Ford’s Unloved Child: The AU Falcon

Welcome to MotoringBox. You join me here by the roadside in the Australian outback. Because today we’re looking at one of the most infamous cars to have ever been designed and built in this great country. A car which polaried the Australian public’s opinion quite unlike anything which came before it or since, and one that suffered from slow sales as a result. Despite the fact that it was released over 20 years ago and was on sale for just four short years, somehow you still see them absolutely everywhere today. If you’re an Australian, this car needs no introduction. But to everyone else, it’s the Ford AU Falcon.

It’s the mid-1990s in Australia, and local car manufactures Ford and Holden are once again facing off against each other with their large, locally-built rear-wheel drive sedans – the Falcon and the Commodore. The two were neck and neck, trading punches with sales in the showrooms and swapping paint on the race tracks. EB vs VP, EF vs VR, and the mighty EL Falcon up against Holden’s VS Commodore. For Australian car fans, it was an absolutely epic time to be alive.

But then Holden launched their new VT Commodore in 1997, after more than 5 years and $600-million dollars worth of development. Australian car buyers fell in love with it and sales took off, with everyone else awaiting Ford’s response. The very next year, they returned fire with this.

The Ford AU Falcon. Like the VT Commodore, the AU Falcon was also the result of 5 years worth of development, with Ford spending over $700-million prior to launch. After briefly considering importing the American front-wheel drive Taurus or rear-wheel drive Crown Victoria, Ford went it alone and redesigned their existing Australian large car platform to suit the modern era. Powering the AU was the latest iteration of Ford Australia’s legendary 4-litre straight six engine, fitted to a car that was lighter, stiffer, more aerodynamic and more economical than the model which preceded it, and for the first time in the Falcon’s history, Independent Rear Suspension became available as standard on some models and optional on others.

But none of this mattered. Because it wasn’t the AU Falcons advanced features or engines which made headlines, it was quite simply how it looked.

Over the years, the styling may have mellowed out a bit. But imagine you’re a Ford man back in the late 1990s. You had the ED Falcon, EF and EL… and then this thing came along. It really was like a slap in the face with a wet fish. The AU Falcon used Ford’s “New Edge” design language which we first saw on the Taurus – and while it has been used to better effect here, it was still a radical departure from the Falcon we all knew and loved. I was finishing high school at the time and I remember absolutely hating how this thing looked.

And unfortunately for Ford, I wasn’t alone. The styling of the AU became a contentious issue with the car buying public, and the problem was further exacerbated by some awkward design choices throughout the model lineup.

Speaking of models, let’s run through the AU Falcon range. We begin with the Falcon Forte – a bare bones car with air-conditioning and an automatic gearbox as standard, but not a lot else. It had a waterfall style front grille which scared small children, and no-frills bodywork which sat high above 15″ steel wheels with one of the worst plastic wheel cover designs you’ve ever seen in your life. The Forte is your snag, or sausage – basic food, but it does the job.

Next, there was the Falcon Futura – which added a body coloured front grille, ABS brakes, cruise control and alloy wheels. It’s the bread – something you probably should have received in the first place.
From there you had the Falcon S – which added sports suspension, alloy wheels and a rear spoiler. It’s the cheese – a bit of added substance.

Next you had the Falcon XR6 – which was the high performance end of the range. You got a unique quad headlight front clip and bodykit, rear spoiler, sports suspension, and a higher power-output from the engine. It’s the onion – added punch for those who wanted it. There was also an XR6 VCT, which added variable cam timing to the engine for a slight bump in power.

Then there was the Fairmont – the entry level luxury model of the AU range. It had a new honeycomb grille, an 80-second headlight off delay, a higher-spec dashboard with wood grain-look inserts, a nicer interior, unique 15″ alloy wheels, dual horns and Fairmont badging on the boot. It’s your sauce – it tops off the package and helps brings everything together.

And lastly, you had your Fairmont Ghia. It also had unique wheels, even more wood grain, independent rear suspension as standard, and the same engine as the sporty XR6 VCT. It’s the mustard.

But we’re not done yet. The Forte and Fairmont Ghia models could also be optioned with Ford’s 5.0L Windsor V8, developing 175kW. Or the same engine could be used to turn an XR6 to an XR8, with 185kW. And then there were two even more powerful V8 models tweaked by Tickford Vehicle Engineering – the TE50 with 200kW, and the TS50, with 220kW. More sausages for power hungry customers.

