First published in the November 1980 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia's best car mag since 1953.
An outsider passes judgement on Australia’s Own – the Ford Falcon and the Chrysler Valiant.
A Pom’s eye view of Australia’s Own, Bob Murray takes a Ford Falcon and a Chrysler Valiant out driving – and comes back without seeing the joke …
I KNOW a girl, a slight girl not much more than 1.5 m tall, who loves her Ford Falcon. "Especially since it has manual steering," she says. "It does wonders for building up the boobs." Now this lady is hooked on big cars. She had a Sigma once but couldn't stomach it because “it felt so tiny...” I guess she's typical. Big cars for a big country.
This friend of mine drove a Chrysler Valiant I had briefly. It surrounded her with the necessary acreage of steel panels but she hated it. True, the steering is so light it wouldn't do a thing for the pectorals of a fly. She would still prefer a Valiant - the "Marrickville Mercedes" - to any small car.
I have driven a few big cars and almost without exception they were either good or bad. And all the bad ones of my acquaintance have passed on. They had to die: when a car half the size and half the weight does everything as well - plus a lot more besides - there is little reason to carry on. Unless it has a name or a following or an image.
The Falcon and the Valiant have the name, the following and the image. It may not be the image they would like, but it is nonetheless an effective one. The title Australia's Own, having been relinquished by originators General Motors-Holden's which is now set firmly on the world-car path, is no mean label to be able to apply.
Nevertheless the Falcon and Valiant are, along with their derivatives and the Holden Statesman, the only cars you can truly call Australian. That's a staggering fact: out of 24 5 cars listed in the Price Guide at the back of this book just three models, split between 18 variants, are actually Australian to their bootstraps.
It’s a sad thing to have to say, but having driven the Valiant and Ford Falcon – yes, the smart-looking Falcon with all its modern suit of clothes -- it's neither surprising nor much of a shame Australian car manufacturers had as much chance, if rather less finance, as their American counterparts to change course from the wildly wrong path that took them careering into the '70s without a thought for what the mass of people really wanted.
If you disagree just look at the sales figures for Japanese cars, both here, in America and Europe. But they muffed it and the people who are in genuine need of an affordable big car are stuck with the Falcon and Valiant, and that’s terrible for both are old cars.
I don’t know why, but it is the minor controls in the Falcon that I remember most. Huge, clumsy items whose only possible justification could be that they were designed for huge, clumsy hands.
This impression, which can be fairly accurately applied to the rest of the car with the exception of the styling, has stayed with me despite some seemingly far stronger images. Like that of the strangled six whose asthmatic gasping is something to behold. Or a picture in the mind's eye of the rear axle trying to cope with a bumpy road. The steering – I drove a “luxury” Fairmont which still had manual steering -- made a lasting impression, not because of its ability to turn a 32A into a 36D with the requisite number of U-turns, but because it felt as if you are heaving away on a piece of dead wood. The gear selector, mounted on an exaggerated steering column, has all the precision of a wooden spoon in porridge.
I remember the dashboard and how it offers less information, less easily read, than the display in a Daihatsu Charade. I have nightmares about the size of the Falcon - its width, especially, is formidable - not because it is so big but because it feels every bit as big as it is. Good big cars feel small in the driving.
Yes, there's room inside though I'm not convinced the best use has been made of it, or that there is sufficient comfort for it to be taken seriously. The cabin feels like a compromise between the need to cram in as many people as possible and the realisation that the best modern cabins are cosy, comfy, sporty affairs. There are, therefore, two front bucket seats as standard when the width of the car, and the location of the gearchange, makes it plain that here is a car designed to seat three abreast. There is a front bench seat available, which is the obvious way of making the Falcon a six-seater, but I don't know if it's any good. If it is not there is little excuse: bench seats can be all right.
As it stands I'm not sure the Falcon offers anything more, other than the ability to make insecure drivers feel safe behind all that bodywork and to provide floor space for rubbish/samples/bags/kids/ animals, than a car a class smaller, even a car two classes smaller. After all, if you're serious about driving your family, or your colleagues or friends, long distances, you don't actually need a big car. What you need is a car that can seat four or five adults comfortably and transport them efficiently, quietly and safely- as far as I know five is the normal number of seat belts ever fitted- and which remains that way all day. For my money the diminutive Ford Laser, which has a Jaguar ride, Ferrari traction and Lotus handling in comparison with its big brother, meets the criteria a whole lot better. Yes, the Laser is a better "big car" than the Falc. Of course, the Mitsubishi Colt, like the Laser, can never hope to match bigger cars if a true five-seater cabin and luggage space are the priorities. But in other ways the parallels are the same. The Colt, like the Laser, has the ability to do pirouettes around its own big brother, the Valiant. Not only on the road - though on the right road both the tiny tots could drive rings round the big guns - but in all the important areas.
The Valiant's biggest disadvantage - and surely part of the reason it dies any day now – is its bodywork, which is as old to look at as the Falcon is to drive. The Falcon and the Valiant, for both are as old and tedious as each other. At least Mitsubishi/Chrysler is honest about the packaging …
To drive a Valiant is to experience the '60s in all its vinyl-seated, bump-thumped, finger light-steered glory. The car is old everywhere - including the places where the Falcon is not: in its hideous seats, its disastrous visibility and ergonomics, its cabin room relative to exterior size. . . just about verything, right down to the design of the smallest detail. Old, but not all bad: the foot level ventilation is the best of any car I've ever driven.
There are other compensations, too. The big six actually has some semblance of engine response and eagerness. lt's fairly quiet, too, though it doesn't have to be revved very far to break down into the most awful cacophony of sound. On a bumpy road the body stops its nasty floating motion and starts to jerk, causing the car to wander and leading to worrying directional stability, not helped by steering which is every bit as directionless and detached as the Falc's only it's about 50 times lighter. This does nothing for the boobs but must revitalise the grey cells something rotten, since the concentration needed to keep course is mighty.
If pushed I'd say the wheels of the Valiant are more in touch than those of the Falcon, at least at the rear where the much harder-riding Ford hops, skips and jumps like a boxer the night before the Big Fight. The Valiant just scrubs its tyres into the bitumen - at the front, mostly, and at ludicrously low speeds. The road noise and harshness transmitted into the cabin would discredit a car of the '50s.
Dynamics apart, the Valiant is a very difficult car to drive well. Somehow everything works against the driver, as if there were some giant conspiracy. It is, not surprisingly, an easy car to drive badly: to potter along at the speed limit, braking for every 200 km/h corner, weaving and floating along with two wheels in the dirt and two fingers on the steering wheel. For all its bulk it is minimum transport for minimum people.
So, it's huge and clumsy versus mindless and minimum and if I were Australian I'd be insulted. The end of Australia's Own? Maybe it's just as well.