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50 years young


June 26, 2010

50th anniversary of the Ford Falcon

Ford's Falcon has come a long way since the first XK model rolled off the production line in 1960. Picture by Cristian Brunelli.

An icon of the Australian car industry is celebrating its half century. DAVID MORLEY traces its history.

It may not seem like it but the Australian-made Ford Falcon has now been part of the local landscape for half a century.

If you can remember the day the Falcon first hit showrooms, chances are you're retired, or not far off it. For those who weren't getting about back in 1960, it's difficult to imagine an Australia without the Falcon badge playing at least some role in proceedings.

Few Australians won't have owned, driven, or at least ridden in an Aussie-made Falcon, either as part of the family garage, or as the transport of choice for cabbies.

The Falcon badge is older than Ford's other famous nameplate, the Mustang, although it's younger than the recently discontinued Fairlane. It's one of the longest-running automotive brands, both in outright terms and as a badge that's still on sale today.

But more than that, not only is the Falcon Ford's signature dish in this country, it's also the model that made the blue oval brand here such a tour-de-force.

Until 1960, Ford Australia was an assembler, rather than a manufacturer, of cars. From the time the company set up its first production facility in Australia in 1925, it had been building cars - starting with the Model T - from imported kits.

Government legislation that penalised fully imported cars helped force the move to local production on Ford and it established its assembly works in a converted wool store in Geelong, which at the time was this country's fourth-largest city.

It was a profitable operation, assembling 150 cars a day (at one point the factory was assembling 12 different cars and commercial vehicles).

By the mid-1950s, though, the sands had begun to shift. Ford was losing ground to Holden with its locally made (and insanely popular) FJ model.

The locally assembled Zephyr was still selling against the Holden but the latter cost $300 more and, as the Holden grabbed even more hearts and minds, Ford's market share fell below 10 per cent.

Clearly, the company needed to expand. To do that, it needed to take arch-rival Holden on at its own game: local production.

The seed was sown.

That grew into the establishment of a production facility and, after much discussion, in 1957 the Victorian government offered Ford a 182-hectare parcel of land just west of the Hume Highway at Broadmeadows in Melbourne's outer north.

The going price was $1250 a hectare, with the government sweetening the deal with a range of interest-free loans and infrastructure upgrades, including rezoning the land to allow heavy industrial use.

Designed for a daily output of 200 cars, the Broadmeadows plant was augmented by a new $14 million foundry at Geelong to cast the components of a brand new six-cylinder engine.

Observers originally thought the locally produced Ford would be a Mark II Zephyr with a distinctly Australian flavour. While these did roll off the production line, they were simply kits that were assembled here.

No, the real news was to come in 1960. The Falcon had arrived. Although built at Broadmeadows, the XK Falcon of 1960 was unashamedly an American design.

Thankfully, though, it was a compact car (by US standards) and not one of the land yachts that the US held so dear.

Park it alongside the latest 50th anniversary Falcon, and the old girl (and this is the very first car to roll of the Broadmeadows line, on June 28, 1960) is small; demure even.

But beyond that, car 0000001 is also, even five decades on, undeniably elegant.

The sweep of the flanks and rounded nose suggest an aerodynamic signature the car may not live up to, and the tapered rear-most window pillar gives the car a lightness and delicacy that only this, the XK model, ever really captured.

Ah yes ... delicacy. Sadly for Ford - and anybody who bought an XK Falcon - the model's daintiness extended beyond its visuals.

Before long, Australian owners, particularly those who used their cars on the typically poor roads of rural Australia at the time, discovered that US virtues can soon become hopelessly lost in translation.

As well as a too-soft ride that left the car bottoming out as it ran out of suspension, many an XK simply - and literally - fell apart miles from anywhere when the suspension collapsed under the strain.

Jump in behind the wheel and even today those memories are enough to keep things down to a crawl over speed humps; memories and the fact that the Olympic air-ride tyres (6 inches x 13 inches) look like the originals, complete with perishing and tiny splits in the carcass.

Slowing to an almost-stop also means shifting back to first gear and, again, you're reminded of how the good old days maybe weren't always so good.

First gear in the Falcon's three-speed manual lacks synchromesh, so any attempt to engage it while the car is rolling is rewarded with the horrible sound of the gearbox gnashing its teeth and some slap-on-the-wrist feedback through the column shifter.

Beyond that, though, the gearbox is quite sweet to use and the shifter vastly more accurate than experience with Holdens of the same era would have suggested.

