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.

Australian Muscle Car - - Contents -

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

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