FORD LTD: ‘Lincoln-Type Design’, Australian style
The unique Australian Ford LTD launched in July 1973 was one of several cars that demonstrated Ford Australia’s marketing brilliance in the 1965 to 1975 decade. American Bill Bourke, who was initially deputy managing director to Wallace Wray Booth and who took over the top job in 1965, was almost certainly the most brilliant marketing person the Australian automotive industry ever employed and his successor, engineer Brian (later Sir Brian) Inglis, was also no slouch when it came to working out how to gain an edge over rivals through lateral thinking.
Of course, the Ford LTD (coded P5) was as much a triumph of longitudinal as lateral thinking. Bill Bourke had conceived of the idea of a longer-wheelbase luxury edition of the Ford Falcon in 1964-65. The 1967 ZA Fairlane – available in Custom and 500 variants – received a four-inch wheelbase stretch (to 115 inches) along with unique front and rear styling. In one sense it was this car that supplied the template for the 1973 LTD, but there’s a deeper story here.
In his superb Design to Driveway series of four hardcover books published by Shannons (and now sold out), David Burrell unpacks the design history of Australian cars. Volume three has a feature on the P5 Ford LTD and its P6 successor. Burrell interviewed David Ford (no relation) who was Ford Australia’s chief engineer during much of the 1970s and 1980s and a product planner beforehand. It was Ford who persuaded Bourke that a locally conceived luxury limousine would be the perfect machine to supersede the American Galaxie LTD, which as Burrell says ‘was not contributing enough to Ford’s bottom line.’
Bourke, whose ideas were generally brilliant, was always willing to concede his mistakes – here comes one of them! David Ford recalls that his boss was passionate about the idea of devising an Australian Thunderbird to be known as the Landau, while Ford himself tried to convince Bourke that there would be a strictly limited market for such a car (1385 units over three years as it transpired!). According to David Ford in his interview with Burrell:
All Bill wanted was the Landau…I said to him ‘Bill, the market for a two-door luxury car is very small in Australia. The bigger market is in the long-wheelbase four-door car’. Well, he finally agreed to let me have the LTD if he could have the Landau and we agreed that both would share the same front-end design, equipment and interior fittings to spread the costs.
Bourke later almost joyously conceded his mistake. David Ford and his wife attended a dinner party at the Bourkes’ in the US:
In front of two other Ford vice-presidents at the dinner table, Bill said: ‘You know what I liked about these Aussies was they weren’t afraid to tell me when I had my head up my ass; and you know what? They were usually right!’
So, the P4 Landau and the P5 LTD came to market together and both doubtless confounded product planners at GM-H and Chrysler Australia. These two uniquely Australian Fords followed the astonishing Falcon GT and Fairlane launched six years earlier.
(GM-H’s almost laughable response to the ZA Fairlane was the Holden Brougham which made its debut alongside the brilliant Monaro late in the winter of 1968. This was essentially a stretched version of the HK Premier – but all the stretch was in the boot! The car looked ungainly and few customers regarded it as a true rival to the Fairlane. It was not until the HQ Statesman in 1971 that Holden produced a long-wheelbase luxury sedan.)
So how did Holden’s product planners respond to the LTD? Interestingly, they developed a kind of super-luxury Statesman, known as the Caprice (1975), identical in size to the Statesman De Ville. Once again, the Ford Australian planners stole a march but before I get into this, a brief point needs to be made about how Ford Australia’s planners conceived cars in terms of size and this overview becomes incredibly interesting when applied to the later sales battle between the VB Commodore and the XD Falcon.
At Ford Australia, cars were seen as ‘A’ (mini), ‘B’ (Escort), ‘C’ (Cortina) and ‘D’ (Falcon). On this logic, the Fairlane could be called E-sized and the LTD (on its 121-inch wheelbase, identical to the outgoing Australian-assembled Galaxie LTD, important to maintaining Ford’s government fleet contracts) F-sized. The Ford marketing people resolutely insisted that the Commodore was really a C-size model and therefore a direct rival not for its XD Falcon but the Cortina! Absolutely genius!
