Ford Falcon XA Superbird
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 4
The Superbird started life as a one off show special, designed to attract attention at the Melbourne and Sydney motorshows. It was such a success, however, that Ford decided to release a limited run of Superbirds.
They toned down the graphics of the showcar, limiting it to a much smaller bird on the rear wings than the large bird featured on the special, which covered the rear quarter panel, door and part of the front guard. The car was available in three different paint schemes, white and blue, lime and green and yellow and brown and each was fitted with a louvre for the rear window.
Mechanically they ran the 302ci V8 engine with a choice of manual or automatic transmissions
and featured a plush interior and GT instrumentation. Approximately 750 Superbirds were made in all three colour schemes, 550 with automatic and 200 with manual gearboxes.
Comparing The Superbird To The XU-1
The problem with the Superbird was that it always remained in the shadow of the GT.
Now, as then, it would be unfair to compare the "Bird" to the GT - it would be akin to compiling a list of shortcomings that everyone would expect.
Instead - we have decided to compare it to another Aussie legend - obviously it would have to be Red versus Blue, and one based on dealer sticker price at the time both were available. The decision we faced - should we choose a lesser Monaro - or the spirited Torana XU-1
? So lets make this interesting - compare Ford's highway cruiser to the Mount Panorama
In some ways, it could be argued that the Superbird and XU-1
were natural competitors. They were performance packages which couldn't be altered much by optioning, both sold for around AU$3600 and both were aimed at the youth market.
The Torana was a street fighter - the Superbird a family sedan that had been transformed into a performance cruiser capable of eating up the miles without difficulty.
The Superbird naturally had an understressed engine, enough suspension
refinement to make it point pretty well and comfort in spades.
The General's 202 vs. The Well Sorted 302
The GTR Torana's engine was derived from the Holden HQ's 202 cube six
, fed by three side-draft Stromberg carbies and produced 190 bhp at 5600 rpm and 200 lb/ft of torque, at a (for the time) high 4000 rpm. Proud (and lucky) owners will tell you the XU-1 idles jumpily (aka "lumpy") at around 1200 rpm., and needs to be "blipped" to clear it out after just a minute or two of idling. But when you open it up, it really hauled. All through the rev-range, it would pull hard and feel strong.
The Falcon Superbird was fitted with Ford's 302 4950 cc V8 which produced 240 bhp @ 5000 rpm and 305 lb/ft of torque at 2600 rpm. There are plenty of Falcon's around with the trusty 302, so getting an opinion is pretty easy if you attend a car show or two. Instead of saying what we think of the mill, we will quote from a proud XA GS owner..."The 302 is awesomely docile, and pulls from nothing on the tachometer without protest. It lacks the hard edge of the 351, and obviously is down on power, but the 302 remains a fuc*ing brilliant engine".
Manual vs. Manual - Only If You Like Club-X
consistently out accelerating city traffic without going over 2,000 rpm in the gears, it was on the open road that the Superbird shone. At times it was possible to imagine that the engine was stopped - and the car was being propelled by towrope - the 302 in the XA two door body was that quiet. As mentioned earlier in this article, 550 of the 750 odd Superbirds made were fitted with the auto trans. Maybe not so sporty, but again as a highway cruiser that was easy to live with around town it made sence.
By leaving the Superbird in drive and letting it change-up at 4000 rpm it registered a standing quarter time (two up) of just under 17 seconds.
Easy to live with is one thing, but enjoyment is another - and
the Torana's gearbox was one of the best in the biz - even though it was heavy and fairly notchy. Positive and quick, the ratios were ideal although 1st was a little on the high side, running to 48 mph. Second was good for 67 mph and third ran to 98 mph - not too shabby for a 202! Arguably third was the XU-1's best gear, because it could make use of the engine's low down power for pulling rapid overtake manouveres. The XU-1 would "keep up" at the lights, then hit its straps and blow almost any competition away beyond 50.
But the automatic transmission
in the Superbird was beyond reproach, changing gears smoothly and rapidly at 4000 rpm and making it a quick and pleasant car. So why would we pitch two very different cars against each other, and at least not compare them both with the manual tranny? Well, from our driving experience, road reviews of the era, and owners we have spoken to, the manual Superbird had a widely spaced gate, with long throws between gears and a rubbery feel. That might be good at Club-X, but is not so good behind the wheel of a sports car.
Ford Falcon XA Hardtop - bloody brilliant...
The Performance Car For The Family Man
Obviously the Superbird was aimed at the enthusiast market, but we will assume it was the enthusiast that had a family - and appreciated the refinement that only a V8 could provide. So, as you would expect, in the road holding department the XU-1 was a clear winner. What is surprising however is that the gap was not as much as you would think. Around the twisty stuff the Torana was clearly faster than the Ford, but it was never a pleasant experience if you were a passenger - or worse still strapped into the back seat.
Punt an XU-1 flat out may be one of the best experiences there is to have - but only if you are the one with the wheel in your hands. Road testers have commented that the XU-1 would amplify bumps instead of absorbing them. Bumps could easily throw the XU-1 off line, but if you could find a smooth surface (not so easy in 1970's Australia) you would find the cornering ability beyond reproach.
Both cars had plenty of understeer which could not be easily reduced by using power. It was important to keep the Superbird's entry speeds fairly low, otherwise monumental understeer would set in. When driven accurately the Superbird was a quick car point-to-point, especially on more open roads where sweeping bends abounded.
Under these conditions it could be set up early in mild understeer and taken through under full power feeling flat and stable. However, the Superbird's good handling
was in spite of, rather than because of, the steering. 5.5" turns from lock to lock was what you would expect of cars from the 1960's - not the 1970's.
The Superbird's brakes
were good for the time, but were never outstanding - they faded quite badly after only moderately hard use, although their recovery rate was quick.
And as you would expect, the Holden's brakes
were darn good, provided the road surface was reasonable.
Both cars were well equipped for the driver, though the Ford was streets ahead when it came to actual driver comfort. Its seats were excellent, using the reclining buckets available throughout the XA Falcon range. Before the Holden fans send letters of complaint, we acknowledge that by the time the Superbird was released, the General had redesigned the seats and they did offer better support and were more comfortable (although they still did not recline). Being purely objective, we would prefer to plant our backsides in the XA than the Torana.
It was not our intent to offend both Ford and Holden fans - although we no doubt have. Some will claim this was a completely pointless comparison. Maybe so, but if you were going to drop three and a half large in the early 1970's on a new Aussie sports coupe, the comparison seems perfectly legitimate. That the XU-1 has, quite rightly, become an Australian performance car icon is not at question. But understanding why some were tempted to the Ford camp should not be ignored. Today we would all grab the Torana over the Superbird - in fact we doubt many would put the Superbird on their classic Aussie muscle car shopping list. And that would be a shame, because so few were made, and all possessed that marvelous 70's charisma that defined motorsport in this country that lingers to this day. The Falcon was a marvellous touring car with good handling, power and comfort, while the Torana was a track car in disguise with all the fussiness, hard ride, good brakes
and bad rough road performance that this implied.