The Blackwood Program
When the "Blackwood program" was in its early stages, most thought Australia would continue to do its own thing. Uve Bahnsen, the stylist/designer who held sway in Europe at the time, had other ideas. Bahnsen was in favour of retaining the world-wide corporate image (for cars outside the US) which was evident in the Escort, Cortina and Granada vehicles. Bahnsen wanted to maintain his rather austere, straight lined ideas. Ultimately, Australia went along with this setting about creating as near as possible a Granada replica with the Blackwood.
Local component specifications, together with some minor tweaks allowing for local taste, resulted in a very similar appearance to the Granada. Strangely there was hardly a part on the XD Falcon which was interchangeable with the Granada - even though both cars were similar with regard to dimensions in many respects. Ford only did minor work on the chassis, clothing and packing in a new skin, and put most of its efforts into power units and materials used in the car's overall construction, plus a few other modernising innovations, to offset the rather old fashioned, but nevertheless well developed chassis.
One such "space age" gimmick was the VDO designed and made "Central Information System." Basically C.I.S. was a 'plug-in", printed circuit, electronic instrument panel. Versions of the same thing were being used by BMW in their "6" and "7" series cars, because it had a number of very useful advantages in terms of car design. Basically, such a printed circuit system was capable of handling all instrument gauges including tachometer, speedometer, fuel, oil and water indicators, plus almost any number of warning lights.
These could monitor anything from RPM "red line", through brake wear, low oil level, low fuel, to inoperative lights - anything in fact, all in one printed circuit package. Today we assume this kind of technology – but in 1979
it was novel in a mass produced Aussie car. As we know today, circuit boards are virtually a throw away items – and this was the case with the C.I.S. system. If there was a crack in the circuit or moisture-caused stoning, the board was simply removed as a single unit and replaced. There were advantages in service tune (labour is one of the biggest service cost items) and the C.I.S. was lighter than anything then in general use.
Materials in car construction are vital factors affecting all up weight. On the other hand, the ability to make modern materials look like traditional quality stuff like leather and wood can add immensely to the appeal of a vehicle's interior. Ford explored these areas extensively, coming up with a "plastic" construction which, when removed from the moulds, was smooth, but which "set" with a soft, yielding surface. These composite materials were used extensively in the facia, seat backs and internal trim areas, giving the effect of leather. Plastic materials were also used elsewhere on the XD Falcon. Many under hood items, previously made of other things, were plastic based. And of course there was the all plastic fuel tank.
Following a lot of development and experimentation, Ford's suppliers come up with a composite tank unit that, while being a great deal lighter than steel, had the same strength in all departments, together with great resistance to deterioration. It offered a useful weight saving in the area behind the back axle, even when full of fuel. An added advantage of this was the fact that the boot floor was no longer the fuel tank "roof". This meant that the fuel tank was safely outside the car. And important to taxi fleet owners was the fact that Ford also offered a LPG tank option, which bolted into the same area as the normal petrol tank. The "taxi LPG pack" included a modified cylinder head and induction system to take full advantage of the liquid propane fuel.
A Huge Investment
Ford took a huge gamble when it invested more than $100 million on the XD Falcon – but fortunately for the blue oval the investment would quickly pay off. The XD Falcon marked the start of Ford's determined push to become market leader in Australia, a goal they ultimately achieved, but one that, at the release of the XD, was beyond their grasp. The perceived fault lay in the size of the XD in comparison with its competitors. After its initial launch, the XD enjoyed great popularity, outselling the Holden Commodore
Launched towards the end of March 1979
, it came close to toppling the Commodore
from its best-selling pedestal before a sudden, unexpected buying swing to four-cylinder cars in the early months of 1980
, which had executives of both GMH
and Ford wringing their hands in anguish. A determined sales drive with liberal price discounts saw the Falcon make a comeback and in mid-1980
buyers were given further enticement with the introduction of more fuel efficient six-cylinder engines equipped with cylinder heads designed and built by Honda
. However, petrol economy was only one factor in the Falcon's decline.
The biggest reaction against the Falcon and Commodore had been a resistance to rising prices, which had been spiraling upward much faster than wage increases and the cost of living. Ford canvassed public opinion before taking the plunge on the XD. Extensive surveys showed buyers wanted a medium-sized five-seater car with good ride and handling
qualities, but smaller, easier to handle, and more economical than the XC Falcon. So the XD was designed to meet these requirements, using much the same mechanical base as the XC but with more sensible styling and smaller overall dimensions.
