Most enthusiasts would be excited by the fact that on this week in 1959, Ford Motor Co. introduces its new compact Falcon, a full month ahead of its American rivals, the Chevrolet Corvair and the Plymouth Valiant. It would go on to sell more of them — combined, numbering 456,703 units, while its platform and DNA would provide the foundation for the iconic Ford Mustang and Ranchero.
But does it get any respect? Maybe it’s time that it should.
America before compact cars
America had been the land of large cars for decades, despite sporadic attempts to turn the tide. In the 1930s, American Austin, which became American Bantam, tried and failed. Next was the Crosley, the dream of radio manufacturer Powel Crosley Jr., which nearly made it past 1950.
By then, the Nash Rambler appeared, sucking the oxygen out of the room for economy cars. That didn’t stop others from trying, and failing to take on Nash. Certainly the Hudson Jet and Kaiser Henry J made the attempt, dooming both companies. Yet by 1959, a growing number of economical imports, led by the Volkswagen Beetle, were changing American minds, commanding a 10% market share.
As if to prove that American carbuyers’ tastes were changing, even the all-new compact Studebaker Lark proved successful enough to temporarily halt America’s oldest automaker’s slide to oblivion.
Detroit’s Big Three had long since read the writing on the wall, and had been planning their own compact models for the 1960 model year. Even so, a compact Ford wasn’t a new thought.
A new bird is hatched
Edsel Ford and designer Bob Gregorie had first considered designing a smaller Ford in the 1930s. Internally dubbed the Light Ford, it would influence the development of Henry Ford’s Soybean Car in the early 1940s. The idea even survived Edsel’s death in 1943 and Gregorie’s departure from Ford in 1946.
Nevertheless, that same year, a new Light Ford Division was created, but momentum stalled as Ford was selling every car it could build, as new cars hadn’t been built in four years. A similar fate befell the Chevrolet Cadet, GM’s proposed postwar compact. But Ford’s light car ultimately saw production when the project was sent to Ford of France, where it was produced as the Ford Vedette.
Yet the idea of an American compact car survived, where it was considered for Mercury in mid-1950s before ultimately landing at Ford’s advanced styling studio under Elwood Engle, who would go on to design the 1961 Lincoln Continental before leaving to head Chrysler Corp. design.
The project landed there as none of Ford’s other studios had produced the plain sensible compact that Ford Division General Manager Robert McNamara envisioned. But by April 1958, future design chief Gale Halderman and Don DeLaRossa locked in a design that pleased him. And so, this week in 1959, Ford CEO Henry Ford II unveiled the compact Ford Falcon on a closed-circuit TV broadcast to 21 cities.
A new bestseller for Ford
Advertised as “The small car with the big feel,” the 1960 Ford Falcon was a humble machine, offered as a two-door sedan, four-door sedan and as a station wagon. Power came from a 2.4-liter inline 6-cylinder engine that produced 90 horsepower through a 3-speed manual or 2-speed automatic transmission, and was claimed to return up to 30 mpg, according to Ford.
This was truly basic transportation, as the 1960 Ford Falcon brochure lists an AM radio, heater, deluxe steering wheel with horn ring, cigarette lighter, rear seat armrests, front door dome light switches, rear seat ashtray, upgraded upholstery, electric windshield wipers and washers, bright exterior trim, full wheel covers, and white sidewall tires as options. Noticeably absent is power steering, power brakes, air-conditioning or a more powerful engine.
But the Falcon’s sublimely ordinary engineering and design contrasted that of the radical, rear-engine Chevrolet Corvair and the overly expressivedesign of the Plymouth Valiant. While the former Nash, now AMC, Rambler held its own, as did Studebaker for the time being, the Falcon soundly trounced its competition, and would continue to anchor the bottom of Ford’s lineup through 1970.
Snoopy sells cars
Unique advertising may have also played a part.
Ford Motor Co. paid an annual licensing fee for exclusive rights to use characters from the comic strip Peanuts to hawk the Falcon from 1960 through 1965. At the time, the Peanuts comic strip, which debuted in a mere seven newspapers in 1950, was exploding in popularity since Charles M. Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts comic strip, began licensing Hungerford Plastics Corp. to produce polyvinyl Peanuts figurines, in addition to a growing number of other licensing deals.
While the characters were used in print ads and on billboards, it was the TV ads that had the biggest impact. They were produced by Bill Melendez six years before he would co-produce and direct the first Peanuts TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Schulz collaborated extensively with Ford’s advertising firm, J. Walter Thompson, providing screenplay consultation and approving the children chosen to provide the voices for the animated characters.
Melendez would produce go on to produce all Peanuts TV shows, as well as provide the voice for Snoopy and Woodstock. But the Ford advertising deal would prove a milestone, propelling the comic strip to new heights of popularity. It also helped sell Ford Falcons.
A long legacy
The 1960 Ford Falcon’s chassis underpinned the Ford Mustang and Ranchero, as well as the Falcon’s identical cousin, the Mercury Comet, its parts survived far longer than you’d imagine. Its modified unibody chassis being used in the Ford Maverick and other models through 1980, while its engine, minus two cylinders, survived through 1994 under the hood of the Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz.
Only the Falcon nameplate lasted longer, having been used by Ford Australia from its inception through 2016.