Looking back over the history of the Ford Falcon in Australia, it’s hard not too look at the AU (released in 1998) and wonder, what if?
Leading up to its release, Ford was on the rise in Australia, consistently refining and improving the E-series and repairing the mistakes made in the 1980’s along the way.
The EA had been generally well-received besides a few teething issues but it was the EB that saw the return of the V8 much to the relief of Ford fans. The EB GT added further performance credibility as did the ED XR8 Sprint, essentially a less conspicuous GT.
The EF was criticised for its “faceless” front ends which Ford corrected with the EL series. The XR6 and XR8 models were genuine performance options by that stage and featured a more prominent change in appearance to the rest of the lineup. The EL GT took this up another notch.
In fact, by the time the EL had run its course there was little to criticise in the Falcon. It was a reliable, spacious vehicle that offered genuine family, luxury and sports options. Besides the interiors across the range still being a bit too “taxi grey” the Falcon had pretty much everything else sorted. Healthy sales figures supported this.
This had Ford well-placed to invest in the AU and produce an almost entirely brand-new Falcon. The finished product was a fresh slate of new interiors, all new bodies and upgraded drive lines.
However, it all went wrong with the exterior styling, especially the lower priced (and higher volume) entry level Forte and Futura models.
In an ultimately vain attempt to lure more female drivers, Ford shaved off the corners of the Falcon and tried to present a vehicle that appeared smaller, more compact and easier to drive. The body tucked under at the sides, giving the car a bulbous, floating shape. The front end treatments for almost all models were a clutter of large triangular headlights and ugly grills.
The XR models fared slightly better than the standard Falcons, retaining the quad-headlight style from the E-series but they still looked anorexic overall.
The interiors were a bold new design featuring plenty of ovals and angles, but compared to the outside it was pretty tame.
By contrast, Holden introduced the VT Commodore around the same time. Visually it was a sleeker version of the outgoing VS with a little excess fat trimmed off the rear. It was fresh and new without being drastic or unexpected. Not surprisingly they sold like hot cakes.
Some could argue that Holden played it safe with the VT (which they seemed to do compared to what Ford did to the Falcon) but in reality they simply gave buyers what they wanted. Holden knew better than to mess too much with a successful recipe.
Ford realised their mistake pretty quickly and the AUII model sought to add a little girth and more contemporary styling. The inverted bonnet was scrapped (except for the XR models which seemed to be able to pull it off) and new front and rear designs tried to square off the corners and add some bulk. Ford even added a low rear spoiler to make the rear end a bit chunkier.
All the success and momentum from the E-series was squandered by the new styling. Mechanically the AU was pretty solid and helped solidify Ford’s near-monopoly of the taxi market as the drivers loved the reliability and durability of the car. Many yellow AU’s have eclipsed a million kilometres with little more than regular servicing.
This engineering makes the failure of the styling even more tragic for Ford. While they should be commended for taking such bold action with their best-selling product, history shows it to be an almost fatal mistake. It was five years of falling sales and desperate efforts to correct the styling before the BA arrived. The BA was everything the AU should have been from day one.
By the AUIII Ford had fixed most of the problems. Some still complained about the sloping roofline but otherwise the styling had been drastically improved. The XR models were fatter and meaner while the Fairmont Ghia with optional Tickford body kit was the best looking car of the entire AU run.
The Tickford T-Series cars also got their act together for the third series. The first two generations boasted reasonable performance but the understated styling rendered them “the boring man’s HSV”. For the T3 the loud colours and brash body kits were back, along with a stroked 5.6 litre V8 that meant Ford fans at last had flagship performance cars to be proud of. It was yet another example of Ford Australia finally getting it right with the AU.
It makes you wonder how much money intended for the BA program was actually spent on band-aid fixes for the AU. The BA was exactly what the AU should have been all along, which begs the question: what if Ford had released the BA after the EL?
The BA Falcon retained the somewhat controversial roofline of the AU but introduced completely new styling front and rear. Bonnets, quarter panels and front treatments were all brand new. The “Edge” styling of the AU was scrapped for a more contemporary appearance.
The whole range looked bulkier and more Falcon-like. It was a vastly better looking car. The XR models looked tough and received a new V8 for the XR8 and a hugely successful turbo option for the XR6.
The new interiors also received a contemporary overall. The layout was simplistic and very user-friendly. Even then entry-level Forte lost much of its taxi-spec stench.
Had Ford rolled out the BA styling package after the success of the E-series they probably would have had the best selling car for the next five to ten years. Instead they spent five years scrambling to fix the AU’s mess.
The flow on effects could have been huge. Without the costly mistakes of the AU Ford may have had more cash to invest in the Territory program which could have addressed that car’s one big flaw: fuel economy. With the popularity of SUV’s growing hugely at the time, Ford Australia might have been been able to produce a smaller variant of the Territory. None of this would have (most likely) saved local manufacturing but it could have prolonged the inevitable for a few more years. Ford’s thousands of Australian workers would not have complained.
For a segment that was about to enter a steep decline, the mistakes of the AU came at the worst possible time. While local manufacturing was probably doomed regardless, Ford’s errors with the AU were typical of the Australian arm’s performance over it’s last few decades. They were good at fixing their mistakes, but it was often too little, too late.
The amount of money spent on these fixes was also robbing development of new vehicles. FPV produced incredible cars without the budget of HSV. In my mind the FPV was almost always superior to its lion-badged counterpart, but would could they have done with even more money to throw at their cars?
Territory suffered the same fate. The smaller, more efficient diesel engine that eventually joined the range should have been available all along. Had Ford survived locally a little longer, perhaps the Ranger engine could have found its way into the Territory.
While I do not blame the AU for the demise of Ford’s local manufacturing, it certainly didn’t help. The initial design was rejected by buyers and tore big holes in Ford pockets as they tried to keep the ship afloat. As the years passed and buyers began to swap their big sedans for SUV’s Ford didn’t have the funds to adapt.
Had the followed Holden’s lead and produced a wagon version on the shorter Falcon wheelbase (after the LWB platform for the Fairlane, LTD and Falcon wagon was scrapped at the end of the BF series) they may have faired better. No doubt the idea was floated at Ford but there was most likely no funds or confidence for the investment. Such a vehicle would have bridged a gap between the Falcon and Territory.
If Ford had followed the EL with the BA (even if it was the AU package under the skin) their fortunes would have surely been much different. The BA was almost universally applauded for its looks and performance improvements across the range.
Just how great the difference would have been for Ford Oz, we will never know. But it’s hard not to look back and wonder, what if?