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When Michael Guest got behind the wheel of a new Ford Focus for the Australian Rally Championship in 2005, the occasion marked 45 years since Ford officially became involved in trials and rallying in Australia. Despite what you might think to the contrary, the period during the 1970s and 80’s when Ford’s familiar yellow, red and orange Escort BDAs were a dominant force, was not the only time that Ford were standing on the victor’s podium. In fact, their winning performance goes back to the early 1960s just prior to the time Harry Firth was signed to lead Ford to victory in the forests.

 

Rewind back to September 1960 when Ford released the XK Falcon to the Australian public for the very first time. In fact, the new Falcon was the first all-Australian built car since the 48/215 Holden of 1948. Ford Australia were keen to display the new car’s strength and reliability so three cars were prepared and entered in the Light Car Club of Australia’s BP Rally in May 1961, just eight months since the car was introduced. The BP was a tough event but Ford were keen to capitalize on the strength of their products and, as well as the trio of Falcons, entered six 105E Anglias.  Unofficially, this was the beginning of Ford’s participation in rallying at a factory level, a participation that was to continue on spasmodically for over four decades.

The results of that first event must have been very reassuring for Ford – their Ford Team Falcons finished second (Jack Ellis), 13th (Ken Harper), 19th (Doug Hughes) and 29th (Jack Nalder). As well as that, an Anglia, driven by Peter Coffey, was third outright. In fact, Ford had a good hold of the placings as Anglias also finished sixth, 10th, 15th, 25th, 30th and 35th while a Ford Customline came home in 43rd position. The following year, 1962, Ford continued on its winning way with many more victories and outright placings with the Falcons and the Anglias.

During this time, a Melbourne engineer who would later go on to be recognized nationally as one of the country’s leading car preparers, drivers and team managers, came under the watchful eye of Ford management. Harry Firth was at the time driving Anglias with a great deal of success both in trials and on the racetrack, and such was his ability and skill, he was snapped up by Ford’s Les Powell and Max Ward to manage the new Ford Team. One of  Firth’s first tasks was to prepare five Falcons for the 3,300 mile (5,280 kilometre) East African Safari in Kenya. The cars were crewed by Harry Firth/Graham Hoinville, Ken Harper/Des Scott, Geoff Russell/Dick Collingwood and Doug Hughes/Rex Lewis. Suffering a variety of problems, four of the five cars retired but Firth and Hoinville soldiered on to the finish to take 16th place.

Despite Ford being pleased with the performance of their big Falcons, late 1962 saw the Mk 1. Cortina released in Europe and it was soon realized that the Cortina would be a logical rally replacement for the Aussie Falcon. Although it originally came with just a 4-cylinder, 1197cc engine, its handling and roadholding were a revelation for its time, so Ford Australia’s attention turned to the new Cortina. Ever on the ball, Firth got a jump on the rest of the world by sourcing a pair of soon-to-be-released 1500cc motors, six months before its official release, and fitted them to his own car and that of Geoff Russell. Entered in the LCCA’s Ballarat Begonia Rally in March 1963, the cars took the first two placings, stunning the rest of the field with their performance. Ford virtually had a car for any occasion – the Cortinas won, Falcons and Anglias filled major placings, and there were five Fords in the top ten and 10 in the first sixteen!

The Cortina victories continued well into the sixties, and when the first Cortina GT became available, it was an ideal opportunity to enter one in the 1964 Ampol Trial, run over 11,260km from Sydney to Sydney via Brisbane, Townsville, Bourke and Adelaide. Firth and Hoinville had an outstanding run, taking victory against the might of many other fancied crews. Victories and good placings continued Ford’s way as the Sixties rolled on, not only in the forests but on the race tracks as well. Falcons, Anglias and Cortinas filled numerous placings all around the country, but the opposition was quickly playing a catch-up game. In rallies, Ford’s Cortinas were up against Volkswagens, X2 Holdens, Renault Gordinis and Volvos, all of whom posed a very real threat to Ford’s dominance of those events. Ford countered the threat with a 1600cc supercharged Cortina for Harry Firth while other teammates, Frank Kilfoyle and Ian Vaughan, made do with Cortina GTs. Until now, the Ford team had been contesting State Championship events around the country as well as selected special events from time to time. But all that was to change.

By this time the newer Mk.2 Cortina had been released in Europe and Ford Australia smartened their image with a team of sensational-looking orange and black Mk.2’s. There were several 1600 GTs amongst Ford’s lineup plus a Lotus Twin Cam-engined Cortina for Harry Firth. Resplendent in their new team colors, Ford scored the first two placings in the opening round of the new national series, the Australian Rally Championship, the GMH Classic Rally in Victoria. Frank Kilfoyle drove his GT version home to first place with Firth’s Lotus Cortina second. It was the ideal way to launch the new team, the new season and the new championship,
1968 was also the year of the London – Sydney Marathon and Ford entered three factory Falcons and were rewarded with third (Ian Vaughan), sixth (Bruce Hodgson) and eighth (Harry Firth). The Falcons were specially built by Firth and boasted 230bhp 5 litre V8 engines that were very much suited to the long 16,000km event.  With Firth away on the Marathon at the same time as the running of the last event on the 1968 ARC calendar, his lead in the ARC looked to be in doubt. However with Kilfoyle only placing fourth in the final round, Firth was declared the winner, much to Ford’s delight (and advertising opportunities).

