Falcons Down Under: The Australian Ford Falcon, Part One

1957 Ford Zephyr Mk2 © 2006 Michael Spiller (CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic)
The immediate predecessor of the Australian Ford Falcon was the Zephyr Mark II, seen here in left-hand-drive form. The Ford Zephyr was essentially a six-cylinder version of the Ford Consul, boasting a 156 cu. in. (2,553 cc) engine with 86 hp (64 kW). It was not a strong seller in the Australian market. (Photo: “1957 Ford Zephyr Mk2” © 2006 Michael Spiller; used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

In June 1950, Charles A. Smith, who had previously worked in Ford’s Canadian and South African operations, replaced Hubert French as Ford Australia’s managing director. Smith soon began pushing for an extensive overhaul of Ford’s Australian business, including plant modernization and, inevitably, the introduction of locally manufactured products. By 1955, Smith had finally convinced his superiors in Oakville, Ontario (where Ford of Canada had moved its headquarters in 1953) to authorize AU£18.5 million (around US$41 million) for facilities and tooling for local manufacture. In April 1957, Ford Australia purchased 400 acres (161.8 hectares) of land in Broadmeadows, outside Melbourne, which had a larger base of skilled workers than did Geelong. Construction on the new factory began the following February.

The central question, of course, was what car the new plant would manufacture. Initial plans involved an updated version of the six-cylinder Zephyr Mark II, which had bowed in 1956. It was a logical choice, since the Zephyr was Ford’s closest competitor to the popular Holden in size and performance. Local manufacture would also help to bring the Zephyr’s price more in line with that of its GM foe.

Although the Zephyr Mark IIA was to be Ford’s first Australian-made car, styling was still the province of the corporate headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. In July 1958, Charlie Smith and engineer Brian Inglis flew to Dearborn to view a full-size model of the new Zephyr. To the dismay of his American colleagues, Smith disdained the mock-up, declaring frankly that it would be no match for its Holden rival. It was not an especially politic response, but Ford Australia had a great deal riding on the new car and a warmed-over version of a model for which Australian buyers were not exactly queuing up wasn’t what Smith had in mind.

Fortunately, Ford of Canada executive vice president Theodore Emmett, who had invited Smith to Dearborn in the first place, stepped in to suggest an alternative: the compact Falcon, then in development for the North American market.

As we’ve previously discussed, Ford had seriously considered introducing a compact U.S. model in the late forties, but the planned “Light Car” was ultimately consigned to the European market, becoming the French Ford Vedette. Ford Division stylists had been toying with compact and subcompact designs since the mid-fifties, but it was not until 1957 that a new small car for the U.S. market became a serious production program, thanks in no small part to the support of Robert McNamara, then group vice president of the car and truck group.

The new compact was initially code-named “19XK Thunderbird” (or just “XK-Thunderbird”); it officially received the name “Falcon” in April 1958. By the time Charlie Smith arrived in Dearborn later that year, it was close to its final production form and its engineering was on the fast track for an October 1959 introduction.

The Falcon was more to Charlie Smith’s liking than the mooted Zephyr Mark IIA. While its styling was unlikely to set many hearts aflutter, it was much more modern than the Zephyr and it looked more American than English — something Smith thought would appeal to Australian buyers. Although the Falcon was marginally larger than the Zephyr Mark II, it actually weighed less and it promised to be cheaper to build.

February 1960 issue of the Austra-Ford Gazette - Ford Motor Company
The February 1960 issue of Ford Australia’s employee newspaper, announcing the opening of the new Broadmeadows plant in a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Robert Menzies. (Image: Ford Motor Company)

While Brian Inglis had some doubts about the Falcon’s suitability for Australian roads, Smith was sold. Even before he and Inglis returned home, Smith cabled his office to cancel tooling and parts orders for the Zephyr Mark IIA.

THE FIRST AUSTRALIAN FORD FALCON: THE XK

The new Broadmeadows factory was completed in August 1959, coming online in time to assemble the final Australian-built Zephyrs; Mark II production ended October 22. The engine plant in Geelong, meanwhile, was tooled up to produce the Falcon’s all-new lightweight six.