One can almost see the Ford planners rubbing their hands together when they saw the Caprice. Because it was physically smaller than the LTD even though competitive in equipment (though not in performance, having just a 308 cubic-inch V8 to the Ford’s 351, like the Falcon GT albeit in a lower state of tune), the Caprice they believed was no true rival, in much the same way as the Brougham hadn’t been those seven years earlier. So, when the ZH Fairlane range appeared in 1976 there was a new variant, the Marquis which matched the Caprice on equipment while undercutting it in price. The Marquis served to promote its LTD sibling further up the food chain. Game, set and match! (Indeed, the Marquis was only needed for the ZH range, so great was Ford’s lead over Holden in the luxury sector!)
David Ford was keen to make the point that despite some economies of creating two new luxury flagships, this was an expensive exercise:
The roof of the P5 was made out of three Fairlane roofs in order to get the correct shape and curve from windscreen to the rear window. That meant we threw away lots of sheet metal. The weld joints were hidden by the vinyl roof.
Interestingly, Ford Australia’s decision-makers chose the P4 and P5 rather than the GT as its – and the Australian industry’s – first cars to be equipped with four-wheel disc brakes. Perhaps the flamboyant exterior design with Thunderbird hubcaps on larger-diameter 15-inch wheels and concealed headlights as well as the plush interior with factory air-conditioning controlled by aircraft-style chrome sliding levers were more appreciated by customers, but it is nevertheless the case that there were serious technical advances in these two fantastic machines.
The big V8 engine running through a three-speed automatic transmission delivered performance to eclipse any rival within thousands of the LTD’s sub-$8000 price range. And the car was jampacked with sound-deadening materials, so that at Australian cruising speeds it rivalled a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow for silent, luxurious progress.
Eight exterior colours from Ford Australia’s current chart were on offer but there were five new choices – Port Wine, Grecian Gold, Deep Ivy, Nightmist Blue and Stratosphere Grey (some of which were available on the Galaxie). The standard cloth upholstery was available in black, saddle or parchment and there was optional leather in black or parchment. Vinyl roofs were mandatory (remembering they covered the welded trio of Fairlane panels!) in black, white, dark blue, dark green and dark brown. My colleague in Shannons Club, Mark Oastler, has mentioned his favourite P5 colour combo is dark blue with matching vinyl roof and I am inclined to agree.
The only other notable option beside leather was a stereo-cassette player to enhance the high-quality radio.
Bourke’s vision of an Australian Thunderbird was certainly out of step with local tastes but the idea of a locally made car to offer equivalent (or superior) levels of luxury and equipment to much dearer European models such as the Mercedes 250 and Jaguar XJ6 was brilliantly conceived.
There was no road test of the P5 LTD in Wheels but the January 1974 edition carried Peter Robinson’s scathing critique of the Landau. This, argued editor Robbo, was no driver’s car. Certainly not, if ultimate cornering speeds ranked among the prospective customer’s automotive priorities. There was much else to criticise about the Landau – dimensionally similar the Falcon Hardtop and built on the standard 111-inch wheelbase – including a claustrophobic interior with minimal room in the rear and poor all-round vision. But while the Landau was in the US ‘personal car’ idiom (to use Ford’s coinage for the T-Bird), the LTD undoubtedly met many of the needs of buyers who might otherwise have bought a Chevrolet Impala, Dodge Phoenix or perhaps a Volvo 164E. I think Romsey Quints (a pseudonym exercised by the late great Bill Tuckey) got it right when he wrote a column about the P5 Town Car (commemorating 50 years of Ford in Australia). He loved the car – it could blow a picnic clear up a grass bank! The conclusion was: ‘You’d love Old Goldie!’
