In an almost unprecedented move, Ford Australia denied scoop photographers Australia-wide the opportunity to get sneak shots of roughly-disguised, dirt-streaked prototype cars by showing Australia its new BA series Ford Falcon months before its official launch date. Monday July 15 was a high point in a marketing campaign that, over the last few months, has seen Ford Australia use the Web to officially 'leak' snippets of information about its highly-anticipated new model to a buying public jaded by the previous series, the AU Falcon launched in 1998.
So why has Ford Australia taken this step? Simple: To get out of trouble. Its most recent product, the AU series Falcon, has been a disaster for the once-proud - but recently aimless - Aussie car manufacturer...
Ford had high hopes with the AU Falcon, its first all-new model (with carry-over engines and transmissions) for more than a decade. It even coded its new baby the AU, in reference to the IT culture rampant through the world in the late 90s (Australian web sites are signed dot.au), placing the Falcon as a proud Australian car.
However, the launch a year earlier of its rival, the VT Commodore, moved the goalposts for Ford very late in the AU's development program. With the benefit of hindsight, it could be said the VT Commodore was a better car than Ford anticipated. Even at launch, the AU Falcon was behind the times with regards to its technology, fit and finish (especially interior trim), NVH and on-road dynamics.
Under the skin, the AU Falcon was more of the same. If it ain't broke, don't fix it; but against the well-received VT Commodore that had been on sale for more than a year, the Falcon cracked. The 4.0-litre OHC six's crank and intake systems had received significant re-engineering four years previously, and in fact the engine was technically far superior to the Commodore's pushrod V6. But Ford's retention of a live rear axle, coil springs and Watts link rear end, (first introduced under the 1982 XE Falcon) made it the focus for criticism against the Commodore, whose IRS became optional as far back as 1991 and standard (even in wagons) in the 1997 VT.
Around the launch of the AU, Ford staffers were quoted as saying that most people in normal driving couldn't tell the difference between IRS and a live-axle car. That is probably true. But the mere presence of something as antiquated as a beam axle somewhere in the range takes the gloss off the goss. Tech heads shudder at the fact the Falcon wagon retained leaf springs, something that is surely unique in the automotive world. But then again, so Ford says - and we can't argue - it's all about the Australian market's desire for a large, torquey solid wagon that is capable of towing heavy caravans with minimal tracking problems and tyre wear, something the Falcon is renowned for.
Other aspects of the AU Falcon's technology were coming under fire from media and market, too. The Falcon AU's all-new double A-arm front suspension, although dynamically superior to the Commodore's MacPherson struts, was noisier in operation than it should have been. The brakes, a straight-carry-over from the previous EL series, had their roots in the sub-100kW Falcons of the late 1970s. They weren't up to the task of nearly double the power. The VT Commodore received an all-new, larger braking system featuring twin-piston front calipers (in anticipation of it receiving the Chev LS1 V8) so against almost every benchmark the AU Falcon was left wanting against its traditional foe.
Factor in the absence of side airbags and seatbelt pre-tensioners (tensioners were standard in the VT Commodore and airbags became available in 1999) and the seeds were sown. In the eyes of the buying public, the Falcon was beginning to be seen as an under-done car.
But it wasn't these features alone that caused the failure of the Falcon in the marketplace. The average car buyer is shallower than that. It was, in fact, the car's controversial styling, heavily pushed by Ford as one of the key qualities of the AU Falcon. Aesthetically, the AU followed the 'New Edge design' school of thought with creases and sharps highlighting and 'defining' rounded forms. Despite the body's superb aero-efficiency, the public saw simply an ugly car. The Forte, the entry-level Falcon, was blighted with a grille that looked like a frozen waterfall. Some regarded it as looking like the smile of a whale. Being the base model and having the highest sales volume of the range, it was the car most people saw most often so its image tarnished the whole range.
The Ford Taurus Factor
Many Australian enthusiasts also compared the style of the AU Falcon to the US-sourced Taurus that was also sold in Australia. And the comparisons weren't complimentary. Despite its success in its home market, the Taurus was a disaster in Australia. Not only was it competing head to head on price with its showroom mate, the Fairmont Ghia (the upper-spec version of the Falcon), but its droopy, ovoid styling was seen as more ugly than innovative. The fact it was front-wheel drive (the Australian fleet market is dominated by the Commodore and Falcon, large rear-drive six-cylinder sedans) and its lack of 'place' (it was a car without a customer) meant it simply didn't fit with the Australian car-buying public.
