Automotive History: Ford’s “Falcon Platform” – From Falcon To Versailles In 18 Different Wheelbase Length/Track Width Variations

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The Ford Fox and Chrysler K-Car platforms are both well-known for their many variations on the same basic underpinnings. They were stretched, folded and mutilated into an astonishing wide variety of vehicles. But there was a precedent: Ford’s compact-midsize unibodies from 1960-1980. They’re not that often associated as one “platform”, and some might argue against lumping them all together. But their fundamental structural similarities are obvious, and they all have their roots in the 1960 Falcon. It’s long overdue to be given its proper name: the Falcon platform. And if you ever run into a description of any of these dozens of cars (except the 1960 Falcon) that calls any of them “all new”, here’s the rebuttal to that. Remodeling is always cheaper than starting from scratch.

ford falcon 1960

To say that the 1960 Ford Falcon was a seminal car is putting it lightly. There’s no doubt that the Ford body engineers and designers who put their heads together to create the compact VW Beetle-fighter in the late fifties would never have imagined their modest little baby spawning such a huge raft of cars for twenty years on. Numerous Ford passenger cars would be conceived and created using the Falcon’s basic building blocks, in a variety of wheelbases (103″ to 117″), widths (front/rear track from 55/54.5 to 61.5/61), performance (85 to some 500+ hp), and weights (2280 to over 4,000 lbs).

Ford Falcon suspension

What exactly are the distinguishing characteristics of the Falcon platform? The most fundamental one is its unibody, whose basic characteristics and architecture are readily discerned in all its variations. One of the most instantly-recognizable aspects is the front suspension design, a classic SLA (short-arm long-arm) design but with the coil springs and shock absorbers mounted high on the upper arm.

Ford Fairlane 1962 susp

Here’s another shot of the front end, this one from a 1962 Fairlane. A familiar sight to many, undoubtedly.

Ford Falcon 144cid_six_cylinder

Those tall spring/shock towers create a very instantly-recognizable look under the hood of any Falcon platform car, whether its this 1960 Falcon with the little 85 hp 144 CID six,

Mustang 1970 429 boss

or 1969 Mustang Boss 429, which made well over 500hp. The high shock towers are always present, as are the bracing from them to the cowl, in order to strengthen the front structure.

Ford Falcon 1960 eng comp

Here’s a closer look at the spring-shock towers from the inside. Due to their protrusion into the engine compartment, they became a key factor in what engines would fit, and how tight the fit was when they were shoehorned in.

Ford Fairlane rear susp 1963

The Hotchkiss-type rear suspension on all these cars was pretty basic and common for the times: a live rear axle suspended and located by leaf springs.

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#1  1960-1965 Falcon 109.5″ wb; 55/54.5 track (inches, F/R)

So let’s follow the long and convoluted evolution of the Falcon platform, chronologically, beginning with its namesake. The 1960 Falcon was a pragmatic design, drawing on existing practice in Europe and the US of modern unibody sedans, compact from an American perspective; not so much so from a European. CC’s in-depth Falcon story is here, but to the extent that it’s relevant for this purpose, it’s apparent that the Falcon was the end result of a long line of small-car designs influenced by the esteemed engineer Earle MacPherson.

MacPherson started with GM, where he designed the still-born Chevrolet Cadet, and then went on to have a long career at Ford. He oversaw the development of Ford’s new cars for the UK, including the Zephyr (CC here), which had the front suspension struts later named after him, as well as many of the hallmarks of modern unibody design. The Zephyr and Zodiac undoubtedly gave Ford the necessary experience to build a sturdy yet light and cheap unibody structure, which was more art than science in the days before computers took over most of the job.

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MacPherson went on to be come Chief Engineer for Ford until his retirement in May 1958, by which time the Falcon was already well along in its development. It’s safe to say that to some extent, the Falcon’s roots started at GM with the Cadet, although Ford had its own experimental small car programs. Why the Falcon didn’t use the MacPharson struts is a good question, considering how ubiquitous they later became.

