While the North American Ford Falcon quietly disappeared in 1970, its Australian counterpart went on to a long and eventful career that continues to this day. This week, we take a look at the birth of the Australian Ford Falcon, including the 1960-1972 XK, XL, XM, XP, XR, XT, XW, and XY Falcon, the Falcon GT, and the beginnings of a storied racing career.
FORD IN AUSTRALIA
The history of Ford in Australia begins not in Oz, but in the Canadian town of Walkerville, Ontario, now part of Windsor. In January 1904, Gordon McGregor, the president of the Walkerville Wagon Company, decided that his firm should enter the emerging automotive business. Seeking a partner, McGregor approached Henry Ford, whose new Ford Motor Company had been incorporated the previous year. That summer, they established the jointly owned Ford Motor Company of Canada, which held the rights to manufacture and distribute Ford cars and trucks in Canada and other British territories (excepting Ireland and Great Britain itself). Production of Canadian Fords began that October, some for local sale, some for export to markets like South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.
Australia soon emerged as Ford of Canada’s largest export market, with the first car arriving in Sydney in 1904. Although a regional sales office was established in Melbourne in 1909, Ford engaged separate distributors in each Australian state, beginning with Victoria’s Tarrant Motor Company. In the early days, each distributor generally dealt directly with the Canadian headquarters, and it was not until March 1925 that Ford of Canada established a formal Australian subsidiary, Ford Motor Company of Australia Ltd., in Geelong, Victoria.
Although their running gear was manufactured in Canada, the bodies of many early Australian Fords were made locally by coachbuilders like T.J. Richards and Sons or Holden’s Motor Body Builders (which merged with GM Motors Australia to form GM-Holden in 1931). By the twenties, Ford was importing complete knock down (CKD) kits for local assembly, first by outside agencies, later in Ford’s own factories in Geelong, Adelaide, and Brisbane; Ford was the first major automaker to have its own assembly facilities in Australia. As we discussed in our earlier article on the Ranchero, in the mid-thirties, Ford Australia also developed a unique body style, the coupe-utility, or “ute,” which became an Australian staple.
THE BIRTH OF “AUSTRALIA’S OWN CAR”
The motorization of Australia was a gradual process. According to the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, total car and truck registrations in 1924 numbered only 221,285, compared to more than 650,000 in Great Britain and over 15 million in the United States. By 1939, total vehicle registrations had grown to around 820,000, with new car and truck registrations for the 1938 fiscal year totaling about 76,500. By the outbreak of World War 2, however, Australia still had fewer than 130 motor vehicles for every 1,000 people, compared to about 243 vehicles per 1,000 people in the United States, and only about 25% of Australian households owned an automobile.
While there had been a few small-scale efforts to develop a truly Australian car, going back to at least 1899, it was not until the late thirties that the prospect of local manufacturing complete automobiles began to seem economically viable. Earlier in the decade, the Australian government had imposed new tariffs and import restrictions intended to spur local production of automotive components and replacement parts. In 1939 and 1940, those efforts culminated in controversial legislation that would have given Australian Consolidated Industries Ltd. (ACI) an effective monopoly on native automobile manufacture.
The ACI deal subsequently collapsed in a flurry of debate over its constitutionality, but by 1944, the Labor government of Prime Minister John Curtin was looking for ways to bolster the Commonwealth’s industrial base, hoping to maintain wartime levels of production and employment after the conflict ended. In October 1944, the Department of Post-War Reconstruction’s Second Industry Commission invited major automakers to submit proposals for postwar manufacture of a truly Australian car.
The Australian government eventually received proposals from five automakers: the Nuffield Organisation (Morris/Wolseley/MG), Standard-Triumph, Chrysler, GM-Holden, and Ford. Ford’s plan called for a complete line of V8-powered cars and trucks, based on the 1942 Mercury. That proposal was apparently more grandiose than the Cabinet had in mind; for local manufacture to be sustainable, the Second Industry Commission projected that the new car would need to sell at least 20,000 units a year, which demanded something more affordable and fuel efficient. Ford managing director Hubert French may also have erred by asking for AU£850,000 (US$1.7 million) for tooling costs — more than the government was prepared to invest. Subsequent negotiations failed to produce a mutually agreeable figure, and the Cabinet finally accepted a proposal from GM-Holden for a more modest six-cylinder car, based on a prototype previously developed (and discarded) in Detroit.
The result was the Australian-made Holden 48/215, launched in November 1948 in a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Ben Chifley. The new Holden quite overshadowed Ford’s lineup of locally assembled imports, which at the time included the English Ford Anglia, Prefect, and Pilot, as well as a smattering of bigger Canadian V8s. Offering an appealing combination of size, performance, economy, and patriotic pride, the 48/215 quickly won the affection of a generation of Australian motorists. By 1950, it accounted for about one in every seven new car sales in Oz.
FROM FORD ZEPHYR TO FALCON
The Australian market expanded rapidly after the war. According to the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, new car and truck registrations for the 1950 fiscal year totaled nearly 250,000, a new record. Responding to the increased demand, by the end of 1952, Chrysler, the Nuffield Organisation, and Standard-Triumph had all established their own Australian assembly plants. The added competition took its toll on Ford’s market share, but it did little to slow the growth of GM-Holden, which by decade’s end would control more than half the Australian market.
The Holden 48/215 and its successors, the FJ and FE, were not GM-Holden’s only products during this era, but much of the company’s strength came from the Holden’s status as “Australia’s Own Car.” Aside from its obvious nationalist appeal, local manufacture had definite economic advantages; a six-cylinder Ford Zephyr, for example, cost around 10% more than a comparable Holden. To seriously challenge Holden’s dominance, rivals would need ‘dinkum’ Australian cars of their own.