So, us propeller heads thought the AU was underdone, Joe Public thought it looked like the Taurus the Walrus, and it was up against the Commodore, a smoothly-styled car marketed as a sophisticated, international-standard product.
Within weeks, it seems, Ford knew it was in trouble. In early 1999, just months after the AU went on sale, there was speculation of sheetmetal changes for the car's first update. In car-making terms, that's a serious move. It was in response to the fact that rather than going up, sales went down. Commodore, despite being an older car with arguably less-developed dynamics, made mincemeat of the Falcon - in Sept 1999, two years after the launch of VT and one after AU, Holden announced Commodore had outsold Falcon every month for 24 months straight, with monthly figures as much as 25 percent higher than AU!
Unfavourable bar-room and media comparisons were made with the halcyon days of the mid-80s, when Ford could do no wrong. Back then, Holden was in trouble with a smaller Opel-sourced car, no commercial vehicles (the Opel platform on which the Commodore was then based didn't have panel van or ute variants like the Falcon platform) and had to accept a cash bail-out from GM in Detroit just to stay in business. Except, now the tables were turned. Ford was the underdog. With so much riding on the AU, and sales down, Ford needed to find a fix.
Ford Wakes Up
One of the criticisms of the AU Falcon was that it looked too high. A running change (without the fanfare of an official announcement) to the AU was to fit shorter rear springs to give it a more flattering ride height, 25mm lower than original. There were various styling fiddles with jewellery - chrome-look inserts to the Forte's headlights to replace the budget-looking grey, a more aggressive grille and a couple of rear spoilers to give the car more showroom appeal and on-road presence - until Ford could do something serious about the AU Forte's woeful looks.
The news for Ford got worse when the premium Tickford T Series received a lukewarm reception. In Australia, Tickford is the performance arm of Ford, responsible for developing and largely assembling Ford's sports XR6 and XR8 versions (plus few other limited editions such as GTs) of the Falcon since 1991. Based on the premium V8 Fairmont Ghia sedan and Fairlane limousine, the T Series cars (TE50, TS50 and TL50) were highly-competent sports sedans with thoroughly re-engineered versions of the Windsor 5.0-litre V8s. Specified with US Ford Motorsport alloy heads, the Tickford-assembled Windsor V8s in the top-line TS50 and TL50 were equipped with a locally-developed cam and other upgrades to produce 220kW. These vehicles were intended to take Tickford further up-market and make the Falcon brand more aspirational.
Once again, the cars' biggest downfall was styling and image. They were too subtle, with a marketing image ("Fast cars built slowly" claimed the moody-looking ads) of being finely crafted and elegantly appointed. But the T Series cars were selling (a) against the brash, flash competition-inspired Holden-derived HSV range that had been established 10 years, and (b) into an affluent 30+ consumer group that had been starved of a Ford V8 performance 'hero' model during their formative, teenage years of the 1980s (Ford Australia had no V8 engine between 1982 and 1991).
Another factor weighing against the T Series was the introduction of the 220kW Chev LS1 V8 into the Holden range just before launch. It was then possible to buy a base-model Holden fitted with a freshly-designed all-alloy V8 that was not only more powerful than the T series' archaic all-iron Windsor V8, but used significantly less fuel and cost about $20K less...
In short, the cars didn't appeal to either existing or future customers. They were down on kilowatts, and even the press test cars were silver - a colour that faded to grey against the bright orange and red HSV media cars they were often photographed with. It was another indication of Ford not understanding the growing passion and frustration of its opinion-leading - with money to spend - customers.
Ford Begins To Do Something
The change in the Falcon's complexion came with the AUII. The Forte (and the trim level above it, Futura) had a different bonnet to the more up-market Fairmont. That allowed Ford to specify the AUII Forte (and Futura) with the Fairmont bonnet (without much in the way of expensive tooling changes in the factory) and rid the Forte of its most (un) remarkable feature.
The AUII update also introduced larger wheels to pack out the wheel wells - 16 inch - and larger brakes to address the criticisms of inadequacy, especially when teamed with the V8 engine. Seat belt pretensioners became standard (although side airbags remained notable for their absence). Although you couldn't see it, the firewall was now a double-thickness laminated unit that cut down on some of the engine's thrum and front suspension noise. Was the inclusion of these two - in car making terms - major manufacturing changes an example of engineering on-the-run? A restyle of the centre-mounted HVAC controls made the car a bit less seasick inside and a higher level of standard equipment (more cloth, less vinyl) helped make the AUII, in many people's eyes, the car the original AU should have been. The AUIII, launched late in 2001 was a more conservative update, with no significant new equipment.
