A last cheerio to Ford
Fred Gibson reflects on the great leaders of the Ford Motor Company in Australia. Meanwhile, Paul Gover recalls the Blue Oval’s Sydney and Brisbane assembly plants.
Anyone who has spent a lifetime in motor racing, as I have, knows that competition is the key to excellence. Well, in the immediate post-war years Ford were involved in a hell of a competition – not on the race track, but just to make and sell cars in this country, a race in which they had been left behind by GM-H.
It’s worth reminding ourselves what an astonishing period of time we are talking about. The first Ford was imported into Australia as long ago as 1904; Ford began assembling cars down here in 1925; but when the war years ended, it was the opposition who got the jump on them when it came to building cars specifically in and for this country.
In the early stages of my involvement with the company, the emphasis was very much on reliability and durability – key ingredients for any vehicle on Australia’s roads in the state they were in back then! That’s why April 24, 1965 was such an important date: the start of the 70,000mile durability run, the brainchild of competitions manager Les Powell, aided and abetted by Harry Firth. As you may recall it took place at the You Yangs proving ground and yours truly had his part to play. It was Max Ward, Ford’s PR manager for NSW and Queensland, who made the call that sent me down to Victoria along with Bo Seton and the Geoghegan brothers – they were running out of drivers!
The event was flagged off by Ford Australia MD Wally Booth, who did so much to turn the company around. Henry Ford II paid a flying visit to the durability run as well, which shows how much it meant to his company.
Another man who figured prominently in Ford’s motorsport effort was Keith Horner. In 1965 Keith became General Sales Manager and rose to be Vice President, Sales and Marketing. There’s a yarn about Keith that always makes me smile. He was one of the Ford high-ups who really pushed motorsport, and Allan Moffat in particular. One day he called all his section heads in to a meeting. “We’re going to put some more money into motorsport and I want you all to tell me how much you can give me out of your budgets,” said Keith. Stunned silence. He then went round the table and told every one of them exactly how much he was going to take from them! It raised hundreds of thousands of additional dollars for the motorsport effort.
And it was, for a number of years, some effort. There was a new emphasis on motorsport in the company’s portfolio – the start of the ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ sales philosophy which put motor racing firmly at the heart of things.
There were so many great Ford successes through the 1960s, not only the durability run, but also the outstanding effort in the London-Sydney Marathon, in which another key Ford man by the name of John Gowland was Team Manager. John went on to become Competitions Manager in his own right.
One of Wally Booth’s key contributions was to appoint Bill Bourke as Sales Director and Deputy MD. Bill hailed from Chicago, he had done yeoman service for Ford in the USA and Canada, and he was exactly the kind of no-nonsense guy who was needed to get things going down here. When Booth went back Stateside, Bill Bourke became MD – and promptly set about ‘Australianising’ the company as well as backing the motorsport programs.
The focus was shifting from reliability to outright performance. The Falcon had first come off the line at Broadmeadows in June 1960 and by 1962 the XL was an Armstrong 500 winner. Then the Cortinas had a three-year winning run and in 1967 some bloke by the name of Gibson helped a certain Harry Firth win the Great Race in a Falcon XR GT.
Bill Bourke’s reign coincided – and it was no coincidence, really – with the company setting production and profit records. He hired some very capable lieutenants, not only Gowland but also men like Al Turner, brought in at the end of the sixties, when Harry Firth switched allegiance to GM. Al’s task was to oversee the development of the first GT-HO – the car that should have won Bathurst but didn’t because Al made the wrong call on tyres. A 1-2 finish for the GT-HO entries the following year set things right. Then my old pal Moffat had his great Bathurst years and Ford was untouchable.
And it wasn’t only the bosses who were keen, it was the workers too. Moffat and I used to go and do factory walks, and rumour had it that some of the guys at the famous Lot 6 would slip back in of a night-time, baskets in hand, and scoop up some bits and pieces off the assembly line for us! They were very thankful for the exposure our on-track efforts were bringing, and every little helps!
Howard Marsden’s arrival to take charge of motorsport saw him guide Ford through from the HO to the two-door, until the company withdrew from racing in 1974. Howard became a close personal friend. Although Ford had decided to withdraw from motorsport, Australia was still important enough to the Blue Oval for Edsel Ford, Henry’s great-grandson, to be seconded downunder to complete his preparations for the top job. There’s a funny FG story to be told about young Edsel, as you probably imagined.
I had met him in Australia, but in 1984 John French and I went across to the States to see the Indianapolis 500. For some reason the Frenchman said to me, ‘FG, while we’re here we should call in and see Edsel.’ Off we go to Detroit to visit Edsel. We arrive in the company parking lot and spy a little side door through which a lot of people are entering the building.
As we look in bafflement at the keypad for the requisite entry code, one bloke stops and says, “What are you guys looking for? Can I help you?” I told him we were from Australia and came to see Edsel. “Oh sure,” came the answer – and he promptly opened the door for us! Up in the elevator to the seventh floor, step out into Edsel’s outer office, and a very flustered secretary agrees to tell the great man we are here. Out comes Edsel with a beaming smile and says, ‘Hey Fred, hey John, great to see you! What are you doing here?’ Well might he ask…
There was great rejoicing when the Falcon finally outsold its Holden competitor in the early 1980s, but while there were successes for the XD/XE Falcon and Sierras through that decade it wasn’t really until the end of the century and the arrival of the V8 Supercar era that motorsport was front and centre again.
In 1999 another great Ford personality took over in Australia. Geoff Polites had joined the company back in 1970 as a product planner, then moved through marketing and sales to become the Blue Oval’s top dog – and he really barked in support of motorsport! Geoff was a huge supporter of V8 Supercars – and the Falcon’s role in the championship – at the time when Ambrose and the Stone Brothers, Rusty Ingall and then the modern greats like Lowndes and Whincup were flying the Ford flag. When Geoff died in 2008 every car in the field at Barbagallo carried a black oval to commemorate his contribution to our sport. He was just a super guy.
And now Ford is bringing the curtain down on its Australian manufacturing effort. It’s too expensive to build cars here, that’s the plain and simple reason they’re going. For six decades the company was not only in a great customer race with Holden, it was a stalwart on the national racing scene, with its key people among the most significant contributors to Australian motorsport’s development. They knew, as I do, that competition is the key to excellence. Australian-built Fords may be gone, but long may that philosophy continue.