Ford Falcon Sprint 1963 MC-vi

The Falcon’s front suspension design has never been held in high esteem. It will never be praised for any intrinsic superior design and function, unlike the torsion bar suspension used in the Falcon’s competitor, the Valiant, and all of its many offspring. In its basic application, the cars that used it all tended to understeer, excessively so all to often. The steering was generally overgeared and plodding. It was a cheap affair, fitting a cheap car. That it would end up at Monte Carlo, on a Lincoln or on Trans Am racer was undoubtedly beyond its designer’s expectations. Ford certainly did the best it could with the various high-performance versions of the cars that used it, to make them competitive, with the right parts and effort.

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#2  1960-1965 Comet 114″ wb; 55″/56″ track

The first evolution of the Falcon platform arrived already in 1960, as the Comet (CC here). Originally planned as a smaller Edsel, the Comet found a home in Mercury dealers, and eventually adopted that brand’s name.

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The Comet used a lengthened (114″ wheelbase) version of the Falcon body (109.5″ wb), with new exterior sheet metal. Unibodies are assembled from many stampings, and as such lend themselves quite readily to stretching. A slightly longer piece here, a slightly wider one there…cut and paste.  The question always is, just exactly where is the stretch? A good look (and ruler) at these two strongly suggests that it happened at both ends.

Mercury Comet 1960 wagon

But that would have been too complicated for the Comet wagon, so it shared the Falcon’s 109.5″ wb body, with Comet front end sheet metal. Wait a minute…if the Comet sedan had a longer front end, how would the same front end fit on the shorter Falcon front end? Either the wagon had unique fenders, or my measurements of the sedan’s front end (from front of door cut-out to center of front wheel) don’t pan out. Welcome to the game of trying to decipher the many small variations on the Falcon theme.

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#3  1962-1964 Fairlane  115.5″ wb; 57″/56″ track

The next stretch came in both directions at once. Ford’s new 1962 Fairlane established the parameters for the mid-sized or intermediate-sized class of American cars (CC here). The wheelbase was now upped to 115.5″, and the body gained a few critical inches in width, thanks to the wider track. The result was supposedly Galaxie-type passenger room in certain key dimensions, but my childhood experiences beg to differ. The key difference in the Fairlane unibody width can be seen its track dimensions: 57″/58″ (F/R), vs. 55″/54.5″ for the Falcon and Comet. The first wide-body Falcon platform-mate; and quite a successful one too, until GM’s new A-Bodies arrived in 1964.

Ford 221 V8 62 Fairlane

The 1962 Fairlane also hosted the first appearance of Ford’s new compact “Windsor” V8, initially in 221 cubic inch (3.6 L) form. Perhaps the Ford engineers made it so compact so it wouldn’t feel too crowded in between those shock towers. This was just the warm up act of bigger V8s to come.

Ford Failrane 1964-Thunderbolt-2-Dr.-Sedan-4F41K230530

The Fairlane was designed to accommodate the little Windsor V8 comfortably, which also managed to fit in the narrower Falcon body, thanks to its very narrow width. Although no big blocks were envisioned ever residing there, in 1964, in order to compete against Chrysler’s dominant hemi-powered cars, 100 drag-strip ready Thunderbolts were built , powered by the mighty dual-quad 427 FE engine. Dearborn Steel Tubing did the work of converting two-door Fairlane sedans into a wheelie-pulling beasts with some 600 hp. Modifications were made to accomodate the 427, including special tube headers.

Ford Fairlane 1964 thunderbolt engine

It’s quite possible that some cutting and patching of the spring/shock towers was part of the brief. Traction bars on the rear leafs certainly were, along with a host of other modifications and lightweight body parts.

Mercury Meteor CC

#4  1962-1963 Mercury Meteor  116.5″ wb; 57″/56″ track

Whereas the Comet and Fairlane were successful, the 1962-1963 Mercury Meteor flamed out. The Meteor had a 116.5″ wheelbase, one inch longer than the Fairlane. Who would have guessed, as they seemed to share the exact same basic body with different exterior details. And I’m not even going to take a stab at which end that one inch was added to. It does make you wonder: why bother? Or it reinforces the apparent ease with which the Falcon platform unibodies were readily “tailored” for so many different (and picky) customers. I assume the Mercury marketing execs insisted on it.

