The guy at the BP service station just outside Rotorua was clearly impressed.
"What's it go like?" he wants to know after I ask him to fill the tank with 96 octane.
"Good, very good."
"Oil and water?"
"No, they don't need checking."
"No, I want to look under the bonnet," he insists.
That's the only time he's disappointed. The Tickford TS50's 5.6-litre V8 is hidden beneath a plastic shroud, the Ford bent-eight largely hidden from view.
He savours the V8's burble as we draw away and head off towards Gisborne.
A similar scene plays out the following morning when refuel again. Different young guy this time. Figures the Tickford would have set me back a bit. I don't go into explanations about how it isn't mine, just on test. Gave up years ago on trying to explain how a particular car really belongs to one car company or another and I'm driving it to write about it.
This guy is very impressed by the big multi-spoked alloy wheels. Ironically, they're off a TE50 and not even available as an option for the TS version of the Falcon/Fairmont-based T-Series. A Ford staffer had swapped them for the TS's five-spoke alloys to see how the multi-spoke looked on the more expensive model.
The final scene of public admiration of the striking TS50 comes a few nights later. I refuel at a BP station in Auckland's Herne Bay and a tanker driver making a delivery says "great car, mate. That's the one with the 5.6, eh?" He gives me and the TS50 the thumbs up. I feel quite proud, even though it's not my car and it has to go home to Ford the following day.
That these three exchanges took place in gas stations tells you other things about the TS50.
That it likes the taste of petrol, consuming it at a rate of 14-15 litres per 100 kilometres. We saw a best of around 10.5 litres/100km in gentle open road running, a worst of around 18 litres/100km when the car was working hard.
It also tells you that the car's fuel tank may be a little small at 68 litres.
At the second Rotorua refill we'd eked 412km out of the tank. The trip computer told me the replenished tank would take me 413km. We managed more than 430.
The smallish tank and highish fuel consumption means you'll be stopping for fuel reasonably often on a long journey.
Between the Rotorua and Herne Bay gas stops the car had attracted huge public attention. People would stop and peer into it as it sat parked on the roadside.
Tickfords are still a relatively rare sight on NZ roads.
There were some disparaging remarks - doubtless from Holden fans - but most people seemed impressed by the way the car looked.
Ford Falcon AU styling may have been roundly criticised, but the TS50 with its bodykit and aggressive rear wing attracted just as much attention as the Monaro we road tested.
The car looks the business on the road, too. When we hove to in the rear-view mirrors of slower moving cars there was a tendency for them to let you past very quickly.
And we weren't running that fast. After making a $120 contribution to the government's coffers after being pinged for cruising along a straight, dry, almost traffic-free section of State Highway 1 at 116km/h, I had no desire either to increase my demerit points or to cough up more money for the government. That ticket, the first in 38 years' driving, was the result of being lulled into a contented daydream after a good breakfast. And the car? A Holden Zafira of all things, a smooth, quiet vehicle which gives very little impression of speed. I was genuinely daydreaming and let the speed rise without realising it. I was caught by a hand-held radar gun from a two-officer unmarked patrol car coming in the opposite direction. When I saw him turn on to the side of the road and get ready to U-turn I checked the speedo - it was around 115km/h. There could be no argument. It was a fair cop. So for the trip in the Tickford to Rotorua and the eastern Bay of Plenty for the Rotorua international rally we kept speeds down.
On the night-time run from Auckland to Rotorua, the Tickford was virtually on automatic pilot. Its ability to take most of the corners at between 90 and 100km/h was never challenged. The small, twisty hillclimb and descent just north of Patetonga was virtually the only time - except for intersections - that the TS50's impressive brakes were even touched. And the Tickford did the work with consummate ease, never putting a foot wrong despite the appalling weather.
The baptism of fire came the following morning as we moved relentlessly but effortlessly through the torrential rain towards Opotiki and the Waioeka Gorge, heading for the rally's service park at Matawai.
As we burbled along the straight section of road that leads from Opotiki and into the delights of the challenging gorge road, a Honda Integra driven by a baseball cap boy flashed past in the murk. He was just a distant dot as he entered the gorge.
In the gorge, the TS50 was a revelation. It's difficult to communicate just how bad the weather was, but if you'd been making the journey in even a six-cylinder Falcon 20 years ago you'd have backed right off after the first few lurid tailslides.
This time we were in a V8 Falcon-bed (or more correctly, in the TS50's case, Fairmont-based) car with a V8 engine developing 250kW (at 5250rpm) and a chunky and wet road grip-threatening 500Nm of peak torque (developed at 4250rpm).
