The 1961 Consul Classic and Capri were a rare market failure for Ford in Europe. We remember them on the 60th Anniversary of their launch.
Ever since the days of the Model T, Ford had developed an enviable reputation for delivering cars that were finely attuned to the perceived wants and needs of the automotive market. Moreover, the company was a master of what one might call value engineering, the art of designing cars wholly to satisfy the market whilst rarely challenging those expectations through new or radical innovations in format, engineering, equipment or styling.
Generations of Ford owners were able to trade in their existing car for the new model, safe in the assumption that the latter would be comfortably familiar, just a little more contemporary in its styling and featuring a few well-chosen and carefully costed incremental improvements in its engineering specification and equipment.
This cautious approach generated strong customer loyalty, and market failures were a rarity for the company. However, the 1961 Consul Classic and its Capri coupé derivative comprehensively missed the mark and were quickly consigned to history. Why did this happen? Ironically, it was two other successful Ford European models that caused the Classic and Capri to be initially misconceived, then quickly become outdated and obsolete.
The story begins with the 1959 Ford 105E Anglia. This was a small family car manufactured in two-door saloon and three-door estate variants. Its styling was a clever distillation of contemporary American design tropes, modulated to suit the more conservative tastes (and modest budgets) of European small car buyers. The front end had a slim horizontal grille with round headlamps in peaked enclosures above. The rear of the saloon had vestigial tail fins and, most distinctively, a reverse-rake rear window. The mechanical package was resolutely conventional, with a front-engined RWD layout.
The Anglia went on sale in the same year as BMC’s highly innovative Mini. For roughly the same price, the Ford appeared to offer a lot more car for the money, with none of the perceived complexities of the transverse-engined FWD Mini. The Anglia was an immediate and deserved success and would go on to sell more than one million units over eight years in production.
The Anglia validated Ford’s approach to its development, including its American-influenced styling. A second, bigger model was also in development and this was essentially an enlargement in format and styling. However, such was the Anglia’s initial popularity that Ford’s Dagenham UK plant was operating at almost full capacity, delaying the introduction of the new model by up to two years.
The Classic and Capri finally debuted in the summer of 1961 in two and four-door saloon and two-door coupé variants. The Classic was launched on 21st June, but the Capri was built for export only until January 1962, when UK sales commenced. It was a more overtly Americanised design than the Anglia, with twin round headlamps and a heavily chromed front bumper and grille assembly containing Ford’s five-star logo(1). The saloon’s reverse-rake rear screen had been carried over from the Anglia and the rear end featured high-mounted twin circular tail lights beneath the flattened tail fins. The Capri was identical to the two-door saloon below the waistline but featured a conventional sloping rear window design.
From the outset, the Classic and Capri were hampered by their outdated appearance. The Ford US-inspired styling had been largely signed off in 1956 and had debuted on the 1958 Lincoln Continental and 1959 Ford Galaxie. By 1961, the tailfin era was over and had been succeeded by much cleaner and more linear designs, making the Classic nomenclature somewhat ironic. Moreover, the reverse-rake rear screen had the effect of limiting interior legroom by pushing the rear seat forward of where it might otherwise have been positioned.
The Capri’s steeply sloping rear window additionally limited rear headroom and made the coupé very much a 2+2, even though it was in fact no shorter than the saloon. The corollary of this was, however, an enormous boot on both models, with a capacity of 21 cu.ft. (0.59m3). Hence, they were certainly suitable for the golf club, as had been intended.
Mechanically, the Classic and Capri were again resolutely conventional, with an enlarged 1,340cc version of the Anglia’s three-bearing inline-four OHV Kent engine, mated to a manual gearbox with a floor or column-mounted gear lever. A by-product of the ornate styling was that the cars were heavy and complex to build, the four-door saloon tipping the scales at 2,070lbs (940 kg). This was 446lbs (203 kg) heavier than the Anglia, a 27.5% weight penalty. Consequently, performance was leisurely: 0 to 60mph (97km/h) took 22.5 seconds and the top speed was just 78mph (126km/h).
If the Classic and Capri had difficult and protracted births, then the arrival of the Cortina just a year later in 1962 effectively signed their death warrants. Here was a handsome and contemporary design that was the polar opposite of the cumbersome Classic. The Cortina’s wheelbase was just 1” (25mm) shorter than the Classic at 98” (2,489mm) and it was only 2½” (64mm) shorter overall, yet it weighed a substantial 334lbs (152kg) less. It was explicitly designed for efficient and economic mass production, an objective that dovetailed perfectly with its simple, contemporary style.
Ironically, the designer of the Cortina was Roy Brown junior, a Canadian-born naturalised American citizen who had been responsible for the styling of the ill-fated Edsel models and was exiled to Dagenham in punishment for his part in that debacle.
Ford updated the hapless Classic and Capri after just a year in production, fitting an enlarged 1,498cc engine with a stronger five-bearing crankshaft in response to some premature failures on the earlier engine. A year later it was all over, and the Classic was replaced by the heavily Cortina-based Corsair. The Capri would not be replaced until 1969 when a Cortina Mk2-based coupé would revive its name. Unlike the original, the 1969 Capri would go on to be a great success.
In just over two years, a total of 111,225 Classic and 18,716 Capri models were produced, making them two of Ford’s least successful models ever. They were victims of a revolution in taste heralded by the arrival of the 1960’s and a consequent if less obvious revolution in manufacturing efficiency that Ford was quick to recognise and exploit. Today, the Consul Classic and Capri remain odd curios of a time of great change in the automobile industry.
(1) Oddly, the famous Ford ‘Blue Oval’ badge did not feature on the company’s cars in the 1960’s. Instead, a ‘five star’ logo appeared on the grilles and steering wheel bosses of certain models instead.