From half a Great Southern Land away, you could predict the Sydney Motor Show's reaction to the new Monaro. What you couldn't foresee, what nobody outside a select few people could have predicted, was the way the Ford faithful flocked around the T3 T-Series.
This article was originally published in the December 2001 issue of MOTOR.
Here was the Ford brand's saviour. The punters, especially the long-suffering Blue Oval troops whose every performance ambition has been relentlessly crushed by Holden and HSV, treated the stroked, hand-built TS50 like it was their own personal conduit between racetrack and road. Journos clamoured over themselves trying to get to Ford's hierarchy, eager to be the first in the hotseat of the world's only factory-built 250kW Falcon.
But, as Tickford supremo David Flint caught my gaze seconds after unveiling his beast, we exchanged the knowing smile of a secret well kept. Righto, it wasn't up there with the Monao’s surprise appearance three years ago, but it wasn't bad.
In the MOTOR office, only editor Bulmer and snapper Mueller knew about it. At Tickford, Flint, engineering guru Winfried Beilharz, engineers Andrew Hall and Jonathan Klopsteins, chassis development lynchpin John Bowe and engine man Doug Carne were in the know.
A month or two later, Ford's big car marketing man Stephen Kruk and The Prez himself, Geoff Polites, were let in on the secret. For the longest time, not even the PR department was on the same page. Sorry guys. What most Ford folk didn't know, what the assembled journos didn't know, what you didn't know until now is that everybody else was too late. Seven months too late. And late twice over.
See, we drove this fire-breathing new Ford a long time ago. So while everyone else was jostling for position in the queue for a 'first drive', MOTOR already had a couple of thrashes in what's shaping to be the hardest-hitting factory Falcon of all time.
It's got 250kW, this stroked 5.6-litre Windsor. But power is not the real story. David Flint has previously stated that he wouldn't buy into a power race with Holden or HSV because he knew he couldn't win. His senior engineering troops admit they struggled to reach 220kW, a number HSV long ago dispensed with as a benchmark.
Ahhh, but torque? Now that's another story. What Flint meant, but never publicly said, was that in the bottom two-thirds of the rev range, his team would be bloody happy to step into the ring with anybody. There, he believed, even his 220kW 5.0-litre with its 435Nm was more than a match for what the Blue Believers call The Evil Empire.
But the T3's 500Nm crushes even the best 5.0-litre Windsors Tickford has turned out. It's got more torque at 1800rpm than the old T-Series could boast when its hardest punches were being thrown. When we first came a-calling, this fast Falcon's code name had yet to progress to the T3 it wears today.
Internally, the project wore the 'Tornado' moniker but GM already owned that name. Mongrels. So it was that after all the anticipation, all the lead up work, all the cautious briefing from an overwhelmingly-apprehensive Beilharz, that we were led to the back of Ford's skunkworks to meet the Great White Hope.
Photographer Helmut Mueller and I were expecting a fearful weapon, something fairly bristling with the sort of latent aggression eventually displayed by the blue TS50 concept car. Instead, we were confronted by a rather plain-looking red TE50. Say what?
The lensman was gutted, a head full of creative ideas blown away in the sweep of a dusty car cover. But that's the way of development hacks and ... wait ... there are giveaways. The wheels on this T-Series are different; bulging with an experimental Brembo brake package, all bright red calipers and black tape, but still instantly identifiable as Italian four-pots.
The rotors are enormous. Cross-drilled and vented at both ends, they measure 335mm at front and are about the only clue that something wicked this way cometh. With the confidence of someone certain he's not on candid camera, Beilharz pops the bonnet and Mueller and I are drawn closer.
There had been rumours of forced induction - supercharging and turbocharging, even both together - as the preferred power route, but a scan of the engine bay puts that to rest. Nothing to see here, folks, except a plenum chamber that looks like something mum would pull from the oven on Sunday night, an industrial strength airbox and plumbing to match. Hmm, a stroker, then Winnie?
He nods and smiles. There's bugger-all else to look at under the lid. The rest of this story is buried deep inside that engine. The key I'm handed looks the same as that of an XR, fits in the same hole, turns the same way.