The P4 and P5 were launched towards the end of the production life of the XA Falcon and ZF Fairlane, so when the XB/ZG arrived in late 1973, the pair remained almost untouched apart from headlight flashers on a steering column stalk and slightly revised hubcaps. As it happened, the Landau would never be updated but would slink quietly off the market, largely unmourned (until this new century!). As David Burrell reveals, a P6 variant complete with the Lincoln/ Rolls-Royce-inspired rectilinear grille had been in planning as late as November 1973.
The P6 – popularly known as the ‘Rolls-Royce grille’ LTD – was essentially more of the same but with new front and rear styling for a boxier, more assertive appearance (and better rear-view vision). The P6 had some family resemblance to the ZH Fairlane, most notably the Caprice-challenging Marquis. The interior now boasted crushed velour upholstery (later to be seen in the VB Commodore SL/E) or buyers could still specify leather. The hubcaps were less ornate and far less expensive to repair or replace.
There was a special version known as the Silver Monarch with the compelling colour combination of Stardust Silver paintwork, silver vinyl roof (Ford Australia’s marketing people had perhaps been inspired by Holden’s 25th Anniversary Holden Premier!), Cranberry Red crushed velour and whitewall tyres.
The ultimate expression of this first-gen LTD came late in 1978 (perhaps to steal some of the radical new Holden Commodore’s limelight). Buyers could choose between Burgundy and Classic Grey (with matching special Dusk Grey leather).
The copywriter in the brochure must have enjoyed composing this passage:
And, with a car that has almost everything… For a rainy day, a conveniently mounted elegant umbrella. A handsome case to hold the map that helps you find your way. To start the day, your Town Car key-pouch, marking you as the driver of this special limousine.
For several months into the time of the new XD Falcon you could still buy an LTD Town Car. (In 1979 I was the Graduate Training Co-ordinator at Ford Australia and spent some days driving a Classic Grey example. My private car was a Commodore S-Pak. No question, this latter was the superior driver’s car but for serene travel and build quality it could not touch the big and, frankly, already outmoded LTD.)
Perhaps in retrospect it wasn’t all that surprising when the second-gen LTD shared its wheelbase with the Fairlane. The FC was not imposing in the style of its two predecessors but it seemed to be the right kind of luxury limousine for the new more economy-minded era – it came to market as the second oil shock made waves in Australia. Indeed, no-one could have missed those extra five inches of wheelbase because there was similar legroom in the rear to the P5 and P6, simply because the packaging of the XD Falcon – on which, of course, the Fairlane and LTD were based – was so superior to that of the old XC.
At the launch of the XD-based Fairlane and LTD there was some criticism that they were insufficiently differentiated from the Falcon/Fairmont but – especially for the LTD – I believe this is unwarranted. The 1979 flagship looked and felt luxurious, while being far more agile than its predecessors.
It is easy to forget in today’s era of ubiquitous SUVs and heavyweight utes, that the ZJ Fairlane and FC LTD were introduced into what was essentially a more demanding motoring world, at least in terms of what are somewhat reductively referred to as ‘Australian conditions’. An extract from a superbly readable road test by Bill Tuckey in the November 1978 edition of Wheels illustrates my point. The car in question is nothing less than BMW’s flagship 733i sedan, a model that made its European debut just a couple of years earlier:
In its publicity material, BMW…claims that the 733i offers ‘more free interior space, performance appointments and engineering innovation than any other luxury sedan’. But the key phrase is that they are ‘driver-oriented, sportive dynamic performance cars’. They’re the parameters.
The 733i is a fastish, big (by European standards) luxury five-seater with a very high level of technology that undoubtedly makes it one of the finest cars you can buy in Europe. Unfortunately, as some German-born and German-experienced executives of Australian car manufacturing companies will tell you, BMW – like almost every other European car maker – hasn’t the faintest idea what their cars have to do in Australia. By comparison with Europe, our road conditions are horrifyingly deviant, our road surfaces destructive, our speed limits childish in a county of this size, and our weather conditions a little extreme, to say the least.
