Falcons Down Under: The Australian Ford Falcon, Part Two

MAD MAX

Not long before production of the third-generation Falcon ended in March 1979, director George Miller and producer Byron Kennedy wrapped filming on the movie that would make it an icon. Produced on a very limited budget, Mad Max was a sort of post-apocalyptic blend of Two-Lane Blacktop and Walking Tall: a violent drama about a vengeful cop hunting down a marauding biker gang in a vaguely defined dystopian future. It ultimately grossed more than US$100 million worldwide, making an international star of a young Australian actor named Mel Gibson and spawning an even more successful 1981 sequel, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. A third film, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, followed in 1985. [A fourth, Mad Max: Fury Road, followed in 2015.]

As far auto enthusiasts were concerned, the films’ most interesting feature was their array of Australian cars, which few outside Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa had ever seen. Most of the cars deployed by the first film’s fictional Main Force Patrol were XA or XB Falcons, at least one of which had previously been an actual police car in Melbourne. The title character’s ill-fated family had a modified HJ Holden Sandman van.

1973 Ford XB Falcon hardtop Max Max replica front 3q © 2009 Tamsin Slater (CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic)
A replica of the Mad Max film car, photographed in Silverton, NSW, in 2009. Purists should note that while this car was famously described as a V8 Interceptor in Mad Max 2, in the first film it was actually called a Pursuit Special. The Interceptor was a yellow XB Falcon sedan. (Photo: “Mad Max Interceptor Replica” © 2009 Tamsin Slater; used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

The most famous of the film cars, of course, was Max’s black Falcon coupe, featured prominently in both the first film and The Road Warrior. Originally a 1973 XB GT, the Falcon was customized with side pipes, a simulated Weiand 6-71 supercharger, fender flares, roof and decklid spoilers, and a “Concorde” front clip (a popular aftermarket piece originally developed by Ford stylist Peter Arcadipane).

Some of these modifications were removed after the filming of Mad Max because they ran afoul of the state of Victoria’s compliance (licensing) requirements, forcing the filmmakers to recreate the changes for the sequel. For the second film, the car also received a number of other modifications, including the addition of auxiliary fuel tanks to reflect the continuing disintegration of Max’s world. The original car was eventually sold for scrap, but it was subsequently purchased and restored by collector Bob Fursenko and is now on exhibit at England’s Cars of the Stars Motor Museum in Keswick.

BLACKWOOD: THE XD FALCON

The fourth-generation Falcon bowed on March 28, 1979, a mere two weeks before the premiere of Mad Max, and was shaped in no small part by the same events that had inspired the film: the chaos following the 1973–74 OPEC embargo.

Even before the embargo and subsequent energy crisis, there had been some concern that the continued growth of cars like the Falcon and the big Holdens would eventually take them out of Australian buyers’ comfort zone in size, price, and thirst. Although sales had remained surprisingly good throughout the crisis, as GM-Holden and Ford Australia looked toward the end of the decade, both gave serious thought to downsizing.

As in the U.S., where GM downsized its big cars for the 1977 model year, Holden was first unto the breach, launching the new VB Commodore in November 1978. Developed at a cost of more than AU$110 million (approximately US$125 million), the Commodore combined familiar Holden running gear with a body shell based on the Opel Rekord E. The Commodore was 5.4 inches (137 mm) shorter, 6.7 inches (170 mm) narrower, and about 270 lb (122 kg) lighter than the big Kingswood, splitting the difference between the HZ and the compact Torana.

While Ford Australia considered a similar adaptation of one of the corporation’s North American or European models, they opted instead for an extensive makeover of the XC platform, code-named Blackwood. The Blackwood, later christened XD, retained the XC’s floorpan and most of its suspension (which had been redesigned in May 1978 to accommodate newly standard radial tires), but most of its body shell was new.

Although it was developed at Ford’s design center in Cambellfield, Victoria, the XD looked decidedly European with its low beltline, large greenhouse, and sharply creased lines. Adding to the effect were a flush grille and rectangular headlights borrowed from the European Ford Granada. Engines were largely carryover, but the XD benefited from an ambitious weight-reduction program that made extensive use of aluminum and plastic components, among them a plastic fuel tank, a first for mass-production cars. In most respects, the XD looked like an all-new model and was scarcely less expensive to develop — a reported AU$100 million (roughly US$113 million).

