Remembering Ford’s blue-collar big saloons of the early 1960s.
If such a thing is possible, then its fair to say that America had a good Second World War. Provoked into action by the surprise Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941 which caused the death of over 2,400 service personnel and civilians, America mobilised its vast industrial resources to produce military vehicles, ships, aircraft and armaments. Unemployment was virtually eliminated and the economy boomed during the war years.
When the war ended, Europe was bankrupt and its infrastructure shattered. Both winners and losers suffered equally from the privations of the years that followed. For many, life was little better than it had been during the war as the long struggle to rebuild dragged on. America, however, continued to boom, its industrial capacity redirected towards the production of consumer goods. Confidence was high: America had demonstrated its military might to the world and had also come of age as an economic superpower.
That self-confidence was increasingly reflected in the automotive styling of the 1950s. Cars became bigger, brasher and more luxurious, laden with features and, of course, chrome. Jet-age and militaristic influences inspired details such as missile-shaped bumper overriders, gunsight bonnet mascots and, most prominently, ever larger tailfins, a trend that literally peaked with the 1959 Cadillac models.
Across the Atlantic, however, confidence was recovering only slowly and, in any event, Old World sensibilities regarded such obvious excess as vulgar, and typical of what was disparagingly referred to as ‘new money’. Hence, the fashion for chrome and tailfins was much diluted by the time it arrived on these shores.
The European operations of General Motors and Ford did experiment with these influences, notably Vauxhall with its 1957 F Series Victor and Cresta PA models. Both cars rusted with such enthusiasm that their ersatz styling was the least of their problems, however. Opel seemed remarkably resistant to the fashion: the 1957 Rekord P1 and 1958 Kapitan P1 saloons did feature wraparound panoramic windscreens and reverse-rake A-pillars, but were otherwise remarkably sober designs, with only the merest hint of a tailfin.
Ford of England’s first venture into this stylistic arena was a remarkably timid affair. The 1959 Anglia had a reverse-rake rear screen and vestigial tail fins that only really appeared as such because of the curvature of the boot lid between them. In side profile, they hardly registered. The Anglia was, however, perfectly pitched for British tastes, being a nicely understated, light and efficient small family car, and it deservedly sold well. So well, in fact, that production capacity constraints delayed the launch of the next model to feature American-inspired styling, the 1961 Consul Classic and Capri.
If the Anglia hit the sweet spot, the Classic and Capri missed it by a mile. They were unfashionably late, overweight, underpowered and rendered irrelevant by the arrival of the all-conquering Cortina in 1962.
Ford was not quite done with this styling theme, however, and in 1962 it also launched the Zephyr and Zodiac Mk3 large saloons. These replaced the 1956 Consul, Zephyr and Zodiac Mk2 models that were bodily the same car but in ascending order of trim, equipment and engine size. Instead of the somewhat rotund and heavy 1950’s look of the Mk2, the new model featured a clean and linear style with just a hint of a tailfin. The Mk3 was styled by Canadian Roy Brown junior, a Ford US designer who had been exiled to the UK after the Edsel debacle. As Brown was also responsible for the Cortina, his rehabilitation was already well underway.
Brown took the opportunity to distinguish the range-topping Zodiac more clearly this time around, by giving it a unique six-light DLO with slim C and D-pillars, in place of the Zephyr’s four-light arrangement with broad C-pillars. The Zodiac’s design was based on a 1960 concept commissioned by Ford from Italian carrozzeria, Frua. It was also distinguished from the Zephyr by its twin 5¾” headlamp front end and full-width grille, while the rear was garnished with the addition of four horizontal chrome strips beneath the tail lamps and boot lid.
There were two Zephyr models, the 4 and the 6, representing the cylinder-count of the engines that powered them. While both had single 7” round headlamps, the Zephyr 4 had a narrow front grille and painted headlamp surrounds, whereas the Zephyr 6 had a wider two-piece grille incorporating the headlamps. Both Zephyr and Zodiac had smooth, sheer flanks unadorned by creases, with high-set door handles positioned immediately below the DLO.
One unusual feature of the bodystyle was that it tapered out noticeably from front to rear. Ford claimed that this was aerodynamically efficient as well as allowing more space for three rear seat passengers to sit in comfort. It certainly made the cars look unusually wide when viewed from the rear, rather overwhelming their rear track which, at 52” (1,321mm) was actually an inch (25mm) narrower than that at the front.
If the styling was bang up to date for 1962, then it flattered to deceive as the platform design and mechanical underpinnings were largely carried over from the Mk2 range. The new cars shared a wheelbase of 107” (2,718mm). The Zephyr was 180¾” (4,591mm) long, while the six-light zodiac was 2” (51mm) longer.