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#5  1965-1966 Mustang  108″ wb; 55.5″/56″ track (6 cyl)

Undoubtedly, the greatest triumph of the Falcon platform was the 1965 Mustang (CC here). Original plans for the sporty coupe that revolutionized the market included using the actual Falcon body.

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But wisely, that was rejected, and a new body was designed, but very much using as much of the Falcon platform’s parts bin as possible. Essentially, the biggest change involved moving the passenger compartment rearwards, in relation to the axle lines. In the process, wheelbase lost an inch and a half, down to 108″. And rear seat space suffered disproportionately. But it was well worth it; Plymouth took the cheap way out, and kept the basic Valiant body for their sporty Barracuda (CC here), and the sales results were overwhelmingly not in its favor.

But the ’65-’66 Mustang did keep the Falcon’s slim width, in terms of front track and narrowness of its engine bay. In fact, the original Mustang’s proportions were decidedly on the slim side, but that would change soon.

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#6  1965 Fairlane  116″ wb; 57″/56″ track

The oddball. Yes, all the stats for the 1965 Fairlane say it has a 116.0″ wheelbase. Yet under its new boxy skin, it was still very much a 1962-1964 Fairlane. Where did the extra half-inch come from? Maybe the rear axle was bolted to the springs a half inch further back?

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#7  1966-1970 Falcon 110.9″ wb; 58″/58″ track

In 1966, the first significant changes to the Falcon platform arrived. The trend was for cars getting bigger, wider, heavier and with bigger engines, and the first wave compact era was ending, or so it seemed. Ford reworked the basic Falcon platform in a revised, strengthened and wider generation that would accommodate this trend. The front spring/shock towers were pushed further apart, making room for the larger FE-family V8 engines.

And most significantly, there was now only one basic body to be shared between the Falcon and Fairlane; the only substantial difference being that the Falcon’s body was somewhat shorter, but not narrower; a shorter mid-sized car, in effect. This meant many key body parts could now be shared between the two. With this change, the Falcon seems to have lost its original purpose in life, and sales withered away.

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#8  1966-1969 Fairlane, Torino, Comet, Montego  116″ wb; 58″/58″ track

The longer version of the Falcon’s new body was more popular in the intermediate family. The similarities to the ’66 Falcon are least apparent in the hardtop coupe, but the sedans make it quite obvious.

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The 116″ wb body was refreshed for 1968-1969, with new exterior sheet metal, but key hard points were retained. They look lower and wider, but the new front end takes credit for that effect. Shown here is a ’69 Montego (CC here).

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#9  1966-1969 Falcon, Fairlane, Torino, Comet, Montego Station Wagons and 1966-1969 Ranchero  113″ wheelbase; 58″/58″ track

Why Ford chose to give the wagon and Ranchero versions a 113″ wheelbase is a bit of a mystery. Since the Falcon and the rest all shared the exact same body, except for front end sheet metal, perhaps it was a way to split the difference. We’ll probably never know.

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But what is pretty clear is that a longer wheelbase might have made the Ranchero (CC here) look a bit better proportioned, without such a long rear overhang.

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#10  1967-1970 Mustang  108″ wb; 58.5″/58.5″ track

The gen2 Mustang was a major beneficiary of the new wide-body Falcon platform. Although it kept its 108″ wheelbase, track was up over three inches. The Mustang looked beefier, and could now accept the FE engine between its pushed-out shock towers. But there was a price to pay for having a 650 lb 390 up front: handling, braking, steering, traction and all-round balance suffered, substantially.

Mustang 1967 390

Yes, with the right parts, a 390 Mustang could be made to handle well enough, as the famous Bullitt-mobile proved. But what was it like to drive in normal situations? Those that valued all-round performance and balance stuck to the small block, which could be made to sing readily enough.