1981 Ford XD Falcon ESP front 3q © 2011 John Howell (used with permission)
The XD was revised in June 1980 to add updated six-cylinder engines with aluminum heads, designed by Honda. At the same time, Ford introduced the ESP, a sporty model featuring four-wheel disc brakes and a retuned suspension with Bilstein shock absorbers and front and rear anti-roll bars. The 250 cu. in. (4.1 L) six was standard, but this ESP sedan has the optional 351 (5.8 L) V8 with 200 hp (149 kW) and 307 lb-ft (415 N-m) of torque. A body-colored, fog lamps, a front spoiler, and 15-inch (381mm) alloy wheels were also standard. (Photo © 2011 John Howell; used with permission)

The model lineup was also new. The previous base and Falcon 500 were consolidated into a single GL series, while the top-of-the-line Fairmont GXL was superseded by the new Fairmont Ghia, taking its name from the venerable Italian coachworks that Ford had acquired earlier in the decade. There were no more coupes or GTs, although both the 302 (4,942 cc) and 351 (5,765 cc) V8s remained available, now down to 188 hp (140 kW) and 200 hp (149 kW) respectively. Nonetheless, performance and fuel economy were somewhat improved, in large part because the XD was more than 250 lb (115 kg) lighter than the XC. An XD sedan with the big engine and four-speed gearbox could reach 62 mph (100 km/h) in around 8.5 seconds and a top speed of more than 125 mph (200 km/h), sprightly for the time.

BORN-AGAIN RACER

Much to the disappointment of Ford fans and the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport, Ford Australia announced that it had no intention of racing the XD Falcon. Prior to the announcement, however, Ford stylist Wayne Draper and aerodynamicist David Edwards had quietly developed a race-oriented body kit, dubbed “Phase V,” that trimmed the XD’s drag coefficient by more than 25% with a commensurate reduction in lift.

Draper and body shop owner Robert McWilliam, the brother of a Ford modeler, secretly formed a new company, Phase Autos Pty Ltd., to manufacture a small number of Phase V body kits — toned down somewhat in response to objections from CAMS — and partnered with racing driver and builder Murray Carter to sell them. Although only a handful of Phase V cars was actually built, all powered by high-output 351 cu. in. (5,765 cc) engines with a claimed 302 hp (225 kW), Carter was nonetheless able to homologate them for competition.

According to Draper, it was not until the 1980 racing season was under way that Ford management grasped what was going on. Fortunately for him, the XD’s performance at the Hardie-Ferodo 1000 that October was strong enough (despite the fact that none of the eight cars finished the race) to persuade Ford to reexamine their attitude about supporting competition — and to overlook Draper’s unauthorized extracurricular activities.

1980 Ford XD Falcon Bob Morris racer front 3q © Falcadore (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
The XD Falcon sedan raced by Bob Morris and Bill O’Brien at Bathurst in 1980. Engine failure forced its retirement after 88 laps. (Photo: “Falconmorris” © 2008 Falcadore; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Ford management may also have been swayed by the sad plight of driver Dick Johnson, whose XD was destroyed by track debris on the 17th lap at Bathurst. After the race, fans began a campaign to buy Johnson a new car, an effort to which Edsel Ford II announced Ford Australia would contribute. Buoyed by that public show of support and armed with a fresh XD Falcon, Johnson and co-driver John French emerged victorious at Mount Panorama in 1981, although that event was marred by a multi-car wreck that ended the race after only 121 laps.

Overall, the XD Falcon proved to be a similarly sound investment for Ford Australia. It was visibly smaller and more modern-looking than either its predecessor or the outgoing HZ Holden, responding to buyer concerns about fuel economy, but it was bigger than the comparably priced VB Commodore, making the Falcon seem a good value. XD sales totaled almost 207,000 units in 36 months — not a record for the Australian Falcon, but quite good nonetheless.

AUSTRALIA’S #1: THE XE FALCON

The XD was superseded in March 1982 by the new XE Falcon. Although the XE had a new slatted, wrap-over nose treatment and a reshaped boot, it was more than a facelift: XE vans and utes retained the XD’s semi-elliptical rear springs, but the sedans traded Hotchkiss drive for a new trailing-arm rear suspension with coil springs and a Watt’s linkage for lateral axle location. It was not yet an independent rear suspension, which the Falcon would not offer until 1998, but the new layout offered a significantly more comfortable ride with no sacrifice in handling.

With its Continental shape and tidy exterior dimensions, the XE Falcon seemed to have left its American roots far behind it. Also gone was the previous generation’s muscular image, although the Fairmont Ghia ESP, with standard four-wheel disc brakes and performance suspension, made a fair European-style sport sedan, particularly with the optional big V8.

