Are these the worst car fails in Australian history?

An Australian car factory in the middle of the 20th century.

Dave Morley

Posted November 02, 2020

From a four-cylinder Commodore to the Falcon XK, here are the top five Aussie car fails.

A car is a complex piece of equipment. Not only is it made up of thousands of bits and pieces, it’s expected to operate at high speeds over poor roads and in anything from freezing rain to 50-degree dust. Is there any other consumer durable with such a tough job description? And is it any wonder that things don’t always go to plan? 

But car-making is also a huge industry, so sometimes it’s the personalities and the politics that manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Although Australia no longer builds whole cars, for many decades we did, and during that time, we proved that we were no more immune to the concept of failure than any other car-making nation. (Case in point: The 15 worst cars ever sold in Australia)

So here are the top five car fails, both product-driven and political, over the years.

XK Falcon parked on a green lawn.

The Ford Falcon XK was notorious for having poor front suspension and quickly gained a negative reputation upon release in 1960.

Five worst car fails in Aussie history


The Ford Falcon XK

This was the very first all-Australian Ford, so when it was launched in 1960, the entire future of Ford Australia rested on its sleek shoulders. A shame, then, that the car was under-developed and soon gained a reputation for falling to bits. Not in a small way, either; the entire front suspension was pretty likely to collapse the first time you hit a decent pothole which, in 1960 Australia, was usually during the car’s maiden voyage home to show the neighbours.

Ford was sent scrambling to fix the problem, which it did by adding stronger parts to the car’s structure, but the marketing damage had already been done. It would take Ford another three models and half a decade before many buyers would take the Falcon badge seriously again. The tragedy is that the actual XK Falcon was so far ahead of its Holden competition in so many ways that, had the Ford hung together, it should have blitzed Holden in the sales race.

Vacuum windscreen wipers

The idea of having a component on a car that can take care of two tasks rather than just one is usually a sign of great design. But when it came to vacuum windscreen wipers, which persisted on Holden’s cars right up into the 1960s, the reality was rather different.

Instead of using a nice, simple, efficient electric motor to drive the wiper arms and clear your windscreen, vacuum wipers used, er, vacuum, a normal by-product of a car engine, to power those arms. The catch was that an engine only makes a useful amount of vacuum when it’s running at a steady throttle, idling, or is decelerating. Put your foot on the throttle to accelerate and the vacuum disappears.

Can you see the problem here? That’s right, every time you accelerated on a rainy day, your wipers would take a break and sit there uselessly on the windscreen while goodness knows what hurtled towards you. At least you never knew what hit you. Literally.

Holden four-cylinder Commodore

As four-wheeled turkeys go, the original four-cylinder Commodore of 1980 could soar with the best of them. Worried about fuel economy, Holden took its Commodore sedan and fitted a four-cylinder engine for those customers who valued squeezing every last kilometre out of every last litre.

There’s actually nothing wrong with the concept, but the execution was awful. The engine itself was more or less a Holden six-cylinder (itself no paragon of virtue) with a pair of cylinders sliced off. The result was an engine that was harsh and rough to use, didn’t rev nicely and made barely enough power to get the Commodore moving out from the kerb.

It pretty soon became a standing joke among car enthusiasts and an alarm bell for car buyers. And here’s the terribly irony: Because you had to drive the thing so hard to get anywhere, its fuel economy was barely (if any) better than the same Commodore with the six-cylinder engine. Truly, this car was a bigger flop than the Leyland P76, and that was a car that could set its own carpets alight!

Ford dumps the V8 engine

Of all the inexplicable marketing and product planning decisions that have been made over the years, Ford’s decision to drop the V8 engine from its line-up for the XF Falcon model of 1984 must rate up there with the loopiest. Despite the fact that Aussie family-car buyers loved the V8 and the fact that a huge percentage of Falcons were ordered with tow-bars, Ford decided it knew better and axed the V8 option.

In the process, it handed V8 buyers to Holden on a silver platter and waved them goodbye. Even though Ford was to reinstate the V8 option about a decade later, the cultural damage had been done and Holden was by then regarded as the company to turn to for a performance sedan. And all this despite the fact that it was Ford that had democratised the V8 engine way back in the 1930s.

The loss of local car-making

Up until just a handful of years ago, Australia was one of about 12 countries on the planet that could take a sheet of steel and produce a car from scratch. That we could design, engineer, build and sell a home-grown car said a lot about that legendary Aussie ability to create and innovate.

But eventually, the federal government lost interest in propping up an industry that didn’t involve digging stuff up and selling it overseas, so the car industry here was doomed. But what a lot of people (many of them in government) failed to acknowledge was that there’s not one car industry in any country that isn’t financially supported to some extent by its government.

And even though the savings created by not giving hand-outs to the car industry helped balance the budget that year, nobody stopped to consider the inevitable and ongoing effect on welfare payments created by forcing thousands of people out of jobs. Our cars weren’t always world beaters (though they were sometimes) but they were ours. And now they’re gone.


Great Aussie Car Fails: Stuff-ups and stories the car industry would rather forget, by Dave Morley.

Hardie Grant Books. RRP $24.99.