The Zephyr 4 was powered by a 1,703cc inline-four engine carried over from the Consul Mk2. The Zephyr 6 and Zodiac shared an inline-six engine of 2,553cc. Both engines shared identical bore and stroke dimensions (82.6mm x 79.5mm) and their pushrod overhead-valve actuation. A four-speed manual gearbox was standard, with the option of overdrive or a three-speed automatic transmission. Brakes were a servo-assisted front disc and rear drum set-up. Suspension was resolutely conventional, with MacPherson struts at the front and leaf springs at the rear supporting a beam axle.
Small Car(1) magazine stretched its title beyond credibility when it tested the Zephyr 4 in June 1964. The reviewer was surprisingly critical of the design, describing the Zephyr as an “ugly duckling”. In fairness, Ford was the master of using trim hierarchies to push buyers in the direction of more upmarket (and profitable) variants, hence the entry-level model was deliberately made to look rather dowdy.
Inside, the dashboard was “efficiently if not neatly laid out” and had a fake-walnut insert instead of the corrugated bright metal trim of higher specification variants. Minor controls were “ideally set out for lazy people” meaning they fell readily to hand. The heater was an optional extra, but it did work well, with independent controls for heating and demisting.
Interior space, especially width, was plentiful and the boot was large, albeit compromised by the spare wheel position, inclined at an angle on the left-hand side. The interior trim and seat upholstery was in “a nondescript plastic” and the décor overall was “patchy and rather vulgar.” One sank into the deeply padded bench front seat, so much so that even tall drivers found themselves sitting rather low, and the seat offered no lateral support. The steering wheel was a “trifle overlarge but comfortably raked and set well clear of the knees and stomach” while the steering itself was “surprisingly light, if low-geared.” The column gearchange had “long movements” but was “more precise than some other Fords” and had “excellent synchromesh and a lightish movement.”
The reviewer was bemused to see the strip speedometer calibrated to 120mph (194km/h), given that the top speed was measured at just 84.2mph(135.8km/h). 0 to 60mph (97km/h) took a leisurely 20.8 seconds. The engine was “unobtrusive, has lots of low-speed lugging power and a ready throttle response.” The optional Laycock overdrive operated on all forward gears and was controlled by a pull-out handle under the dashboard, matching the umbrella handbrake.
The Zephyr rode quite softly, but with an “underlying firmness which stamps out pitch and roll before they can really begin.” The car was free from obtrusive wind noise and “in overdrive at 75mph (121km/h) it was smooth and silent enough simply to waft along.” Overall, the Zephyr “impressed us tremendously as a wonderfully roomy, uncomplicated saloon in the workhorse tradition – not beautiful, perhaps, but honest and unexpectedly capable.”
If the £773 entry-level Zephyr 4 was well regarded, the range-topping Zodiac Executive found it much tougher to impress reviewers. The renamed Car magazine drove this variant in August 1965. It was described by Ford’s PR department as ‘the most luxurious Ford ever made’ but the magazine begged to differ. In the reviewer’s opinion, true luxury “is an air of individual craftsmanship and genuine quality, and that is what the Zodiac lacks.”
The reviewer cited the “painted tin” fake wood on the dashboard, standard vinyl rather than leather upholstery and the “fit and finish of the panelling [that] is nothing special.” Instead, it was “a perfectly normal, lively, biggish family car” but “as a relaxing means of day-to-day transport for tired business brains, the £1,303 Executive Zodiac is less satisfactory than several cars costing under £1,000.”
The Zephyr found TV stardom in the 1962 BBC television police drama Z Cars. A Zephyr bodyshell mounted on a trolley with its front end cut off and windscreen removed was used as a studio prop for scenes filmed against a backdrop of moving traffic. This was presumably a lot easier and cheaper than filming outdoors on real roads.
The Mk3 Zephyr and Zodiac remained on the market for four years. Estate versions, which, like the Mk2, were converted from saloons by Abbots of Farnham, were also offered. The cars were also assembled in New Zealand from CKD kits exported from Dagenham. In this market, the Zephyr Special was offered as an entry-level model in place of the Zephyr 4, being simply the Zephyr 4 body and trim fitted with the six-cylinder engine.
The Mk3 Zephyr and Zodiac might not have been finely engineered or traditionally luxurious, but they were tough and reliable in the best Ford tradition and were good sellers, despite their lack of badge appeal.
(1) The magazine would be renamed Car in July 1965.
14 thoughts on “Ordinary Joe in a Sharp Suit”
Good morning Daniel.
