1953 Ford Consul
1953 Ford Consul. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

Following the Second World War, England began exporting cars, mostly small sedans and sports cars, to North America to earn desperately needed dollars. As with North American manufacturers, they offered slightly modified pre‑war products until new models could be developed.

By late 1950, Ford of England’s modern designs were ready and it introduced its new four-cylinder 1951 Consul followed by a six-cylinder sibling, the Zephyr. American styling had a strong influence at that time, so not surprisingly, the Consul/Zephyr came out resembling smaller versions of Ford’s Dearborn models.

The 1951 Consul’s contemporary design featured a notchback, envelope body with a one piece windshield and fender line running level from front to rear. It had unit construction body/chassis, and an oversquare, overhead valve, 1.5-litre, four-cylinder engine.

Performance was modest, although competitive with other small cars. Road & Track (7/’51) reported that the Consul’s 47 horsepower would push the 1,080 kg (2,380 lb) sedan from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 31.6 seconds and reach a top speed of 117 km/h (73 mph).

The second generation Consul II came in 1956 and lasted until 1962. There was also a companion six-cylinder Zephyr and a more deluxe Zodiac. Road & Track (2/’57) tested the new Consul and found the larger 1.7-litre, 59 horsepower four would accelerate it to 96 (60) in 22.5 seconds, and reach a top speed of 127 km/h (78.6 mph).

The Consul was a practical, economical car, but no more so than several others. Its history would go largely unheralded except for one significant fact: it popularized the production of the MacPherson strut front suspension, a feature that would go on to become a dominant suspension system.

The MacPherson strut was the brainchild of Earle S. MacPherson, a 1915 University of Illinois engineering graduate. He served in both World Wars, and his civilian employers included the Chalmers Motor Co., Harley‑Davidson, Hupp Motor Car Corp., Pierce‑Arrow, Studebaker, General Motors and Ford.

During the Second World War MacPherson was responsible for all Chevrolet vehicle production. Following the war General Motors anticipated a market for a light, economical car, and made MacPherson chief project engineer. The Chevrolet Cadet, as it was called, reflected his innovative thinking.

To reduce the transmission hump, the Cadet had a small flywheel on each end of the crankshaft. The transmission was under the front seat and the car had an independent rear suspension.

Suspension was by MacPherson’s brilliant struts. In arriving at his design, he may have been aware of Fiat Engineer Fornaca’s 1920s design or the 1927 French Cottin‑Desgouttes “Sans Secousse” (without bumps), which used a vertical steering strut, but with leaf springs, not coils. Also, Morgan’s and Lancia’s sliding‑pillar‑and‑coil‑spring suspension could have had an influence, as could the American Christie.

Whether the strut came wholly from MacPherson’s mind or not, it was a brilliant piece of engineering that combined a vertical sliding strut with a steering kingpin and integrated telescopic shock absorber. A coil spring encircled the upper end.

The top of the strut was anchored to the car body at a single point, and braking, driving and cornering loads were taken at the bottom by lateral and longitudinal links. The strut was light, robust, compact, simple and economical.

When the Cadet project was cancelled because it couldn’t meet its $1,000 price target, MacPherson left GM and joined Ford. His strut would soon appear on French Ford Vedettes and English Fords.

Possibly to distance his design from the GM patent, MacPherson’s Ford strut used the anti‑roll bar as a replacement for the lower longitudinal link. This carried simplification even further by combining roll resistance, braking force and some strut location functions all in one component. It was a masterful stroke.

Although originally considered suitable only for light cars, the strut could be made sturdy enough for such cars as the BMW 6‑ and 7‑series. The first American use was on the 1978 Ford Fairmont/Mercury Zephyr compacts, although it was a hybrid type with the spring mounted on the lower control arm, not the strut itself.

The MacPherson strut was facilitated by unit construction because this provided the sturdy upper body anchor which the strut required. It proliferated with the popularity of front‑wheel drive cars like the Honda Civic and Volkswagen Rabbit. The compact struts allowed more space for the (usually) cross‑engine layouts and half‑shafts. The strut soon spread through the industry.

The MacPherson strut that proliferated after those 1951 English Fords earned an honoured place in automotive engineering. Unfortunately, Earle MacPherson didn’t live to see its great popularity. He retired as Ford’s vice‑president of engineering in 1958, and died in 1960.

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