Tuckey drove the car from Sydney to Melbourne and back. It has only been in recent years that the Hume Highway has finally become entirely one-way; in 1979, it was a national disgrace. Also, it was not until well into the 1980s that most European and Japanese automotive manufacturers brought their cars to Australia for durability testing, to make sure interior plastics wouldn’t evaporate when subjected to outback heat and that interiors and boots were properly dustproofed. The BMW let in dust and it failed to cope with corrugated roads. I’m reminded of the German engineer involved in testing Commodore prototypes in the Flinders Ranges who observed that these roads were not for cars but trucks!
Tuckey: It’s a marvellous car, even a great car. Why then, are we a little disappointed?
That’s probably because we took it from Sydney to Melbourne down the Hume Highway, then back up the Princes Highway, thus over some of the very best and very worst highway surfaces in Australia, including a nightmare section of the Princes, not far from Cann River, where flood rains had turned a 10-kilometre roadworks section into rutted, slimy, potholed clay that just danced the 733i all over the place so badly it was hard to stop all the slides.
He concludes the test: But we’re sure that everyone who buys it will love it. It costs a lot of money, and has a lot of marvellous things that open and shut. And you may never, ever, have to drive it to Melbourne and back…
By contrast, Chris Gable drove a ZJ Fairlane 5.8 from Adelaide to Sydney and his road test was published in the August 1979 edition. He makes no mention of demanding roads and his major complaint is fuel economy around 25 litres per 100km. Having owned an FC LTD Cartier, I share his concern. In terms of weight, size and performance the six-cylinder BMW and the Fairlane were remarkably close but the Fairlane was little more than a third of the price.
Back to the LTD, here was a truly plush and spacious car lacking few of the refinements to be found in European rivals costing more than twice its price. Like the XD on which it was based, it had been extensively torture-tested by Ford engineers under all local conditions. Purists might cavil at the leaf-sprung rear end but the car’s overall fitness for purpose could not be denied.
Unlike other XD variants, the LTD scored a colour-keyed dashboard. There was a tachometer as standard equipment. For the first time it acquired alloy wheels.
Late in 1979, Ford Australia introduced its special Cartier edition as a clever way of highlighting the first six-cylinder LTD. Standard on the Cartier was the 4.1-litre engine with the 5.8 an option. The same choice prevailed on the standard LTD.
My favourite of all LTDs arrived in 1982. The XE Falcon of that year boasted a new coil-sprung rear suspension with Watts Linkage and the LTD’s already impressive roadability was further improved. This FD model also acquired the then highly desirable Michelin TRX wheel/tyre combination. Leather trim was made standard and there was a moonroof. This LTD when specified with the 351 surely marked a new high point in desirability if arguably lacking the extraordinary road presence of its P5 and P6 predecessors.
Unfortunately, from this point on, the LTD began its drive towards irrelevance. Ford Australia ceased manufacturing V8 engines in late 1982. The 1984 XF-based FE LTD came only with the fuel-injected 4.1-litre straight six. The TRX experiment was over; the moonroof was gone. And so was leather trim, in favour of velour (surely a poor marketing decision). Yes, the LTD was a little more luxurious than the Fairlane but hardly so that you’d notice.
This was the start of the end. While the LTD easily surmounted the loss of an extra-long wheelbase, the demise of the 351 V8 – thirsty as it was (although Ford executives maintained it used no more fuel in the daily grind or on a cruise than the much less powerful 4.9) – in favour of a reasonably efficient but unexciting straight six cruelled the car’s appeal. Back in the 1973-1979 era, there was a vast difference between a Fairlane and LTD. By 1984 this had effectively evaporated.
The 1988 DA LTD was, frankly, a fairly cynical exercise. I wouldn’t put it quite as harshly as Michael Stahl (Wheels, March 1989):
Fundamentally, the $49,233 Ford LTD is still a Falcon. Take a basic 3.9 multi-point auto, start adding bits and pieces and more weight and ticky-tack and the whole thing can fall right off the rails.
Nevertheless, the LTD was still an eminently spacious machine. Before the end of 1989 (DA II) it also came with the BT-R electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission which enabled the injected sixpack to deliver good fuel economy – times had changed enormously in the decade and a half since the first Australian Ford LTD hit the road.
