Archive: Ford BA Falcon reveal

Archive: AU Falcon XR8 review

Only the four doors remain – every other panel as well as the front and rear windscreens are new; however, changes to Ford’s new Falcon reach much deeper than its aesthetics.

This article was originally published in MOTOR magazine September, 2002.

It started as a simple mid-model grille-and-headlight facelift in the spring of 1998. The timing was right for Falcon. A year earlier and perhaps the new Falcon would have remained just a grille-and-light job.

In 1998, the design culture at Ford was to change dramatically, and Falcon would benefit from top-level staff changes at Ford Corporate HQ.

Steve Park, head of design at Ford during AU, was posted to the US soon after AU Falcon was launched in September 1998. His replacement was American Scott Strong, who worked closely with Ford’s new global vice president of design J Mays, who had come from Audi to replace the legendary Jack Telnack.

Ford AU Falcon XR8 rearTelnack was the father of the Aussie Falcon, and his influence reached back to 1966 when, as head of design at Ford Australia’s tiny Geelong studio, he styled the XR GT. Now, suddenly, that 32-year direct link that extended from XR to AU was cut.

The new BA Falcon – codenamed Barra – will have cost Ford Australia half a billion dollars to design and develop. The changes are immense and include a new interior, new inline six-cylinder and V8 engines, and new independent rear suspension.

Is it a make or break car for Ford Australia? Polites says no, Mays says definitely yes. A make vehicle, perhaps, in terms of design credibility. Without BA, there’s doubts Ford would be doing the R7 wagon.

In the summer of 1998 – a month after the AU Falcon’s launch – Mays, Strong, Falcon’s exterior design manager Graham Wadsworth and a team of clay modellers worked to get Barra’s basic proportions right. It was clear that Barra would follow a European design bias (not necessarily Ford Europe) rather than an American bias.

Archive AU Falcon XR8 frontIt was Mays, not the Australian media, who describes BA Falcon as having an Audi rear end. He also described the XR’s headlamps as being very BMW 5-Series. “At one point the Falcon was being sketched around the world with an eye on the other contemporary vehicles we were benchmarking. There’s a hint of A6 Audi in the tail. I was not trying to copy it. When you go from one company to another, you don’t get it all out of your system.”

Where the AU was heavily influenced by Ford ‘New Edge’ styling, the BA Falcon marks a return to proportions, presence and width. “We were having a long hard talk about the integrity of design rather than fashion statements,” declares Mays.

“We raised the deck, we pulled the wheels back, we raised the hood, we brought the quarter panel out, we brought the fenders out, and we flattened the roof. That’s roughly it, a no-nonsense approach,” said Wadsworth. “All the basic architecture was done within a few weeks in late ’98, early ’99. For the next two years, we finessed and refined it.”

Said Mays: “I had been down for the launch of the AU; that was my first press launch with Ford. Seeing that car compared to what was going on in the rest of the world was worthwhile. The thing that was on my mind, and this may be me coming out of a German company, was looking at Ford Europe and US and Australia and the products they had.”

Archive AU Falcon XR8 sideInstead of seeing continuous lines of design DNA in Ford’s international products, he saw inconsistency. Even then, before knowing if AU’s styling would be successful, Mays admits, “My main aim was to bring [Barra] into line with Ford’s global design ideas.”

“I think it is going to be a make vehicle,” says Mays confidently, and the key to BA Falcon’s success is the base-model Forte.

That is precisely Strong’s approach to Barra, and he never held back in letting everyone know it; his rantings are legendary at the Broadmeadows design studio. “We wanted the base Falcon to look like a car you really want to own, rather that what you buy because you can’t afford a more expensive car,” explains Strong from his office in the US. In 2001, he was promoted from Chief of Design Ford Australia to Director of Ford Passenger Cars, North America.

He fought every design battle, including the long S-shaped cutline where the rear bumper joins the quarter panel. When suppliers claimed they couldn’t produce a good panel fit, Strong showed them German cars that did. “We have to manufacture as well as anybody in the game,” insists Strong.

Archive AU Falcon XR8 exhaustStrong was followed in January 2001 by Simon Butterworth as Design Director. “Simon coming from Jaguar was a godsend. He came at just the right time. His experience with premium cars was a real asset just when it was needed most,” says Strong.

Butterworth’s input will be seen in the details. He insisted on lowering the ride height across the range, and dropped the ride height of XR6 and XR8 even further. He uses terms like ‘animalesque’ and ‘predatory’ to describe the BA Falcon, but it is the XR, with its new headlight treatment and wide-open air intake, that speaks dynamic aggression.

Strong arrived at Broadmeadows and met the motoring press with an awkward question: How important are the quad headlights to XR?

Strong felt the fussy panel fit of the moulded front bumper around the four independent headlamps was a mess of inconsistent panel gaps. “Scott was passionate about the Barra XR not being dealt with that way. In the year 2002, you can’t go and take two headlamps off the shelf and put a front clip on it and think you’re going to call it an XR,” says Wadsworth.

Ford AU Falcon XR8 front sideIn early 2000, they presented Geoff Polites with three 40 per cent scale models of XR – one with the traditional four individual headlamps and the other two variants using twin lights integrated into a single headlamp unit. Polites now had to choose.

“There were people within Ford and Tickford who wanted to perpetuate the twin rounds, and it just wasn’t going to work. It was not the right look for 2002,” explains Wadsworth.

The headlamps were the focus of change, and in the end the BA XR range is now more integrated from its large air-swallowing intake to the deck lid spoiler and oval exhaust.
The XR6 and XR8 will carry the same front and rear bumper mouldings with a single exhaust.

There will be no twin exhaust for the 5.4-litre XR8. Butterworth claims the V8 required some unique design changes. “The cooling requirements for this car are pretty phenomenal. We had to work closely with the cooling guys and aero guys to achieve sufficient cooling for the V8. About 60 per cent of cooling air comes through the lower grille opening.” 

Ford AU Falcon  XR8 front bumper -lightsNeither Butterworth nor Mays describes the XR as overt. In fact, Mays says, “We pulled back the XR in terms of overtness. It is slightly more subtle that its predecessor.” A new version of the GT is expected, too, but for the moment Ford refers to it as the T4 until it is revealed next year.

“One of the most satisfying moments in the design of the XR is when the first one came down the production line and the workers kept coming over and looking at it,” remarked Butterworth. “We left it at the end of the line where everyone could have a look and they stood 10 to 15 deep. The reaction to the car was so positive.”

Body: four-door sedan
Drive: rear-wheel
Engine: front-mounted 5.4-litre DOHC 32-valve V8
Power: 260kW @ 5750rpm
Torque: 500Nm @ 4250rpm
Compression: 10:1 (est)
Weight: 1585 kg (est)
Weight/power: 6.1 kg/kW
Specific power: 48.1 kW/litre
Transmission: five-speed manual
Suspension: double wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll bar (f); double wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll bar (r)
L/W/H: 4970/1870/1430 (est) mm
Wheelbase: 2810 mm (est)
Track: 1566 mm (f); 1567 mm (r)
Brakes: 329 mm ventilated discs, two-piston calipers (f); 287 mm solid discs, single-piston calipers(r), ABS
Wheels: 17 x 8-inch (f & r), alloy
Tyres: 235/45 ZR17 (f & r)
Fuel: 68 litres (PULP)
List price: $50,000 (est)

Get your free weekly report from the world of fast cars - subscribe to the MOTOR newsletter!