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The greatest Australian car ever at 20: why the transformative Ford Territory remains the brand's best vehicle globally so far this century (and almost led to the Holden Nullarbor)

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Eight years on, the Ford Territory's legacy lives on.
Eight years on, the Ford Territory's legacy lives on.

On June 1, 2004, Ford Australia released what was to tragically be our only-ever truly local SUV, and what arguably still remains one of the brand’s greatest achievements of the 21st Century globally.

Right up there, in fact, with prior Blue Oval breakthroughs, including the 1908 Model T, 1949 Ford, 1962 Cortina, 1964 Mustang, 1965 Transit, 1986 Taurus and (not least of all) 1998 Focus.

All were inspired, singular-visioned originals engineered in the face of considerable adversity. OK, there may be one 21st Century Ford exception… more on that later.

Still, can we really be talking about the Territory – the same SUV often parked up on the front lawns of the outer-northern Melbourne suburbs that are just a stone’s throw away from the now-defunct Broadmeadows site that built it, some with sagging front ends or busted Jaguar V6 diesels, and all with broken tailgate garnishes, snapped bonnet releases and moon-shot mileages?

Whoa. Abuse and/or neglect will do that to any car. And, anyway, that’s just one version of what – 20 years ago – would have seemed like a total alt-universe dystopia to its horrified creators, much like Marty McFly’s 2015 experience in Back to the Future II.

No. We’re here to acknowledge the Territory’s considerable achievements, including indirectly shaping Ford Australia’s T6 Ranger today, the way it just made SUVs better worldwide and – ultimately – prolonging the inevitable shutdown of local manufacturing.

But then, the big SUV was born out of desperation, despair… and opportunity, as our 20 Things About Territory retrospective highlights.

Let’s go!

1. A massive gamble

After steadily making its way to market leadership over five generations and 38 years, the Ford Falcon range stumbled spectacularly in its infamous AU of 1998. Essentially, people hated the styling.

Costing about half a billion dollars to bring to a market that largely shunned it, debt was mounting. Heads rolled, a new company president – former dealer principle supremo, the late Geoff Polites – championed an SUV based on Falcon mechanicals, but with a dramatically different body. This was the genesis of Project E265.

The Territory's profile remains elegant and timeless.
The Territory's profile remains elegant and timeless.

Remember, this was a time when SUVs were still emerging and Holden’s handsome VT Commodore was the runaway bestseller. Nobody was actually asking for one, though BMW’s new-for-1999 X5 that was loathed by traditionalists was causing a sensation. Hmmm… what to do?

2. Paid for by Melbourne house buyers

When the Territory launched, the story went like this: Polites and crew flew to Detroit, pleaded a business case to an initially sceptical board with a 40 per cent scale model (similar to the R7 concept of 2002), and then walked away with a $A500 million cheque.

The R7 Concept previewed the production Territory.
The R7 Concept previewed the production Territory.

In reality, that’s how much money the 2002 BA Falcon that would end up sharing so many parts with Territory cost to develop on its own, and we’ve since learned that Ford Australia instead systematically sold off swathes of land it had acquired decades before around its Campbellfield (Broadmeadows) head office to achieve its goal.

That’s right. Melbourne home buyers and property developers funded the Territory. Or, at the very least, got it over the line, because the Americans actually said no to bankrolling it back in the day. And not far from the Kerrigan’s ‘Castle’ to boot. It must surely be the most Australian car in history.

3. The failure of America’s copycat ‘Territory’

As a footnote to the above, from the early 2000s, Ford in America was developing its own large SUV, derived from the Taurus’ front-wheel drive (FWD) 500 successor. Known as the Freestyle, it actually resembled the Territory, but was largely unloved by critics and consumers alike when launched in 2005. Or, more bluntly, it totally bombed.

The 2004 Freestyle seems like an American Territory ripoff.
The 2004 Freestyle seems like an American Territory ripoff.

It is believed that Detroit wasn’t keen on funding two broadly similar vehicles, and may have saw Project E265 as cannibalistic (or opportunistic given their similar styling). Maybe that’s why there was no left-hand-drive Territory (and Falcon) development for US exports. Who wants inhouse competition, especially when Australia’s original turned out to be this good!

4. Peak Australia

Territory is the most sophisticated mainstream Australian vehicle ever produced.

