Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

| 27 Dec 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

There are some British saloons of the 1950s and ’60s that achieve heights of stylistic excellence yet all too often go unnoticed, such as the Morris 1100 or the Vauxhall Cresta PB.

Then there are those cars that revel in bringing a touch of soignée glamour to the grey world of Home Counties suburbia – the Austin A90 Atlantic or the Standard Vanguard Sportsman.

But the Ford Corsair is one of the few cars to have achieved both goals.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

The Ford Corsair GT plugged the sporting coupé gap in the years between Capris

Every detail of its design – from the slightly domed roof and the vertical tail-lamps to the Thunderbird-inspired nose – served to create an ethos of modest but authentic-seeming glamour.

And, to the motorists of 1963, Ford successfully managed to create an identity for the Corsair that was quite separate from that of the Cortina.

The Corsair’s origins date back to the early 1960s, when the Planning Department at Dagenham needed a replacement for its current ‘D-class’ – the £721-850 family saloon – model, the Consul-Classic.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood
Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

Cabin ergonomics are somewhat lacking in the Ford Corsair GT, but it’s well appointed (left); the rev counter is hidden low on the centre console

Too many Austin A60 and FB Victor drivers, however, remained unconvinced by the Consul-Classic’s genuine advantages of a vast boot and quad headlamps, on the grounds that the Ford’s quasi-Detroit coachwork was about as subtle as a Warren Street car-dealer’s checked sports jacket.

The advent of the Cortina in 1962 further reduced the Classic’s profit margin, but Ford still believed that there was a demand for a saloon with a comparatively upmarket image but without the Zephyr’s bulk.

The logical solution for the Classic’s replacement was, as Ford chairman Sir Terence Beckett put it, “an extension of the Cortina formula”.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

Ford’s 1499cc Kent engine from the Cortina Super gained a Weber carburettor

Costs for ‘Project Buccaneer’ were deliberately kept low by using the Cortina Super’s Kent engine and a lengthened version of its floorpan, yet the eventual Ford Consul-Corsair did not bear a marked resemblance to its cheaper stablemate.

This in itself is testament to its stylists for, despite the Corsair being fitted with Cortina door frames and windows, that distinctive front end helped to give the new Ford a sense of chic.

The Corsair was to be the first model manufactured at Ford’s new Halewood plant, and when it was launched in October 1963 Jim Clark poured champagne over the first example to roll off the production line.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

The Ford Corsair GT offers willing performance

As with the Cortina, the Corsair was available as either a two- or four-door saloon, most of the former being exported in standard, Deluxe or GT trim.

The oldest car of our quartet is Kirk Deighton’s 1965 GT, in incredibly rare British-market two-door form, with only a shield on the rear wings to hint at the performance package that lies within.

Ford’s publicity made a major play of the servo brakes, high-lift camshaft and remote gearchange (the standard and Deluxe came with an awkward ‘four on the column’ with a floor lever as an extra), but the real reasons for spending an extra £67 over a two-door version of the Cortina GT were refinement and, that word again, style.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

The Ford Corsair’s distinctive front end was unchanged for the estate car

The Corsair range boasted double-skinned steel construction and better sound-deadening, as befitting a car aimed at the nation’s area managers, and while the Cortina GT is undeniably handsome the Corsair GT conveys definite overtones of cruising along Route 66.

‘A car specially designed to match the pace of modern living,’ claimed Ford in terms that need the golden voice of Patrick Allen to do them justice.

In the years between Capris, a Corsair GT was the nearest that Dagenham came to providing a sporting coupé that could plausibly rival the Sunbeam Rapier, the two-door saloon’s thick C-pillars giving the body the appearance of a Detroit hard-top.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

The Corsair 2000GT Estate’s carpeted load bay gives the Ford a plush feel

Inside, the cabin is a riot of anti-ergonomics but anyone who complains that the instruments are unreadable, especially the knee-level rev counter, is missing the point.

The Corsair GT has all of the Cortina’s advantages – the sweet note of the Kent engine and the excellent gearchange – together with a verve that was lacking in cars costing twice as much.

The Corsair lost its Consul prefix at the end of 1964 – as did the Cortina – and gained Aeroflow ventilation the following year, together with ‘V-power’.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

Although the 2-litre V4 engine can be harsh at high speed, it helped to elevate the Ford Corsair above the Cortina Mk2 estate

In 1965, boasting about having a company car with a “V-engine” was as common as bragging about your transport’s “drag coefficient” was some 15 years later.

When the Corsair’s 1.5-litre engine was replaced by the 60º 1.7-litre V4 from the new Transit, Ford claimed that its D-class offering was now, ‘The car that is seen but not heard,’ although some cynical motorists were heard to mutter that it was, “The junior executive car that sounds like a van.”

