THE XR FALCON AND THE FIRST FALCON GT
As the Australian Falcon gained credibility, its North American counterpart was losing ground. Demand for American compacts, which had been strong at the beginning of the decade, was fast evaporating, as buyers turned to larger, more powerful intermediates or compact sporty cars like the Ford Mustang, which soon left the humble Falcon for dead.
Bowing to those trends, when Ford redesigned the U.S. Falcon for 1966, it gained greater stylistic kinship with the Mustang and substantial structural commonality with the midsize Fairlane. In some respects, the new Falcon was a cut-down Fairlane; it was 1.9 inches (48 mm) wider, 2.7 inches (69 mm) longer, and 165 lb (45 kg) heavier than the 1965 Falcon and now shared the same 58-inch (1,473mm) tread width as its midsize cousin. The Falcon’s new look, meanwhile, aspired to Mustang-like long-hood, short-deck proportions, with a distinct rear fender kick-up. Ironically, however, the two sportiest body styles, the two-door hardtop and the convertible, were both dropped, victims of poor sales.
The Australian XR Falcon, launched in September 1966, once again followed the template of the North American version, but it sported unique front and rear clips. The Pursuit 170 (2,780 cc) engine and 14-inch (356mm) wheels were now standard across the board, but, as with the U.S. Falcon, the hardtop coupe was discontinued. The big news was the arrival of an optional V8, Ford’s familiar 289 cu. in. (4,728 cc) small block. The 289, with a two-barrel carburetor and 200 gross horsepower (149 kW), was actually the mildest of Ford’s U.S. V8s, but it made quite an impression on the Australian market. Even with the optional three-speed Cruise-O-Matic, a V8 Falcon was capable of reaching 60 mph (97 km/h) in less than 12 seconds, brisk performance by Australian standards. The new engine quickly won enthusiastic fans among local police forces and attracted considerable interest from race builders.
It was not lost on Bill Bourke, now Ford Australia’s deputy managing director, that performance-oriented image cars were becoming big business in the U.S. Thanks to the burgeoning youth market, the Mustang had been a huge success, as were the new breed of high-powered intermediates, typified by the Pontiac GTO. Most Australian cars of the time were rather bland porridge, but Bourke thought Australia was ready for a similar performance boom.
At the time, Ford Australia’s Product Engineering Department was working a specially tuned XR Falcon for the Victoria Police, featuring a heavy-duty suspension, front disc brakes, four-speed manual transmission, and the hotter four-barrel 289 offered on U.S. Mustangs. Bourke saw it as a natural starting point, so he proposed offering it as a production model.
Bourke said later that his idea was greeted with considerable skepticism in Dearborn. Ford’s last attempt to make a sporty car out of the Falcon, the V8-powered Sprint, had been a commercial flop despite respectable performance in European rally competition. The idea of making a credible performance car out of the four-door Falcon sedan — the XR Falcon line no longer included a two-door hardtop, a convertible, or even a pillared two-door sedan — seemed more than faintly ludicrous. Undeterred, Bourke went ahead with what became the first Falcon GT.
The Falcon GT went on sale in March 1967 with a hefty list price of AU$3,890 (about US$4,330), compared to AU$2,226 (around US$2,500) for a basic six-cylinder Falcon sedan. Although it was not a big seller, the GT was nonetheless a great image builder and a statement of intent. Ford eventually sold around 600 of them; the most commonly quoted figure is 596. An equally important sales milestone was 260, the total required to homologate the GT for Australia’s most important motorsport event — the Gallaher 500 at Bathurst.
THE FALCON AND THE GREAT RACE
The event that became Australia’s “Great Race” was first held at Phillip Island, Victoria, in November 1960, a 500-mile (805-km) race sponsored by the Armstrong shock absorber company. The Armstrong 500 remained at Phillip Island through 1962, when track damage led the race to be relocated to the Mount Panorama Motor Racing Circuit in Bathurst, New South Wales. Mount Panorama was a challenging 3.9-mile (6.2-km) circuit, rising more than 570 feet (174 meters) from lowest to highest elevation. There was little run-off space and there were no barriers other than barbed-wire fences; even seasoned racing drivers like Stirling Moss expressed alarm at the circuit’s lack of safety features.
Privately run XL Falcons had made a good showing at the 1962 Armstrong 500, but Ford’s locally made Cortina had won the Bathurst race from 1963 to 1965. Rules changes subsequently put the Cortina out of the running and the 1966 race, now sponsored by the Irish cigarette company Gallaher, had been won by Rauno Aaltonen and Bob Holden, driving a Morris Mini Cooper S. The arrival of the Falcon GT gave Ford Australia a chance to reclaim the crown and build its nascent performance image.
Although conventional wisdom still maintained that cars the size of the Falcon or the big Holdens were too large for the tight Mount Panorama circuit, the Falcon XR GT dominated the 1967 Gallaher 500 with average lap times more than 7 seconds shorter than those of the previous year’s winning Mini. Unfortunately for Ford works drivers Harry Firth and Fred Gibson, a scoring snafu initially awarded the victory to privateers Ian and Leo Geoghegan, an error that was not rectified until weeks after the event. For Ford marketing, it was a win either way: the Geoghegan brothers were also driving a Falcon GT.
Although GM-Holden was bound by the same anti-racing policy as the rest of General Motors, GM-H was not oblivious to the considerable publicity value of the GT and its Bathurst victory. The new HK Holden, introduced in January 1968, offered its own V8, a Chevrolet-designed 307 cu. in. (5,035 cc) engine with 210 horsepower (157 kW). Not to be outdone, Ford’s facelifted XT Falcon, launched in March, countered with a stroked 302 cu. in. (4,942 cc) V8 with 230 horsepower (186 kW). GM-Holden then trumped the Falcon XT that July with the addition of a sleek hardtop coupe, the Monaro, which could be ordered with a 250 hp (186 kW) Chevy 327 (5,354 cc) V8.