The AU I’ve got here is a Fairmont Ghia with the 6-cylinder VCT engine – the fancy as fuck model of the AU range – and still with enough sausage to keep you satisfied. Mmmmm, nice.

This particular Fairmont Ghia sold brand new in 2001 for around $50,000 dollarydoos, but from where I’m sitting, the buyer ended up receiving a car which looks very much like a base model. The Fairmont Ghia may have had it’s own unique alloy wheels, but there’s very little else about it which screams “Premium”. And I guess a lot of that can be blamed on the AU Falcon’s design.

Without any of the body kits or rear spoilers which were available at the time as optional extras, buyers found the styling to be both offensive and dull at the same time.

From certain angles I can see moments of inspiration – like how the boot lid curve continues down past the tail lights in one smooth motion. There’s also this little flick that continues up into the tail lights. The C-Pillars too, look kind of cool. And I like the door profile with this crease which runs the entire length of the car. But not as much as I love what’s under here.

This is arguably the AU Falcon’s party piece – Ford’s Australian developed 4.0L straight-six engine. And for our overseas viewers, let me just clear one thing up from the get-go – this is not a “Barra”. What this is, is an engine which began life back in the 1960s as a North American 170ci (2.8L) straight-six. Over the years, Ford Australia enlarged it to 250ci (or 4.1 litres), developed a cross-flow cylinder head in the 70s, before switching to an aluminium head in the 80s and adding fuel-injection, and then redesigning the engine in the 90s to make it a 4.0L with a single overhead cam. They then added variable length intake runners before finally introducing variable cam timing to create this – the 4.0L Intech VCT. A few years later in the BA Falcon, this engine received dual-overhead cams and became the “Barra”. Which means this, is Barra’s old man.

The 4.0L Intech VCT was a formidable engine back in the day, developing 168kW (225hp) of power and 370Nm (273lb-ft) of torque in the Fairmont Ghia, and slightly more in the sporty XR6 Falcon. To put those figures into perspective, Holden had to supercharge their GM sourced 3.8L Ecotec V6 in the VT Commodore to simply match the power and torque figures this thing put out as standard. Along with the VCT system which could advance or retard the cam timing depending on the RPM for a wider power band, this engine also has a variable length intake system – which provided a longer path at lower RPMs, and a shorter, more direct path at higher RPMs to reduce intake resistance and increase airflow.

In my mind, the Intech VCT sits alongside the “Barra” as the two greatest engines to ever come out of this country. It’s just a bloody beautiful piece of Australian engineering. And the fact that Ford only fitted this engine to the XR6 VCT and Fairmont Ghia models makes this car a little bit special. So while it may look a little drab and unexciting, it goes like a shower of shit.

Now let’s not beat around the bush – the AU Falcon isn’t a sports car, I mean 0-100km/h takes around 8-seconds. But it’s the torque which really pushes this car along at lower RPMs. You don’t have to rev the tits off it to make quick progress. I mean I have a 5.0L V8 Fairlane which came out just a few years before this, and it not only develops less power, but it’s slower and thirstier as well! Why would you even consider the V8, when the 6 was this good!?

OK, so the exterior styling may not have been for everyone. But you’ve absolutely gotta have a Captain Cook at what’s going on in here. Ford’s “New Edge” oval fetish really kicked into overdrive when they were designing the AU Falcon’s interior. The air vents are ovals, the buttons are ovals. The clock, instrument cluster, shifter surround, door handles and speakers……. they’re all ovals. Ovals, everywhere.

The Fairmont Ghia came standard with these leather and cloth combination seats which I actually quite like. They’re comfortable, look good and thanks to the cloth sections they’re breathable too – which in sweaty Australian Summers is actually very important. If you were a masochist you also had the choice of optioning a full black-leather interior – and many people did. When I was on the hunt for an AU Fairmont, the majority were optioned with leather.

And that’s the Ford AU Falcon. An all round good car, but with a face that many simply weren’t ready to accept – and I think that’s kind of sad. Because as human beings, we don’t really have the right to judge anything, or anyone by their covers. We strive to point out what’s wrong with the world and the people within it, without firstly looking at ourselves. We judge others not by the best that they could be, but instead by the worst thoughts in our own hearts. While some might look at the AU and dismiss it as an ugly, oval shaped blob – I see solid, dependable family transport, developed by a company with a proud history of building honest cars for hardworking Australian families – and that’s something you just don’t get here anymore.

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