Australian Stories in the 100-year history of Ford
The Sensual Snake
During the early 1970s Ford’s stylish two-door coupes were the fashion trend amongst those who wanted to be noticed. The XA and XB Hardtops were the ultimate in motoring chic, especially when they had that magical GT badge.
By late 1977, Ford was more than halfway through the XC model run but the sales edge had gone off the Hardtop and production had slowed.
But Ford had a problem. During the 1978 run-out of XC, there were still enough body panels for 400 Hardtops but a shortage of dealer orders. Assisting the then Managing Director Sir Brian Inglis, was a young American who just happened to be one of the great grandsons of company founder Henry Ford.
Edsel Ford II made a suggestion in a marketing meeting that Ford should build the cars, paint all of them white, with contrasting American Blue racing stripes a la the famous Le Mans-winning GT40 and make them exclusive with a numbered run from 1 to 400. A final touch was a large Cobra snake decal to tap into the heritage of Ford's Mustang sports car that dominated Australian racing in the late 1960s.
Ford marketing executives took the advice on board and the first XC Cobra rolled out of the Broadmeadows Assembly Plant in September 1978.
The unique model proved an instant hit with buyers and the entire production was sold out within weeks. Today, the distinctive Cobra remains a true collector’s item, even sought after by American enthusiasts.
In 1928, just three years after Ford started manufacturing operations in Geelong, a quiet young man joined the fledgling company as a draftsman in the body design drawing office.
Lewis Bandt had a natural flair for drawing and loved nothing better than painting rural scenes of Australia’s unique flora and fauna. His skills as a designer were soon noticed by Ford and he was set the task of developing designs and drawings for the new Model A and the forthcoming, and still secret, V8 models.
Founder of Ford Australia and its first Managing Director, Canadian-born Hubert French, received a letter in 1933, which he handed to his Production Manager Slim Westman with the suggestion that he have a look and see what could be done about it.
That letter came from a potential customer, the wife of a Gippsland farmer who was tired of driving to church on Sunday in the draughty, leaking cabin of the farm truck. In those dark Depression years farmers couldn’t afford the luxury of a car and a truck and the banks would only lend money for one farm vehicle anyway!
The plea to Ford was ‘ can’t you build us a vehicle that will take me to church on Sunday and also take the pigs to market on Monday?’. Westman knew who to give the job to – Lewis Bandt.
Before the end of 1933 Bandt had designed and built the prototype of the vehicle that would change the motoring world, add a new segment to the industry and become one of the most-copied vehicles in history.
Yes, in 1933, just 70 years ago, Lew Bandt and Ford Australia produced the world’s first coupe utility – the marriage of the sedan and the truck that is still going strong today.
The Falcon Ute today dominates its segment with record sales of 16,955 in 2001, 17,883 in 2002 and is on track for another record year in 2003 with 6037 sales to the end of April.
In June 1933 six little cars were unloaded off a boat in the Port of Geelong. They were compact little sedans with tiny 4-cylinder engines but they had a heritage behind them that commanded respect. These little cars were new English Fords – the Model Y.
The popular cars up until then had been the ubiquitous Model T and the handsome Model A, the powerful Chevrolet Six and a host of other models, mainly Canadian and US-sourced. Ford had just introduced the first affordable V8 with the claim of ’65 horsepower and 65 miles an hour’.
So, why was Ford bringing tiny economy cars onto the market? The answer was, of course, the Great Depression. With around one third of the workforce out of a job and little prospect of things improving worldwide, car sales had slumped. Few could afford a new car, let alone one that had a V8 or a big six-cylinder engine.
Enter the Ford Model Y. Powered (if that is the correct word) – by a 7.9 horsepower, side-valve engine driving the back wheels through a three-speed floor shift gearbox, the little car sat on transverse leaf springs and spindly 16-inch wire wheels and skinny tyres.
There were four passenger models – a Roadster, Phaeton, Sedan and Coupe – Ford Australia added the inevitable utility and panel van to make it six. Ford sold 294 in the last six months of 1933 and by 1936 was turning out well over 2,000 a year. By this time the model had changed and the engine boasted 10 horsepower!
Ford's link with quality European small cars was rejoined in 2002 when the award-winning Focus made its highly anticipated appearance in Ford Australia showrooms.
Next year will see that link further strengthened with the arrival of the critically acclaimed Fiesta, carrying on the tradition of economical small Fords started 70 years ago by those six small cars unloaded in the Port of Geelong.
Ford Motor Company actually produced two very different Model A cars during the first 25 years of its existence. The first one was the company’s first production model in 1903 and the second was the one that most people recognise, the 1928 car that replaced the famous Ford Model T.
Very few of the original Model A cars exist today, however there are two in Australia. One of them is owned by Francis Ransley from Wynyard in Tasmania and is the 31st car produced by Henry Ford after founding Ford Motor Company in 1903.
It is the oldest Ford vehicle in Australia and believed to be the fourth oldest in the world still in operation.
In typical Henry Ford fashion, the Model A was a simple car. It had a basic chassis and was powered by a two-cylinder engine with opposed cylinders. It developed just eight horsepower but was sufficient to propel the 600kg at a steady pace – at least faster than the average horse and buggy!