Saving weight was a top priority. Plastic components were used extensively, including the bumpers, grille, dash, front spoiler, and petrol tank, which all contributed towards a significant 116 kg reduction, in turn giving the XD a 10 per cent improvement in fuel economy over the XC. The previous wheelbase was retained, but the length and width were trimmed, although not at the expense of passenger space. There was even an attempt to improve the aerodynamics of the Falcon, the rear-view mirrors being an obvious candidate for a styling revision.
The base GL version was fitted with a 3.3-litre engine, while the 4.1 litre six came standard in the Fairmont and Fairmont Ghia, with the 4.9 and 5.8 litre V8’s optional. Most buyers specified the 4.1 engine, which offered a good blend of power and torque to cope with everyday needs, and was sufficiently strong to haul a boat or caravan. Improved vision made the XD a most controllable car for its size. While comfort was adequate, unfortunately the driving position suffered the same fault as previous Falcons insofar as the steering
wheel was too close to the chest and the old-fashioned umbrella-type handbrake was retained.
XD Falcon Wagon
the XD Wagon fought a two-pronged attack from GMH
, the latter heavily marketing the VB Wagon
while still producing the HZ Wagon
. But the VB
was smaller, and the HZ
considered very long in the tooth. Unlike the then new Commodore wagon, Ford did not attempt to build a wagon with sedan virtues. Instead they opted for a long wheelbase wagon, and then did their best to give it as much of the sedan's finesse as possible. Excluding the HZ
(which was by then in its death throes), the XD was far more in the traditional Australian wagon mould than its Holden counterpart.
Like all the wagons that had been before it, the XD had the familiar traits; rattly tailgate, sloshing fuel in the flat, under floor tank, amplified road noise and interior booming. None of this made the XD a bad car - far from it. It was quieter, smoother and in every way better than the XC. And, if you want space for space's sake, and the only parameters for buying a wagon was its carrying capacity, the the XD Falcon was your car. It had more room inside, and although it was a little restricted in height, there was no argument regarding its advantages in sheer carrying capacity over the Commodore.
The stock GL model had a base price of $7190 – but there was a long list of options. These included; 4.1 big six ($161), three speed T1 bar auto ($662), air conditioning ($667), laminated windscreen ($109), cloth trim ($67), rear inertia rear belt's ($44), LED digital clock ($50), heated rear window ($43), 70 H14 Goodyear steel radials ($36), and intermittent wipers ($30). At the time there were plenty of critics who felt, understandably, that the XD sedans had too little noise suppression, too much ride harshness, and these negatives were only enhanced with the wagon version, the huge rear open area accentuated all of the problems.
On The Road
Engine noise was another problem with the XD. The big 4.1 litre six strived mightily in terms of road performance, but at medium to wide throttle openings it made its presence felt strongly. The performance could feel almost sluggish in many ways, but the stop watch would tell another story, and the wagons performance was not that far off the sedan version. The standing start 400 metres would be clocked in under 18.4 seconds. The relatively long wheel-base provided a large loading area, increased considerably with the rear passenger seats folded flat.
The XD had sides that were straight from the A pillar all the way back to the tailgate, which made for brilliant vision all around – and was much better than the XC
which had a hump in the middle that compromised rearward vision. On the open highway the longer wheelbase of the Ford would come into its own, lapping up the kilometres while providing reasonable fuel consumption figures and fatigue free driving. Around town was not so good, and if your wagon was going to spend most of its life within the city limits, the VB
was, in our opinion at least, the better option.
Introduction of the Alloy Head
We doubt few would remember that Ford were seriously thinking of manufacturing the Fiesta at a new plant they intended to build at Ingleburn. The reason was, Australians were deserting the large car in droves, and the smaller Japanese marques were the beneficiaries. It seems not much has changed in the decades since. When Ford first embarked on “Project Blackwood” (what would become the XD Falcon), they put their faith in Australians wanting their cars to remain around the same size, and they resisted the temptation to create something smaller such as the European styled Commodore
. For a time it seemed they were on the money, but as always fuel consumption would be the cars Achilles heel.
At the time there were two choices in designing a car for the first half of the eighties. On the one hand there was the (then) radical downsizing route taken by GMH, and on the other hand a considerable improvement in efficiency and weight reduction based on an existing layout. Ford chose the latter. With 20/20 hindsight, we can claim this to be not such a good decision. But the decision had been made, so the only choice was to improve the economy of the engine. Enter the Alloy Head – a revision of what was by then an ageing six cylinder engine. Available from June 1980
, about the only way you could separate the old (iron) from the (alloy) was through the "Alloy Head" badge featured on the front fenders.
