MotoringBox Cars

Ford’s Unloved Child: The AU Falcon

Welcome to MotoringBox. 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 polarised the Australian public’s opinion quite unlike anything that 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 on the roads today. If you’re an Australian, this car needs no introduction. But for 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. 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. 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 Falcon’s advanced features which made the headlines, it was quite simply how it looked.

Now of course the styling has mellowed out a bit over the years, but imagine you’re a Ford man back in the late 1990s. You had the ED Falcon, the EF, the 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.

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 – which is a bare-bones model which had 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 up, you had 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 alloy wheels, sports suspension and a rear spoiler. It’s the cheese – a bit of added substance.

Next you had the Falcon XR6 – which was the high-performance version of the AU Falcon range. For ya money, you got a unique quad headlight front clip and body kit, a 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 even sportier XR6 VCT.

Next up, you had the Fairmont – which was the entry-level luxury version of the AU range. It had a new honeycomb grille, 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 the sauce – it tops off the package and helps brings everything else together.

And lastly, you had your Fairmont Ghia. Which had its own unique alloy 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, and that’s because the Forte and the Fairmont Ghia could also be optioned with Ford’s 5.0L V8. Or the same engine could be used to turn an XR6 into an XR8. And then there were two even more powerful versions created by Tickford Vehicle Engineering – the TE50 with 200kW, and the TS50 with 220kW. More sausage for power-hungry customers. But the AU I’ve got here is a Fairmont Ghia with the 6-cylinder VCT engine – the fancy as fuck version of the AU Falcon range – and still with enough sausage to keep you satisfied.

But while the Fairmont Ghia may have indeed been fancy, it certainly didn’t look that way. 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 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 none of this matters, because the best part is under here.

This is arguably the AU Falcon’s party piece – Ford’s Australian developed 4.0L straight-six engine. Now let me just clear one thing up from the get-go for our overseas viewers – this is not a “Barra”. What this is, is an engine which can trace its roots all the way back to the 1960s, where it started life as Ford America’s 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. Then they 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 to become 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 (272lb-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.

In my mind, the Intech VCT and the Barra are two of the best engines to have ever come out of Australia. And the fact that Ford only fitted this engine to the Fairmont Ghia and the XR6 VCT makes this car a little bit special. So while it may look a little bit drab on the outside, it goes like a shower of shit.

Well let’s not beat around the bush here – the AU Falcon is no sports car. I mean 0-100km/h takes around 8-seconds. But it’s the torque which the 4.0L engine produces that helps it feel effortless. You don’t have to rev the tits off it in order to make progress. I mean I’ve got a 5.0L V8 Fairlane at home which came out just a couple of years before this car, but the engine in this makes more power and more torque. I mean why would you go for the V8, when the 6 was this good!?

But a bonzer engine can only be appreciated by the driver. To everyone else, you’re just a bloke in an AU.

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. And that’s because Ford’s “New Edge” oval fetish really kicked into overdrive in the interior of this car. 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.

So what else did the fancy as fuck Fairmont Ghia come with? Well you got a full leather steering wheel with volume and cruise controls mounted around one of the stickiest horn pads you’ve ever seen. Because who doesn’t want that, right? I don’t know what Ford was going for here, but I don’t think they expected it to age quite like this.

Next up we have the dash cluster with its oval gauges and oval warning light arrays. There’s not really much else going on up here, but it does at least have a little LCD screen at the bottom displaying the odometer, trip computer, open door diagram and also what gear you’re in. Mine also came standard with a friendly little fly who I named Barry.

Most of the other dash controls in the Fairmont Ghia are handled by this thing, which Ford call the Message Display Centre. And when the LCD panel is working it can indeed display a few messages. You can check your average fuel usage, the remaining range you’ve got left, instant fuel usage, average speed and you can even set an over speed alarm. There’s also a bunch of climate controls over here so you can set the mood exactly how you’d like it, and then there’s the analogue clock. It looks kind of decent, and there’s a woodgrain strip¬† which runs all the way across to the other side of the dash.

Below the MDC are four oval shaped buttons which pretty much do what you’d expect. The first one locks the doors, so this is the one to hit when you’re being chased by killer kangaroos or members of the local population who are on ice. Seeing as that mostly happens rougher, more remote areas, the second button should also prove helpful. This one gives the AU’s antenna shaft a hit of viagra so you can hit up those city radio stations a little bit longer before they go out of range.

And down the bottom here you’ve got your factory Ford premium sound head unit. Aside from looking like it’s been hit with an ugly stick, this thing holds 6-CDs in dash and does a decent job of supplying the tunes. But it’ll also give you the shits, because every time it turns on it has a different idea of what any given volume number should be. She’ll be right.

Down in the centre console you’ve got your shifter for the 4-speed automatic gearbox and there’s an economy button for when you’ve trying to stretch your next servo visit until pay day. There’s also two cupholders for ya beer and the centre console provides storage for your CD and coin collections.

In the back there’s decent room for 3 of your mates, but they’ll have to amuse themselves because there’s not much else going on back here. Maybe they can fire up Facebook and check out AU Falcons doing incredible things. Because like I mentioned at the start, despite being 20 years old you still see AU Falcons in places they shouldn’t be. Moving things they weren’t designed for, and usually being treated like shit in the process. Perhaps then, the AU Falcon is the cockroach of the Australian car industry. It’s not much to look at, but they’ll still be here long after we’re gone.

As you may have noticed, my AU has received similar treatment by previous owners. I found it on Facebook and it was the cheapest AU available with registration, It might look shiny on the outside, but it’s service history is patchy at best, and the scars on its silver skin hints at the abuse it has endured over the past 20 years. So you might imagine then that I’ve bought a bucket of bolts which is nearing the end of its life. But you’d be wrong. This car is just getting started.

Now I’d never driven an AU Falcon prior to owning this car, but it has been a genuine surprise. A few things have gone wrong I’ll admit and I’ll cover them in a future video, but at the end of the day this car drives amazingly well. Everything about this car is smooth. The steering is smooth, the engine is even more so, the gearbox hasn’t put a foot wrong and the suspension is doing a commendable job on these rough as guts country roads. It is far better then it has any right to be for a car of this age, and for the money I paid.

But what I think about this car is something else. From in here, I’m loving it. It feels like you could drive this thing across the length of Australia, and both you and the car would be ready to turn around and do it again. It’s just a comfortable, well-engineered car that does a great job of eating up the miles. But to me it’s kind of like a pair of tracksuit pants, or tracky dacks as we call them. It isn’t much to look at, but once you take looks out of the equation and not give a damn about what anyone thinks – it’s exactly what you’d want to be wearing.

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. In the end, the AU Falcon is a car which deserved far more praise than it ever received, and one that will no doubt be forgotten as the time goes on. Goodbye old friend.

Related posts

Australia’s Biggest Land Yacht – The Ford NC Fairlane

Sean McKellar

New Mazda CX-8 diesel now available

Sean McKellar

Jeremy Clarkson’s love affair with old Lancias

Sean McKellar

Nissan is working on brain-to-vehicle technology for future vehicles

Sean McKellar

New BMW i3’s traction control system 50 times faster; will feature on all future BMW & MINI models

Sean McKellar

Gran Turismo Sport – Top Gear Nurburgring Van Challenge

Sean McKellar

Leave a Comment