Words and Photos by Jeff Whitehead
Meet Goldie, my latest collectible car
A silver 2002 Ford AU Series III Fairmont Ghia. Think of element 79 if you’re confused about the color. Apparently, Ford called this model the AU, as in dot-au, because the internet was taking off at the time back when we saw the likes of Miss Candee promoting BigPond for Telstra.
Having rebuilt a 1994 E Series Ford ED Tickford XR6 wagon, and having rebuilt a 2004 Ford BA ute I picked up with the famous Barra inline 6-cylinder engine as my daily driver, I started taking an interest in Ford AUs. Here’s my previous writeup on my ED: https://motafrenz.org.au/member-vehicle-1994-ford-ed-tickford-xr6-blue-boy/
The AU’s six-cylinder engine is known as the Father of the Barra The Barra engine came out in the next model, the BA, and continued to the last model produced, the FG-X. The main difference being the Barra engine has two overhead camshafts and quad valves per cylinder, otherwise, the engine is structurally the same. It’s also where Ford got the name BA from and it was actually named after the Australian Barra Mundy and not the American BarraCuda. I was and still am fascinated to see so many AUs still on daily working duties while the previous E Series is now mostly an enthusiast’s car as is my ED. If you too look around, you’ll too be amazed at how many AUs are running around on working duties. If you look on YouTube, you can disappear down an AU rabbit hole, such is the increasing enthusiasm for this much-maligned car that is now re-emerging as the Great Aussie legend.
From Wikipedia: “As of 2020, there are 44,816 AU Falcons registered in Australia. 17,192 of which are within Victoria, or equating to around 38% of the national fleet.” A very impressive legacy for a 20-year-old car, and possibly a record.
Sadly the AU when new was seen as the sad cheap ugly duckling and didn’t conform to the beige-is-safe blob look of the time. The Series I AU base model is often referred to as a Cornish Pasty due to its low-sloping bonnet lines when viewed in the side profile. The pasty came complete with the nastiest and cheapest-looking plastic hubcaps ever known to mankind and a waterfall grill that scared the living daylights out of little children. Ironically the rear end is not dissimilar to a 2002 Mercedes-Benz CL but still, it fell out of favor because it didn’t look conservative like a Toyota Avalon and other innocuous high-volume-sales cars. Fleet buyers were happy to spend an extra $2k for a Holden Commodore just because the general public hated the look inside and out of the cheaply finished base model AU. Below is an example of Ford Australia’s New Edge Design in the austere AU Series I that did so much damage to Ford’s reputation from which they struggled to recover.
When launched in September 1998, the interior looked cheap with mismatching colors and a center console that looked somewhat like a baboon’s arse according to a photograph that was apparently put up in Ford’s design studio at the time they were trying to repair their marketing mishap.
What went so wrong for Ford with the look of the AU was apparently Ford’s market research team only surveyed Ford enthusiasts according to a commissioned report.
However, as time moves on, what was once a quirky undesirable look can be appreciated in a very different light today. Twenty years later, the AU is becoming somewhat of a cult car. Many feature as 20-plus-year-old static nature strip exhibits, rather than going to scrap, and prices are steadily going up. Similarly, when EH Holdens were at that age, they too featured as unregistered nature strip exhibits, although I think more a backyard feature when most of us actually had backyards back then. Regardless of all that, this Aussie legend is probably the most bulletproof car ever designed and built in Australia and is certainly being appreciated for that with its quirky looks. Sadly the reason many AUs are no longer with us is that they do love to rust in some interesting places. The boot lid lip is a classic example and it’s a simple design fault in the boot lid where negative cabin air pressure sucks water up and out of the boot gullies and subsequently, it ends up in the boot lid lip where it can’t escape. Such an easy fix to stop this from happening but it was something Ford missed at the time.
