UNIQUE CARS Magazine
Just what was Ford thinking in 1980 when it added a 'European Sports Pack' to its range of big, boofy, blokey XD Falcons?
The XD that arrived in 1979 was viewed by many buyers – including plenty of disenchanted Holden enthusiasts – as the last bastion of genuine Aussie family car design. With Chrysler's Valiant a generation too ancient, Ford had the market for large family and fleet car sales virtually to itself and emphasised its all-Australian credentials in the war against GM-H's European-designed Commodore.
Although Ford hadn't bothered to include a purpose-built performance model in the XD line-up, some creativity with the options list could create a car packed with performance and comfort items and for less money than the ESP 5.8's $14,000 asking price.
At release, the XD ESP was based on the taxi-like GL model – replacing that car's vinyl trim with horizontally-striped Scheel sports seats, adding five-spoke Globe alloy wheels, uprated suspension, a rear axle tramp rod, faster ratio unassisted steering and some creative pin-striping. Ford's intention was an apparent reincarnation of the GT model it had dumped five years earlier, but very few buyers or motoring writers made the connection. Preview evaluations gave the car a 'could try harder' and magazines from that point on had difficulty extracting an ESP-equipped XD from Ford.
Six months later, in January 1981, the 'proper' ESP arrived with Fairmont underpinnings and the choice of 4.1-litre or 5.8-litre engines, automatic or four-speed manual transmission plus a substantial boost in credibility.
1982 brought with it the XE Falcon range, a vastly-improved ESP and the appalling news that Ford was to discontinue V8 production in Australia.
Improvements to the XE included a new Watts Link system of rear axle location that was claimed to deliver similar levels of grip and stability as independent rear suspension. Cars powered by the 5.8-litre engine received a 28-spline, four-pinion limited-slip differential and four-wheel disc brakes were standard to all ESPs.
The interior was remodeled, using colour-keyed Scheel seats with matching door trims. Full instrumentation and a four-speaker Philips sound system, with graphic equalizer, were complemented by normal Fairmont Ghia features, including electric windows and central locking. Replacing the XD model's Globe wheels were specially-machined, gold-painted alloys that have become widely known as 'snowflake' wheels.
ESP XE buyers were offered a choice of three engines; the 4.1-litre six – fuel injected from early 1983 – plus 4.9 and 5.8-litre V8s. By the time XE versions arrived on showroom floors, supplies of the larger engine were growing thin and very few 5.8-litre cars were built. According to Jay Cutajar, who maintains a very useful website devoted to ESP Fords, auto transmission was never officially offered in conjunction with the 5.8-litre engine, but cars with this combo were certainly built to special order.
Mick Olsen's parents were among the lucky recipients of a V8-engined ESP and, 20 years later, he was able to renew the acquaintance via a very rare Burnt Orange 5.8-litre, four-speed.
"As a young fella, my parents had one and when this car came along with such low kilometres and the 351/manual combination I jumped at it," admitted Olsen, whose garage provides lodgings for a variety of high-performance Ford and Holden models.
"Compared to, say, an XA GT, it's just a very smooth, comfortable car to drive," he said. "Then, of course, you've got the reliability – every time you jump in it starts and it doesn't have any rattles. I've had it about three years and nothing has gone wrong."
Within weeks of Olsen's car departing the production line, Ford turned its deafest ear to the wailing from disgruntled performance addicts and discontinued public sale of V8-engined ESP Falcons. That was in November 1982, and it was four months before a replacement, in the form of a fuel-injected version of the 4.1-litre, six-cylinder was announced. Cutting weight by almost 120kg helped offset the loss of 40kW and enhanced the EFI's economy by around 30 per cent when compared with a 5.8-litre. With the arrival of its XF Falcon in 1984, Ford discontinued the ESP.
ON THE ROAD
Take away the soft and cuddly Scheel seats, with their matching fabric door trims, and the inside of an XE ESP looks little different to any other Fairmont of its era. The big, plastic steering wheel seems very un-European and then there's that under-dash handbrake that looks like – and is – a throwback to the 1960s.
With power assistance adding to its inherent vagueness, the recirculating ball steering isn't a patch on a good rack and pinion system. However, with 2.6 turns lock-to-lock, it allows the driver to respond quickly if the rear end steps out of line.
That kind of behaviour is most likely to occur on wet, loose or bumpy surfaces – none of which are particularly friendly to a rear axle known unkindly in the motor trade as 'Watts Dancing'. Providing the car hasn't been flogged to the point where its springs and shocks have turned to jelly, a big-engined ESP feels great on relatively smooth bitumen and can be pushed exuberantly through the majority of corners. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard and well matched to the car's performance and 1560kg bulk.
While Borg-Warner's four-speed isn't the worst manual gearbox in the world, buyers who intend using their ESP as daily transport might be better served by choosing an automatic.
In this era of fuel price rises, the 80-litre tank costs close to a day's pay to fill and will be empty after 500 kilometres of gentle highway running.
Performance testing of a new 5.8 by Wheels magazine stopped the 0-100km/h watch at 8.9 seconds and revealed a top speed of 194km/h. In-gear acceleration was pretty average for a car with that many litres under the bonnet – the critical 80-110km/h overtaking increment taking 6.8 seconds, which is 2.7 seconds slower than a 4.0-litre AU Falcon Forte. Fitting exhaust extractors and dual pipes will improve engine efficiency and fuel economy.
Those looking for better fuel economy might seek out one of the post-1982 EFI cars. With 90 fewer Newton-Metres of torque than a 5.8, the injected ESP won't perform with the V8's bravado, but 9.5 seconds for 0-100km/h isn't slow and 12L/100km fuel economy is achievable in highway running.
Exclusivity has driven ESP values steadily upwards during the past decade and few Australian cars offer greater exclusivity than a four-speed 5.8-litre XE ESP. Less than 180 were built and cars showing fewer than 50,000 kilometres frequently top $20,000. Colour is significant to the value of these cars, with charcoal or silver examples typically $2000-4000 more expensive.
More common are XE 4.9-litre automatics – those in decent, rather than pristine condition normally priced below $8000. Manual transmission in conjunction with the 4.9-litre engine is difficult to find – only 100 were made – and these cars are likely to cost 50 per cent more than an automatic in similar condition.
Six-cylinder EFI cars are scarce and very good ones can reach $7000. Carburettor-fed XD or XEs can be found at less than $5000.