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Bird of no Feather
The Falcon name was familiar, but this Australian Ford shared nothing with its soulless American counterparts. We drove one to discover for ourselves what the magic down under was all about.
If you've never been lucky enough to visit Australia, we should let you in on a little secret about the land of the Outback; it is home to some of the baddest cars to ever hit the asphalt. Think of the sickest, most desirable pieces of machinery and lo and behold, they've got them there as daily drivers. If it weren't for greedy insurance companies and the urge for everyone to own lethargic SUVs, Americans could be driving 347-powered factory Fords, LS1-powered 6-speed Holden Interceptors, Twin-Turbo AWD Nissan Skyline GTRs, and some pretty stout right-hand-drive V8 sedans like our buddies from Koalaville. For years, the Aussies have been building and importing cars that we can only imagine owning. But when it comes to exciting cars, we get boring domestic sedans and imported global leftovers.
Leaving them to their own devices, Ford Motor Company allowed product development, marketing, design and engineering to Ford of Australia for its home market. Because they were surrounded by nothing but the best cars for years, our Blue Oval buddies from the southern hemisphere were no-holds-barred when it came to new vehicle development. When Ford of Australia was planning to introduce the XB-series Falcon for the 1974 model year (to replace the previous-generation XA-series Falcon) it wanted to use the latest and greatest parts it could get its hands on. Not only was it to have a fresh new look with all new sheetmetal, but also mechanical highlights worthy of an aircraft. The move was to transform the previous XA Falcon into more of a GT touring car. Therefore, the changes that were made to the XB Falcon were to benefit reduced NVH and driving comfort. Compare this to the U.S. market, where 1974 gave us the most forgettable Fords ever (at least until 1975).
The Ford Falcon XB, and in particular the GT 351 version, was way ahead of its time. Compared to its WW1 biplane American counterparts, the Australian Falcon was like a modern jet fighter. For instance, the new XB Falcon GTs utilized a hydraulic clutch system to release a dual-disc clutch setup. Unheard of here, even to this day, it resulted in high torque-holding capacity and light pedal effort without the vague sensation that was associated with Z-bar linkages, which were more commonplace. Power brakes were part of the re-engineering, as were 4-wheel discs. A variable-assist power steering box was made available and afforded smooth steering action when taking slow-speed turns, and in the twisties, it offered more feedback at the wheel.
On GT 351 versions, 5.8 liters (or litres, if you want to be PC here) of Cleveland-built V8s were shoved under the hood. Rated at 300 brake horsepower at 5400 rpm and 380 lbs-ft. of torque at 3400 rpm, the Cleveland was far from a slouch. It touted 11:1 compression, an Autolite 4300-series 4-barrel carb, and exhaled through a dual exhaust system. Best of all, you could have picked up a GT with this marvelous engine and chassis combination in 4-door form, too.
As A mAtter of fact,I do Know SomeoneWith One ...
Although all this seems great on paper, what were the chances of actually finding a Falcon XB GT to gander at? Would such an example ever surface through the ocean of cars in America today? The probability was next to nil. So when the chance to see one in person came up, I had to jump at it. An internal contact had given me the e-mail address of a Mark Scarselli, who happened to own such a rare bird of prey and was looking for some exposure for Australian cars in general. We conversed a few times over the Internet, and eventually set up a day not only for me to check it out, but to actually drive it. I was about to take the controls of an ultra-rare Falcon XB GT 351 coupe (one of only 123 made, of which only a handful are known to be in these here United States of America) and was very much looking forward to it. Of course, I made sure my daily planner was blank for that day.
By day, Scarselli is a New York State trooper. Aged 37 years, the well-spoken and enthusiastic car buff patrols the highways and byways of Kingston, N.Y., in a 2001 Crown Vic cruiser. But in his free time, he's usually found detailing his pristine 1975 Falcon XB GT, the very one you see before your eyes. He proved to be accommodating, professional and very personable. After exchanging hellos, Scarselli eagerly opened up his garage door and guided me right to his pride and joy, a Yellow Blaze 2-door GT 351. At first glance, it looks like an early '70s Mustang crossed with a Fairlane with a dash of Torino and Mercury Cougar thrown in. But upon closer inspection, the stunning lines and attention to detail from the Ford of Australia engineers and designers became more apparent.
Scarselli jumped into the driver's seat, which is on the right side. As you probably know, all cars that are certified for road use in Australia have to be right hand drive because for some wacky reason, they operate their cars on the wrong side of the road (I can envision all the letters pouring in already from our European and Australian readership). He pumped the accelerator once, and gave the key a twist. The familiar cranking of the small-block Ford could be heard echoing within the walls of his cement garage and the engine fired to life. The healthy old Cleveland revved enthusiastically, and after a few seconds of running, settled to a smooth, yet snarling idle. Scarselli then clicked the 4-speed into reverse, and eased his baby out the door. I jumped into the left side, which is the passenger's side, and placed my camera gear on the floor.
We then motored on down to a local state park to find a nice open area to photograph his car, and for a place where we could switch off driving duties. As we rolled, we got a few thumbs-up here and there, but received dozens of befuddled looks by confused motorists. As they observed me sitting on the left side of the car with my head turned away from the road, they practically did a triple-take. Just for fun, I went along with this newfound ability to amaze, and put my hands on top of my head and crossed my legs as we continued to drive. Even if I could, I would be unable to explain the looks that I got, but it was all in good humor.
