The year is 1979. Philips showed their new compact disc (CD) to the world for the first time, Queen’s “Dont Stop Me Now” dominated the music charts, a second oil crisis hit the United States, and Ford’s new XD Falcon large sedan went on sale in Australia. The XD Falcon bucked the automotive trends of the time, where the high oil price saw manufacturers downsizing not only their cars but also the engines which powered them. It looked like Ford had made a grave error of judgement by putting a brand new large car on sale in an era when no-one could afford to run one, and sales soon began to suffer. But the XD had a few aces hidden up its sleeve.
Development of the XD began in the mid 1970s, when Ford made the decision to base their new car on the floorplan of the existing XC Falcon – a car which was very large and very heavy. It was known internally as the ‘Blackwood’ project, and while the bones of the car might have been carried over from the previous model, they ended up being very different vehicles. Ford designed the XD with a smaller exterior size, while still retaining the same amount of interior space thanks to a more efficient layout. To improve performance and efficiency, every effort was made to use lighter parts and no expense was spared. Aluminium was used wherever possible, as was lots of plastic – most obviously in the bumpers, grille and fuel tank. The plastic fuel tank was apparently a world first for a mass produced car, and it helped shave several kilograms off the weight of the XD.
From the outside, the XD Falcon looked like it was designed by a man with ruler – with plenty of straight lines and squared off edges. Compared to the XC, the XD had a much lower waistline, which gave the car a much bigger glass area while also helping it to look much lighter visually. Even though the XD was Australian designed, the front grille and headlight units were taken straight from the European Ford Granada. A few other design cues were lifted from the Granada too, but overall the XD was the more modern looking vehicle out of the two – and it was packing a bunch of more interesting engines. You could have anything from a base GL model with a 3.3L or 4.1L straight-6 engine and 3-speed automatic gearbox, right through the top of the line Fairmont Ghia with a 4.9L or 5.8L V8 and 4-speed manual gearbox.
The car we’re looking at here is perhaps the most bare-bones model you could get back in the day – a poverty-spec XD GL model with the 3.3L engine and a 4-speed manual gearbox. No options, no creature comforts. Just the cheapest XD money could buy. Despite the spec, this particular XD does hold a lot of charm. For starters, it has just 97,000kms on the clock after 35 years, plus it comes across as being unpretentious, simple and honest – and I like that in a car. I’d like to think the person who originally spec’d the car back in 1981 was a hard working Australian gentleman who decided to modestly splash out on a new car for his family. The base-model car in Monza Red. The smallest engine on offer. The cheapest gearbox available. A full wipe-down vinyl interior. No power-assistance of any kind, and the only air-conditioning on offer being all four windows rolled down at 100km/h. Originally it would have even been fitted with steel wheels.
This particular XD is known informally as the ‘XD 1/2’, which signifies that it received an electronic ignition system and Honda-engineered alloy cylinder head upgrade that was rolled out across the range in June 1980. The new alloy head did improve fuel economy for the 3.3L and 4.1L straight-6 engines, but you wouldn’t exactly call them economical because the old iron-head units were so utterly thirsty in the first place. Rather than being a completely different engine, the 3.3L six in this XD GL was achieved by simply grabbing a 4.1L engine and swapping out the pistons and connecting rods to shorten the stroke. The change didn’t improve fuel-economy a great deal, and unfortunately the power output dropped from 94kW (126hp) offered by the 4.1L, down to just 82kW (110hp) for the 3.3L. Perhaps even worse was the reduction in torque, which plummeted from 295Nm (218lb-ft) down to just 228Nm (168lb-ft). This reduction in power means that you really need to work the gears and throttle in a 3.3L XD in order to make progress. Still, back in the day you’d have struggled to find a better or cheaper car for family transport duties.
The ride and handling can be described as both comfortable and floaty, while the body will also exhibit quite a bit of roll when you start getting physical with the steering wheel – and you’ll need to, as the manual steering box is a huge 5.2 turns from lock to lock. This means simply manoeuvring the XD through tight spaces or even attempting to quickly parallel park the thing is enough to raise a serious sweat. If I’m honest, the issue is made worse by the sticky vinyl seats and the complete lack of air-conditioning via the ventilation system, which always seems to throw warm air at you even if it is relatively cool outside. And Summer, you ask? Oh wow. Summer.
I’ve been in some hot cars during my life, but nothing could ever compare to driving a non-air-conditioned XD Falcon when the mercury is nudging 40ºC. At that temperature, life in the XD could only be described as murderous as I thundered along a country road at 100km/h. I think it was a combination of the superheated vinyl upholstery and the XD’s non-tinted large windows letting in what felt like the entire sun. I arrived at my destination medium-rare, pondering whether global warming has really made that much of a difference to the world’s temperature. Were the Summers more pleasant back in the 1980’s? If not, I simply can’t fathom who in their right mind would consider it acceptable to buy a car which doesn’t have air-conditioning – especially in Australia. I’d almost go so far as to call it dangerous.
That pretty much sums up my ownership experience of the XD Falcon GL. One moment, I’d consider it to be a prime example of Australian engineering and ingenuity, while the next it’d be making an attempt on my life – either by trying to cook me alive or by initiating an accident by locking the rear drum brakes without warning. Mostly, it was a spacious and comfortable way to get around, yet also deeply flawed. Most of the time, it was slow, thirsty, and hard work.
It remains an iconic car which symbolises everything that made Ford Australia so successful and profitable back in the 80’s. But times have changed, and the XD GL also represents an era when budget, base-model family cars really weren’t that great.
1981 Ford XD Falcon GLFrom $4,000
Performance & Fuel Economy4/10
Interior Comfort & Features5/10
Ride & Handling8/10
Value for Money6/10
- - Iconic 1980's styling
- - Spacious interior
- - Bulletproof drivetrain
- - Severely lacking in options and equipment
- - Dangerous to drive in Summer
- - Ordinary fuel economy