In late 1966, the Corsair was also offered with a twin-carb 2-litre version of the V4, in part to counter complaints that the 1699cc engine offered few advantages over the Kent unit.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood
Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

By 1965, the coachbuilt Ford Corsair 2000GT Estate was an outlier in comparison to the factory-built competition

The next car in our group is Johnny Hall’s 2000GT Estate.

This was the result of Ford commissioning Abbotts of Farnham to make a station-wagon conversion of the Corsair.

The fact that in 1966, the year of Revolver, you could still buy a coachbuilt version of a popular medium-large estate car makes that era seem impossibly remote, a time when the National Anthem was still played at the end of cinema bills.

As conversions go, the Corsair Estate can be judged an unalloyed success, lacking the awkwardness of the Rover P6 Estoura or indeed Abbotts’ own Zodiac MkIV estate, with a roofline and rear doors that seem perfectly integrated into the lines of the Corsair saloon.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

For the Ford Corsair 2000GT Estate, the rev counter was moved to a more conventional spot on the dashboard

Upon opening the glassfibre tailgate, a world of luxury is revealed to you – a vista of carpeted load bay and front bucket seats upholstered in ‘soft, hard-wearing vinyl’.

You can almost envisage the local Ford dealer rehearsing these words for the moment when they are faced with the awkward question of: “How much more space does the Corsair offer than that new Cortina Mk2 Super estate over there?”

The Corsair’s 2-litre engine was one major selling point – the Cortina Mk2 was never available with V4 power – but it was the bodywork that elevated the Corsair from salesman’s workhorse to appropriate transport for the car park at the gymkhana.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

The Ford Corsair 2000GT Estate’s profile shows off Abbotts of Farnham’s coherent design

The Morris Oxford Traveller, Singer Vogue Estate and Vauxhall Victor 101 Estate were all viable factory-built alternatives but none had the cachet of being either coachbuilt or having the sporting-gentleman image of the GT.

Neither, subjective though these matters are, were they nearly as handsome.

The second rather special Corsair to make its debut in 1966 was courtesy of Crayford, which created one of the most elegant soft-top conversions of the decade.

The firm had made a handful of 1500GT convertibles but the 2-litre V4 engine was more suited to powering its models – a separate perimeter chassis was installed to ensure that body strength was maintained.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

‘The conversion is so well executed that it further highlights the car’s lithe profile’

Crayford offered the Corsair in two forms: the Convertible and the far more exclusive Cabriolet, built under licence in West Germany by Karl Deutsch of Cologne.

According to publicity, ‘Each luxury Cabriolet is individually commissioned to meet the personal requirements of the owner’, but only 19 examples were built compared with 199 Convertibles.

The Cabriolet was designed so that the hood and its frame would fold into a recess around a smaller rear seat, making it a 2+2 rather than the Convertible’s five-seater tourer.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

The Ford Corsair Cabriolet retained 2000 badging

Robert Shand’s featured Cabriolet is, on the face of it, a Corsair that cost as much as a Jaguar Mk2 when new, and had a back seat suitable only for tolerant children.

Those 19 customers, however, were buying a car that looked sublime.

The conversion is so well executed that it highlights the Corsair’s lithe profile, tempting anyone who has just seen Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn in Two For The Road to immediately put down a deposit on a gold Cabriolet.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood
Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

Wood veneer for the Cabriolet’s dashboard (left); the hood stows behind the smaller but usable rear seats

Compared to the Mercedes-Benz 230SL in that classic road film, the Corsair may lack effortless grace – when stretched, the V4 engine does sound rather like a delivery van on the M1 – but it is a rare example of an exotic machine that can be serviced by a home mechanic.

The detailing, from the fully lined hood to the rear deck, is exquisite.

And besides, a Cabriolet Deluxe or GT would make the neighbours think that you were the new Simon Dee. Or at least the sort of chap who had met Alan Freeman.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

The Ford Corsair Cabriolet’s lines are beautifully clean with the soft-top tucked away

For Corsair enthusiasts who needed to display their promotion to their fellow Rotarians, meanwhile, but who still needed four doors, there could be only one choice of Ford.

March 1967 marked the launch of the 2000E, the car that did not so much whisper “I’ve arrived” in the fashion of the Rover P6 or Triumph 2000, but bellow “I’ve arrived and need to prove it!” in the manner of Max Bygraves at maximum decibels.

‘When you get into this car you’ll see at once that nobody tried to save a few shillings here and there by leaving out this or that,’ promised the brochure.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

The top-line Ford Corsair 2000E targeted the former MGB GT owner looking for more space

At a price that undercut the Rover 2000 by more than £200, the new executive-class Corsair came with cut-pile carpeting, a clock, radial-ply tyres, a vinyl roof, a cigar lighter, a wood-veneer dashboard and, very unusually for 1967, a Medium Wave/Long Wave radio.

