Blue Oval time – driving Ford’s big Aussies
The beginning of the 1980s was scarcely the time to be marketing big cars.
But Ford persevered with its US-style Falcon at a time when Holden was looking ti Europe for the successor to its HQ/HZ family sedan.
The problem was rising fuel prices; in fact, a veritable fuel crisis as the Middle East reeled under the overthrow of the West-leaning Shah or Iran and his replacement by the Islamic fundamentalist, the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Holden’s solution was to re-engineer a compact rear-drive Opel and fit it with its range of homegrown six-cylinder and V8 engines. Part of Holden’s strategy was aimed at convincing consumers that it was being more responsible in a time when oil and petrol – and their consumption – was at the forefront of everyone’s thinking.
It worked for a time, but as the crises faded, it found itself being outrun by the roomier Ford product and introduced the full-sized VN Commodore in the latter part of 1988.
Over at Broadmeadows in the Melbourne suburbs, the Blue Oval’s response was to stick with the full-sized Falcon but drop the V8 motor from the line-up.
Ford’s 1970s Falcons – the XA, XB and XC – were big, rounded, individualistic-looking cars.
When we were photographing a Holden Kingswood HQ outside the Auckland Museum in 1971, a busload of American tourists we roped in to being props, didn’t need to ask us what it was. Almost unanimously, they figured it was some sort of new Chevy.
The 1970s Falcons – the first all-Australian-designed cars to wear the nameplate – had echoes of cars like the Ford Torino, but though you might eventually deduce that they were Fords, the US Ford relationship didn’t quite leap out at you the way the Chevy genes did from the HQ.
The X-Series Fords included V8s and sixes and ranged from the bland cars I drove as a Government PR hack to the fire-breathing GTs, the two-door coupes and the oddball Landau coupe a sort of Ford Australia take on the US Lincoln/Thunderbird/LTD luxury “personal car” genre.
The bread and butter sedans morphed through the XB’s aggressive, edgy, frontal styling to the elegance of the XC with its egg-crate grille.
The car that took Ford into the 1980s was the XD, launched in 1979 by none other than Henry Ford II, making a special visit to Australia. It was the first of what I call the square-rigger Falcons.
Car styling in the cusp of the 1980s – and indeed the first few years of that decade – was dominated by the straight line and ruler school, and the XD Falcon and its European cousin, the British Granada, were both big, angular, cars whose styling was dominated by straight lines.
For 1982, the XD was freshened as the XE, with sleeker, less bluff frontal styling and a Watts linkage rear end to try to keep the car’s inherent oversteer in check.
The culmination of the X-Series line came with the airier, slightly more rounded XF which was truly a good-looking car – and still is – launched in 1984 and released here the following year.
It was my first year as a fulltime motoring writer, and the XF launch – at The Hermitage at Mount Cook was an exotic adventure.
One of the talking points about the XF Ghia was its four cigarette lighters – two in the front and two in the back, the latter presumably for the grandkids’ early training in smoking.
The quad lighters seemed over-the-top at the time, and would be absurdly non-PC now, but somehow they fitted the Ghia’s promise of being a car to coddle its occupants.
Certainly the big sedan would keep busy anyone tasked with keeping it clean: its BBS-style wire-look alloy wheels are classics of the wheel designer’s craft but a nightmare to clean.
The real test of the XF – it came only with a 4.1-litre six, though it now benefited from electronic fuel-injection – came back in the North Island when one came my way for a week.
It drove very nicely indeed, was manoeuvrable for such a big car, and offered reasonable if not neck-straining performance.
It was true rear-wheel drive Ford, with the Blue Oval’s usual oversteer (tail-sliding) available for the show-off to exploit or the unwary to be caught out by.
A part of the test we made a memorable trip to the King Country to cover a rally – I think it was one of the Hamilton Car Club’s Rallies of the Pines run in the Pureora district but I may be mistaken.
The Falcon produced one hugely memorable moment. My travelling companion was a salesman for Motoring News, the magazine was working for them.
Now this guy was a keen motorcycle rider, even raced a 50cc “Bucket” and he was on and on at me about my being a “wuss” by braking too early for corners (it’s a common theme with motorcycle riders when they’re critiquing car drivers).
Well, he wasn’t taking into account the Falcon’s sheer bulk, its adequate though not outstanding brakes, or the fact that it was travelling more quickly than you might imagine.
The road between Bennydale and Te Kuiti is sinuous, narrow by State Highway standards and reasonably demanding.
Heading north at a reasonable clip I descended towards a one-lane bridge, which you entered on the exit from a corner. In gave the brakes a confidence touch (doubtless evoking a silent “tut-tut” from the passenger’s seat): the light brush of the brake pedal also served to settle the big square-rigger.
I turned it into the corner and flicked it on to the bridge. In time honoured Falcon fashion the tail stepped out, I applied a touch of steering and we crossed the bridge with a touch of opposite lock and the boot all but brushing the parapet as we accelerated on to the next straightaway. There was a sharp exhalation of breath from the motorcyclist and no more mention of braking distances or any other critique of my driving.