Pilot production of the first Australian Falcon, dubbed XK, began in June 1960. By then, managing director Charlie Smith, the Falcon’s greatest champion, was already gone, having retired at the end of 1959. His successor was John McIntyre.

The XK Falcon was presented to the press at Melbourne’s posh Chevron Hotel in September 1960 and went on sale shortly thereafter, about 11 months after its U.S. counterpart. The wagon debuted a month later, with the panel van and coupe-utility arriving the following May.

The first Australian Ford Falcon: the 1960 XK - Ford Motor Company
The very first Australian-built XK Falcon, photographed at the Broadmeadows plant on Tuesday, June 28, 1960. Starting in July, Falcons were also built in Ford’s Brisbane plant, which provided more than 15% of XK production. (Photo: Ford Motor Company)

SIDEBAR: Model Years and Model Designations

North American and European readers, accustomed to identifying cars by model years, may be unfamiliar with the Australian system of model identification. As enthusiast John Howell explains:

Traditionally, cars sold in Australia have a model code (normally two letters) instead of a model year, as annual model changes are uncommon. More often, a model will run for 18 months to three years, usually including a minor update in longer runs. A platform will normally run for 8-10 years, with a major mid-cycle refresh in that time. From a legal point of view, cars are titled as the year they were complianced, independent of any model code or year attached. So, we could have a Oct 1956 ‘1957’ Chev, for example. It would still be referred to as a ’57, but the registration label would say 1956.

In some cases, an individual model receives significant revisions during its run, ranging from changes in engine or option availability to major structural modifications. As a result, individual cars with the same model code may differ quite a bit depending on when they were actually manufactured.

The use of model codes often makes it difficult to directly compare the annual sales totals of different models. Unlike the U.S., where most new cars are introduced at roughly the same time each autumn and continued through the following summer, new Australian cars may appear at different points during the year and the run of a particular model will often overlap multiple generations of its key rivals. Because the length of each model run is not uniform, even comparing the sales of two generations of a single car can be problematic. For example, while total production of the XK Falcon exceeded that of the later XM, the XK’s production run was nearly 24 months while the XM’s lasted just under a year.

Although it was available only in four-door form, the initial Australian XK sedan was nearly identical to the early North American Falcon, with a modest 144 cu. in. (2,365 cc) engine, 13-inch (330mm) rims, and a decidedly Spartan standard of trim. Starting price was AU£909 (about US$2,025 at the contemporary exchange rate), or AU£1,337 with tax (about US$2,540) — roughly AU£30 (US$67) more than a basic FB Holden.

1960 Ford Falcon fordor front3q
1960 Ford XK Falcon front 3q Nick Smales - Ford Motor Company
Separated at birth. The 1960 North American Ford Falcon (top) and and the Australian XK Falcon (bottom) are nearly identical in almost all respects. Both are 181.2 inches (4,602 mm) long on a 109.5-inch (2,781mm) wheelbase, 70 inches (1,778 mm) wide, and 54.5 inches (1,384 mm) tall, weighing a bit over 2,400 lb (about 1,100 kg). (Top photo © 2010 Aaron Severson; bottom photo: Ford Motor Company)

In its favor, the XK Falcon had more modern styling, greater space efficiency, and a better power-to-weight ratio than the FB Holden, although some buyers nonetheless complained that it was underpowered. The Falcon also returned reasonable economy for a family sedan even with the optional two-speed Fordomatic, an AU£119 (US$265) option, and offered easy steering and a cossetting, big-car ride.

Unfortunately, the XK’s hasty development (and Ford Australia’s lack of a dedicated proving grounds) had left little opportunity for testing in local conditions. The Falcon’s commendably light weight had been achieved by ruthlessly optimizing every component for typical American use, which meant gentle driving on smooth, level roads. Smooth pavement was still scarce in Australia in 1960. According to official statistics, less than half of Australia’s publicly accessible roads were paved even with gravel and only about 10% were concrete or modern sealed bitumen. In typical Australian use, the Falcon’s soft suspension tended to lose its composure, its slow steering was too vague, and the traction and load capacity of its skinny 6.00 x 13 inch tires left much to be desired. Dust sealing was also inadequate, something that was seldom a concern in middle America, but of considerable relevance to Australian owners.

