XR and XT Falcon: How American Bill Bourke re-imagined the Australian car
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XR and XT Falcon: How American Bill Bourke re-imagined the Australian car

By DrJohnWright - 21 September 2016

Before Saturday 24 April 1965 – or even perhaps before 1.42 am on Monday 3 May – no-one outside Ford Australia could have foreseen the XR Falcon and how it would change the way we thought about family sedans and wagons. Those dates of course refer to the beginning and triumphant end of the XP Falcon Durability Run. The achievement of this audacious event was to return the Ford Falcon to Australian car buyers’ shopping lists.

Before discussing the quite remarkable advance represented by the XR, which was launched in September 1966, it is worth revisiting the early struggling flights of the Ford Falcon in this Holden-crazed market. Six years before the XR came the first Falcon, the XK which rejoiced under the product code name ‘XK Thunderbird’. Sadly, there was very little of the T-Bird about Ford of Dearborn’s first compact car, designed entirely for North American markets. What was fine for US and Canadian roads would not necessarily prove sufficiently rugged to handle Australia’s roads and the many corrugated tracks that passed for roads; within months early adopters were experiencing front-end and sometimes clutch problems.

Quite convincingly, legend has it that the American engineers were sceptical about the reports of their Australian counterparts. But action was soon taken and the beefier ball joints fitted to the compact Fairlane were made standard on all Aussie Falcons. Ford Australia’s marketing people – perhaps under instruction – had already stretched the truth to breaking point, having claimed that the car had undergone extensive local testing; it hadn’t.

The XR Fairmont was a superior car to its HR Holden Premier rival in almost every respect. And then there were the new options including a 289 cubic-inch V8 engine and four-on-the-floor gearshift. The General wasn’t just napping, he was practically out for the count!

The greatest mystery here is why, perhaps unconsciously, Ford Australia management subscribed to Henry Ford’s dictum ‘History is bunk’. Why didn’t they reflect on problems experienced by earlier Ford models such as the (English) Ford Pilot, ‘Mark One’ Consul and Zephyr and even the lusty early 1950s Customs? Almost equally surprising is why they didn’t learn from conversations that must have been had over the swilling of beer in that era of six o’clock closing in Melbourne. Didn’t the wise old engineers from GM-H relate the lengths they had gone to in order to ensure the 48-215’s credentials for local conditions?

To their credit, Ford Australia’s senior executives quickly set about righting the XK’s wrongs. Running changes, as mentioned, were made during the XK’s two-year tenure. The XL was better again and the 1963 XM ‘with Certified Golden Quality’ arguably matched its EH Holden rival on robustness. But sales were dwindling. It actually took an American, newly arrived Bill Bourke (in charge of sales and marketing and deputy to managing director Wallace Wray Booth from February 1965), to conceive of the Durability Run as a way of showcasing the newly launched XP’s ruggedness.

Thus we arrive at Monday morning, 3 May 1965 and bewildering news of the Falcon’s ability to average 70 miles per hour for more than a week over a twisting, undulating circuit designed to test ride, handling and durability and never conceived with sustained high speeds in mind. Let me put this slightly differently. The Holden remained the market leader, but finally (and virtually overnight) the Falcon was viewed as a viable alternative. There had never been a more glamorous Falcon than the battered red XP Hardtop on display in the foyer of Melbourne’s then poshest hotel, the Southern Cross. The XP was awarded the prestigious Wheels Car of the Year Award.

Less than 18 months later, Ford Australia achieved a second remarkable turnaround with its second generation XR Falcon. Good as the XP was, its styling was looking dated and in terms of what we might call sex appeal, the 1965 Falcon was at best equal with the outgoing EH Holden and perhaps slightly behind the AP5 Valiant (itself still enjoying the hero car status of its R- and S-Series predecessors). The fact that GM-H then compromised itself – under US direction – with perhaps the worst ever Holden, the HD, gave the Falcon additional impetus; while initial sales of the over-curvy, narrow-tracked HD were strong, it soon fell from favour and low-mileage EHs were fetching similar money to their HD siblings.

The XR Falcon was like no previous Australian mainstream sedan. Not only was it much more stylish, it was also bigger, more intelligently specified, and offered the first V8 engine option across the range (Chrysler’s 273 cubic-inch V8 being available only in the dedicated and pricey Valiant V8 variant; the company squandered its opportunity to make the most of being the first with a V8 in this market).

It was probably the XR’s brilliance that prompted the late, lamented Bill Tuckey, editor of Wheels at the time, to predict that Australia’s love affair with the V8 engine was about to arrive. Remember that the Falcon GT was still more than half a year into the future and Tuckey’s prediction was based on the Falcon 500 and Fairmont. The road test in the November 1966 edition is headed: ‘New Falcon: The Great Leap Forward’. ‘Now, more than ever, there’s a V8 in your future’ is the sub-heading. The prescient introduction reads as if it could have been written with the perfect vision of hindsight!