Good news came in July 1991 when the DC LTD got a V8 engine again, this time the 5.0-litre Windsor in modest 165kW tune. (It was a ‘delete option’, meaning buyers could specify the six and save some cash.)
Progressive upgrades from 1990 through to 1995 included a new secure Tibbe door-locking system, stronger roof, anti-lock brakes and improved sound system.
In March 1995 Ford Australia released a facelifted (DL) LTD, replete with ‘chrome and jewellery’ said the public relations people. The interior was once again given the attention it deserved. I wrote:
The untamed scent of the Howe leather trim, even the shape of the pleating on the seats and the subtle Cappuccino colours – somewhere between mushroom and the palest shade of coffee, with a hint of warm evening glow; everything spells luxury but not of the cloying type.
Then came the AU in early 1999. The six-cylinder and V8 engines were all upgraded. Independent rear suspension was standard on up-spec variants. The problem of differentiating the LTD from the Fairlane Ghia was slightly different this time around because the latter was very well equipped. I was a marketing consultant to Ford Australia in this time frame and wrote a paper saying that the LTD represented a wasted opportunity to differentiate the LTD as something genuinely bespoke. Sure, it had chromed 16-inch alloy wheels that looked very smart (so smart I bought a set for my AU Fairlane!) but the Fairlane had same-sized alloys. I guess the standard six-cylinder engine was a sign of the times and it was just as well that when the V8 options box was ticked, the LTD got the higher output version from the XR8.
It just seemed to me that there was no energy from president Geoff Polites down to reimagine the LTD. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? By this time government business had greatly shrunk and only a trickle of private customers bought LTDs. Even Fairlane sales had slowed way down and were well behind the Statesman. The AU Fairlane/LTD (and note they no longer had their own model codes) were tarred with the AU Falcon brush. Demand was low because the LTD was insufficiently special. But why spend the extra money when money was in short supply and there was no indication customers would rock up?
Then in 2002 came the BA ‘Barra’ Falcon, a greatly accomplished car, which further exacerbated the LTD’s credibility. Its dual overhead camshaft sixpack and optional 5.4-litre V8 turned the once humble Falcon into something approaching a BMW-challenger. Falcon handling was excellent. There was little to criticise. As for the long-wheelbase versions, they were even less differentiated and for the first time used Falcon rear taillights instead of unique items.
Geoff Polites decided to reverse Holden’s treatment of its long-wheelbase models where the up-spec Caprice got the sportier treatment. He conceived the Fairlane G220 as a sporting limousine. But testing this car for the August 2003 edition of Wheels, Mike McCarthy wrote:
Where the latest Fairlane Ghia and LTD continue to press their claims along the familiar lines of upmarket pomp and affluence, the new Fairlane G220 makes its pitch to drivers wanting keen dynamics along with an extended wheelbase. In size and shape, the G220 (that’s G as in Ghia and 220 as in kilowatts) is a carbon copy of the other two peas from this particular pod…
…First impression is that there are fewer degrees of separation than needed to do each model justice.
Sales of the LTD had long been slow but now the sight of a new one on the road was a rare thing. Before the end of 2005 the end had come and not just for the LTD but also for the Fairlane.
It was a sad ending. Looking back with decades of hindsight, I see now that the original 1973 Ford LTD was one of the triumphant achievements of the Australian automotive industry, in many ways a braver feat of engineering than the Falcon GT of 1967 or even the Holden Monaro of 1968. Perhaps that first LTD could only have been as good as it was because there was so much room to grow – not just in size as in the bigger-is-still-better early 1970s but also in specification (not since the EH Premier of 1963 had an Australian car had hide upholstery). Four-wheel disc brakes, a 5.8-litre V8, rich leather upholstery, the longest wheelbase ever seen on a locally produced Ford, those aircraft-like chromed air-conditioning controls: the LTD was a veritable spaceship and truly embodied the huge marketing vision of Bill Bourke. LTD: RIP.