Four wheel disc brakes and a headlight flasher . .. today's Falcon GT is more than ever a grand tourer.
First published in the January 1974 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia's best car mag since 1953.
EVEN ON THE VERY LAST mile of a 1200 mile test of the new Falcon XB GT we took great delight in flashing the headlights with the car's new steering column stalk.
The astonishment that, here at last, was an all-Australian car with such a desirable device had gone, but the pleasure of knowing it was at finger tips distance from the steering wheel remained.
Now Ford Australia has shown the lead hopefully we can expect GMH, Chrysler and Leyland to follow suit.
European and Japanese manufacturers probably think it's crazy to make such a big deal of what is, in engineering terms, really just a minor change, but for an Australian car it is a major breakthrough and should lead to stalk operation for not only headlight dipping/flashing and horn operation (as on the Falcons) but also for the wipers and washers.
The other change on the XB we really appreciated - and which somehow manages to help give the Falcon GT an almost European feel - is the switch to four-wheel disc brakes, as on Ford's LTD and Landau.
Stated simply these are the best brakes available on any car built in Australia and go close to being the equal of any braking system fitted on any road car on the world. Period.
Yes, we have tried them on the Landau but its soft, mushy suspension prevents the brakes showing up in the best light, although they are still far superior to the old disc/drum compromise.
But the GT with its firm suspension and the right front/rear braking balance is absolutely superb. Time and again we would come up behind a slow moving truck on the Hume Highway and have to haul down from high speed to crawl in a few seconds and never once did we experience anything but fade-free, straight-line stopping with not an inch of rubber left on the road to indicate any wheel lock-up.
Braking is progressive with plenty of feel in the pedal but it is the marvellous, sheer stopping power that has the driver reaching for new superlatives.
The four-wheel discs are standard only on the GT, but they are optional on any 351 2V powered Falcon (or Fairlane) for an extra $85 and it seems certain they will ultimately be offered across the board once production is able to cope with the necessary volume. It might take a few years but it will happen.
Ford's managing director, Mr Brian Inglis, admitted openly that without Bathurst there would have been no four-wheel disc system developed. Maybe racing does improve the breed.
Tooling up for the four-wheel discs, and even the headlight flasher, must have cost Ford plenty but now it has set up the facilities in Australia we can only hope the other manufacturers take advantage of them, even if it means buying components (or paying part of the tooling costs) from the opposition.
.Although it is these two items which really grabbed us about the XB there have been plenty of other changes under the skin, designed to refine and improve the quality and reliability of the cars.
All told Ford claims to have made 2056 engineering changes from Car One, Ford XA Falcon, to Car One, XB.
Of course many of these are minor and involve the changing of a washer or nut but some are important in the way the car behaves on the road and in its long-term performance.
In fact the size of the changes made by Ford caught the rest of the industry unawares. They expected a minor cosmetic face-lift with few other changes, rather as Chrysler achieved with the VJ Valiants.
To find out how the changes affected the new cars the editor of WHEELS and the editor of our sister publication, SPORTS CAR WORLD, arranged to drive two very different Falcon GTs from Melbourne to Sydney. One, a Hardtop, had automatic transmission and power steering while the other, a sedan, was manual with manual steering plus air conditioning.
Changing from one car to the other on this trip, running the performance figures at the Castlereagh Dragstrip, plus even more driving for the photographs revealed two cars with distinctly different personalities. And pointed up a fact long suspected - that there is no objective reason why anybody would buy the Hardtop over the cheaper sedan.
Set-up as our test car was, the Hardtop was the easier of the two to drive at slow speeds. The direct, variable ratio power steering was light (too light we later discovered for precise high speed driving) which made parking and driving at town speeds simple. By comparison, the sedan with manual steering required plenty of muscle and was unacceptably heavy at low speeds. It was fine over 40 mph but below that had the driver working hard.
Steering loads build up quickly through corners and unless the GT is booted hard through bends with large steering wheel movements it has the driver steadily applying steering lock, inch by inch, to combat the inherent understeer, rather than getting through to the extremes of the understeer in one large bite at the wheel.
Initially you do feel it understeers too much but by booting the car around and getting the power on early in a corner it is a simple matter to reduce it to a level where the driver is hardly aware of its existence. It's all a matter of technique.
With the power steering and its variable ratio it takes longer to build up confidence in the car and this is compounded with the automatic transmission. Where in the manual car it is possible to go down to second or third gear (very quickly, we should add, with the much improved gear change) to maximise the available power and get the tail squatting down under power through the corner, the auto has less power anyway and doesn't allow the same fine control over the engine.