In order to appeal to the former MGB GT owner with family responsibilities, the 2000E was fitted with a twin-choke Weber in place of the Zenith carburettor of the early V4 2-litre.

Together with a higher-lift camshaft it gave enhanced performance, and the same excellent close-ratio gearbox as used on the Cortina II Lotus meant that this was a Corsair with genuine press-on potential.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

The Ford Corsair 2000E’s V4 engine got twin-choke Webers

The standard equipment list was indeed lavish for the price, and as for the wheel trims, what was the point of owning a 2000E unless everyone was aware of your enhanced social status?

As with the estate and the 1500GT, the presence of an equivalent Cortina does call into question the 2000E’s raison d’être – the 1600E, launched in October 1967, offered much the same level of performance for £40 less.

But the Corsair’s appeal was completely different to that of the 1600E, for even more than half a century after its debut, our late-model test car still exudes complete and utter decadence.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood
Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

The Ford Corsair 2000E’s cabin features luxuries such as a MW/LW radio (left); neat reflectors on the doors

The combination of chrome, roof covering and metallic paint serve to celebrate 1960s chintz at its zenith.

Compared to modern cars, Mike Roberts’ 2000E seems remarkably narrow, the Corsair reminding you of the sheer bulk of the average 21st-century family car, but it retains an air of consequence.

Corsair production transferred to Dagenham in 1969 prior to it being replaced by the Cortina Mk3 in late 1970, and the days when virtually every suburban street had to have a 2000E in faded red metallic have long vanished.

To understand the discreet charm of the Corsair, perhaps it is necessary to contrast it with its nearest BMC rival, the Austin 1800.

Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

The hotter camshaft and close-ratio gearbox give the Ford Corsair 2000E sprightly performance

The Landcrab was technically advanced, incredibly capacious but to a 1964 driver offered an interior that was as luxurious as a YMCA in the Brecon Beacons.

The Corsair had no pretentions towards mechanical sophistication, but presented customers with coachwork and a cabin that appealed to their aspirations rather than to their inner masochist.

My favourite, therefore, has to be the 2000E – a chrome-encrusted reminder of a world when a dipping rear-view mirror was seen as a luxury feature.

Images: Tony Baker

This was first in our December 2013 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication


Classic & Sports Car – Ford Corsair: the Thunderbird from Halewood

Ford Corsair 1500GT

  • Sold/number built 1963-’65/21,857 (331,095 in total)
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine all-iron, overhead-valve 1499cc ‘four’, Weber 28/36 DCD16/18 twin-choke carburettor
  • Max power 78bhp @ 5200rpm
  • Max torque 91lb ft @ 3600rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, telescopic dampers
  • Steering Burman recirculating ball
  • Brakes 9½in (241mm) discs front, 8in (203mm) drums rear, with servo
  • Length 14ft 8¾in (4489mm)
  • Width 4ft 10in (1473mm)
  • Height 5ft 6in (1676mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 5in (2565mm)
  • Weight 2033lb (922kg)
  • Mpg 26
  • 0-60mph 12.8 secs
  • Top speed 92mph
  • Price new £816 3s 9d


Corsair 2000GT Estate
(where different to 1500GT)

  • Sold/number built 1965-’69/940
  • Engine all-iron, overhead-valve 1996cc V4, Zenith 36IV carburettor
  • Max power 88bhp @ 4750rpm
  • Max torque 117lb ft @ 3600rpm
  • Weight 2315lb (1050kg)
  • Mpg 22.4
  • 0-60mph 14.7 secs
  • Top speed 91mph
  • Price new £1149 5s 5d


Corsair Cabriolet
(where different to 2000GT estate)

  • Sold/number built 1966/19
  • Weight 1953lb (886kg)
  • Price new £1500


Corsair 2000E
(where different to 2000GT estate)

  • Sold/number built 1967-’70/31,566 (saloons)
  • Engine Weber 32DIF4 twin-choke carburettor
  • Max power 97bhp @ 5000rpm
  • Max torque 113lb ft @ 3000rpm
  • Weight 2363lb (1072kg)
  • Mpg 24.8
  • 0-60mph 11.4 secs
  • Top speed 98mph
  • Price new £1107 18s 4d

Enjoy more of the world’s best classic car content every month when you subscribe to C&SC – get our latest deals here


Ford Cortina at 60: celebrating a family favourite

Ford Capri 2.8 injection vs Renault Fuego Turbo vs Lancia HPE Volumex: a question of aspiration

Perks of the job: Ford Cortina 1600E vs Renault 16TS vs Fiat 125S