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. [Author’s note: A fourth film, 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.
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 Campbellfield, 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).
The model lineup was also new. The previous base and 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.
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.
Ford management may also have been swayed by the sad plight of driver Dick Johnson, whose XD Falcon 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.
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.