1960 Ford Falcon
1960 Ford Falcon
Photo: Bill Vance. Click image to enlarge

by Bill Vance

In the early 1950s the independent American auto manufacturers saw a market for smaller, more economical cars. These would not be midgets like the Crosley, but vehicles that, while shorter and lighter than standard sedans, could still carry five or six passengers.

Cars like the Nash Rambler, Hudson Jet, Kaiser-Frazer Henry J, and Willys-Overland Aero were the result. None, except the Rambler survived very long, and even it went through a production hiatus from 1955 to 1957.

This reinforced the Big Three’s contention that North Americans really didn’t want small cars. But in spite of this Motor City myopia, small well-built cars like Germany’s Volkswagen and Sweden’s Volvo were gradually gaining a North American foothold.

People weren’t buying them just for fuel efficiency; drivers also enjoyed their fun-to-drive characteristics, and, in the case of the Volvo, the excellent performance. And imports also seemed to have better quality fit and finish than domestic cars.

Toward the end of the ’50s, Detroit’s major automakers conceded, and began designing their own smaller cars, which they called compacts. The Chevrolet Corvair, Chrysler (later Plymouth) Valiant, and Ford Falcon arrived as 1960 models.

General Motors was the most daring. Its “American Volkswagen,” the Chevrolet Corvair, had an air-cooled flat six engine located in the rear. Chrysler’s Valiant was more conservative, but still had “European” styling, torsion bar front suspension, and a sturdy slant-six engine. Ford’s Falcon was a plain vanilla large car made small.

Ford’s conservatism could be traced back to the end of the Second World War when the Ford Motor Co., under recently appointed president Henry Ford II, was badly in need of new management. Ford brought in a bright, well educated group of young officers just out of the armed services. They became known as the “Whiz Kids.”

Working together they turned Ford into a thriving enterprise again. One of the most able of the group was Robert Strange McNamara, formerly of the Harvard Business School faculty. He brought a sharp, analytical approach, but there wasn’t any gasoline in his veins. He was driven by the bottom line, the furthest thing from a “car guy” to be found around Detroit.

By the mid-1950s McNamara became president of the Ford Division, and it was under his tutelage that the Ford Falcon was developed. It had plain unadorned styling and a concave, rather nondescript grille, flanked by round headlamps that many said resembled McNamara’s granny glasses.

What else would one expect from a no-frills guy but a no-frills car. It was very efficient to produce, however, thanks mainly to its having a small number of parts, particularly compared with the more exotically designed Corvair.

The Falcon’s mechanical components were equally conservative. Power came from an overhead valve, inline six displacing 2.4 litres (144.3 cu in.) and developing 85 horsepower. The engine was located in the front and drove the rear wheels through a three-speed manual transmission or an optional two-speed automatic. Road & Track magazine referred to it as a modern Model A Ford.

With its modest power and 1,089 kg (2,400 lb) weight, the Falcon was no performance stormer. Road & Track reported a zero to 96 km;h (60 mph) time of 17.7 seconds, and a top speed of 139 km/h (87 mph). But even that leisurely performance was better than the Corvair’s zero to 96 (60) time of 19.5 seconds. The larger engined Valiant (2.8 litres; 171 cu in.) was in a class by itself with a zero to 96 (60) time of 13.9 seconds.

But the clever McNamara knew what he was doing. After the excesses of the fifties, there was indeed a market for a plain-Jane car. His little Ford Falcon outsold arch-rival Chevrolet’s Corvair by almost two to one in the first model year, and the Valiant by more than three to one. By the end of the third model year, 1,291,426 Falcons had been produced compared with 855,429 Corvairs and 406,327 Valiants.

Clearly McNamara had read consumer preferences correctly. By that time, however, he had gone off to Washington as the Secretary of Defence in president John Kennedy’s administration.

The Falcon went through several revisions and many models, including convertibles and station wagons, and lasted until 1970, when it was phased out to make way for more modern designs. It even served as the basis for the first Mustang introduced in 1964.

During its decade of life, it underwent the usual cycle of American cars by becoming longer, lower, wider and more powerful. A V-8 engine was made optional in 1962 and the Falcon gradually moved away from its initial role of import-fighter.

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