XP Falcon: Aussie Original

By: John Wright, Photography by: Unique Cars archives

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Ford pulled out all the stops to spruik the XP Falcon's purported durability, but an extraordinary stunt almost backfired in its face

 

XP Falcon

An extraordinary one-make car race was run in the You Yangs west of Melbourne over nine days in April-May 1965, not that it was ever intended to be a race! If the XP Falcon durability run seemed borderline unbelievable at the time, the passing of half a century makes it seem plain incredible, especially when viewed in terms of the now ubiquitous workplace health and safety demands.

Newly imported assistant managing director, Bill Bourke, conceived the event to showcase the toughness of the XP Falcon. Bourke had arrived in Australia just two months before the event was run. It was essentially a do-or-die effort, a huge (under-calculated) gamble. The original XK Falcon had developed a justified reputation for frailty and even the improved XL and XM successors could not bring customers back from Holden.

The plan was to take bog stock Falcons and drive them at an average speed of 70 miles per hour for 70,000 miles. It was run under the auspices of CAMS, initially with a dozen top race and rally drivers. Ford Oz competition manager Les Powell reckoned 12 would be enough, and the refusal of Harry Firth and John Reaburn to hand their red Hardtop over to anyone else during the first 24 hours seemed to confirm his judgement. The cars were equipped with either the Pursuit 170 cubic-inch engine with three-on-the-tree or the Super Pursuit 200 with mandatory automatic transmission.

All but one of the five Falcons – there was a sixth in reserve (permitted under CAMS regulations) – rolled. Sleep-deprived drivers were down to two-hour stints. Ford soon posted an invitation on the notice board of the Light Car Club to anyone with a CAMS licence.

Ford Australia’s 70,000-mile durability run was not intended to be a race but those of the drivers who had also competed in one of the three Armstrong 500s at Phillip Island or the two run at Mount Panorama reckoned this was harder. The 2.248-mile bitumen circuit at Ford’s new proving ground was not designed as a race track. With no banking, no proper cambering, no straight to speak of and a non-skid surface that destroyed tyres, the You-Yangs track was even more difficult than Mount Panorama, and equally dangerous with trees and huge rocks in perilous proximity.

The evocative 70mph average speed had been set before anyone had determined whether it was feasible on the new track. The answer was that it was possible only if the cars were driven absolutely flat-out!

Early on Bob Jane said: "It’s the hardest circuit on a car I’ve ever driven or even seen (with) bends all the way. Ford have really set themselves a task here; my two hours each in cars one and five I found harder than any Armstrong I’ve driven in. If you make the slightest mistake you’re in real trouble."

Ern Abbott, who had raced Valiants at the Island and the Mountain, said: "It scared the living pants off me for the first 10 laps. You go up in the air and all you can see is sky and suddenly someone takes the road from underneath you." And because it ran through the night as well as in daylight, drivers had to deal with the rising and setting of the sun, dew and whatever visibility the standard headlights afforded.

Most of the frequent repairs were the result not of breakdown but crashes. In the early hours until a good coat of rubber was laid by the tortured Dunlop SP41 cross-plies, tyres often wore out within 12 laps – just 45km!

Henry Ford II happened to be in Australia at the time and boarded a helicopter to check things out for himself. He was reputedly far from amused. His idea of racing (in Ford’s year of ‘Total Performance’) was more Le Mans and GT40 than You Yangs and Falcon. Had Bourke’s gamble not paid off there would doubtless have been significant ramifications – for his own career, and perhaps even the Falcon’s future in Holden-crazy Australia.

In the end the fleet of Falcons logged the full distance but the average of 71.3 miles per hour did not include stops. Even so, the CAMS officials who supervised the events granted the XP Falcons some 49 national records. The red Super Pursuit-engined Hardtop auto in which Firth and Reaburn set the early pace was placed in the foyer of Melbourne’s then flashest hotel, the Southern Cross. No question, the Falcon had finally arrived in the big end of town.

Bill Bourke’s big gamble paid off. Fleet customers returned. Private buyers, who had spurned its predecessors, bought the XP in large numbers.

