Ford Australia’s $700 million EA Falcon received a relatively lukewarm response from the Australian media following its launch in February 1988, despite being regarded by many as the most significant new Australian car since the 1948 (GM) Holden 48-215. There were countless advancements in key areas, but the continuation of the old 3 speed automatic transmission, the lack of an image-leading V8 engine option and various unexpected reliability woes conspired to tarnish the Falcon’s reputation.
The EA series replaced the long-standing 1984-88 XF (right), a car well respected for its toughness and reliability. The XF was itself the last of a long line of ‘X’ series dating from the XK Falcon of 1960 (1959 in the US) – the very first Falcon. The EA’s new fuel injected 3.2 and 3.9 litre single overhead camshaft (SOHC) engines owed virtually nothing to the harsher 3.3 and 4.1 litre pushrod sixes fitted to the XF, and they used technology rather than additional cubic inches to improve their performance and efficiency. No more carbys. The last of the XFs had been equipped with power steering and 4 wheel disc brakes as standard, and the EA progressed further by having its base transmission a 5, rather than 4 speed manual. Front suspension got the clean-sheet treatment, with the Mercedes S Class-inspired ‘SLALS’ system improving ride, handling and longevity. The EA’s new variable ratio power steering was a big step forward in terms of weighting and ‘feel’, over and above slicing the XF’s turning circle significantly, down to 11 metres in sedan form according to Wheels.
The EA’s height and reach adjustable steering column was a first for an Australian car. Driving position was improved, and fuel economy significantly reduced despite the healthy power increase. In fact, a 5 speed manual EA S proved to be as economical as the original 3 speed manual 144 cubic inch XK Falcon. The could also reach a higher top speed in 3rd gear – with 2 gears to go.
The more stylised interior had a greater emphasis on ergonomics, while the Audi 100-inspired exterior was very well-received by most analysts. The coefficient of drag (Cd) was a reasonably slippery 0.34 for the EA sedan, compared to 0.42 for the less aerodynamic XF – with the base of the new car’s windscreen moved forward a whopping 280mm. In 1984, a clay EA model without badges was shown in a clinic in Germany, and its styling was preferred overall to that of a then current BMW 5 series, Mercedes 190, Renault 25… and even the Audi 100, which some viewers thought the EA was the replacement for. Overall, the EA series was an honest showcase of world-class Australian talent.
Like the XF series, the EA was available in fleet-oriented Falcon GL spec, a sporty Falcon S model, the more stately Fairmont, and the luxurious Fairmont Ghia. All 4 EA models
were also available as a long-wheelbase wagon, while at the top of Ford’s local line-up sat the NA Fairlane (right) and DA LTD; both very large, upmarket sedans based on the wagon’s extended platform. Special edition models include the muscular Peter Brock edition EA Falcon and various SVO models.
The spec on the GL was basic with four wheel disc brakes and power steering present, but no painted bumpers, tachometer or remote boot release. In addition to those features, the S added tasteful 15″ alloy wheels, 15 mm lower suspension and a few nice touches like front and rear reading lights. By comparison, the Fairmont had different interior trim and did without the alloy wheels as standard, but added a few features of its own such as rear headrests. In addition to the Fairmont’s equipment, the Ghia added central locking, electric windows, automatic climate control, a limited slip diff, cruise control and the outstanding feature for the time of self-levelling rear suspension.
Three in-line six cylinder engines were initially available; a 3.2 litre single-point injected (aka throttle body injected) engine, a 3.9 litre single-point, and the 3.9 litre multipoint (MPI). The 3.2 was dropped later in 1988 because in addition to the top dog 3.9 multipoint delivering over 50% more power, it actually used no more fuel in the process! When it was available, the 3.2 was only available on the Falcon GL, while at the other end of the spectrum, the multipoint engine was the only option for Fairmont Ghia buyers. Falcon S and Fairmont came with the single-point 3.9, with multipoint fuel injection optional. The two available transmissions were a 5 speed manual and 3 speed auto largely carried over from the previous model. While there had been speculation about a 4 speed automatic being standard before the car’s launch, an industrial dispute at supplier BT-R (formerly Borg-Warner) meant the 4 speed was not available for the EA’s launch. There had also been some speculation about independent rear suspension.
While no performance figures for the 3.2 are available to us at this time, it is the 5 speed manual, MPI EA Falcon S that was the real hero car of the range. Wheels magazine achieved a 0-100 time of just 7.8 seconds from this model, and observed that this is significantly faster than the last of the XE 5.8 litre V8s, and equal with Holden’s VL Commodore Turbo. Its improved suspension, aerodynamics and power enabled the same car to achieve a 215 km/h top speed. With its speedo only running up to 200, it was well and truly off the clock!
Why Were There Problems?
To understand the reasons behind the EA Falcon’s troubles, one must remember its history. The first thoughts of the EA happened in 1980, when the XD Falcon was relatively new to the
marketplace. Possible ideas for the EA26 (the EA’s code-name within Ford; it was the 26th design in Ford’s international system) included a stretched and restyled Ford Telstar (aka Mazda 626), or models variously based on the European Scorpio, American Granada and even the Mazda 929. However, Detroit headquarters gave the green light for a totally new, all-Australian EA26 in late ’83. It was a response to booming XE Falcon sales, and all alternatives had been ruled out due to lack of space, towing capacity, performance, etc.
The EA was perhaps the most heavily revised update of an Australian car, ever. Bodies, suspension, engines, interiors and steering owed little or nothing to the previous model. With a budget of $700 million, it was a lot to create with not a lot of money, especially in comparison to the billions that go into conceiving comparable American Fords. With so much to go wrong, perhaps Ford Australia should not have released the EA earlier rather than later. An extra several months of testing could have prevented many issues from arising. But the EA’s predecessor, the XF, was showing its not inconsiderable age, and Ford also wished to beat its Holden Commodore rival to the market.
The result was a vehicle which was not nearly as trouble-free as the XF had been, including suspension and overheating woes. The Falcon’s reputation was damaged and its arch rival, Holden’s VN Commodore, grabbed sales leadership for the first time since the early ’80s. But Ford responded brilliantly with a series of running improvements to newer models, plus various retrofit kits for older EAs. In truth, the EA Falcon’s reputation was damaged more than anything else, as the problems themselves were all easily fixed. But that reputation is the main reason many enthusiasts feel disrespect for the car today.
The AU Falcon
For what it is worth, the 1998 model AU Falcon (left) – which was the next ‘all-new’ model in the 10-year cycle – was perhaps an over-reaction to the problems Ford had had with the EA. To a cynic, the base AU’s only worthwhile addition was the ‘ mind-numbing’ technology of audio volume buttons on the steering wheel – plus this new Ford was released about a year after its Commodore foe. There were no noteworthy reliability issues with the AU, unlike the Holden of the time, but buyers very clearly preferred the more adventurous Commodore all the same.
It’s true: a single update as thorough as EA may never happen in Australia again. Personally, I expect there will be slower progress, reduced Australian influence …but fewer problems.