Inevitably, Holden’s sporty Monaro GTS 327 found its way to the racetrack, both in private hands and with David McKay’s new Holden Dealer Racing Team, which fielded three cars at the Bathurst event — now called Hardie-Ferodo 500 — in October 1968. On the Mount Panorama circuit, the Holden’s superior power-to-weight ratio translated into consistently better lap times and GTS 327s took first, second, and third place. The XT GTs of the Ford works team could do no better than ninth, falling behind a private XR GT driven by Ken Stacey and Bruce McIntyre, which managed seventh.
In 1969, the short-lived Holden Dealer Racing Team was replaced by the quasi-official Holden Dealer Team, now led by former Ford driver Harry Firth. Although not technically a works team, HDT would benefit from considerable factory support. The stage had been set for a dramatic racing rivalry.
BATHURST BOUND: THE XW FALCON GTHO
While a third-generation Falcon was in development by the summer of 1968, it was not slated to debut for another three years. In the interim, Ford Australia made do with several successive makeovers of the existing Falcon platform. The XW, which replaced the XT in June 1969, had an extensive facelift and and a new interior, making it look almost like an all-new car. To capitalize on the image value of the GT, the XW was available with a new GS option package, which added some of the GT’s cosmetic features without its mechanical upgrades. The Futura series also returned, positioned between the mid-level Falcon 500 and the plusher Fairmont.
The XW Falcon still didn’t offer a two-door hardtop body style to rival the Monaro, but the new GT, now sporting ostentatious racing stripes and “Super Roo” decals, had Ford’s 351 Windsor (5,765 cc) V8 with a four-barrel carburetor and 290 gross horsepower (217 kW). The fitment of an oversize fuel tank made it clear the new GT was intended as much for the track as the street.
About a month after the GT’s introduction, Ford added an even hotter version, the GTHO, developed by engineers Peter Thorne and Barry Nelson with the help of new works team driver Allan Moffat. Intended specifically for Bathurst, the GTHO had a retuned suspension, upgraded brakes, stouter driveline components, and an even 300 gross horsepower (224 kW), courtesy of a hotter camshaft, bigger carburetor, and other engine modifications. “HO” ostensibly stood for “Handling Option,” but it might just as well been short for “homologation,” which was its real raison d’être.
While the Falcon GTHO now had the power to challenge the Holden Monaro at the 1969 Hardie-Ferodo 500, its chances of victory were undone by the last-minute addition of specialized racing tires, which proved a serious tactical error. Two of the three factory cars suffered blowouts that Allan Moffat attributed to the drivers over-stressing the unfamiliar tires. While Moffat had no such problems, team manager Al Turner, understandably concerned after the previous tire failures, ordered him to pit for a preemptive change, a delay that may have cost Moffat and co-driver Alan Hamilton the race. The final victory went to a Monaro GTS 350 driven by HDT’s Colin Bond and Tony Roberts, although Ford drivers Bruce McPhee and Barry Mulholland managed a close second.
In June 1970, Ford unveiled an even hotter race-bound GTHO, dubbed “Phase II.” Its engine, actually introduced on some of the previous GTHO cars (known retroactively as “Phase I”), was now an imported 351 Cleveland V8, featuring taller decks and bigger ports for better breathing. The Phase II engine, developed by former Repco Brabham engineer Ian Stockings, added a wilder solid-lifter cam and a bigger Holley four-barrel carburetor. Although its rated output was unchanged at 300 horsepower (224 kW), it was significantly more powerful than the standard GT.
Formidable as it was, the GT-HO Phase II was not the hottest XW Falcon. Bill Bourke, now managing director, had his personal XW sedan fitted with the big 428 cu. in. (6,997 cc) FE-series engine offered in U.S. Mustangs. According to stylist Wayne Draper, who borrowed the car for a short but memorable drive in 1970, it had enough torque to spin its wheels at 100 mph (161 km/h), but Draper found its handling was rather alarming. Around the same time, Ford Special Vehicles also built two lightweight, fuel-injected GTHO Super Falcons for Australian Touring Car Championship competition, producing 620 hp (462 kW) at a screaming 9,600 rpm. Unfortunately, reliability problems and cost overruns soon curtailed the Super Falcons’ racing career.
Fans hoping for a rematch between the XW Falcon GTHO and the Holden Monaro at Bathurst that October were in for a disappointment. While the Monaro GTS 350 remained available for civilians, the Holden Dealer Team switched to the smaller six-cylinder Torana LC GTR, trading the V8’s raw power for tidier dimensions and better handling. Another rival was Chrysler’s Pacer, a sporty version of the VG Valiant powered by a high-performance version of Chrysler’s new Hemi six, making 235 horsepower (175 kW) from 245 cu. in. (4,018 cc). Neither the Chrysler nor the Torana was a match for the GTHO Phase II. Even after suffering mechanical problems, works Falcons took both first and second place, giving driver Allan Moffat his first Bathurst victory.
While the GT and GTHO accounted for only a fraction of total Falcon sales — the totals were 2,287 GTs and 662 GTHOs — the GTHO’s performance on the racetrack undoubtedly added luster to the workaday cars. The XW set another sales record for the Falcon line, selling nearly 106,000 units in all and helping to boost Ford’s Australian market share to more than 21%.