That the XF could bite and bite hard was demonstrated the following night as I headed home to Pakuranga. Unknown to me, the then Ellerslie Borough Council had a ritual of washing the road in the shopping centre late at night. I turned the Falcon into the right-angled left-hander that leads into the shopping centre, hit the throttle, and half-spun.
When they encountered the streaming wet road, the rear tyres instantly lost grip and the falcon went into snap-oversteer. Fortunately, we didn’t hit anything; but it was a reminder that big rear-wheel drive cars need a gentle touch and need to be treated with respect.
The XF was replaced in 1987 by the good-looking but disastrously unreliable EA, a car shunned by Australian taxi drivers who replaced them with second-hand XFs.
Properly sorted, though, the EA is a good car, though its handling is nothing to get excited about.
Best of the bunch is the S which has sporty touches and attractive contrasting body trim highlights.
The big news came in 1991 when a 5.0-litre V8 was slotted into the EB, a subtly restyled version of the EA.
We drove the EB V8 in Australia, in a launch based around the 2001 Bathurst 1000km race.
The EB was a much better car than the EA, and the V8-powered version was sublime, with crisp handling and good grip, even on Australian dirt roads.
Ford added ABS braking to the Falcon the following year, and launched the first XR high-performance EBs, developed jointly with British outfit Tickford which set up shop just down the road from the Ford factory in Broadmeadows.
The first joint venture model, the XR6, was the beginning of the long-lasting and ultra-successful line that continues to this day.
An anniversary GT, powered by the V8 followed, then the XR8 (with the ED model in and with the BA of 2002 came what is probably the best mainstream performance Falcon ever built, the XR6 Turbo.
My favourite E-Series Falcon arrived in 1994, the EF, with its Thunderbird-influence ultra-sleek nose and well-sorted, nimble chassis.
The EF’s undoing was part of what, to me, is a major part of its charm: the nimbleness is accompanied by a propensity to oversteer – not a rebirth of the XF’s snap-oversteer, but a willingness to waggle its tail if you push it hard in tighter corners.
A base model EF with somewhat “buzzed up” rear tyres, gave me one of the most memorable drives of my life – from Wanaka and the Fighter Museum, across the Crown Range and back to Queenstown where Ford was launching the front-drive, oddly-styled and US-built Taurus.
The EF was a blast on the tarmac twists and turns, its turn-in to corners crisp and the car responding beautifully to gentle and minimal steering inputs: a car that liked to be finessed rather than manhandled.
But the Aussie media blasted the EF as a tail-happy aberration. Ford responded with the EF II but still didn’t dial out enough oversteer to meet the critics’ tastes.
The response was the EL, one of the Falcon box office hits, but my least favourite E-Series.
Ford dialled in masses of rear end grip, killing the oversteer but in the process replacing ti with understeer. An EL gave me my most frightening experience in a Falcon.
We were heading north to the Bay of Islands for the January break. Thew weather was appalling with State Highway 1 closed by flooding.
We worked out way north through Paparoa and the back road to Kaikohe in torrential rain. The rear end stuck like glue with nary a hint of breakaway.
But in hilly going not far south of Kaikohe it all came unstuck. I turned into a corner, hit a bump and the front wheels lost grip.
The car slid off the road and on to a small banking where the brakes finally bit (the ABS had allowed me to retain some steering control) and we came to a halt inches away from a drop down into the bush: give me oversteer any day.
The EL was replaced by the controversially-styled AU, a car slagged by the Australian media because it looked too much like the feared US Taurus (the Aussies were afraid the Falcon would be replace by the American car as Ford Australia’s family sedan); seeing it for the first time a colleague said the AU looked like a Taurus that someone had steeped on.
Though it had some reliability issues, the AU was better than the press it got in its homeland, particularly the XR models which were a hit with NZ buyers.
By the time the model bowed out as the AU III, the V8 was developing 220kW, and the car was very well-sorted.
The BA that replace it was a masterstroke: more conservative front and rear ends were blended with the AU’s centre section to create a very handsome car.
The big news was the XR6 Turbo which provided V8 performance with a smoothness and near-European sports sedan agility and ability.
It’s a sublime package, surpassed only by the greatest Falcon Ford has yet produced – the Typhoon F6.
A development of the XR6 Turbo by Ford Performance Vehicles (FPV), it comes with either a Tremec six-speed manual gearbox of the absolutely superb ZF six-speed auto (with sequential manual shift).
Road manners are faultless, and the Typhoon has a feeling of unity and one-ness that the equally potent V8-engined GT-P can’t manage.
The F6 is an iron hand in a velvet glove where the GT-P is an automotive sledgehammer.
Till Holden’s new VE Commodore arrived, Ford clearly held the high ground with the BF Falcon range and the sublime F6.
People who have driven the new Commodore say Ford now has a very real fight on its hands: the ball is back in the Blue Oval court.