At release, Ford claimed fuel consumption figures on the 3.3 version of 13 litres per 100 km city, 8.5 litres per 100 km highway, and an average of 10.7 litres per 100 km under clinically controlled conditions (although we are not sure what that meant). These figures were not brilliant by any standard, although they were acceptable. But the alloy head Falcon went further than just economy. It also performed in a far more satisfying way. This was mainly due to enhanced torque characteristics, not particularly an improvement in outright terms -2 Nms was hardly anything to get excited about, but more in the wider spread of torque. The bottom line was that the torque, combined with smoother power output, reduced engine and transmission harshness, as well as a worthwhile apparent reduction in noise, and that added up to a car that was better in performance right across the board.
Better Fuel Consumption, Better Performance
At the time 10 litres per 100 km was the psychological barrier with regard to what was considered reasonable fuel consumption. Anything less was looked on as being excellent, and anything above, up to say 12 litres per 100 km was considered just acceptable. Over that level general interest was long gone. We are not sure if Ford were satisfied with achieving its 11.2 litres per 100 km, putting it in the "acceptable" class. But then, if you compared it with the four cylinder Commodore
, then Ford definitely had the edge.
Without a doubt, the alloy head engine was an overall advance for this otherwise ultra conventional big car. With a lower first gear, followed by a reasonable gap to second there would was something of a hole in acceleration through the gears. It was no biggie, but it did take the edge of good 0-100 times. That aside, the alloy head invoked the right sort of driving technique for good fuel economy. It happened without any real conscious effort on the part of the person behind the wheel, upward gear changes being made early without thought, and the car responding without fuss. It was easy to slot into top gear before 60 km/h was reached even in quite heavy traffic during peak hours, thereafter top gear remained sufficiently flexible for down changes to be required only in very slow going.
Open road cruising at between 100 and 110 km/h was made more satisfying than before by the far lower engine and transmission noise than existed in the older cars. Unfortunately the wind noise was still there, and the leaf spring rear end still did very little to cushion audible thumps over transverse ridges. There was never as much sound deadening material in the rear portion of Falcons as was found on other makes. As a means of comparison between the iron head and alloy version, the 3.3 XD Falcon would feel sluggish and certainly left a great deal to be desired in comparison with the 4.1 litre version. Now, thanks to enhanced drivability, the gap narrowed.
GMH were the people who suggested that the XT 5 engines up¬graded their range so that the 2850 engine performed like the old 3.3 and the 3.3 performed more like the 4.2 litre V8. It was much the same with Ford's sixes, the 3.3 having the sort of attributes that made many buyers chose the 4.1 litre prior to the coming of the alloy cylinder head. When economy was not the prime requirement, this improvement is even more marked. Throttle response was far better and came in much lower than before so acceleration in top gear was good enough for most overtaking moves at 60 km/h or more. 0 to 100 times in a little under 13 seconds was an improvement on even the 4.1 litre auto iron head which was just over the 13 second mark. It was the same story when it came to the standing start 400 metres. The alloy head 3.3 would take 18.5 seconds compared with 18.8 seconds for the older XD with bigger engine and auto transmission.
As with the iron headed economy model, the alloy headed 3.3 featured a vacuum gauge, tacked onto the top of the dashboard as a means of assisting drivers to get into the habit of using light throttle openings. For the rest there was little change. Driving dynamics were much the same, the lack of power assisted steering made it pretty hard to move around in tight spots, and recirculating ball steering mechanism gave it rather vague on-centre feel in a straight line, especially in crosswinds. The Falcon was very much more at home on the open highway when being driven relatively quickly than it was around town.
Though it lacked the responsiveness of the Commodore
six when being punted, it was still very controllable and quite enjoyable to drive hard. It felt as though it was very solidly glued to the road, things only becoming tricky when the going got a little rough. Then, at speed, the back axle's leaf springs had the tendency to allow the rear end to hop around a fair bit, requiring some quick steering correction. Under brakes the alloy headed update was better than its forebears, taking 61 metres to stop from a distance from 110 km/h. Not bad going for a disc drum set-up on a car weighing over 1300 kgs.
European Sports Pack
The European Sports Pack (ESP) was released 15 months after the rest of the range, in June 1980
. It was fitted as standard with the new 4.1 litre alloy head six, however the 5.8 litre V8 was available as an option. The ESP also featured a re-worked suspension
system, which included higher-rate front and rear springs, a rear radius rod and Bilstein gas shock absorbers. The steering
geometry and anti-sway bars were unique to the ESP. The car sat on 7 inch wide wheels, and the tyres
were low-profile 60 series steel belted radials. Inside the ESP featured contoured Australian made Scheel seats with woll-cloth facings.