A case of being greater than the sum of its parts, Territory had evolved off the old EA architecture dating back to 1988. Launching with the Falcon’s now-iconic 4.0-litre ‘Barra’ double overhead cam, 24-valve, in-line six-cylinder (I6) petrol engine, it drove either the rear or all four wheels via a four-speed torque-converter auto. A ZF six-speeder followed within two years.

It also ushered in a new double ball-joint front (“Virtual Pivot Link”) and a multi-link independent rear suspension system, over wider tracks than the Falcon – a necessity owing to the introduction of AWD.

The Territory included a novel split tailgate.
The Territory included a novel split tailgate.

Along with an Australian manufacturing-first stability control, this was all designed and tested locally, as well as in Sweden and other extreme weather destinations, to help cope with our harsh conditions.

The body, meanwhile, featured a novel split tailgate system (glass only or full door), while all seats included lap-sash seatbelts and headrests – items that were still not standard at the time in some rivals.

5. How much Falcon in Territory?

At launch, compared to the BA Falcon, it was reported that, of all the SX Territory’s body pressings, only the inner structure of the engine bay was shared. The headlights were also the same fundamentally.

Falcon’s standard I6 engine carried over, though the auto transmission (no manual was ever available, sadly) was modified for this role with unique ratios, as were the steering, rear suspension and brakes.

The Territory shared much with the BA Falcon.
The Territory shared much with the BA Falcon.

Inside, the steering wheel, dash centre console, heating/ventilation/air-con set-up, audio system and instruments were also common, though the latter boasted different markings.

But as the Falcon developed into the BF and later redesigned FG/FGX, more parts were shared, with the 2008 FG Falcon adopting a variation of the double ball-joint front suspension.

6. Car of the Year Decade

Aussie family car buyers flocked to the Territory, emboldened by reviews and a Wheels Car of the Year 2004 gong declaring it a “half-price BMW X5”.

In actuality, even though it shared many parts with the (also COTY award-winning) BA Falcon, the big Ford SUV was often the dynamic equal to the popular German, and even rode more comfortably, while offering strong performance, impressive refinement and excellent packaging thanks to an innovative and inspired interior. All for a fraction of the price.

The Territory won Wheels Car of the Year award for 2004.
The Territory won Wheels Car of the Year award for 2004.

For the majority of the Territory’s 12-year run, it was regarded amongst the world’s best SUVs, regardless of positioning. No mainstream rival got close.

7. There was nothing like it on Australian roads before

Today we take large three-row SUVs such as the Toyota Kluger 2WD for granted. They are the most economical way to move seven people.

But in 2004, there were none with 2WD – and thus truly affordable options – because an Aussie import-duty loophole favoured all-wheel drives (AWDs, or 4WDs) “to help the farmers”. Thus, an AWD SUV would retail for less than the more-heavily-taxed 2WD.

The (rear-drive) Territory 2WD, being homemade, sidestepped the duty, meaning that – while also offering AWD as a $4k option. The Ford came in costing less than the smaller imported SUV AWD-only alternatives of the time. Buyers jumped in, opening up an exclusive niche for the brand.

At least for the first few years. By the end of the 2000s, import duties were levelled and then later cut, opening up the Kluger/Hyundai Santa Fe/Kia Sorento 2WD floodgates.

8. A brilliant rouse and mis-Adventra

Probably to throw Holden and others off the Territory scent, Ford had reportedly leaked out to the press around 1999 that it was ‘investigating’ a Subaru Outback-style crossover version of the Falcon wagon codenamed ‘Raptor’, complete with a raised ride height, altered body panels, plastic cladding and an adventurous spirit. It even rolled out the AU ute-based R5 dual-cab concept at the 2000 Sydney motor show.

The R5 Concept influenced the Holden VY Crewman... apparently.
The R5 Concept influenced the Holden VY Crewman... apparently.

While the intention was once there, neither model materialised for production. Holden developed the VY Commodore wagon-derived Adventra in 2003, along with the Crewman dual-cab ute versions. All sold poorly, not making it to the next-gen VE range of 2006.

9. Inspired the Holden Nullarbor

The demise of Holden in 2020 unearthed news of the Nullarbor, Holden’s VE Commodore-derived answer to the Territory. Meant for a circa-2008 launch, it combined proper SUV proportions, on General Motor’s Australian-developed Zeta platform.