Then the fuel pumps whiz for a split second and eight fires light. Instantly. A deep, resonant rumble and it immediately idles at 850 rpm - and stays there. So much for the histrionics. There's something definitely odd about it. Something not quite garden variety Windsor.
Ah, that's it. The vibrations are a bit thin on the ground. And the sound. It's deeper, even without touching the throttle. Richer, too. At this early stage of its development the 'Stroker' packs a TE50-spec T5 gearbox. Though rated at 470Nm, it ain't up to this engine.
Heeding Winfried's advice not to rush the shifts, I slot it into first and trickle the innocuous looking T-Series across to the Hume's central traffic island, turning towards Sydney. Clutch feel, gearbox noise and that trace of driveline slap are all familiar.
The gap's small between the semi and the courier van. I hesitate. Beilharz fires a scornful look my way, as if suggesting that had been exactly the right time to tickle this new Tickford. Moments later another 'right time' appears and this one's not wasted.
Standing starts in XRs and T-Series are grouse fun. Tougher clutches than the hot Holdens, more step-off torque and a delicious engine note are all part of the play. Speed, at least when compared to HSV, isn't.
But the old rules are out the door now, even in this plain red mule. The same 1800rpm clutch slip that sees a T-Series dependably off the line bags the Dunlop SP9000s ferociously in the T3 and, oh yes there's more - plenty more - power there.
When it bites it devours first, waits patiently for second to snick home and voraciously consumes that, too. And then we're well into the legal trouble zone, which doesn't worry Beilharz, who's grinning across at the Broadmeadows HQ in case someone is watching. Make no mistake, this is the quickest Falcon Ford's put breath into. Ever.
The XR8's 14.58sec quarter mile time? I was in the car for that and it's nothing like what this thing's capable of. It should, all things being equal on a good day at Calder, be capable of matching the Clubsport's mucho respectable 14.1sec sprint. And, with five useable gears, it'll run hard in all of them.
The T3 is happy to cruise for a while too, as we find on the way to John Bowe's favourite piece of test blacktop. En route, I remark that this is the best behaved mule I've seen. No bucking, no temper tanties, nothing. And it's smooth, far smoother at constant throttle openings than Tickford's handbuilt 220kW mills. As an added bonus, it's got think-quick acceleration everywhere.
Mule or not, once we hit the twisties we've arrived at the business end of our drive. The bit we've been waiting for. And this engine is what the excellent T-Series rear suspension has been waiting for. It's th piece that finally complements the chassis, to make this hot Ford the Real Deal. The complete package.
I attack a long, uphill bend on the noise in third gear and the T3 snorts and fires its way out the other side, the rear suspension convincing the rubber to accept more drive than any HSV possibly could.
Work around the slow, old gearbox (the proddy versions will run the Mustang's Tremec TR3650 instead) and the rest of the package is brilliant. Beilharz explains that the engine's been taken apart, stroked, loaded with hand-built, individually-balanced and blueprinted components, balanced again when it's reassambled, then balanced again when it's in the car. Its no wonder, then, that the lumpy spots across the 220kW Windsor's rev range have been banished.
Below 4000rpm, the T3 is a thumping weapon, unashamedly bellowing its credentials at the rock walls lining our test route. There's crushing V8 performance on offer from about 1200rpm onwards, but it's from 2000-4000rpm where the sun really shines.
The last 500 revs - up around where the 250kW is actually made - isn't exactly a no-go zone, but it's not the stroker's forte. No matter how precise the build, all that internal mass starts to trip over its own reciprocation above 5000rpm
Tickford admitted it hadn't quite made 250kW in this early mule, one of the first of the 5.6-litre Windsors, but it had belted the hell out of the 500Nm target by a "very safe" margin. Rather than rev its ring out, it's better to pick a tall cog and bludge it around on the torque curve, or keep short shifting to drop back into the engine's meatiest bits. It seems just as fast either way.
Bloody fast. An HSV ClubSport might rev harder and make another 5kW, but on a winding piece of open road, where flexibility and chassis poise is more the key, it'd be a close run thing for sheer speed. Here, at last, is Ford's unashamed, ask-no-pardons, no-excuses-needed, unconditional warrior.