Looking at the two side views, it’s interesting that the C pillar on the Zephyr seems to presage that on the MkIV Zephyr/Zodiac and on the MkII Cortina. Contrary to what Ford no doubt expected, the Zephyr looks to these eyes rather more upmarket than its upmarket sibling.
By way of an addendum, I had not hitherto realised that Ford used to fit overdrive units, far less that they operated on all four gears. The option must have been dropped fairly quickly because the company stuck resolutely to an unadorned four speed box for what seemed a very long time, as far as the Mk2 Granada if memory serves.
‘Small Car’ was pushing against its self-imposed limit almost from the very beginning. If memory serves, its definition of ‘small’ was anything with an engine under 1800cc, which is how they justified covering cars like the Zephyr and the Austin 1800.
I remember getting a drive of a Mk 3 Zodiac – a cream or white one – but being unimpressed. I think the Mk2 was a better piece of styling, and I agree the Zephyr ‘C’ pillar looks better than the Zodiac one.
I also remember my cousin buying a new Zephyr 4 and being surprised – and maybe delighted – by the umbrella hand-brake.
Here’s what I think is an interesting perspective from Australia, and how the Zephyr lost out to the Falcon.
Surprised the Australians considered Zephyr engine better than the 3rd gen Ford Straight-Six used in the Falcon at the time, did they consider using the Zephyr engine in the Falcon if not acquiring the tooling to built it in Australia before it was discontinued?
While the Zephyr 4/6-cylinder was replaced by the Essex V6 and its lackluster V4 relation (plus the Taunus V4 in the Zephyr MkIV), felt a lot more could have been extracted from it (with displacements up to 2-litre / 3-litres respectively) than was the case along the same lines to what Ford Australia did with the existing Straight-Six (eventually creating the Barra) yet with the benefit of producing a locally developed 4-cylinder.
The same goes with the Zephyr having better features than the Falcon, even though the latter trumps it in terms of styling.
They should have found a way of working with the windscreen in place with the ‘Z’ Cars Zephyr – it looked very phoney with the glass missing.
Good afternoon all and thank you for your comments.
Mervyn, here’s a still from Z Cars showing the missing windscreen and how they repositioned the wipers, which was the real giveaway (The resolution of TV pictures back in the days of 405-line analogue broadcasting was poor enough not to make the missing screen that obvious):
I’m sure, with a little effort (and some adhesive) they could have made the wipers sit in the correct position without the windscreen in place. I imagine the reason they removed it was to prevent reflections from the studio behind the camera.
Incidentally, they could have replaced the chrome trim around the windscreen on the driver’s side!
I was a petrol pump attendant in the 1960s and I thought that I knew all car models of the era very well. It is only after reading your article that I realise that the Zephyr and Zodiac had different C pillars.
By the way, is that Brian Blessed in the Z Cars photo?
In the first photo, that is. It’s Colin Welland the photo you subsequently added, I think.
Hi Dale. Yes, I think it is indeed Mr Blessed. He was definitely an actor in Z Cars, as was Colin Welland.
Actually, I’m hopeless at recognising faces. My partner, Murray (who is extraordinarily good in that regard) and I will occasionally bump into people in town who appear to know us. We’ll have a pleasant conversation, then move on. After a few moments, Murray will say “You’ve no idea who that was.” to which I’ll reply “Not a clue.”
Interesting that these seems to be a preference for the four-light design of the Zephyr over the supposedly more upmarket six-light Zodiac. I rather like the airiness of the latter, but I suppose the wide C-pillar of the former might be perceived as more private, hence more prestigious.
The photo of the red Zephyr Six above shows just how narrow the rear track was relative to the body.
Here’s the Abbots estate version:
The estates are well done. I wonder if they thought of putting some fake wood on the sides, as they did with the Falcon and mk1 Cortina. Speaking of which, some Cortina prototypes had Zephyr/Frua-like rear ends.
Re Z-Cars, I understand that actors sometimes passed things through where the windscreen should have been, which didn’t help the illusion.
Hi Daniel, I’m late again, sorry. Vintage (large) English Fords are literally a foreign country to me. Like others, I prefer the simplicity and substance of the four-light design.
Regarding those chase scenes, weren’t they standard practice in films? I suppose for a long time it was not only expensive, but technically impossible to mount a film camera securely on a vehicle to film such scenes (without terminally upsetting its dynamics: both the size of film equipment and vehicle dynamics have improved dramatically over the years). I’m always reminded of the rather nice chase scene in Doctor No, where – I now realise – the windscreen was probably removed as well for in-car filming.