This SUV might have saved GMH.

But Holden was haemorrhaging money bringing the VE sedan, wagon and ute to market, and there just weren’t enough funds to see the program through to fruition. GM was on its inexorable slide into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

This VE timeline previews all the intended body styles.
This VE timeline previews all the intended body styles.

The smaller Daewoo-based Captiva that Holden instead imported was no match for Territory, and actually helped irrevocably damage the brand.

Fun bonus fact: the Nullarbor’s big SUV proportions gave Holden the freedom to style the VE wagon into the far-sleeker Sportwagon, using the standard sedan wheelbase rather than the Caprice’s longer item. Which now makes sense after years of square Commodore wagons. And speaking of awkward carryalls…

10. Territory success killed the Falcon wagon

A Falcon mainstay since the original XK of 1960, the wagon was a popular family car, until the Territory came on the scene, becoming one of Australia’s favourite SUVs for years to come.

The BF Falcon wagon lived on until 2010.
The BF Falcon wagon lived on until 2010.

Overlapping with the rebodied sedan and ute-only FG Falcon range of 2008, it hobbled along until late 2010 as the BF Series III, selling mostly to fleet buyers seeking a more-economical LPG option.

The 2011 SZ Territory and its newly-acquired diesel option (conceived for Land Rover/Jaguar under Ford ownership) likely made the Falcon wagon redundant.

11. Led to T6 Ranger contract

The T6 Ranger released in 2011 is a completely different story of course, as it was created to be a global light truck built on other continents, not here.

Over two generations the ute was designed and engineered in Melbourne and nearby Geelong with Australian and overseas teams working together, thanks to the BA Falcon experience that delivered such a world-class SUV in Territory.

The Territory's success allowed Ford Australia to take on the T6 Ranger project.
The Territory's success allowed Ford Australia to take on the T6 Ranger project.

Detroit of course took notice, and the T6 contract announced in 2007 was a first (and likely last, sadly) for an Australian-based manufacturer, and it is still ongoing today. Ranger even managed the feat of Australia’s bestselling vehicle in 2023 – an achievement the brand has not enjoyed since the mid-‘90s.

Ranger is a testimony to the Territory’s enduring legacy that the Ford is widely regarded as the best all-round ute in the world today.

12. Fuel crisis

The Territory enjoyed a stellar first year in sales, but an unprecedented spike in global oil prices sent family-car buyers scrambling for more-economical smaller SUVs and/or diesel-powered alternatives.

Making things worse for Ford Australia, it appears a diesel option had been in the pipeline during the Territory’s initial development, but was canned by Polites’ American replacement before the 2004 launch, Tom Gorman, in favour of a high-performance turbo-petrol version.

The Territory diesel finally debuted in 2011.
The Territory diesel finally debuted in 2011.

This unfortunate decision was said to be deeply unpopular amongst Ford’s Australian staff, and dogged the Territory for years to come, stymying sales despite Ford’s improvement drive that included a then-exotic six-speed auto option from 2005.

Diesel development had resumed by 2008, but the setback meant that the Territory TDCi wouldn’t hit the market until 2011’s SZ facelift.

13. No joy of F6X

The F6X 270 may sound like a numberplate, but it was Ford Performance Vehicle’s first and only foray into non-Falcon-based models.

The FPV F6X 270 was our hottest Territory.
The FPV F6X 270 was our hottest Territory.

Using the SY Territory Ghia Turbo AWD as a donor car, its highly-tuned 4.0-litre turbo made it the most-powerful six-cylinder engine made in Australia at the time, and boasted a host of other modifications, including to the cooling system, brakes and stability control.

The F6X’s timing was lousy, with the global financial crisis and historically-high fuel prices keeping buyers away. All petrol turbos were dropped by 2011.

14. Enough SZ?

As far as makeovers go, the Territory’s transition from SY to SZ was a masterclass.

Launched in April, 2011, it saw sleeker front-end and tail light treatments, a six-speed auto and electric power steering to cut petrol consumption, improvements to the body structure, safety, suspension and refinement, updated multimedia as part of a cabin overhaul, as well as the long-awaited diesel’s debut.

The SZ Territory facelift proved to be a success.
The SZ Territory facelift proved to be a success.

With Falcon sales in freefall, the Territory had really stepped up. Great right to the end.

