Wolf in Brit’s Clothing

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A dealer special shows how New Zealand could have delivered a uniquely Kiwi twist on the decades-long battle between Ford and Holden.

When the last Falcon rolled off the Broadmeadows assembly line in 2016, it ended a decades-long lineage of large Ford family sedans catering to both the Australian and New Zealand markets. The past 10 years have seen the local motoring industry undergo a slow but inevitable upheaval as buyers have shrugged off tradition in favour of a whole new set of preferences. In 2019, only two of the top-10 bestselling vehicles in New Zealand were actual cars, the Toyota Corolla and Suzuki Swift. The rest were pickup trucks and a variety of SUVs. With demand for big sedans nosediving, the death knell inevitably chimed. Falcon production ceased after a production run of more than three million units.

Clearly, there was a time when large family cars were the hot ticket item and, for a number of years in the late 1960s, Ford New Zealand actually offered two full-sized options: the Australian Falcon and the British Zephyr.

 

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FORD GIRDS FOR BATTLE
Ford Australia introduced the Falcon in 1960 to tackle the runaway sales success of General Motors’ locally produced Holden range. As imported vehicles — even those supplied in complete knocked down (CKD) form — were encumbered by import taxes, Holden had set about sidestepping those taxes by producing its own car. The company had its foundations in the manufacture of saddles, which transitioned into vehicle upholstery in the early 1900s. By the 1940s, it was making bodies for a variety of imported chassis, mostly of General Motors origin. In 1948, Holden launched the first Australian car, the 48-215. 

The rugged and charismatic ‘Humpy’ Holden became an instant sales success, due to its size, power, and durability. Perhaps its greatest attribute was its price. Ford Australia tried to fight back with the Zephyr, assembled in Australia from CKD packs and, although the Zephyr was superior to the Holden on many levels, its higher price tag meant that it was comfortably seen off by the Holden. 

Ford management set about purchasing the expensive dies for the Zephyr to get its own locally produced car, but those plans were scuppered when key personnel visited Detroit in 1958 and got a sneak peek at the new compact being readied for launch in the North American market in 1959. 

By American standards, the new Falcon was small, but it was notably larger and more powerful than Holden’s latest offering, the FE. Ford Australia immediately switched its strategy to begin manufacturing a right-hand-drive variant of the American Falcon for launch in 1960. The decades-long war between Ford Australia and Holden had begun. 

 

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KIWI RELATIONSHIP
The Australian public heartily embraced the new Falcon and the Zephyr was soon consigned to history there. Not so in New Zealand. While a handful of examples snuck across the border, officially the Falcon wasn’t introduced to New Zealand until the arrival of the XM model, which first graced Australian dealerships in late 1964. The Kiwi public had enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the Zephyr, dating back to the MkI in the mid 1950s. And even when the new Australian Falcon arrived, Zephyr sales remained strong, but gradually the larger, more robust, more powerful Australian Ford found favour with NewZealand buyers. Ford Great Britain launched the MkIV Zephyr in late 1966. The first New Zealand examples went on sale the following year. By the end of the decade, the MkIV Zephyr still had its admirers but the Falcon had clearly established itself as the local favourite big Ford. 

MORE POWER
This particular MkIV Zephyr was purchased new in 1969 from Masterton Ford dealer Fagan Motors. Its first owner was a Wairarapa farmer named Orm Rayner, who bought it for trips into town as well as longer journeys. Orm also used it for towing. 

In 1973, when the Zephyr was four years old and had travelled just 37,948 miles, Orm took it back to Fagan Ford and explained that he needed more power, particularly for towing. Today, that would be an open invitation to sell him another vehicle but the crew at Fagan offered to carry out a V8 conversion. Fagan said a 302-cubic-inch (5.0-litre) V8 would drop straight into the Zephyr’s engine bay without needing anything to be cut away and requiring minimal fabrication.

 

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Indeed, outwardly this looks like a regular V6 Zephyr. The only exterior modifications are two rectangular holes that were cut into the Zephyr’s rather oddly blanked-off nose to provide additional cooling. A pair of chrome vents covered the holes. The modification is so subtle and so fitting to the Zephyr’s design that it could be mistaken for a factory option. Otherwise, the Zephyr offers no indication of its V8 conversion. Even the factory V6 badges remain in situ and the pea-shooter single exhaust pipe still holds its stock poise beneath the passenger-side rear bumper. Indeed, this is a classic example of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, particularly by early 1970s standards. Its V8 is the same as that offered in the new-for-1972 XA Falcon, but it has well over 100kg less girth to lug around.

RARE PRESERVATION PATH
Although Orm owned the Zephyr for around three decades, he stopped driving it when it was still relatively new. He eventually sold it to his friend and fellow Wairarapa resident Kerry Dudson. Kerry ushered the Zephyr into his expanding car collection. He too tended not to let go of his cars. 

 

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Kerry passed away in 2014 but the Zephyr remains in the Dudson family. His son Kevan and daughter Tracey, plus a small and dedicated team, oversee not only the maintenance and upkeep of this car but of all those in the expansive Dudson family collection. Although some of the vehicles have required restoration, the Zephyr remains incredibly original. To this day, this time capsule has travelled just 55,971 miles, about 90,000km. 

The paint is all original, save for a couple of touch-ups. Likewise, the interior; the upholstery, carpets, and floor mats are like new. The doors all close with a reassuring clunk, and there is no play in the hinges. The back bumper sports several scratches and scuffs from where Orm Rayner missed his mark while reversing up to his trailer hitch. Otherwise, this Zephyr is almost perfectly preserved. 

Impressively, but not surprisingly, given its two careful owners, the Zephyr is still accompanied by its original documentation and owner’s handbook. Further, Fagan Ford entered information into the Ford Service Schedule handbook relating to its V8 transplant, which was completed on 2 October 1973. 

An obvious modern upgrade is a set of 15-inch-diameter wheels, replacing the standard 14-inch items for more comfortable long-distance travelling and better fuel mileage. Of course, the originals, including the hubcaps, are still in the possession of the Dudsons. 

 

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NOT SHADY
The Zephyr range ended in 1972 with the MkIV, and Ford Britain replaced it at home with the handsome new Granada. In New Zealand, the Zephyr was simply phased out as Falcon sales soared in the late 1960s. Kiwi buyers embraced the big Australian alternative with unprecedented enthusiasm. 

In classic car circles, the MkIV’s older siblings in the Zephyr range have proven more desirable among collectors, due largely to their timeless American styling. Regardless, Zephyr survival rates are not great, and today the MkIV is the least frequently sighted. 

Other people besides Fagan Motors noticed a V8 would drop into the Zephyr’s capacious engine quite easily, so Ford Zephyr V8 conversions were actually quite common in the ’60s and ’70s and modified examples held sway on Friday night drags throughout New Zealand. However, the majority of these were shade-tree specials and led rough lives before their unlamented disposal. That this particular car had a dealer V8 installation makes it extremely rare, and its state of preservation even more so. With only two owners from new, and having never lived outside the Wairarapa, it is surely unique.

 

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Story and images supplied by New Zealand Classic Car magazine. Read more New Zealand Classic Car content here on themotorhood.com.

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