XR GT 2: Vaughan/Firth
The man they call ‘Mr Falcon GT’ tells about the birth of a Ford icon that 50 years ago spawned the whole Australian muscle car scene.
The men they call ‘Mr Falcon GT’ and ‘H’ tell about the birth of a Ford icon 50 years ago – and the roles they played in its conception.
Ian Vaughan seems as busy in retirement as he ever was in a decorated 37-year career with Ford Australia. Yet Vaughan is more than happy to stop to discuss the birth of the Falcon GT – the V8-powered XR that marks the start of the Aussie muscle car exactly 50 years ago. At that time Vaughan was a young product planner and budding rally driver. Fate saw him land at Ford as a graduate trainee in 1964, at virtually the same time that American marketing whiz Bill Bourke arrived in Melbourne. Bourke would soon blaze a trail through Broadmeadows, changing it from a producer of bland family sedans into a vibrant marketing outfit where the key word seemed to be ‘excitement’. Vaughan strapped himself in went along for the ride.
“Yes, it was a very exciting time for the company – it was an exciting time in the car industry, I reckon,” a still sprightly Vaughan, 75, says from his Melbourne home. “In the
1950s when the car industry was getting going in Australia, the Holden was a basic sedan car and the Falcon came in and did the same thing, and then around the mid-60s we decided to put a bit of excitement into it!”
Indeed they did. The arrival of the bigger and more modern XR Falcon not only brought a Mustang-style raised hip over the rear wheels but also a V8 engine. The ingredients were there for a new breed of Australian car.
Vaughan is rightly known as ‘Mr Falcon GT’, having been there for the creation and execution of every GT the company produced up to 2001, when he retired. At that time, then president of Ford Australia, Geoff Polites, commended Vaughan’s passion and expertise.
“I’ve known Ian all my life at Ford,” Polites said at the time, “and his contribution to Ford is bigger than what he has been given credit for.”
Vaughan was one of the 10-12 people – a blend of engineering, marketing and commerce people – in Ford Australia’s product planning group that created the original Aussie muscle car under the inspirational Bourke.
“Bill Bourke was there with ‘The Going Thing’, and he was prepared to chance his arm. He had come in behind the tough days of XK/XL/XM and he could see the company blossoming and he said we could get on our front foot here and go really mad with the marketing. He had the confidence to do that. He was a great marketing man.
“I’d been out there rallying in a Falcon 500 and wanted an even better car. When a V8 came along we said, ‘Hang on, now we’ve got ourselves a machine’, and over time we started putting features in those cars in production that were more motorsport-built, if you like – we had the woodgrain steering wheel and a decent gearshift, nice bucket seats and driving lights in the grille – all that sort of stuff that came from motorsport.”
A successful rally driver, he said he pushed his hierarchy to fit those better lights from the XT GT onwards, which helped give the car a sporting look.
However, the XR GT didn’t owe its existence purely to motorsport and image building.
History – and AMC #33 – recalls that the 289ci V8-engined XR Falcon pursuit prototypes that Ford Australia was developing, following a Dearborn directive to chase police business, provided a significant leg-up for the GT.
Vaughan says the GT project, which was driven by Australians, may not have been called a Falcon GT if left to the Americans, who reckoned a GT had to have two doors.
“When we came up with the GT Falcon idea, the people in America said, ‘You can’t have a four-door GT, it just doesn’t make sense – four-doors are cars for normal people and if you want a GT it has to be a two-door like a Mustang or a Camaro’. But Australia wasn’t into two-doors and we said, ‘No, we can make a go of it with a four-door sedan’.
“America didn’t say you can’t do it, they just raised their eyebrows and said, ‘Gee, this is a bit unusual’, because they couldn’t picture it working in their market, which was probably 25 per cent two-doors in those days. They couldn’t quite picture this four-door market having an exciting GT segment, but we told them to trust us.”
Having come out of a tough financial period and invested heavily in the base XR, the Aussies couldn’t initially afford a two-door variant. But within a couple of years they were back getting approval for the XA hardtop to combat Holden’s Monaro. “Our market was maturing, just like the American market, and away we went chasing the same things that America was chasing.”
