The Kenworthys’ 75 years at Ford
If you name a high-performance Ford from the past 50 years there is a fair chance Max Kenworthy has owned it – including an actual Bathurst-winning chassis.
One of his earliest cars was the very Cortina GT that Bob Jane and Harry Firth took to victory at Mount Panorama in 1963, and he’s also owned a string of GT Falcons in various body shapes, an original Mustang, both Laser and Telstar turbos, then ESP and XR Falcons.
“I’ve always been a real muscle car man. I’ve sorta got Ford blood,” Kenworthy says.
That’s no surprise, considering he has seen it all at Ford after starting as an apprentice toolmaker and working his way through to senior management in human resources during 42 years with the company.
Not only that, but his father completed 43 years with Ford Australia and trod a similar path from the trim shop through to the board, although he was also one of the men responsible for establishing the Vehicle Builders Union in Australia.
“My father was a real legend of Ford. He held the first union meeting, out in the garage at the front of the plant, and the management put the fire hoses on them. Ford was dead against anyone joining the union.”
It’s ironic, then, that he was eventually moved into the personnel office, joining the board in the 1950s and continuing in the post until he retired in 1977.
“He also became the Mayor of Geelong West in 1966,” Kenworthy says of his father’s post-Ford life.
He is proud of his dad and what he achieved, as well as the pair’s 75 years of continuous family service with Ford. That’s right, three-quarters of century service from one family! Beat that!
“Dad started off in the 1930s. He was a boot maker by trade and he started in Geelong in the trim shop. Back in those days things were very tough,” he says.
“His nickname was ‘Tunner’ but his real name was William Herbert. During the hard days of The Great Depression he was a boxer, a really good boxer. He would stand in the crew for Jimmy Sharman’s boxing tent for three quid a fight. He paid for his house that way.”
It was Kenworthy senior, not surprisingly, who opened the door to Ford for his son.
“Dad got me a job. I finished school in 1966 and I got an apprenticeship in 1967 as a toolmaker. For a car fanatic like me, it was dreamland.
“We had the drawing offices and the production development offices in Geelong. I couldn’t wait for my lunch breaks, waiting to see the new models to come out.
“The Falcon had just come out and the XR GT was a prototype. I remember, they put a cover over it so no-one could see it. And I remember pulling the silk cover up and seeing the beautiful gold paint, and the badge for the High Performance 289. Looking inside and seeing the
four-speed floor shift; that locked me in.”
He worked through a string of jobs in product development and production, including as a “trouble chaser” who was able to solve various problems in development and the factory, which meant he was the company’s highest-paid tradesman.
Not surprisingly, he has plenty of insider stories. Including on the racing front.
“I remember when we were building all the special panels for the Allan Moffat Falcons in the seventies. I was hand cutting the door panels in aluminium for the two-doors.
“And the extended fuel tanks. In the 36-gallon race tanks we could draw another inch-and-a-half from the metal at the bottom of the tank to get another couple of gallons. Those were the tricks we could do.
“When I got into the Human Resources department all the race drivers would come into my office at the plant. I remember telling John Bowe all the secrets from the Moffat era and he was rolling around my office with laughter.”
He knew all the race drivers, and other Ford icons like rally driver Graham Hoinville, and even has a personal tie to Craig Lowndes.
“Do you remember the Cortina from the Ford Discovery Centre that Craig did? I’ve got the engine in my garage. I’ve got all the original bits, the diff and gearbox as well. I’ve had them for about 20 years.”
Kenworthy moved into the HR department in 1977, working alongside his dad, and he recalls the demand for workers.
“Things were really booming in 1976 to ’78, they could sell every car they put out. We were hiring people like you wouldn’t believe. They would want 40 people a day. That went on for a long time.”
But the boom time didn’t last and he remembers giant union disputes through the 1990s, as well as the decline in the Ford lineup.
“From about 1977 right until the 1990s we didn’t have many cars that interested me.
“Then Geoff Polites came along and we got back into the V8s and
got going again.”
Even though he worked at Ford until 2009, Kenworthy has no doubt about the highlight of his four decades there.
“For me it was the 1970s. They were the best years,” he says.
“The management in those days were all car people. They would all head to Bathurst together in their Falcon GTs. He also has deeply personal memories. “I can still remember the first XW grille coming up out of the chrome plating. And the first XW GT nearly brought me to tears. Those cars had the look, the trim, the tyres and the power as well.
“Back then, having a Falcon GT was like having a Ferrari today. It was a big deal. And then the GTHO, that was just incredible.”
But Kenworthy could also see the changing tastes of Australian car buyers and the impact on his company.
“I could see it coming, with people going away from the Falcon and Holden. As good as they were, I could see people – even neighbours – starting to buy Volvos, and even Mercedes-Benz.
“My biggest disappointment in the last few years was that we didn’t have enough car people in the plant. I don’t really know what the answer is going to be in the future.”
After a brief dalliance with a Volvo when the Swedish company was part of the Ford family, he still drives a local Ford and is considering the modern equivalent of the old-time GT for his next daily driver.
“Since I’ve retired I’ve just been getting a base XR ute. I’m up to my ninth one. But I’m looking at a Mustang because apparently they’re a beautiful car, really well done, not like the one I had in the old days.”
Above left and right: Max Kenworthy has owned many Fords over the years including the red Cortina GT that was the Blue Oval’s first Bathurst winner. That car has long since gone to God, but Max today has a GT 500. Below: Max was something of an identity during his many years working at Ford.