Ford Australia president Geoff Polites has scotched industry speculation he was odds-on to be a casualty of the company's dramatic slump in sales, writes Mike Duffy.

He revealed that he flew to Detroit last week for a meeting with Ford Motor Company international chief executive Jac Nasser - a former senior Ford Australia executive - and got the go-ahead for a recovery program for the Australian arm and its Falcon big car breadwinner.

"He's not happy [with Ford Australia's performance] - none of us are happy," Polites said.

"But he recognises the issues.

"He looked at what we are doing, at how we are planning to boost Falcon's standing and he said: 'Just go do it. Just execute the plan.'

"In many ways we are in the same situation as Mitsubishi Australia - we're copping bad publicity that is not entirely warranted.

"While things are unsatisfactory now, the situation will get better.

"We didn't get to this position overnight. You don't therefore turn it around overnight.

Strategic Review-


"It's like turning the Queen Mary around in the Yarra [the muddy river which runs through the centre of Ford's Melbourne, Victoria, home city]."

Polites said a perception had grown around Falcon that it was a flawed car.

"The reality is, it's a really seriously good car, but it doesn't have the market acceptance right now," he said.

"A lot of people are buying [local General Motors subsidiary Holden's] Commodore because it's Number One - no question.

"People want to be associated with success so Holden is getting a rub-off on that.

"Some instances we don't get on the radar screen.

"A common reaction is: 'the Commodore's the gun car, I'd better go and have one of those', as opposed to 'there's a lot of bad things written about that thing [the Falcon], I won't even bother'.

"It's probably taken us a little longer than I would have liked to have really understood all of the ramifications of where we were and what we were doing, but we are comfortable that we understand all of the issues.

"But putting into place all the fixes, changing the image of the company, changing the product, changing all the marketing and sponsorship - those things all take time."

Ford Falcon sales trailed Holden's Commodore by 4,999 units in 1997 - 71,850 to 76,849 vehicles.

The following year, when the virtually all-new AU Falcon was introduced, the Commodore raced ahead by 25,884 vehicles, 94,642 sales to 68,758.

The Commodore was the best seller again in 1999, outselling the Falcon by 18,144 units.

Despite the introduction of the face-lifted AUII Falcon in April, 2000 - a series of highly worthwhile modifications which cost Ford $A40 million ($US21 million) - the Falcon again trailed Commodore, by 21,150 cars in 2000.

In the first four months of this year, the Commodore has already established a 10,648 lead over the Falcon.

Unless the slide is arrested, that points to an annual deficit of around 30,000 - a record lead in the battle of the big Aussie cars.

Polites said that a change in fleet buying patterns had damaged Ford sales.

"At one time we had a relationship with fleet managers and we could hold the entire company's fleet.

"Now, there is lot more salary packing and a lot more user-choosers.

"That's had a bigger impact on us than on anybody else and we've been slow to recognise it."

Polites has cancelled Ford's long-standing sponsorship of the Australian Tennis Open to free up funds for V8 touring car racing - the 'win on Sunday, sell on Monday' big car competition.

He was the prime mover in snapping up former Holden motor racing ace Craig Lowndes after his split late last year with the Holden Racing Team, and establishing a new Falcon team, run by multiple touring car championship winner Freddie Gibson.

Lowndes has had immediate success - to the delight of Ford's huge motor sport following.

The Ford Australia boss said another facelifted AU Falcon would be released late next year.

The all-new replacement will not be seen until 2006.

"We haven't got to that that car yet," he said. "Not even started the thinking process.

"We're not due to sign off on the new car until 2002/2003."

Author Mike Duffy is motoring editor of The Advertiser and Sunday Mail, Adelaide, South Australia.

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