With the recent end to local manufacture of the Ford Falcon after 57 years, it’s worth looking back at an incident that occurred at Ford in the mid 1990s that helped seal the fate of the Falcon in Australia.
The beginning of the end for the Aussie Falcon was the dreadful styling of the 1998 AU model.
What on earth was Ford thinking? Blame Jac Nasser – local boy made good.
The son of Lebanese immigrants, Nasser grew up in Melbourne where he started his career as a financial analyst at Ford in the late 1960s. He quickly impressed management with his ability to shave productions costs. In 1973 he was promoted to a position with Ford trucks in the US and never looked back, returning to Oz to become CEO before moving back to Detroit in the early 1980s. By 1993 Jac rose to become Vice President of Ford product planning worldwide, before being promoted to President in 1996.
Jac the Knife they called him – for his ruthless efforts to cut costs. Black Jac was another nickname - for his ability to keep the company above the red line on the ledger. Jac could seemingly do no wrong.
While the AU Falcon was in the planning stage in the mid 1990s, as VP of product planning Nasser visited Australia where he toured the Ford styling studio as clay mock-ups of the AU were being finalised.
At the time Ford was making its first foray into global styling. So all Ford branches were expected to fall into line with the head design teams in Detroit and Europe. Ford US/Europe was into that ugly, droopy look where everything was rounded off and made oval shaped. Think of the hideous (but admittedly successful - if only in the US) Ford Taurus, and the small car known as the Ka (major flop here in Australia)
So on his tour of Broadmeadows, the place where he started his career at Ford, Jac wandered through the styling studio and stopped to look at the AU's clay mock-ups. He waved at the models, saying to the local bosses something along the lines of “The tail is too bulky – round it off like the Taurus, same for the front…” and with that he was gone.
They didn’t know if he was serious or not, but local management felt obliged to obey the Vice President. So against their better judgement, and all the market research – the Falcon styling was radically changed at the behest of Nasser - at the last minute.
The AU was mauled by press and public alike, who made fun of the droopy tail and ugly front. Ford frantically reacted by offering a squared off rear spoiler to hide the tapering, rounded tail, but the damage was done. Potential buys who just couldn't hack the styling went to Holden showrooms and either the new Commodore, or went with the newly emerging trend toward SUV's.
Nasser was Holden’s best friend – his one thoughtless act helped the Commodore to reign supreme for the next decade.
The understandably furious Ford design team were not going to accept the blame for the styling disaster, and rightly so. Nasser ruined all their hard work and in the process, put an irreparable dent in Falcon sales. When the AU got pilloried in the motoring press the stylists decided they weren’t going to take the wrap – leaking to the press that it was Nasser who decreed the AU should have droopy front and rear styling.
During the design phase - prior to Jac’s meddling, Ford had gone to a lot of effort to get feedback from Ford fans, who all approved the designs with a higher, bulky tail as this denoted power and machismo. It also meant it was a lot easier to make performance models look tough, and didn’t hurt boot space either.
Designers had mocked up the final two designs and were even running prototypes. These two designs were shown to some twenty specially chosen Ford customers, who were made to sign non-disclosure agreements. The opinions of these select fanatics were taken very seriously, and helped to shape the designs as they progressed. It all amounted to nothing because one man’s opinion meant more than the dedicated local Falcon lovers.
Jac the Knife’s meddling damaged the Falcon's chances in a tight market, and in so doing, started the long slow slide that ended with the death of the Falcon in 2016. But local Ford management have to take some of the blame; they really should have stuck to their guns and simply pretended they never heard Jac’s comments that fateful day.
For the all new FG Falcon of 2008, Ford incorporated the international styling theme more successfully, but sales nev sweetly styled and successful EL - the model replaced by the AU. The last of the breed was further improved with crisp front and rear styling that the AU sure could have used. Vale the Falcon - a great Aussie icon.