The V8s would not survive for long; both the 302 (4,942 cc) and 351 (5,765 cc) engines were discontinued less than nine months after launch. The big six had long been more popular with Falcon buyers than either V8 and higher oil prices following the 1979 Iranian revolution had further depressed V8 sales. Ironically, fuel prices had already peaked and begun to fall by the time the V8s were dropped, but at the time Ford decided to cancel the big engines, conventional wisdom in the auto industry was that the V8’s days were numbered.

1982 Ford XE Falcon ESP front 3q © 2011 John Howell (used with permission)
One of the final V8-powered XE Falcons, a 1982 Fairmont Ghia ESP sedan with the optional 351 cu. in. (5,765 cc) engine. American readers will note a strong family resemblance to later U.S. Ford products, principally the later Mustang LX 5.0. (Photo © 2011 John Howell; used with permission)

Anticipating an exclusively four- and six-cylinder future, Ford Australia had invested heavily in upgrading the Falcon’s sixes. During the XD’s production run, Ford commissioned Honda to develop new aluminum cylinder heads for both the 200 cu. in. (3,280 cc) and 250 cu. in. (4,102 cc) sixes, trimming about 50 lb (22 kg) from their all-up weight and offering incremental improvements in power, torque, and drivability. For the XE, both engines received new Weber ADM carburetors, bringing them to 121 hp (90 kW) and 141 hp (105 kW) respectively. In February 1983, Bosch LE2-Jetronic electronic fuel injection became optional on the big six, bringing it to 149 hp (111 kW) and 241 lb-ft (325 N-m) of torque. Unfortunately, only the smaller engine was offered with a Borg-Warner five-speed gearbox, a new option for the Falcon.

The deletion of the V8 had little impact on the XE’s popularity. The XE was a great commercial success, selling 193,890 units in 18 months and finally wresting the title of best-selling Australian model from Holden for the first time since the forties. Admittedly, GM-H had to some extent withdrawn from the fight — since the demise of the HZ in 1980, Holden’s biggest sedan had been the Commodore SL/E, which was perceptibly smaller (and far more European) than the Falcon. Chrysler had abandoned the field as well, selling its Australian operations to Mitsubishi in 1980. (The final CM Valiants, no longer badged as Chryslers, were gone by the end of 1981.) Regardless, the restyled XF Falcon, launched in October 1984, maintained the XE’s status as Australia’s No. 1 car.

29 Comments

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  1. A beautifully researched article as per usual! Looking forward to something similar on Holden. Thanks again…

  2. Great article and good research are you going to continue? Ford had already spent money in preperation to the XA being released by beefing up the suspension on the XY model the XA being really a reskin other than the gearbox tailshaft lengths mechanically the are the same. The first NEW floor pan is the EA and parts interchange all the way thru. Thank god Ford didnt go with the Torino.

    1. There was more to it than a reskin, as the suspension track width increased for one. A new ‘top hat’ would be a better way to describe it. Then there was a new rear floorpan for the Watts linkage on the XE which carried through with minor revisions in the E-series. The Falcon is certainly a ‘Grandpa’s axe’ car.

      Great article again Aaron.

      1. Also, because the Falcon has always been monocoque, a new body shell was an expensive undertaking (especially at Ford Australia’s smaller volume), even if the running gear and a lot of the suspension and brake hardware were more or less carryover.

  3. Wow, another great article. Any plans on doing the Valiant Charger Hemi (slant) 6-pack? Or are you Aussied out?

    1. It would definitely be an interesting story, although I don’t have plans to do it immediately, for purely practical reasons — this was a really daunting piece to do, and I think I’d have to work up to doing another quite so ambitious!

      1. It’s easy to see this was a lot of work from a site (which is just you) that does a lot of work. I guess it’s my love of Mopar and my lust to own one in California. I can’t afford to get one with my current travel plans (still need to ride across Europe and Russia) on my ’65 Ducati. They rank high on my list of cars to own. One day…

        1. Admittedly, the Chrysler Valiant would be less daunting to do now, because I have more context for the contemporary Australian market than I did when I embarked on this one. The tricky bit with cars that have never been sold in the U.S. at all is inevitably images. Any article where I don’t have at least a baseline of photos of my own to work with becomes exponentially more difficult, and where I have none — well, without the help of the folks mentioned in the Acknowledgments, this article would have been barren-looking indeed.

  4. Great write up, although you missed the Landau.
    I came here for the Kaiser-Frazer and Nash, but couldn’t stop reading this site, awesome work.

  5. i’ve got a 1974 gs ford falcon panel van no side back windows, gs stripe up both sides and two back doors opening outwards i can’t find any info on it. she’s original except for the motor. its been in the family for abt 27 yrs.
    can anyone help.

  6. Ford has just announced plans to cease production of cars in Australia in October 2016. Australian-market Fords after that will be imported.