Ford REALLY Begins To Do Something
But the Tickford versions of the AUIII were something else. Shrugging off its 'we won't be involved in a power battle with HSV' conservatism, Tickford's AUIII (known as T3) models carried a totally re-engineered, hand-built stroker version of the ex-US Windsor V8 displacing 5.6 litres and punching out 250kW. Behind it was a US Mustang gearbox - the Aussie-made T5 manual box is not rated for the stroker's massive 500+Nm of torque - and on the back of the car was a dirty great big wing. Significantly, the T3 Tickfords also proudly carried big badges on their sideskirts. Not to everybody's taste, but with a lot more market appeal than the previous too-subtle T1 and T2 Tickfords. HSV owners - the Dark Side to Blue bloods - even started giving T series drivers the thumbs-up in traffic.
It looked like Falcon's image was finally getting the shakeup it needed - although with HSV having had 300kW engines for years, it was always going to be too little, much too late. And selling a car with an engine based on one of the oldest production engines in the world was always going to be a tough call to any wide-awake potential buyers.
Will Barra Get Ford Off The Hook?
And now to Barra. In early 2002, Ford began a marketing campaign aimed at enticing interest in the new Falcon. It was becoming more and more obvious to motor noters that the new Falcon (after AU, logically referred to up until recently AV - but then again there was already an AV Telstar) was much more than a mid-life update of different bonnet, lights and wheel trims. Those suspicions and rumour became fact when Ford released details of its all-new 'Control Blade' independent rear suspension on its www.newfalcon.com.au website earlier this year. (Which immediately raised the question - why did Ford ditch the AU's best attribute, its optional IRS? It's far superior to the Commodore semi-trailing-arms-plus-a-link design.)
Before the showing of the car's exterior on Monday 15 July, there were also 'secrets revealed' (Ford's term) of the car's seats, bright new paint colours and hidden windscreen washers. Ford has announced a totally new heater/AC unit that, combined with details of the adjustable pedals, hints to a complete new dashboard. These snippets of info reveal the BA is an almost totally new design - just four years after the launch of the all-new AU series!
The usual life for a new car design from Holden and Ford in Australia in the last 30 years is about a decade, with two or three revisions - such as freshened styling and lights - over that time. The front and rear sheet metal of the BA is obviously all-new with more assertive dimensions, the rear floor rear is all-new to suit the IRS and we bet there's plenty of engine box changes to accommodate the anticipated new engines. The door assemblies are the only carry-over parts from the chastised AU.
The engines? No details have been announced yet, but the rumour-mill reckons two brand-new DOHC sixes and - now that the antique Windsor 5.0 is dead - two US-sourced 5.4-litre V8s, all under drive-by-wire throttle control. These should endow the Falcon with more grunt than a pig farm.
With the AU one of the hardest lessons it has ever learned, Ford has a lot riding on the success of this car. It's hook, line, or sinker time for Ford Australia.
Casting the Net
Is this also a 'first' for a car company? As well as scooping the magazines at their own game, and using the Web as its first-line of marketing, both Ford Australia president Geoff Polites and Tickford head honcho (Tickford is Ford's high performance vehicle engineering arm for Australia and NZ) David Flint registered with Ford Forums.com and began talking to the 'Da Boys' (and girls). In the months after logging on in early 2002, Geoff and David delighted - and astonished - many Aussie Ford enthusiasts by actively participating in discussions about Ford heritage, product and - without revealing any secrets - what to expect from the next Falcon.
In the first few posts, their presence on the Net was seen by regulars as a sophisticated joke brought about by a forum moderator with too much time on his hands, however, as time went on, the Blue-bloods realised that the pair were, in fact, real and genuinely interested in what Ford enthusiasts had to say. Some may see the pair's presence on the net as a cynical marketing ploy, but judging by the feedback, response and respect they received, it's an indication of how vital Ford Australia regards the enthusiast market, and how willing it is to listen to its customers. It's a far cry from the arrogance and lack of empathy it displayed when it first presented the AU's New Edge styling.