Vaughan agrees that the XR GT was the birth of muscle cars in Australia, and that it marked a shift to performance from a previous emphasis on durability – as displayed in the Armstrong 500 (precursor of the Bathurst 1000 and then sponsored by a shock absorber company) and Ford’s own durability run at the You Yangs proving ground.
“Ford had launched the Falcon in 1960 and then we’d stumbled through three or four years with the XK and XL, then we got on our feet with XM and XP so we’d established a base which gave us the confidence to have a go with the XR. It was sort of a psychological maturing; we were a bit caught off guard with the XK and XL, but once we got that sorted out and did the 70,000-mile durability run we got our confidence back.
“In the motorsport arena, the Armstrong 500 started off with very standard cars and it was only when we did the GT500 Cortina, which won in 1965, that everybody started to realise that this race was a really good marketing ploy. The Armstrong 500 wasn’t really about speed, it was durability. Then it moved to Bathurst and became an out and out street race.
“Only this morning I was looking at an article and noticed that the engine badge on the GT Falcon read ‘230 horsepower’. Up until then we didn’t advertise horsepower at all – the badge would have said ‘170 cubic inches’ or something, very unexciting – and then suddenly we had the V8 and 230 horsepower or 280 horsepower and away we went… the language changed.
“With a bit more power there was a bit more to talk about. It wasn’t just a dress-up pack, it became a real motorcar that could do a job. The XR GT in ’67 was a great step forward and really got things going.
“If you were putting mileposts along the way from 1960 to 2016, the GT was definitely a major milepost, if not the blossoming of the company. In the ’70s we came up to the energy crisis and the supercars hoo-haa about too much power, and the eventual demise of the GT, but it was an exciting time in the back end of the ’60s and the early ’70s. It was really all over by the end of the ’70s and Ford even dropped the V8 for a few years. There was a lot of emphasis on fuel economy then whereas we didn’t worry too much about fuel economy in the ‘60s!”
Harry Firth had developed the Bathurst-winning Cortina GT500 for Ford – it was the first ‘Bathurst special’ – and the Old Fox naturally had some input into the GT, but essentially it was developed by Ford Australia’s engineers from the available parts bin, which included an all-synchro close-ratio four-speed manual, a tall final drive, front discs, uprated suspension, wider wheels, faster steering, a long-range tank and various engine goodies that boosted the 289ci (4.7-litre) Windsor V8 by about 30 horsepower.
“Harry would have a little bit of a say in that he would know what was ideal for the race car. He’d push back on the [specification of the] production car to get the capability there. One thing we always talked about was the amount of clearance under the rear guards for wider wheels and tyres. The racing boys always wanted wider and wider rear guards to make room for more and more tyre capability. We used to fold up the flanges inside the guards to make a little bit more room for tyres; we
used to go to the ‘nth’ extreme to make sure we got the maximum out of the racecar.”
Did they get everything they wanted for the GT?
“You always want more… Ideally you would have had four-wheel discs right from the start and we would have loved a five-speed manual transmission, but I’d say we pretty much got what we needed. You’ve got to see where we were coming from – we were coming from a very vanilla car in the Falcon 500, so the amount of excitement we could add onto it was great. We were more than happy with that!” And who chose that iconic gold colour? “That was Bill Bourke’s flair: ‘I’m going to make a statement here – we’ll do it in just one colour and everyone will talk about it.’ And he was right. It was all part of making a splash when you’re a marketing man, and he was really special. We just said, ‘Bill, if that’s what you want, we’ll do it’. We realised we were on a marketing campaign; we were all excited about it and the more excitement in the bag the better.
“Bill changed the nature of the company from being an old-fashioned manufacturing company into a marketing company and that really was the blossoming of the company. He’s the one person you’d talk about in terms of turning the company around.”
Vaughan, who famously drove the facelifted XT GT to third place in the 1968 London-Sydney Marathon, was not then in charge of motor sport at Ford Australia, as he would be later (en route to becoming company vice-president), but he was at Bathurst in 1967 to see Firth and Fred Gibson lead a resounding victory for ‘his’ GT. “Yes, we were up there and very excited.”
There’s that word again – excitement. It sums up the original Aussie muscle car, and all of those that have followed.
“If you were putting mileposts along the way from 1960 to 2016, the GT was definitely a major Falcon milepost, if not the blossoming of the company.” – Ian Vaughan