For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
The significance of some cars tends to get forgotten with the passage of time.
Consider the Ford Consul, Zephyr and Zodiac of 1950-’56. With their full-width, ‘pontoon’ styling, unitary construction, and – most significantly of all – MacPherson-strut front suspension, these were not only the first modern British Fords, but also Dagenham’s first new post-war models and templates for all that were to follow.
In fact, it is hard to think of a Ford where so much of the hardware was new, including the overhead-valve ‘four’ and six-cylinder (as opposed to sidevalve) engines, the latter with enough tuning potential to make the Zephyr an outright winner on the 1953 Rallye Monte-Carlo.
They were well planned, carefully costed cars, somewhat inspired by the ‘shoebox’ 1949 Fords from Detroit, but created on a British scale to appeal to British tastes.
Seating for six inside gave them strong family values, with American-style conveniences like an out-of-the way column gearchange that liberated space for a bench front seat.
The 85mph Zephyr – and the two-tone Zodiac – were such profoundly good cars for the money in the early 1950s, that I suspect their very existence had a negative effect on the fortunes of entire swathes of specialist manufacturers who had briefly prospered immediately after 1945.
They were fast, easy to drive and easy to live with. It’s no wonder Ford made more than 300,000 of them, and easily repeated the trick with the 1956-’62 Mk2.
Not everybody approved, of course. With their flashy paint schemes and smooth styling, the big British Fords smacked of American-style decadence at large on the roads of Old England.
Values and standards seemed to be falling everywhere, and on some level these cars were a symbol of that fear.
To those who hated coffee bars and Tommy Steele, the appearance of the convertible version – with a power hood! – must have been the final blow.
Yet, within 20 years, the Mk1 Consul/Zephyr/Zodiac had all-but disappeared from our streets, monocoque-shelled victims of the 10-year MoT of the early ’60s.
In my mind, these early-’50s Fords are also the poster children for the car-dumping epidemic of the 1960s, when the price of scrap meant that unscrupulous types were quite happy to abandon their unwanted – and now deeply unfashionable – rusty old Fords in a quiet back street and walk away, rather than pay the local breaker’s yard to take it away.
Long before my time, my father had the Farnham estate version which he mainly remembered for its slipping clutch. My only real contact was with a fictional Zephyr that belonged to the father of Peter and Jane, the characters in my Ladybird reading scheme books, who helped wash it and took blissfully unrestrained rides in its back seats. These scenes were already from another era, even in the early-’70s.
The funny thing about these cars, on the rare occasion you see one, is how ridiculously small they now are in relation to almost everything else – at just 14ft 3in long, they are almost 2ft shorter than a modern Mini.
Images: James Mann