Ideally the best compromise set-up would be the power steering but with a much greater built-in resistance at the steering wheel, as on the original one-off Falcon GT Superbird show car. On this GT the steering rim effort had been raised from four pounds to eight and given greatly increased feel and sensitivity, two things which are missing from the standard power system.
When we asked Ford engineers about this we got only non-committal answers. But reading between the lines we gather the marketing people won out in their efforts to retain a super light steering, presumably for all the old ladies who drive GTs! It's a pity, though, that the other system couldn't have been offered as an option.
Ford drums the only changes to the suspension involve alterations in the front suspension bushes designed to give a more progressive rate of compression. This, together with the new friction disc collapsible steering column, which replaces the old convoluted tube column, reduces the shocks which were passed up through the steering to the driver on the XA, particularly when it was fitted with radial ply tyres.
Plenty of rough road testing confirmed Ford's claims that the steering is now virtually vibration free, and that both dust and water sealing had been improved. But the same can't be said of the ride in poor conditions. The back end, with its old fashioned semi-elliptic leaf springs, still bounced around and although the Falcon's tendency to thump across potholes has been reduced (particularly the noise part of it) the ride isn't quiet on coarse or rough bitumen surfaces. Not on the GTs we tested anyway.
The automatic GTs get a slightly softer suspension than the manual models and although this makes little difference to the way the cars behave on poor roads it is more comfortable at town speeds.
However, for high speed cruising there is something very reassuring about the way the manual GT gets across the feeling that with its fat rubber and tight, ride it is securely placed on the road.
This was emphasised on our test cars because the manual was the sedan and the automatic the Hardtop. Inherently, the four-door is a tighter car and it feels that way. There were more rattles and sizzles from the dashboard of the Hardtop, the doors didn't close with the same solid thunk and the car generally wasn't as solid in the body.
But the biggest drawback to the Hardtop is its lack of visibility. The windscreen is two inches shallower than the sedan and to provide at least some head room the seats have been lowered.
This means the driver, unless he is a six foot six inch giant, has great difficulty in doing anything but peering across that vast bonnet and not down on to it. And if he is a giant his head will be firmly wedged against the roof if the car has a sunroof. The factory fitted sunroof is a pleasant option and can be used at speeds up to about 60 mph without causing any discomfort, but it takes away about half an inch of valuable headroom.
Inertia reel seat belts, now standard on all Falcons, don't hold the driver securely in place although they are simple to use. This means the shorter driver frequently finds his head in contact with the roof lining over bumpy stretches of road.
On the sedan it's not quite as bad. The front buckets are about an inch and a half higher and this makes all the difference to the driver feeling he is not encased in a massive metal structure with small slits for windows.
The Hardtop's visibility problems aren't confined to the front, of course. There is still that ridiculous rear pillar and upward sweep of the body which reduces visibility to an alarming degree. This, plus the lack of rear seat headroom, leg room and knee room gives the sedan such a head start over the Hard top we would consider the two-door only if we never carried more than one passenger - and even then the lower driving position would put us off.
Ford's bucket seats are excellent with plenty of lateral and thigh support and tall, high backs. Only problem is a slight lack of lumbar support in the squab but this seems to worry only a minority of drivers.
The dashboard remains unchanged apart from the speedo getting metric figures as well as miles per hour but distance is still measured in miles, although both Chrysler and Holden have switched to kilometres.
The general layout is comfortable and the driving position excellent ... on the sedan. It is all straight forward and allows the driver to relax over a long distance. Unlike the Landau/LTD which have a foot-operated parking brake in conjunction with the rear discs the GT retains the old, under dash pull-out system, presumably because to use the Landau idea would mean four pedals across the floor on the manual models.
While Ford has been providing a touch of European influence in the braking and switchgear departments with the GT it has also tried to provide greater flexibility with its high performance 351 GT engines, but at the expense of ultimate performance at the top end.
The automatic GTs are using a new Australian built 351 4V engine. Simply stated this is the old GT engine but with the 351 2V engine cylinder heads which have smaller ports. For the time being the manual GTs will continue to use the imported engines although in a couple of months they too will switch.
If you can do without' the last little ounce of performance it will be a change worth making. Our manual test car was decidedly lumpy when we picked it up and wasn't at all happy running through Victoria's country towns at the 35 mph speed limit in top gear. In fact, it was happiest in second at that speed. However, once across the border into NSW, where there is no overall speed limit (Victoria's limit is 70 mph although we have yet to see any sign on the Hume which says so) and the car could be run hard, the engine
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