The Falcon soon developed a reputation for fragility, as well. Even in the U.S., early Falcons were prone to front suspension problems in hard use; on rough Australian roads, customers soon complained of ball joint failures and other front-end ailments. Clutch problems were another frequent complaint, as was premature rust. Some historians maintain that the XK’s mechanical woes have been exaggerated, but Ford officials like Max Gransden, then the regional sales manager for New South Wales, admitted that the early cars’ service issues were a major problem, not least in terms of public perception.

Early Falcon sales were disappointing. Although most Americans considered the Falcon a cheap small car, the XK was a largish sedan by Australian standards and its price was a bit rich for economy-minded buyers, even without the negative word of mouth about its reliability. While the FB Holden looked comparatively dated — a bit like a mid-fifties Chevy sedan that shrank in the wash — it was a known quantity, it was somewhat cheaper, and it had a significant edge in brand loyalty. Not helping matters were a 1961 credit crunch and a dramatic increase in the national sales tax, which had a chilling effect on the entire Australian market before it was hastily rescinded the following year.

1960 Ford XK Falcon front 3q - Ford Motor Company
Like the 1960 U.S. cars, the early XK Falcon was offered only with a 144 cu. in. (2,365 cc) six, initially rated at 90 gross horsepower (67 kW), later revised to 85 hp (63 kW). In 1961, Ford added a new “Pursuit 170” (2,780 cc) engine option — previously introduced in the 1961 North American Falcon and Mercury Comet — which offered 101 gross horsepower (75 kW) and notably brighter performance. This car’s sun shades and passenger-side mirror were not standard equipment, although they were popular accessories. (Photo: Ford Motor Company)

Ford Australia eventually built 68,455 XK Falcons through June 1962. That was better than the 11,000-odd R- and S-Series Valiants Chrysler Australia sold during the same period, but well behind the FB Holden, which accounted for nearly 175,000 sales between 1960 and 1962. On a brighter note, the Falcon did markedly improve Ford’s Australian market share, which rose to more than 19%. By the end of 1961, Ford had committed more than AU£15 million (about US$33.5 million) to expand its total Australian production capacity from 50,000 to 90,000 units a year.

(We should note that the introduction of the XK Falcon did not mean the end of local assembly of imported CKD kits. Ford continued to offer locally assembled models like the English Ford Anglia and Consul (and later the Cortina), along with a modest number of U.S. or Canadian Fairlanes and Galaxies.)

20 Comments

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  1. I am a Holden man, but it is wonderful that the Australian Falcon story is shared. I just hope that the next Falcon will not be a Taurus, the Aussie Falcon just always needs to be rear wheel drive. By the way I absolutely adore your articles!

  2. Nice work on the Australian Falcon piece so far. It’s unusual and refreshing to read about the topic from the perspective of someone from outside of the Australian car culture who can take an informed look through a non-partisan lens, and not have their impressions gradually influenced by some 40 plus years of marketing, to say nothing of the schoolyard and BBQ mythologizing.

    1. all about falcons but what about furtura We have a 1962 2door and can’t find out anything please help

      1. The Futura was a Falcon trim series. It was introduced in the U.S. midway through the 1961 model year, initially priced $248 above than the base model. The Futura included bucket seats, vinyl upholstery, and a center console with a storage bin. It had a slightly different roofline and different wheel covers than other two-door Falcon sedans, but it was otherwise mechanically identical.

        In 1961 and 1962, the Futura was available only as a two-door sedan. In 1963, the Falcon Futura became a model, available in several different body styles.

        A Futura model was added to the Australian line with the XL Falcon. It was similar but not quite identical to the U.S. version; the initial XL Falcon Futura was available only as a four-door sedan, although a two-door hardtop was added with the XM line.

        I have a decent set of photos of a ’62 North American Futura, which you can see on the Ate Up With Motor Flickr page.

  3. So great to have you back! Just a quick trouble note, the end of page 5 after the Amazon ads is cut off on the right, including the commenting application (in Firefox 3.6.13), 1680×1050.

    1. Oops, a big block of text in the bibliography was messing with the border. It’s fixed for Firefox; IE and Opera are proving more difficult.