The paradox is that had Ford Australia followed the example of its greatest rival, the durability run would not have been necessary. A spur of the moment decision made in Dearborn in August 1958 started the Falcon on its drive to the You Yangs. Ford Australia managing director Charles Smith and five other executives were invited to headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, to view the Mark II A Zephyr. An American team had developed a facelift especially for Australia. The Zephyr was to get a new grille, Zodiac taillight assemblies and other minor changes. Think of the FE facelift to FC and you get the idea: embellish a simple design with excessive chromework and other ornate flourishes.

The Broadmeadows manufacturing plant was under construction and the Mark II A was to have gone into production there on 14 September 1960. But Charles Smith knew this re-heated 1956 English car would not sufficiently challenge the Holden (which held 50 per cent of the market). He said so. And that was when Ford of Canada’s executive vice-president took the Australians into another room to view the corporation’s forthcoming compact, the Falcon. Smith promptly sent a telegram from Dearborn to Geelong: ‘Cancel Zephyr’.

The Falcon was much more modern in its styling, lighter in weight and cheaper to manufacture. It must have looked at the time like what we now call a no-brainer.

But, in developing its Holden to cope with Australian conditions, GMH gave the prototypes a major workout not just in the US but in Australia. Astonishingly – and despite advertising claims to the contrary – the Falcon was not calibrated for Oz. "The Falcon is Australian. It is built entirely in Australia, for Australian conditions," declared the brochure. Only the "built entirely in Australia" bit was accurate! The Australianisation of the Falcon began during the XK’s two-year production run. It was never tested in Australia during its development for the North American market and the Aussie engineers knew they would face problems but also knew that no-one was listening in Dearborn.

When it was introduced in September 1960 it was one of the top-selling vehicles in the US and few problems had emerged. But Australian roads quickly found the Falcon out.

The weakest links were the front ball joints, followed by the clutch. The American engineers were sceptical when their Aussie counterparts relayed problems. Sunset Strip was a boulevard and the sleek new Falcon rode it effortlessly but Sydney Road, Coburg was another proposition! Eventually a consultant was sent from Detroit. He placed samples of failed ball joints on the desk of then Ford president John Dykstra, who personally ordered that the component be replaced with the sturdier unit used in the American Fairlane. It was not until 1962 that the change was made standard. But within seven months of launch Ford dealers were offering compact Fairlane ball joints as options and had little trouble selling them to customers.

Even with its Fairlane modification, the XK Falcon struggled in Australia. It had inadequate ground clearance as well as soft suspension, meaning it bottomed out easily. What’s more, the 144 cubic-inch engine, while okay with a manual transmission, struggled with the Fordomatic. No automatic transmission would be offered on the Holden until the EK the following year, but the two-pedal Falcon did the clutch-free concept no favours.

Parked alongside the clumsy and garishly two-toned FB Holden the Falcon looked to be a car of the next decade. The public soon realised that looks ain’t everything; the Falcon might have been a hot date but it was the Holden you’d marry!

By 1962 and the release of the XL with its ‘Thunderbird’ roofline two months before the same car went on sale Stateside, the Falcon was pretty good. The 1963 XM "with Certified Gold Quality" was better. The 1965 XP was very different from its US counterpart. Mercury Comet front fenders, bumper and bonnet gave it a beefier look. Higher-mounted tail lights distinguished the XP from its predecessor.

As if to italicise the maturity of the XP, the Squire ‘woody’ wagon was allowed to drive quietly into history while the lavishly specified Fairmont replaced the faintly vulgar Futura six months into the production run. The Fairmont had 14-inch wheels and power-assisted front disc brakes, a notable first for the local industry. Unlike the Futura’s front buckets, those in the Fairmont reclined. The Fairmont wagon set a new luxury standard for Australian load-haulers.

The 121 horsepower Super Pursuit engine became optional with XM but was offered only in tandem with automatic transmission. This remained the situation with XP, meaning no Falcon could match the performance of an EH 179 manual or an HD X2 manual.

The measure of how far Bill Bourke’s gamble paid off was that the Falcon now accounted for 10 percent of the total market.

 

 


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