor in the shade, but that there would be a second, even more powerful unit that would offer a head-turning 101bhp. And there would be automatic transmission!
From top: The XK Falcon that started it all, XR Falcon GT, XA Falcon wagon, XF Falcon ute, EB Falcon GT 25th Anniversary edition, AU Falcon, BF Falcon wagon.
Despite a government-induced credit crunch, the XK Falcon got off to a good start in 1960 as buyers snapped up the opportunity to give GM the cold shoulder. But disaster struck in the form of weak ball joints, which promptly gave up the ghost when the exciting newcomer headed off the tarmac.
It was a terrible blow that scared-off the all-important fleet buyers. A quick fix was implemented with Fairlane ball joints from the US and with upgrades through the XL, XM and XP models, but an image problem remained.
So chief executive Bill Bourke decided to use the new You Yangs proving ground to demonstrate the Falcon’s reliability with a five-day durability run in which five XPs, including Australia’s first two-door coupe, would be thrashed around the track for 70,000 miles (112,000km) at an average of 70mph (112km/h).
The Falcon’s undercarriage passed the test, but four of the five cars were rolled during the effort, giving an unexpected testimony to the car’s superstructure.
The second-generation Falcon arrived in the shape of the 1966 XR range, the model which was bigger in almost every respect and, once again, galvanized car lovers when it brazenly took the Falcon-Holden power war into the V8 zone with the launch of the legendary Falcon GT.
This car ignited the arms race with Holden and gave rise to a whole series of factory-built racing specials, including the 351 cubic-inch GTHO, feeding the on-track rivalry between the brands which still lives today.
The third-generation Falcon was unusual in that Detroit had decided to drop the Falcon in the US, but designed the XA purely for Australia.
Bigger again, especially the wagon, which introduced the extra-long wheelbase that became the norm, XA/XB sales boomed in the Whitlam years. The XB took Falcon past the million-unit mark after 16 years, although the XC ran into the second oil shock and sales slowed, despite a famous 1-2 victory at Bathurst for the two-door coupe in 1978.
Now all on its own design-wise, Ford Australia produced the sharp-edged and big-windowed XD Falcon in 1979. At first, it looked like it would be the company’s demise as arch-rival Holden had blinked in the face of the oil crisis and opted for a smaller car, to be called Commodore.
Falcon sales suffered, too, prompting Ford to turn to a Honda-made aluminium cylinder head to help quell the big car’s thirst. But the oil crisis soon faded and Ford’s XD took control at the top of the sales charts. The company had never been more profitable.
The third version of this design, the 1984-88 XF, was the first Falcon to receive fuel injection, but it lost V8 power for the first time in 18 years. The XF was also the first Falcon to top more than 250,000 sales. This fourth-generation Falcon soldiered on to 1999 in the XG and XH ute and van models.
The all-new EA plainly reflected development time in the wind tunnel, but the absence of an EA ute or van showed the $700 million development budget had been too tight. This also showed up in the form of poor build quality and computer problems, which overshadowed the Falcon’s first four-speed auto and the adoption of rack and pinion steering.
Sales were good at first and the EA lifted the Falcon past the two million unit mark in 1991 on its way to becoming the second best selling Falcon, with a production run of 223,612 units.
The EB was much better built and gained a superior front end suspension and the Smartlock security system which, in a test devised by South Australian police, defied four professional car thieves for four days.
The new front end was welcome because the EB saw the reintroduction of V8 power, a 25th anniversary run of 250 Falcon GTs and, more importantly, the introduction of the XR6 and XR8 nameplates, which would be big money spinners for the company, reigniting the passion of those 1960s teenagers.
The EF of 1994 was another big seller, offering Australia’s first standard driver’s airbag while the engine was further refined with a variable length intake manifold and coil pack ignition dispensing with the distributor.
The AU model of 1998 was a substantial redesign of the existing platform and was simultaneously the best Falcon ever and perhaps the most disappointing. Bristling with innovation, the AU was endowed with a local version of the New Edge styling theme used on European models and simply failed to click with more orthodox Australian tastes.
The AU introduced independent rear suspension for the Falcon and also a limp-home system, which allowed the inline six-cylinder engine to run on reduced power in the absence of coolant, among other things. It also saw the introduction of a dedicated liquefied petroleum gas version.
Facelifts in 2000 and 2001 softened the aesthetic criticism, but perception of the AU had been damaged.
The BA of 2002 was more than a simple facelift of the AU. Ford dragged forward a lot of the budget for the future all-new model to restore sales and to prepare for the imminent Territory sports utility vehicle, which was to draw heavily on the Falcon parts bin.
Not only was the body heavily worked over, but Ford revamped the venerable engine with a thoroughly modern cylinder head with four valves per cylinder, twin overhead camshafts, variable valve timing and, in some models, a turbocharger. This made the Barra a world-class engine and restored the faith of car enthusiasts.
The BA and BF models soldiered into the 2000s, sales curtailed by the surge in oil prices and a swing away to smaller vehicles.
The seventh-generation Falcon, the current FG, is a significantly better car but was launched into the aftermath of the world oil price surge and the global financial crisis.
Sales of large cars were falling away, regardless of how good those large cars were. The FG gained the best front suspension yet seen on an Australia car, even featuring steering devised by Australian engineering company AE Bishop, giving the Falcon superb steering feel and accuracy.
The FG has restored much of the Falcon’s standing in the large car sector in 2009 and 2010, helping the company report a modest profit of $13 million for 2009, its first positive result since 2005.
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