Ford produced 1700 of these cute little cars in 18 months of production. While most car makers of that era were building cars on a one-off basis and constantly changing specifications to improve them, Henry Ford designed a simple, easy to build and easy to maintain design and produced identical cars.
This was the secret of his success and was the genesis of one of the most successful cars of the century, the famous Model T.
The second Model A was the car that superceded the Model T. When it was announced in Australia in May 1928 (the US launch was in December 1927) it caused a sensation and hundreds of thousands of people flocked to see it in each capital city. More than 100,000 came to see the new car at the Melbourne Town Hall in the first four days alone!
The Model A had a four-cylinder, in-line engine that developed 40 horsepower – 22 more than the original A. Power was driven through the rear wheels via a three-speed manual gearbox, unlike the Model T that used a planetary gear system that required three pedals and no gear lever. The smart wire wheels had soft riding balloon tyres.
Both the Model A cars built by Ford had one thing in common. They stuck to Henry Ford’s idea of keeping the car as simple as possible so that it would be reliable and anyone could maintain it. Sound advice in those early days of motoring when there were no service stations and repairs were mostly carried out by the local blacksmith or bicycle shop owner!
The Ford Falcon has been a familiar sight on Australia’s roads since September 14th 1960. That first Falcon – the XK – has been followed by over three million more sedans, wagons, utes and vans bearing the Falcon name badge.
Originally based on the US Falcon, the XK was soon ‘Australianised’ to suit the more rugged conditions experienced in this country. When Ford ceased production of the Falcon in the USA in 1970, Ford Australia continued to develop this popular car.
Ford Australia completely re-designed the Falcon with the XA in 1971 and has continued the evolution of the marque ever since. Just how highly the Australian Falcon is regarded in the Ford world is evidenced by the fact that, in this centenary year of the company, it has been named as one of Ford’s 25 'Heart and Soul' vehicles.
The Falcon was chosen by automotive journalists from around the world as one of more than 1000 distinct Ford models that "evoked passion, inspired excitement and created enthusiasm – cars with heart and soul".
A quick scan of the Falcon justifies its inclusion among cars such as the Model T, Thunderbird and Mustang, for the significant contribution it's made to Australian motoring with a long list of innovations in design and mechanical features over the years.
As far back as the 1960s Falcon introduced Australians to seat belts, dash padding and safety steering wheels. Since then Falcons have been at the forefront of Australian vehicle manufacturing, initiating the introduction of disc brakes, V8 engines, plastic fuel tanks, the use of lightweight plastics for grilles and bumper bars, cross-flow alloy cylinder heads, electronic fuel injection, computer-controlled engine management and immobilisation systems, ABS braking and Smartlock security locking.
The Falcon was also the first motor vehicle to be awarded the prestigious Australian Design Award for Excellence in Design in 1988. The current model, the BA, was honored in 2002 with the Wheels Car of the Year trophy, two titles in Australia's Best Car Awards and won the News Limited Star Car Award.
In 1967 Ford Australia put a small badge with the letters ‘GT’ on a new model Falcon and started a new era of performance motoring.
The ‘GT’ stood for Gran Turismo or Grand Touring and putting them on a special car was the brainchild of the charismatic managing director of Ford Australia at the time, William Bourke.
Bourke was an outgoing American marketing executive who loved cars – big cars (he drove a Lincoln), fast cars (he had Ford’s engineers squeeze a 427 cubic inch V8 into his company Falcon XW sedan) and racing cars (he subscribed to the ‘Win on Sunday – Sell on Monday’ school of thought).
On a visit to Ford’s Product Engineering Department he was very interested in a special model V8 XR Falcon that was being developed for the Victoria Police as a pursuit car. Bourke had been responsible for slotting the V8 engine into the XR model the year before and could see the potential for a high performance version.
He came up with the idea of using the car developed for the police, painting them all the same colour and calling them GTs. When someone pointed out that a GT was always a two-door coupe and generally made by the Italians, Bourke said, “Well let’s make the world’s first four-door GT”.
That first car in its splendid GT Gold paint, lowered suspension, all-black interior and with stripes and blackouts on the bodywork, was an instant success and the total production run of 596 sold as quickly as they could roll off the line.
It just so happened that the GT qualified for the annual 500-mile race at Mt Panorama and seven GT Falcons were on the grid. All seven finished the race with Harry Firth and Fred Gibson in the winning car and the Geoghegan brothers – Peter and Ian – providing Ford with a Blue Oval quinella.
The GT went on to become an Australian icon with three 1968 XT models taking out the teams prize in the gruelling London-Sydney Marathon and subsequent models taking the chequered flag in races and rallies throughout Australia and New Zealand.
Following the ‘supercar’ controversy in the early 1970s, Ford ceased to offer the GT with the finish of the XB model and didn’t revive the badge until 1992 and 1997 when limited edition anniversary models were produced.
In this 100th year of Ford, the GT is back on Australia’s roads. The BA GT – designed and engineered by Ford's performance partner Ford Performance Vehicles – with its high-technology 290 kW double overhead camshaft engine, all-independent suspension and smart electronics is a quantum leap from the original 1967 GT.
That first GT boasted a push rod engine, leaf rear springs and rear drum brakes, but still had those two magic letters to make it stand apart from ‘ordinary’ cars.