A last chee­rio to Ford

Australian Muscle Car - - Contents -

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.


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