  4. Excellent article, Aaron… as a Falcon lover in the US I’ve always been curious about the Aussie Falcons (as well as those built and sold by Ford in other markets around the world) and your article has answered a number of questions that I had about them. Looking forward to the next installment!

  5. Thank you for the many excellent articles you have here! This is far and away my favorite automotive website, your writing and research are exceptional!

    Keep up the great work!

  6. Very good article and for someone not conversant with Aussie cars well researched Did anyone show you a pic of what Ford OZ wanted to do to the Zephyr god it was awful no surprise they got turned down. Having had experience of both the Zephyr was a better car. Looking forward to the next instalment.

    1. Alas, I was not able to get a picture of the stillborn Zephyr Mark IIA (I did ask Ford Archives).

      1. Someone published some drawings in a hotrod mag once puporting to be Ford OZs ideas not a pretty car and Ford England wasnt changing their car to suit anyone even a tiny market like Aussie, they took the Falcon NZ got both but the Zephyr was much more popular especially the MK3 which was English motor way capable the Zodiac could hit 100mph yer needed a long downhill run in a Falcon to do that Ford solved that problem in OZ by turning the Zcar line off.

  7. Truly enjoyed reading stories of your Falcon. We in Argentina had similar development issues for the first 60s models since our roads were very rugged too. In the 70s we parted ways when local designers coyed with specific preferences dictated by the respective markets. My only Australian Falcon experience happened when I saw an 80s Aussie Falcon roaming the streets of Buenos Aires quite a few times. It very much looked like an early european Ford Granada.
    The car had local plates and was obviously RHD. I presume it was brought in by a member of the Australian Embassy, thus circumventing local laws. In Argentina we miss our Falcon but there is no market yet for a Segment D car.
    These days we build the Focus instead and Argentinians still hold the Ford brand very dear for the successful subsequent Falcon models built and for the fact that they built the first automotive plant in the country back in 1913.

  8. I would like to add a small but significant tidbit.

    Australian Design Rules mandated the taillamps to contain amber-coloured turn signal and red-coloured brake signal and night illumination. That requirement was introduced on the 1963 model year.

    That required some design changes to the taillamps on the Australian models thereafter.

    1. I don’t know what dates ADRs 1 (reversing lamps) and 6 (turn signals) were first drafted, but one of the interesting tidbits I found in the Department of Infrastructure and Transport’s website was that they were initially just guidelines (however seriously manufacturers may have regarded them) — they didn’t start to become legal requirements until 1969. ADR1 didn’t become mandatory until 1 January 1972, ADR6 until 1 January 1973. However, Australia was a signatory of the 1958 United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Vehicle Regulations agreement, which imposed its own international standards for headlamps, taillights, and signaling. (I must admit I’ve only glanced at the UNECE regulations, which are lengthy and very complex, and comparing them to the ADRs would be quite a project.)

  9. Just a note about the ford 351cu V8 engines. The 351 cleveland engine has a shorter deck height (9.2inch) than the 351 windsor engine (9.5inch) it replaced. Its slightly wider and heavier than a windsor, but not as tall. All the XW/XY GT motors were imported from the US, local engine production didn’t occur until the early to mid 1970s.

  10. Yup — the information I found says that the locally manufactured (H block) Cleveland was phased in on non-GT Falcons in mid-1972, and replaced the imported D block engines in GTs from the end of 1973.

  11. Great research and a really interesting read. Can anyone confirm the story that Ford Australia sold off their XK, XP dies to Ford Argentina? The Falcon was produced there till 1992, and it was basically an XK shell that was updated. The Ranchero (ute) uses short doors like the Aussie version, and the Rural (wagon) seems to have the short rear overhang of the Aussie wagon, but I stumbled on this great article looking to answer this question, so maybe one of the many Ford Falcon readers will know. Thanks, Scott.

    1. Dear Scott, XK dies were brought from the USA in 1963 for import substitution. However, I don’t know the case for the Ranchero and Rural (SW or Estate) versions.

  12. Hi,

    Great work on the site, the depth of the content is impressive.

    Just a quick correction. Page 3 of this article refers to “Chrysler’s AP5 Valiant, which offered an optional V8 engine”. The AP5 only had the slant six engine. The V8 was first made available in the AP6.

    1. Thanks, Stuart! That was a typo — I fixed it in the text.

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