Tuesday, 14 January 2014

V for Final Victory

Ford is happy to announce the long begged-for XR8 badge will be back on the Falcon this year, good news that means the final generation of Falcon V8s will be available through all dealers Australia-wide. "Focusing on on one V8 model allows it to be more accessible to more customers and gives us better reach," said brand image manager Neil McDonald. And, oh yeah, if you read the press release a bit further, it'll tell you they're also "retiring" Ford Performance Vehicles, our attempt at being AMG. Not really a surprise, with Broadmeadows shutting down Falcon production there wouldn't be any cars for them to work on anyway, but it's not good news at all. All they did was Falcons. Even their badge was... I dunno, some sort of bird of prey? Like a wedge-tailed eagle, I guess?

Oh how I'd love to have been a fly on the wall at Bathurst last year, pulling an NSA on the meeting with Ford Performance Racing, their associated V8 Supercars team. I'll bet the plan was to shut down FPV and FPR at the same time, but out of the blue Ford changed their mind and instead decided to fund FPR for another 12 months. That's too brief for any marketing strategy, but it is just long enough to spare Ford the embarrassment of Honda, circa 2009. After all, two days later Frosty finally stomped on Jamie Whincup and claimed the Peter Brock Trophy as his own, ending a decade of humiliation for the Blue Oval factory team. One has to wonder what FPR boss Tim Edwards told the visiting Ford execs, whether he knew his team had the edge on Triple Eight even then.

So the XR8 is good news, but the other side of the coin is that the end of FPV also means the end of the Falcon GT, the F-15 to the XR8's F-16, the Sharon Stone to its Amber Heard. And no more GT means no Phase V. Thus the death of FPV carries the same sort of message as the death of John Lennon - there'll be no reunion tour now. And that's all the fans wanted. If there'd been an Internet between 1970 and 1980, the music forums would've been as full of whining for a Beatles reunion as motoring forums were for a Phase V last year.

A brief history lesson for the innocents wondering what the hell a "Phase V" is and why it matters. It goes back to 1967 when Ford took their XR Falcon family car, gave it the V8 out of a Mustang, the luxury Fairmont interior and a bronze paint job to create the Falcon GT, the first Australian muscle car. It won Bathurst, the race it was built for, and all was well until a year later when Holden hit back with a muscle car of their own, the HK Monaro 327. This time Holden won, and everyone knew what that meant.

So for 1969, Ford added upped the ante and added two more letters to the GT badge - "HO", which was supposed to mean "High Output" but after the insurance industry freaked out they backpedaled and said no no, it stands for "Handling Option". The GT-HO was retrospectively called the Phase I after the sequel came out, which then became a trilogy with the greatest Australian car ever made: the XY Falcon GT-HO Phase III.

I really shouldn't have to introduce this car: nothing else in the world exudes such an air of brutish yet stately menace. Fans call it the Godfather. Holden fans call it the devil (probably). It was the fastest car built in Australia for the next twenty years. Unfortunately, plans to turn the trilogy into a foursome were wiped out by the Supercar Scare of 1972. A media frenzy forced the pollies in Canberra to react, so they quietly told Ford, Holden and Chrysler if they wanted to keep their lucrative government supply contracts, they'd better drop these pesky 160mph supercars. And that was it. Although the first Phase IV had been sent down the production line as a dress rehearsal of the production process, the programme was abruptly cancelled. In racing manager Howard Marsden's words: "We were fully pregnant and we were giving birth. Then we were told to cross our legs." That's why fans can't let it go - the song never ended, it just stopped.

So why not finish it, Ford?

Because like it or not, your GT R-Spec isn't the Phase V. Not even close. It's too focused on being a comfy long-distance cruiser to deliver the razor-sharp handling of a track car, and in this day and age the customer expects both. And why shouldn't they? BMW delivers it, and with the R-Spec's rival, the GTS 430, so do Holden.

So if I was in charge of FPV, I wouldn't try to make the Phase V a road car at all. I'd make it one of these.

That's the Zonda R, and it's basically a racing car that just happens not to conform to any particular set of regulations. That's what my Phase V would be, a road car only in the sense that it had air conditioning and you could start it yourself on spur of the moment without having to spend an hour feeding it warm oil first. But for the rest of it, no compromises: slicks, splitter, big diffuser, massive rear wing. Australian cars have never been subtle, so why start now?

There are a few options for the engine, either blown or unblown Miami/Boss V8s, but my vote wouldn't go to any of them: I'd get a version of the 777 developed by Roush Racing for drag strips (it's easy to remember - 7.0 litres, 700hp @ 7,000rpm). Yes, it's a drag engine so it wouldn't last long even after reconfiguring, but so what? This is a car that's going to spend most of its life under a sheet anyway. And it has a solid grounding in speculation. After the Phase IV lost in '72 (and it would've, let's be honest), it doesn't take a genius to guess that Ford's response would've been even more cowbell. So without the Supercar Scare and Oil Crisis, how far would it have gone? Would they have sourced engines from the States? Would they have imported the monstrous 427 powering the Torino Super Cobra Jet (aka. the car the XA took its styling from)? Even if they wouldn't, I will.

And the final tweak to really sell this thing, it wouldn't be a four-door sedan: no, I'd build it as a two-door Hardtop instead. Marsden has revealed that was always Ford's plan anyway, that the Phase IV be built on the sedan body, but the Phase V would be based on the Hardtop. So give it a similar relationship to the rest of the FH range as the VZ Monaro had to the VZ Commodore. Even if that meant we had to build it on the Mustang platform, that would be sweet, sweet payback as far as I'm concerned. Best of all, Ford would bow out on a high note, having done something crazy awesome and proven that once - just once - the accountants weren't running the asylum.

There are almost certainly plenty of people with many degrees and pie charts to their name who could tell me why this wouldn't work, but so what? In another sixty years, what would everyone remember - an awesome car, or that Ford lost money again? Aren't they closing down anyway? And before you object that this is the nostalgia goggles talking... well, what do you think importing the Mustang is?

1 comment:

  1. Very good point with the mustang. Itll sell on some sort of nostalgia generated by the suits at ford, no doubt overloaded with old bathurst footage of moffat at the wheel, trying to tell us how australian it is. It wont matter much, itll be a niche vehicle and people will point to its poor sales, saying that ford was right to abandon ship down here. As if the mustang is a replacement for a falcon...