Ford’s new XR Falcon has stolen a march on the opposition in the biggest possible way; we could be looking at the most influential new passenger car in Australia in years.

The story itself then continues:
The new XR Falcon is undoubtedly one of the most important single steps in Australian automotive design. It is a huge pace forward, a dramatic new turn in our car development which puts us up there with the big ones in the world. The new model range is exciting, stimulating and different. For Australia it spells a new size of car, and is the first car with which the V8 engine is available cheaply. If we’re any judge, Ford will soon be selling about 35 per cent of Falcons with the V8 option.

At the time of writing, Bill got a bit carried away. Australians were not quite ready to specify a V8 engine in their Falcons in the way US consumers did in theirs. That trend never happened here in the twentieth century and it was only with the demise of the local automotive manufacturing industry just over the horizon that something like one-third of Falcon/Commodore buyers were ticking the V8 option boxes.

A typically weird publicity image from the era. Is Sean Connery’s James Bond about to slide into the driver’s seat of this XR Fairmont?

What did soon follow though was a lifelong love affair with this engine configuration. Once again in Ford Australia’s history, Bill Bourke deserves the credit and this time for the Falcon GT. But I am getting ahead of the story. When the XR was launched, the old 144 cubic-inch six was no longer the standard engine. The old Pursuit 170 replaced it, with the Super Pursuit 200 and 289 cubic-inch V8 optional. Although the marketing people doubtless thought buyers would perceive the entry level XR as a faster car, a quick look at power to weight ratios would have shown that a 170-engined XR could not match a standard XP on acceleration or fuel economy; that extra size and space came with a 300 lb weight penalty. So an XP 170 manual with three adults would have gone as hard as the brand new model with driver alone.

The XP Durability Run showed the Falcon could handle, but the XR was better again. The front track was three inches wider with the rear up by 3.5 (and remember that the HD Holden’s body was wider than the EH’s but draped over the same narrow tracks!) Lower profile tyres were fitted and radials were optional. Low-geared steering had been a Falcon negative since 1960 and would remain so until the XF (in 1984!) when power steering was finally made standard. So the XR had a silly 5.5 turns from lock to lock on a 36.5 feet circle; adroit it wasn’t. At least the Fairmont got standard power steering which was much more direct, if almost totally devoid of feel. Brakes were better too and the Fairmont had standard power-assisted front discs, like its XP predecessor.

Not a bad looking wagon, Bill, but not quite an Aston Martin Shooting Brake!

Tuckey reckoned he wasn’t alone in regarding the wagon as the best looking variant. But he surely went too far in this assertion:

It has all the charm and expensive air of an Aston DB6 shooting brake touched with American prosperity.

Come off it, Bill! The significant point about the wagon is that it was seven inches longer than the sedan which delivered a much larger load area than its Holden and Valiant rivals.

Bill Tuckey’s general enthusiasm for the XR Falcon was justified. He awarded it Car of the Year, meaning Falcons had won two of the first four awards. These back to back victories doubtless had a huge impact on public perceptions: the Falcon wasn’t just back, it was flying high! The HR Holden had only been on the market six months when the XR was launched, but it immediately seemed like the day before yesterday’s car. As a young hitch-hiker and occasional taxi passenger, I remember how surprised I was by the extra width of the Falcon. And whatever excitement I might have felt about the idea of a red HR Premier X2 manual dissipated at the very notion of an XR Fairmont V8. Australia’s Own suddenly seemed completely out of the contest.

The XR was just so much more sophisticated than any previous Australian car. The Falcon 500 and Fairmont got illuminated heater controls. A stereo tape player was optional. You could even specify a remote boot release for $7.98: wouldn’t taxi drivers have loved that?

The vinyl roof option was popular on the early Fairlane 500s.

Astonishingly – and I well remember the automotive mood of 1967  – much more was to follow from the essentially brilliant XR concept. That aforementioned Fairmont V8 was to be developed under Bourke’s directives in two different ways. The first was revealed on 27 February, a new kind of Australian car:

An Australian-styled and engineered Ford Fairlane will be released in all states by Ford Motor Company of Australia this week. This will be the second all-Australian manufactured model produced by Ford. The Falcon has been fully manufactured locally for the past six years. Earlier model Fairlanes were imported in a knocked-down from North America and assembled in Australia.

The ZA Fairlane was every bit as Australian as the Holden 48-215 and boasted 95 per cent local content. There were two variants as the Ford marketing suits under the supervision of Bill Bourke explored the possibilities. In hindsight the entry level six-cylinder Fairlane Custom with standard three-on-the-tree gearchange and bench front seat looks like a homage to the earlier more austere days of the 1950s and early 1960s, while the V8 Fairlane 500 proved to be the right Australian answer to what constitutes an affordable luxury car – in concept, if not in name, the ‘500’ disappearing early and ‘Ghia’ coming later – sold right through to 2007, a full four decades. It will be judged to have been one of this country’s most important cars.