The fact that there was no longer a true performance car in the Falcon lineup was little detterant to the likes of Dick Johnson
and other drivers of the Blue Oval, and the famous number 17 would line up at the start of the 1981 Bathurst 1000 event. All seemed to be going well for Johnson, but a massive accident on lap 121 would see the race brought to an early close. Dick Johnson
and his XD were named as winners, having been in the lead the preceding lap 120. The XD Fairmont Ghia
was easy to spot from the lesser Falcon's, it featuring lovely fluted alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes, velour upholstery and additional instrumentation including a then rare tachometer.
was only ever sold as a sedan, all other models were available as either sedan or wagon. Unfortunatelly, the hardtop was no more, the ESP being the sportiest on offer. The XD commercials arrived 6 months after the models launch in September 1979, both the ute's and panel vans being available in a "base" level of trim, or GL. Ford revised the 3.3 and 4.1 litre six-cylinder Falcon engines in August 1980 with aluminium cylinder heads and other modifications aimed at increasing their fuel efficiency – in turn giving the XD slightly better fuel consumption figures of 14 litres/100 km in urban running, with a highway cycle figure of 10 litres/100 km at constant 100 km/h cruising speed.
The six-cylinder Fairlane and LTD sedans were also equipped with the aluminium cylinder heads. The reason for switching to the use of an alloy head was in its better thermal efficiency, allowing a higher compression ratio (up from 8.7:1 to 9.2:1 on the 3.3 litre engine and from 9.0:1 to 9.4:1 on the 4.1 litre). The easiest way to pick a car with an alloy head is by the badges on the lower front guards, but the wheels are also different.
XD Fairmont V8
In basic form the Fairmont came with a 4.1 litre engine and T bar automatic transmission at $8313. But you could option a 4.9 litre V8 engine option which, complete with ER 70 H 14 steel radials, cost an extra A$392. Then there was air conditioning at $614, an AM/FM multiplex radio stereo cassette player at $296, power steering (essential) at $272, four wheel disc brakes (also advisable) at $225, sports instruments and a limited slip differential, at $99 and $96 respectively. That lot bumped the price way up to $10,-307, putting it on a par with the Holden Commodore S/LE which started at $10,513.
Driving the V8 Falcons was more enjoyable from the noise point of view, than anything else. Both the 3.3 and 4.1 litre six cylinder engines tended to sound busy when the mid rev range was reached, even though they appeared to performing perfectly well. Even the 5.8 litre GL was noisier than the 4.9. The added sound package you got with the Fairmont was well worth the money. But for all the extra sound deadening, it didn’t help with the harshness over poor road surfaces, the rear suspension thumping over cross ruts, with the front end tending to transmit more impact than the Commodore.
The 4.9 litre V8 delivered 140 kW at 4500 rpm and 344 Nm torque at 3200 rpm, a performance that was effortless. Zero to 100 km/h would come in just under 9.5 seconds, and the standing start 400 metres in 16.9 – that was very quick for the time. And so was the top gear maximum speed, even if it was of only academic interest. Fuel consumption was, as always, at the discretion of the driver. If you were a lead foot it could drink as much as 23.2 litres per 100 kms consumption – which was pretty abysmal even for the 1980s. More restrained driving could wind back efficiency to only 18.8 litres per 100 kms – still abysmal although you could at least live with it knowing the V8 up front would provide the power you needed to get yourself out of a difficult situation.
Fuel consumption aside, the Fairmont provided plenty of creature comforts. Its pump was a little noisy at times, but the air conditioning was effective, and the heater demister system got up to working temperature quickly. The seats in the XD were terrific too, regardless of whether they were finished in vinyl, cloth, cord, or crushed velour. The Fairmont came with cord trim as standard of course, and it provided good body location and held you in position while cornering. Probably the best use of a Ford V8 however was as a tow car. The size and weight of what you were going to tow probably dictated whether you purchased the 4.9 or 5.8 litre motor. But the 4.1 six was not that far behind when it came to towing, and it did provide a modicum of improved economy in the bargain.
footnote by Sandy Mercer
The XD Falcon marked the start of Ford's determined push to become market leader in Australia, a goal they ultimately achieved, but one that, at the release of the XD, was beyond their grasp. The perceived fault lay in the size of the XD in comparison with its competitors. While downsized slightly from the previous model, it was still a big car, but, in styling, it made the shift from copying U.S. style to a more sharp edged European look. To UK eyes, it looks like a MkII Granada, but it was bigger to allow the use of the existing six and eight cylinder engines, while underneath, traditional leaf springs supported the rear axle and the car possessed all the virtues of tough, uncomplicated robustness.