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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)