By contrast with Ford Australia, GM-H seemed almost to be floundering. When the belated answer to the Fairlane was shown in 1968, observers laughed: the garish, brocaded Brougham had an absurdly long boot but no stretch in the wheelbase – the key engineering ingredient which made the Fairlane so brilliant.

If the 1962 EJ Premier had been the first attempt to produce an Australian luxury car, the Fairlane must be judged as the second and far more thorough invention. For far fewer of the still fairly new Aussie dollars, the Ford buyer got high performance from an effortless V8 engine with the kind of comfort and features found in, say, a Mercedes 250SE and with more room in the cabin and the boot. It was an Australian re-imagining of the essential US mainstream sedan. Effectively, the Fairlane 500 would take over where the Galaxie and Chevy Impala were about to leave off. Holden and Chrysler would be playing catch-up for years…

Months later, Bourke’s team took the XR Fairmont in the second, quite different direction. Suddenly, here was the breathtaking Falcon GT and even then the HR Holden had yet to be replaced by the HK. They must have been troubling days at Fishermans Bend. Perhaps executive anxiety is best illustrated by the decision to stitch entirely redundant additional inches into the HK between the leading edge of the front door and the wheel arch to give overall proportions similar to its deadly Falcon rival.

The GT did no exactly arrive on the scene as a carefully planned program. Rather, Ford Australia was developing a special pursuit version of the XR V8 for the Victorian police force. Spinning this exercise off into a limited edition Falcon GTs struck Bill Bourke, who was by then managing director, as a good idea at the time. He saw that by taking this new pursuit car – which was of course endowed with a tuned 289 cubic-inch V8, four-speed gearbox, beefed-up suspension and more – and producing it as a sports Fairmont he could steal sales from much more expensive machines. I’ve never forgotten how a rich young man in our street swapped his white E-Type for the wonderful new Falcon GT…

Bill Bourke instinctively understood the Australian market. When I interviewed him in 1987, Bourke said that his American colleagues laughed at his concept of a four-door GT. ‘They thought I was crazy.’ But the popularity of sedan racing gave further impetus to his thinking. Australia’s celebration of what Tuckey termed ‘Australia’s Greatest Motor Race’ (thence ‘The Great Race’) dates back to the first event run at Philip Island in 1960, but the real momentum began in 1967 when the Aussie Falcon GT took on and defeated the expensive, imported Alfa Romeo coupes.

Jack Telnack supplied the design artistry that transformed a standard Fairmont in one colour only – ‘GT Gold’, that famous metallic bronze – into the Falcon GT. The stripes, chromed wheel covers, blacked-out grille (so absolutely 1967!), beautiful badgework (ah, that beautiful red ‘GT’!), the one and a half inch lowered ride height combined to add aggression without detracting from the XR’s innate elegance.

The XR Falcon GT was only ever going to be a limited edition but after the batch of 255 was completed by the end of June, demand justified the decision to produce a further 303 before year’s end. Then 38 were built in January and February 1968 (for a total of 596), by which time the GT was destined to become a regular part of the Falcon range.

It was always paradoxical that Ford Australia promoted the XR as the ‘Mustang-bred Falcon’. The Mustang was itself actually Falcon-bred. But the rhetoric worked and so the facelifted XT, accompanied by wild horses was proclaimed as having ‘More…More Mustang!’ The facelift itself was minor but the 289 was replaced by the 302 V8.

The highlight of the XT range was the GT, no longer a limited edition hotrod. A range of colours including GT Gold was available. Candy Apple Red and Zircon Green were favourites and at least two cars were finished in understated, evocative Springtime Yellow.

For some enthusiasts, including your scribe, the XT GT was the purest and most delectable of the early models.

GM-H was being left for dead in the September 1966 to July 1968 time frame. Pre-Monaro, the Falcon GT established itself as the choice of performance car buyers looking more to the US than Europe; besides, it was cheaper than an Alfa Romeo much cheaper than a Jaguar, any Jaguar. The Fairlane, too, was immensely successful. The ZB got quicker power steering and, of course, that bigger, torquier V8.

It was the heyday of Bill Bourke’s vision for Ford Australia. The complacent General was outflanked by these two brilliant new developments of the XR Falcon, the Fairlane and the GT. As history rolls on, it becomes increasingly clear that the XP Durability Run marked the true beginning of the Falcon’s emergence as the car with the potential to topple the Holden. But its XR successor was altogether more formidable – more stylish, more spacious, and with a V8 option. The XR and XT Falcons made their Holden rivals look outmoded while there was no answer at all to the Fairlane and Falcon GT, until the Brougham and Monaro. The former was of no real count but the first Holden coupe must be judged a brilliant creation. On balance though, the second half of the 1960s belonged to Ford Australia in its determined marketing brilliance and accomplished engineering and design.

This gorgeous shot shows the ZB Fairlane Custom to maximum advantage.