But its 18-inch diameter, 8-inch wide alloy wheels are shod with P245/40ZR18 Dunlop SP 9000 high-performance tyres.
There's a limited-slip diff; independent suspension front and rear. The suspension is beefed up, the car's ride height lowered.
We drove the first few corners gingerly, even though we were confident of the car's abilities after several hundred kilometres of wet road motoring.
But there was no hint of a tailslide, no suggestion of rear end breakaway.
The Tickford turned into the corners with sports car-like sharpness and tracked on through, totally unflappable.
As we pushed a little harder we could feel the weight transfer to the outside rear wheel as the Dunlops dug through the water and grabbed the tarmac. But there was still no hint of sliding or rear-wheel breakaway.
We reached for the Traction Control off switch to see what would happen to the tail-end grip, but couldn't find it. That's because the TS50 - or any of the three-car Tickford family - isn't fitted with Traction Control. Tickford is so confident of the car's grip, handling and driver-friendliness that it doesn't think the driver needs outside help.
And they're right. Few NZ roads would provide a sterner test of a car's chassis dynamics than the Waioeka Gorge with its mix of fast, medium and deceptively tightening slow-speed corners. And the TS50 dealt with it with ease in weather conditions you'd think were more suited to a car with all-wheel drive.
Even manually shifting the four-speed automatic gearbox into second gear for the slower corners and giving the throttle a reasonable nudge on the exit caused the TS50 no problems.
It lost grip only once, heading uphill on a corner with a 25km/h advisory sign. And the Dunlops basically gathered up the slide before it began.
Very impressive stuff. We also caught the Integra, despite keeping our top speed to 100km/h. The Tickford just maintained momentum. It didn't need to slow so much for corners and the massive torque soon had it back up to 100km/h again.
It took longer to catch him than I'd expected but I was being very disciplined on speeds. I'd seen what hand-held radar guns can do when they're pointed through the window of a two-cop mufti Commodore.
The Tickford's cornering ability must have looked like business to the Integra driver. He pulled over and let us sail past.
For the next two days we had some of the most enjoyable motoring we've ever had. The car was stunning, with huge performance, unshakeable grip, brilliantly agile handling. Its only downside was its thirst. But the rest of it was so good I think I could live with the TS50's drinking problem.
The four-speed automatic gearbox is smooth-shifting with quick, jerk-free kickdown.
A special word needs to be said about the 5.6-litre V8 (Tickford took the 5.0-litre out another 600cc by increasing the piston stroke).
And that's its sound. When you floor the gas and the V8 opens its lungs it emits a gloriously-throaty shriek.
Overtaking slower cars on the open road, the temptation is to shift manually into second and nail the throttle.
Not only does the torque gather up the 1700kg car and catapult it forward instantaneously, but the exhaust roars and wails its satisfaction.
Headlight performance is stunning, the powerful headlights and standard spoiler-mounted driving lights providing an excellent spread of light.
The windscreen wipers worked efficiently, clearing the screen quickly of huge amounts of water in the deluges we drove in and out of.
The brakes' performance left nothing to be desired, hauling the big car down quickly for the tight turns of the Waioeka Gorge road.
The run back to Auckland was effortless, and I got out of the car hugely impressed by one of the finest cars I've ever driven.
It's definitely on the wish-list.
Till the revamped Tickford with the more aggressive styling and the 5.6-litre engine, Ford has seemed to struggle to match the HSV Holdens.
The engine is still a wee bit down on power - 5kW - but has 25 more Newton Metres of torque than the HSV Clubsport R8's 5.7-litre Gen III V8.
That gives ballpark performance. The TS50 takes around six seconds for the 0-100km/h sprint, the R8 a shade longer.
The Tickford now has real road presence. The original Tickfords had performance and excellent handling, but their styling was so understated they looked like Fairmonts.
But the new TS50 looks like a sports sedan. It looks like business and it delivers in spades.
Both the TS50 and the HSV have excellent performance and vice-free handling; both ride well and both have more than ample passenger and luggage space.
In many ways they're broadly similar and the choice between Tickford or HSV may eventually come down to styling, marque loyalty or pricing.
That said, the TS50 has a slightly more urgent character than the R8.
The turn-in to corners is crisper and more instant, the chassis feel is a fraction more lively and the V8 has a rawer, angrier feel, especially on full throttle.
The car seems to leap off the line or out of slow corners more aggressively than the HSV.
HSV has held the upper hand till now, but at last Ford is fielding a real rival for the Holden offering.
AutoPoint road test team: story and pictures by Mike Stock.