About halfway to our destination, Scarselli pulled the XB GT over and inquired, "Have you ever driven a right hand drive car before?" I explained to him that because of our vast connections within the industry, we magazine editors have had the opportunity to take just about any motorized vehicle in the free world for a ride once and that I even drag-raced one before (too bad that 11-second Skyline GT-R never powershifted the same after I was done with it). He then brought the car to a halt on the side of the road, and told me to take the helm.
When jumping into the right side of a car, you're not used to having a steering wheel greet you immediately. I positioned the seat upward, and familiarized myself with the controls. The ignition key is still located on the right side of the steering wheel, so that was instinctive. Also second in nature was the placement of the pedals, which are arranged in the same configuration as we all know and love; clutch, brake, and accelerator, from left to right.
I cranked the 351 over and looked down at the 8000-rpm tach as it hovered at about 750 rpm. Directly to the right of it is the metric km/hour speedometer, which is neatly sunken into its own nacelle. All the idiot lights go off, and it is time to not look like a fool. The first natural move is to release the parking brake. It is located under the dash to the left of the steering column, and is one of those long twist-and-pull deals that some older pickup trucks used to use. A quick flick of the wrist, and the parking brake was released. I put the light and smooth-acting clutch pedal to the floor, and guided the shift lever into First with my left hand.
Scarselli helped me merge back into traffic by looking over for me, as the view out the rear was a bit tough. The large C-pillar that stands tall above the beltline prevents a clear view over your shoulder. Even if I had tried to use the left sideview mirror (which I was having a tough time acquainting myself with) it was too small to get a clear glimpse as to what was happening on the left. An opening popped up, and I rolled out, noting how smoothly the clutch engaged without any chatter. It was a bit on the grabby side, but it's part of a dual-disc clutch's nature. I accelerated briskly to merge with traffic, and clicked into Second. The problem I had with the shifter was going from Second to Third as it did not feel natural. Fourth followed and we were motoring along at 100 kmh (a little over 60 mph). Again, this is mainly because I am not used to shifting with my left arm, but after a few more tries, I was doing fine. Acceleration was predictable and smooth.
The other hard part was positioning the car within the marked lanes because as mentioned earlier, you're sitting on the wrong side of the car (well they may say what they want, but I still think the Australians are driving on the wrong side of the road).
Anyone who has driven a right-hand drive car before will attest to how awkward it is to operate some of the basic controls. The turn signals are on the right side of the steering column, and the shift lever for the transmission is to the left of you. At every stoplight, I automatically reached over to the left of the steering wheel to put on the turn signal and over to the right for the shifter as the light turned green. Each time I did, I got nothing but open air and an armrest in each hand. Pointing the car where you want it to go, say, down a narrow road, also required some extra concentration.
In the past, I've had the chance to drive a restored 1970 Boss 302 Mustang and an unrestored 1968 428 Super Cobra Jet. Based on those past experiences and this one, the Falcon XB is clearly a far superior road car. The clutch action is so silky that you could mistake it for a modern 4.6 Mustang's. The brakes are light years ahead of any of its 1970s Ford contemporaries as they offer great feel, moderate effort, and excellent response. The 11.25-inch discs all around (vented might I add) do an admirable job of affording braking confidence. They won't pull the dentures off your gums, but we're talking '70s stuff here. Although I never got them hot enough to fade, they surely would go the distance compared to drum brakes.
Steering feel is where the Falcon XB felt average. The steering wheel gives you moderate feedback as to how the car is tackling a turn, but power assist was a bit excessive. Its 16:1 ratio is pretty quick, enabling you to carve up some backroads if you really wanted to, but it felt vague. By no means am I trying to sugarcoat the experience by telling you it's the best thing to happen since the 5-lb. ball-peen hammer, or tell you that a Pinto will run circles around it, but relatively speaking, we're talking about a great car. The high-profile 14-inch rubber was far from helpful in getting the most from the chassis, but it's better than the correct footwear for this car, which are bias-ply shoes. At least this bird has been updated with modern Futura radials.
On the highway, it should be noted that Scarselli's example exhibited no squeaks or rattles. The ride was dead silent, smooth and supple, yet sure-footed. On some of the roads that we ventured on, the chassis responded well while going over mid-turn bumps. Even when traveling at moderate speeds, the suspension was not upset, despite utilizing leafsprings and a solid rear in back. By far, the chassis is tighter than any other 1970s piece of American machinery, and probably is more rigid than cars 10-15 years it junior. Perhaps Scarselli's car is particularly solid, but since it is relatively original, it hasn't benefited from gusseting or aftermarket chassis mods. From the factory, these cars were way too good for the general motoring public to consume. It's as if every XB GT was designed for open-finger-gloved car junkies who liked to keep their kidneys unbruised.
Alas, my turn behind the wheel was over and it was time for me to do some camera work. We spent the remainder of the day photographing and talking about the car and its little-known features such as the race-inspired fuel filler door and the Mach 1 hood scoops. We both came to agree that Ford of Australia should have had more influence in American-market cars because sharing some of its technical advances back in the '70s would have helped Ford greatly during its slump in America.
Once all was said and done, I was able to reflect upon the significance of this experience while riding back to my residence in New York City. Not only had I just driven one of the rarest cars produced by Ford of Australia in its home market, but I was able to drive it here on American soil. I then began to sense closure. How was that so? It is because deep down inside, I always knew Ford had plenty of great resources within, but never tapped into them during the '70s. Some of the cars that rolled down the Ford production lines here in America during that decade should never have been allowed.
We could have built a better car here, and after driving Scarselli's Falcon XB GT, I found out where all the resources, technology and excitement had been all this time: Down under in Australia.