The winning pattern continued in 1969 when the official Ford team again contested the ARC, the spoils this time going to Frank Kilfoyle and Doug Rutherford after a consistent season. Ford also took the Manufacturer’s Award that was introduced that year and decided that it was better to leave on a high note rather than a low one. The presence of a Blue Oval car on the winner’s dais was therefore left to the hundreds of privateers who continued to fly the Ford flag right around Australia. Effectively, Ford Australia’s trial and rallying effort had lasted for ten years.

In 1970 the Cortina’s replacement, the Escort, burst on to the scene but apart from a little factory support for a few privateers, Ford had little to do with Escorts and rallying. Still, privateers were doing all sorts of things in events like the Dulux Rally, the Australian Championship, the Don Capasco Rally in Canberra and, of course, the Southern Cross Rally. In particular the Southern Cross was the biggest event that had been seen in Australia and was internationally recognized overseas, particularly in Japan. Ford in Britain had sent Roger Clark and Timo Makinen ‘down under’ for the 1976 ‘Cross in a pair of RS1800s, but despite setting early fastest stage times, both Escorts retired – Clark with a blown diff and Makinen with a similar problem. Kiwis Paul Adams and Rod Millen also retired their RS1800s, making it a disappointing event for Ford, to say the least.

But Ford were obviously not deterred because early the following year (1977), Ford Australia announced that they would be supporting a fully-works backed assault on the Australian Championship under Colin Bond. This was not only great news for Ford fans, but for the Australian Rally Championship that had longed for Ford’s participation since the demise of the C ortina effort. Two cars were to initially be built – an RS2000 (affectionately known as Snoopy due to its 4-headlight nose cone design) and a proper BDA RS1800 for Greg Carr, a rising Canberra star who had gained a reputation as the fastest rally driver in the country.

Carr and the Escort gained immeasurable favour with Ford fans by winning outright (and by over 12 minutes) the first event they entered, the Canberra-based Castrol International Rally, formerly the Don Capasco. Carr’s Escort, IYK 000, went on to become the best-recognised Escort in Australia. So successful was the car that Bond decided to build a second RS1800 for himself, rather than improve on the RS2000 that he had originally planned. Despite nearly always being in a leading position in ARC rounds and notching up a number of wins along the way, it was not until the end of the 1978 ARC season that Ford were able to boast that they had finally won the Championship. Greg Carr was crowned as victor with Bond’s regular co-driver, John Dawson-Damer, the champion co-driver. It was a just reward for Ford’s determination in seeing a Ford Escort in the history books again.

It had been a long time coming but there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that the period between 1977 and 1981 (when Edsel Ford announced the disbanding of the factory rally team) was the most exciting period of Australian rallying until then. The familiar yellow Escorts, always matched against the might of the Datsun Rally Team and the Marlboro-Holden Dealer Team cars, were crowd favourites with their sheer speed and bellowing BDA engines echoing through the forests. There was much gloom over the Edsel Ford decision but it wasn’t all bad news. All the cars and equipment were to be handed over to Colin Bond who would continue on with a non-factory supported private effort.

In the intervening period, Ford Australia renewed its involvement with the Cortina, giving the go-ahead for the construction of three TE Cortinas for the 1979 Repco Round Australia Trial. The cars were to be built by Sydney’s Bob Riley and driven by Greg Carr/Fred Gocentas/Dave Morrow, Colin Bond/John Dawson-Damer/Bob Riley and George Fury (now released from his Datsun-Nissan contract), /Monty Suffern/Roger Bonhomme. The cars were specially built in Riley’s workshop and featured 6-cylinder Falcon engines with suitable modifications and heavily modified suspension. After a dismal event that saw the three Cortinas severely disabled after they all hit a huge rock near Darwin, Bond retired his car there and then, while Fury struggled on to finish 25th. Carr saved Ford’s bacon (and image) by recording some top-five times in his slowly-disintegrating car to finish fifth. It had not been a great event for Ford – Holden Commodores rubbing salt into the wounds by taking the first three placings outright to much fanfare and celebrating.
The last outing for Cortinas under official backing by Ford was in the Southern Cross Rally that year when Greg Carr’s Round Australia Cortina was loaned to Geoff Portman for the event. Despite a big off near Kempsey, Portman (who had been as high as seventh outright at one stage and against the might of Australia’s and Europe’s best drivers), finally finished ninth.

It was effectively the end of Ford’s participation in rallying and although many privateer drivers campaigned blue oval products unabated for years afterwards, the factory officially ended their rally program at that time. 26 years later, Ford threw its hat into the ring with a Group N (P) Focus for former Australian Champions, Michael Guest and Mark Stacey. Seen as but a small, toe-in-the-water exercise, the Focus was hopelessly outclassed and underdeveloped, but at least Ford were prepared to embark on a huge learning curve which, in the following year, saw the building of a pair of four-wheel-drive Ford Fiestas in Group N (P) trim. To date, despite constant development and showing plenty of promise, the Fiestas have been unable to challenge for the lead in ARC events, but the Britek team who run the cars for Ford, are convinced that an initial win is not that far away.

Ford has had a glorious history in trials and rallies over the years and looks certain to continue to be involved into the foreseeable future. It’s a long way from their early trials history with Anglias and Falcons, but a successful and rewarding one just the same.

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