I soon learned what to look for in a Series II or Series III AU, as they had significant mechanical improvements over the Series I. Early on, I was looking for sensible affordable AUs for two of my friends and the affordable, robust, and reliable Ford AU was the choice with no regrets. Getting road-worthy certificates for these AUs was not even a problem as they both passed with only a few very minor issues to fix. And I’m glad to say that the new owners are very happy owners with their dual fuel AUs that you could drive around Australia tomorrow without batting an eyelid.
By this stage, I personally started to get seriously interested in buying one for myself and wondered where to start. I was particularly keen on having IRS (Independent Rear Suspension) and Tickford’s VCT (Variable Camshaft Timing) engine. IRS and VCT were fitted as standard equipment on the sports XR6 sedans, Fairmont Ghia, and the longer wheelbase Fairlane and LTD. Otherwise, if you optioned for the VCT engine, you got IRI with it unless it was a wagon or one-tonner utility which always had leaf springs on a live axle. I particularly wanted a Series II or Series III in the sedan because I really like that quirky look. Personally, I find the wagon ugly, particularly the rear window, unlike the previous E Series.
With sports XR AUs now pulling stupid prices for a reasonable one I quickly focused on looking for a Fairmont Ghia. I did read about how the luxury variants were now becoming very collectible which spurred me on. I also considered the 25-year-old CPS requirement that would likely push the value up when it becomes CPS-eligible. I then set my internet search filters to look for any Ford AU Series II or Series III Fairmont Ghia and straight after Christmas a very nice low-mileage one came up in Adelaide that had to be seen. I chatted to the owner over the phone, who was related to the old boy that bought it new, kept it garaged all its life, did about 6,000km a year in it, and looked after it his entire life keeping every little record which I now have. The seller didn’t want to sell it as a daily driver, nor did he even want to sell it at all but he needed the money to set up a business. He told me he regretted selling his Ford FG-X G6E turbo years ago (and I get that) and he would no doubt regret selling this lovely AU. (I’m sure he will) So off I fly to Adelaide on Boxing Day with the intent to buy this AU and drive it straight back to Melbourne. If it was any other car, I’d say no way would I get in and drive for a long road trip back home but in an AU, you could drive any of them around Australia and know you’ll get back home.
Soon I was touching down at Adelaide Airport and catching a short taxi trip to the AU for sale. I told the taxi driver I was picking up an AU with just over 100k on the odometer. The taxi driver told me he got 1.1 million kilometers out of his AU taxi before the front end needed rebuilding. I’m getting excited, meeting the seller, meeting the AU, and giving it a whirl around the main and coastal roads. I did just that and loved it so I bought it. Stayed over nearby with two lovely friends and drove back to Melbourne the next day.
The drive from Adelaide to Seaford in my like new 20-year-old silver Ford AU III Fairmont Ghia with climate control, fully electrically adjustable driver’s seat, all the bells and whistles including a 9 speaker sound system including subwoofer, optioned full leather interior and getting home on one tank of fuel left an impressive and relaxing smile on my face. Back home it didn’t take long to give the silver AU a name thanks to a good friend of mine that has a passion for naming cars. To keep the balance nice in my collection, Goldie is nonbinary and silver.
The next thing to do is get a roadworthy for Goldie so off to the local Bosh Centre to see what Goldie needs. Two small rubber boots on one rear sway bar link and that was it. Not exactly an issue that would stop you from driving around Australia so I went to Repco, flashed my RACV membership card for a nice discount, and got two small universal rubber boots that were very easy to fit. Back to the Bosh Centre and Goldie now has a certificate of roadworthiness.
The next thing to do is head into VicRoads and I find out I have to make an appointment because; Goldie is not known to VicRoads. Gosh! Goldie was built in Broadmeadows. Goldie had been transferred into my name with the South Australian authority so at least that transfer in SA meant that VicRoads didn’t need to sight Goldie. As I still had my original 1963 EH Holden black and white number plates held in my name and in my hot little hand, I was able to get VicRoads to reissue them to Goldie. I can’t use these plates on my EH as Hillary II is on CPS, as will Goldie be in just a few years. Oh, how I’d like to be able to use them back on the EH one day as CPS plates. Fingers crossed.