This is all helped by the fact that the lower ratios in the gearbox are only called into use at low speeds.

The flexibility of the engine means that once you're in top gear, you can pretty much leave it there until the speed falls to about 30km/h, at which point second gear comes into its own.

In contrast, what the Falcon buyer of 1960 would have made of the modern-day car's six-speed automatic transmission is anybody's guess.

The same goes for the current FG model's interior. While the XK might bear "Deluxe" badges, there's not a thing inside that would give the PlayStation generation the idea that it's anything but bare bones.

Switchgear is limited to an indicator stalk, lights, wipers and a choke button, all of which poke out of the dash ready to inflict vase-shaped puncture wounds in a shunt.

Nor is there anything approximating padding on the dashboard. It's all painted metal, including the door cappings, while the floor is covered with thick, hard-wearing vinyl.

Sitting in the front, it's difficult to ignore the feeling that you're propped between the metal frame of the bench seat and that jaw-like dashboard similar to the bait in a bear-trap that's ready to be sprung.

Did I mention there are no seatbelts? Later models had mounting points for them but they weren't standard fitment until years later.

Actually, driving a car without seat-belts in 2010 is without a doubt the most confronting part of the XK Falcon experience. It's a very close second to that dream where you turn up at school in your pyjamas. Vulnerable is hardly a strong enough word.

Beyond that, though, there's a lot to like. The engine is smooth and barely audible at idle, and, when you rev it up, your ears soon tell you it's the granddaddy of the six-cylinder in the current-model car.

The brakes are drums all round - and unassisted at that - but they have good feel and pull the XK up straight.

While the ride is a bit busy, even on those old Olympic tyres, you don't have to steer, adjust the ignition advance and feed the horses like you did with other cars of this vintage.

A lack of seatbelts aside, the big eye-opener with this car is the steering.

Designed by chiropractors (presumably), it's geared super low for a shoulder-burning five turns lock to lock when most modern cars manage with three or less.

Even at the time, buyers complained of the Falcon's tardy response to the helm. In 2010, it's just comical as you flail away at that big white tiller with its skinny rim and its tenuous connection to the front axle.

Clearly, then, there's ample evidence of five decades of progress when you step from the XK into the current-day FG, just released in better-equipped 50th anniversary trim.

So there should be. But what makes cars such as the original Falcon so fascinating is that they give us an insight into what once passed for culture.

With the current FG XR6's stability control, anti-lock brakes and airbags (although still no standard curtain airbags, as in rival cars), it's easy to determine that safety is a major driving force in modern car design.

The XK? No such luck - but just in case you're thinking 1960s Ford didn't have its corporate finger on the cultural pulse, consider this: in the original Falcon, you did get front and rear ashtrays. Big ones, for a big country.

While they don't make 'em like that any more, at least they do still make 'em.

For more on the Ford Falcon's 50th anniversary

Fast facts: What a difference the years can make

1960 XK Falcon Deluxe

How much? From $2398 plus costs

Engine: 2.4-litre overhead valve six-cylinder

Power: 67kW

Torque: 187Nm

Transmission: Three-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Suspension: Front, independent, coil springs; rear: live axle, leaf springs

Brakes: Drums

Length: 4602mm

Width: 1778mm

Kerb Mass: 1105kg

Standard Features: Windscreen wipers, sunvisors, fuel gauge

Safety Features: None

2010 FG Falcon XR6

How much? From $42,990 plus on-road and dealer costs (regular XR6 with manual)

Engine: 4.0-litre twin-cam six-cylinder

Power: 195kW

Torque: 391Nm

Transmission: Six-speed manual or optional six-speed auto, rear-wheel drive

Suspension: Front: independent, coil springs; rear: independent, coil springs

Brakes: Discs

Length: 4970mm

Width: 1868mm

Kerb Mass: 1704kg

Standard Features: Cruise control, airconditioning, remote central locking, power windows, power mirrors,

powered driver's seat, CD audio with MP3 input, alloy wheels

Safety features: Dual front and side-front airbags, seatbelt pretensioners, stability control, anti-lock brakes,

driver fatigue warning

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Ford’s Falcon takes the cake

Cut above: Ford Australia president Marin Burela (second from right) gets set to cut the cake with other luminiaries, including industry minister Kim Carr and Victorian premier John Brumby, at Broadmeadows.

Through seven generations over 50 years, Ford’s local hero has moved a nation

28 June 2010


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 X D 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 X D 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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