    1. I saw that earlier this afternoon — a sad day for Australian enthusiasts.

  7. Awesome article, as always. I’ve always found the Australian cars of the 70s more attractive than the American cars of the 70s.

  8. Just one update. There were two Interceptors in Mad Max. The yellow XB sedan that Max drives and the yellow XA sedan named March Hare that Sarse and Scuttle drive. It eventually hits the Tardis and is rolled.

    1. Thanks for the clarification! It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the film (which I must admit is not my cup of tea).

  9. Hi ! I would appreciate if anyone can help.
    I need exterior height measurement for the XB PANEL VAN.
    I can see the sedan & hardtop measurements in my searches, but not the panel van.
    Where can I look or ask?

    Thanks & regards
    Nuriye

    1. I don’t have any information that detailed, sorry!

    2. From the XB sales brochure… 63.5″

      cheers

      Bruce

  10. Awesome article. I’ve always liked Australian cars. I don’t know why, since I’m not from Australia, nor have I ever lived in Australia.

    1. Australian cars can be a fun subject for Americans because (to my view) the cars often seem familiar enough to be alternate-reality versions of U.S. cars. By contrast, a British or German car (much less a French or Japanese one) generally seems foreign to American eyes, a product designed for different conditions and different tastes. A Holden or Australian Ford or Chrysler is like the automotive equivalent of seeing a cousin you’ve never met, but who clearly looks like you.

      1. We briefly got the Holden Monaro in the States, badged as a Pontiac G8. The automotive equivalent of your cousin coming to the US and fitting right in.

      2. Aaron, Thanks for the great article. The similarities and differences between US and Australia can be fascinating and old cars are a great example.

        American cars of this period have a huge following in Australia, probably for similar reasons you find the Australian car interesting. For many Australians, old American cars are familiar but more flamboyant and unusual at the same time.

        Sadly the Australia car manufacturing industry is ending, in addition to Ford, GMH and Toyota planning to close their plants. The death of the Falcon and Commodore also means the death of big cheap rear wheel drive sedans. The differences that once characterised US, Australian and European cars are disappearing. Comparing cars is not going to be as interesting if we all end up driving Camrys!

        There are many reasons for the demise of the Australian car manufacturing industry. Australian made cars like the Falcons discussed here faced less competition in the past because of import protection policies but these have been gradually stripped away over the last 20 years. The need for locally developed models has also gone as Australians mostly now drive imported medium sedans, cross-overs and utes or pickups the same as many other countries.

        Australian motor sport will need to adapt. The Australian Touring car series was based on modified production cars like the GTHO Falcons. The current V8 Supercars have become a silhouette type formula, kind of Australian’s version of NASCAR. It will be interesting to see if this series can retain popularity as Ford vs Holden rivalry reduces with the V8 Falcon and Commodore road cars passing into history.

        1. The demise of the Australian native industry is regrettable, although considering that it was heavily dependent on protectionist trade policy, it’s not terribly surprising from a political standpoint. There are good reasons for protectionism, from an economic standpoint, but there are also a lot of powerful forces that find it inconvenient and troublesome, which in today’s world tends to paint a big bulls-eye on it.

  11. I recall seeing an article that had a xw or xy falcon factory prepared with a 428 or 429 big block. In essence it was for one of the big executives in Ford Australia. he may have been an American on secondment to Australia . For some reason i thought Lee Iacocca was involved. It was a factory assembled big block Australian falcon. I wonder if anyone else has seen or heard of this 1 off Falcon.

    1. It was an XW built for Bill Bourke, then Ford Australia’s managing director — it’s mentioned in Part One of this article. It had a 428 (presumably a 428CJ or something close to it), not the 429.

  12. Moffat’s 77 bathurst winning car is an XBGT with XC front panels and dash, you show a picture where it was running up the hill at Goodwood, i also saw it there confirmed JG66 vin number along with the Bathurst mechanic who said it was indeed a XBGT.

    cheers

    1. Thanks for the note — you’re likely right, but I will do some checking when I have a few minutes to spare so that I can correct the text and caption appropriately. (It’s not that I doubt you, I just want to make sure I don’t create new errors in the fixing.)

      1. The car is listed on the entry list as a Ford XC Falcon GS500 Hardtop, but it is quite common for race cars to be updated (where possible) to the latest model/specs and used for several seasons.

        There is a history of the car at this link: http://www.v8supercars.com.au/news/championship/saturday-sleuthing-moffat-s-1977-bathurst-1-2-winner

        1. Thanks, John! I will take a closer look at all this when I’m not running on three hours’ sleep.

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