Now for Goldie’s problems now that we can go for drives:
One of the two horns sounded painfully sick. That was just a matter of adjusting the breaker contact from the outside. The rear vision mirror was peeling around the reflective edges and I managed to pick up one from the wreckers. A few dash bulb lights were out and that was all easily fixed.
But the big issue to fix was the climate control and trip-meter LCD display unit. 90% of the trip-meter display had failed but scrolling through the web I found a technician who now mainly works on BMW electronics these days. I can only wonder why as I duck for cover. He had a unit that was almost perfect. Just two elements for the outside temperature were not working and I can live with that. This gentleman used to be an engineer at Bosh and showed me his work under the bonnet of Goldie. Fuel injectors, throttle body etcetera which he had a hand in at Bosh. He also explained how LCD displays die and become unfixable. Moisture can get between the wafers of the LCD display and will corrode the connections to the LCD display and then they are “unfixable!” he told me. Good that Goldie had climate control where the AC is always on de-humidifying the air all the time. I believe him, and the rest of the unit had been serviced, eradicating the rest of the known problems. This was the most expensive fix but worth it I reckon. He did note that once the trip-meter display was working, it reported that the Tickford VCT engine was getting 10.1 Lt/100km. Nice I thought. I had been on a country drive but apparently, the VCT does deliver better fuel economy than the standard engine.
Next was to fix the speedometer which indicated 107km/h when traveling at 100km/hr. With the trip meter now readable thanks to the replacement unit, I could now check the instant digital speed for 30 seconds by resetting the average speed. I recorded speeds from 40, 50 etcetera up to 100km/h and compared the speedometer and instant digital speed against GPS speed. After tabulating all results and correlating them against GPS speed, the speedometer had a 7km/h offset with no discernable scale factor, and the instant speed had a 2km/h offset and no discernible scale factor. That means just adjusting the needle on the spline and correcting the speedo turned out to be easy. It would seem that whoever assembled the Speedo new, put the needle on the spline out by one spline and that was the 7 km/h error. Ironically I’ve found countless Fords with this same issue. As for the instant speed having an offset of 2 km/h over, honestly, who cares but an interesting inherent design fault.
The last thing I’ve yet to fix is the 9-speaker sound system. It is a 6 CD in-dash stacker and it works beautifully, except for the mechanical multi-level CD stacker part. It broke a nylon gear tooth and clunks away for ages if I hit the wrong button. Apparently, it is fixable and I’ll get onto it.
The only other issue I’m left with is the very soft ride. I suspect it’s softer than it would have been when Goldie was young. It is certainly too soft for today’s driving so that is my next task and not hard nor expensive to do. Then it’s time for the little paint touch-ups here and there.
As far as the looks of this great Aussie legend go, these days they look stylish and interesting, if not even beautiful in some eyes. I like to say that the subsequent models are AUs disguised as safe-looking blobs that didn’t scare children and that the only next truly good-looking Aussie Ford was the very last FG-X.
Anyway, that’s enough about Goldie and I hope the reader gets an insight into what is probably the most well built and successfully unsuccessful, and maligned car ever manufactured in Australia.
Here are a couple of AU videos from two great bloggers on the AU for which I have to thank for their influence and getting me inspired.
The second video is Hub Nut in the UK with Betty, his AU Fairmont he imported from New Zealand. Enjoy and hopefully you too or someone you know gets interested in the legendary and infamous AU.
Element 79 or also known as Au (from Latin: aurum) aka gold in English.
Interesting side note: The Falcon BF came after the BA but I have no idea what F stands for. Probably Fairmont. The following model FG stands for Fairmont Ghia, as that was now the lowest trim level available apparently. The very last Falcon is the FG-X. The first time ever a Falcon had stepped outside of using two letters as they didn’t know where to go after FG due to its reference, and the reason for appending the X on FG was because they all knew it was sadly the end of the line and from a survey of employees, they thought appending an X was fit fitting in representing Ford’s long run of the letter X from the first Falcon model, the XK introduced in September of 1960 through to the XG released in March of 1993.