15. An early influencer

Although the first BMW X5 clearly helped shape the Territory, the second-gen X5 of 2007 adopted a front suspension system suspiciously similar to the great Aussie Ford’s. Coincidence?

16. Shaped future Holden interiors

The Territory’s fresh interior packaging and Australian-nature-inspired textures and materials raised the bar, leading key personnel like Sharon Gauci to move on to other projects down the line.

The Holden VF Commodore's dash displayed some Territory influences.
The Holden VF Commodore's dash displayed some Territory influences.

While it was too late for the 2006 VE to learn from the Ford SUV, the latter’s influence is clear in the Holden’s 2013 VF successor, which still stands out to this day. Just like Territory’s.

17. The 2nd-best ever Australian car from 1953 to 2013

For its 60th anniversary issue, Wheels magazine conducted a poll to find Australia’s best car over its six-decade run, with the Territory pipped to the top spot by the also then-current VE Commodore.

The final Territory is regarded as the best of the breed.
The final Territory is regarded as the best of the breed.

Would the result be the same in 2024? Let us know in the comments below.

18. The climb down to Everest

Back in 2013, when Ford confirmed the T6-based Everest to the Australian media just weeks after announcing it would cease making cars here, expectations were low that a Thai-built ute-based body-on-frame SUV wagon would live up its stellar predecessor. Especially with that gruff five-cylinder diesel.

The result wasn’t ground-breaking at all like the Territory was a decade earlier, and wasn’t as good to drive on-road, look at or sit inside.

The first T6 Ranger-based Everest indirectly replaced the Territory.
The first T6 Ranger-based Everest indirectly replaced the Territory.

But, in the capable hands of Ford Australia’s experienced engineers, the oddly-narrow Everest did make all similarly-priced alternatives like the Toyota Fortuner and Mitsubishi Challenger/Pajero Sport seem Jurassic Era dynamically – and even embarrassed the more-expensive Toyota Prado for refinement, handling and roadholding. It was also impressive off-road too.

In recent times, the Everest has enjoyed Territory levels of sales success.

19. Has there been a better Ford released since 2004?

Earlier we mentioned landmark models like the Model T, Transit and Focus. Their achievements have been well documented. And all are 20th Century automotive masterpieces.

But what of the post-Territory era? Are there Ford examples that have been similarly ground-breaking?

The Maverick is another brilliant Ford.
The Maverick is another brilliant Ford.

Since 2004, Ford has largely abandoned passenger cars bar Mustang, and while great models like the S-Max, Fiesta ST and even today’s Ranger are highly-regarded and often eclipsed their competition, none break the mould like Australia’s only SUV.

About the closest is the Maverick – a compact, entry-level hybrid-powered car-based dual-cab ute that has taken the North American market by storm.

20. Legacy: Australia’s sole indigenous SUV

Ford ceased Territory production some months before the final FGX Falcon came off the production line in October, 2016. A total of 178,214 were built, all at Broadmeadows.

As Australia’s only-ever SUV, the fact that critics regarded Project E265 as the best SUV anywhere in the world for a big chunk of its 12-year run is something we can be both proud of and heartbroken about losing.

They don’t make ‘em like that anymore… especially in this country. Happy 20th birthday, Territory.

Byron Mathioudakis
Contributing Journalist
Byron started his motoring journalism career when he joined John Mellor in 1997 before becoming a freelance motoring writer two years later. He wrote for several motoring publications and was ABC Youth radio Triple J's "all things automotive" correspondent from 2001 to 2003. He rejoined John Mellor in early 2003 and has been with GoAutoMedia as a senior product and industry journalist ever since. With an eye for detail and a vast knowledge base of both new and used cars Byron lives and breathes motoring. His encyclopedic knowledge of cars was acquired from childhood by reading just about every issue of every car magazine ever to hit a newsstand in Australia. The child Byron was the consummate car spotter, devoured and collected anything written about cars that he could lay his hands on and by nine had driven more imaginary miles at the wheel of the family Ford Falcon in the driveway at home than many people drive in a lifetime. The teenage Byron filled in the agonising years leading up to getting his driver's license by reading the words of the leading motoring editors of the country and learning what they look for in a car and how to write it. In short, Byron loves cars and knows pretty much all there is to know about every vehicle released during his lifetime as well as most of the ones that were around before then.
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