It should be pointed out that the minor differences in quoted track width from the Falcon, Fairlane, Mustang and Cougar of this generation almost certainly depended on the wheel rim width and offset. They all had the same basic architecture where it counted.

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#11 1967-1970 Mercury Cougar  111″ wb; 58.1″/58.1″ track

The Mustang’s upscale brother had a slightly longer wheelbase. Where was it added; in the front or back? Inquiring minds want to know.

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#12  1970-1977 Maverick and Comet two-door coupes  103″ wb; 55.5″/55.5″ track

Although the wide-body Falcon platform had taken over after 1966, the Falcon’s deep slump and growing import sales made it expedient to get some new small cars to Ford dealers. The Pinto was still a bit in the offing, but a short term solution was the 1970 Maverick, introduced early in the Spring of 1969 (CC here). It revived the the original Falcon’s narrow platform dimensions, with an even shorter wheelbase. Of course, space utilization suffered as a consequence, as well as rear headroom, but it had that desirable sporty coupe look. Too bad it didn’t drive like a genuine sporty coupe.

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#13 1970-1971 Fairlane, Torino, Comet, Montego and 1970.5 Falcon  117″ wb; 60.5″/60″ track

Length-wise, these represent the ultimate expression of the Falcon platform. This Torino GT SportsRoof measures 206″; a long way from the humble Falcon’s origins. Although these cars may well look “new” from certain angles, they were still heavily based on their predecessors. A new and slightly wider front end also resulted in an inch longer wheelbase. And the new roofline accentuated the sleek profile.

Ford Falcon1970.5

But a look at the sedan version, like this 1970.5 Falcon (CC here) makes it clear that all those bulging sides and swelling hips were slathered on rather crudely to help disguise the fact that underneath, many of the previous version’s hard point were still intact.

Ford Torino-71-wagon

#14  1970-1971 Fairlane, Torino, Comet, Montego and 1970.5 Falcon Station Wagons; and 1970-1971 Ranchero  114″ wb; 60.5″/60 ” track

The make-over funds for the ’70 Torino and company was mostly saved for the coupes and sedans, as the wagons were virtually unchanged from 1966, except for the new front end. That resulted in the same one inch incremental increase in wheelbase.

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The Ranchero got the same rhinoplasty, and the same corresponding increase in wheelbase.

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#15  1971-1977 Maverick and Comet Four Door Sedans  109.9″ wb; 55″/54.5″ track

Once the Pinto came along in 1971, the two-door Maverick’s role was even more ambiguous. What was needed now was a good old fashioned compact, in the vein of the original 1960 Falcon. A stretch to the rear turned it into a reasonably accommodating sedan, if not a exactly brilliant one.

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#16 1971-1973  Mustang  109″ wb; 61.5″/61″ track

The 1971 Mustang looks bigger than it is, especially so from today’s vantage point. But at the time, it did rather look like Ford had lost the plot with the original pony car, and sales swooned. It was bigger, gaining an inch in wheelbase, and a whopping three inches in track. This body might well be called the gen3 version of the Falcon platform, with its added track and width, as well as weight.

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It’s a pretty polarizing design, rather cartoonish, and as such a predictor of cars today like the current Camaro. The poor misunderstood thing; it was just ahead of its time! But at the time, buyers started looking elsewhere, especially at the beautiful and almost timeless gen2 Camaro. Let’s just say that Pininfarina didn’t exactly go out of his way to praise this generation of Mustang.

Mustang 1971 429CJ engine

But there was plenty of room under the hood, for either the 428 CJ, or the new 429 that replaced it (shown). No problem getting to the plugs of this one; it looks anything but cramped between those still-familiar Falcon platform shock towers.

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#17  1971-1973 Mercury Cougar  112.1″ wb; 61.4″/61″ track

If the 1971 Mustang was polarizing, the 1971 Cougar was just a pole. Did anyone ever express admiration for this poor beast? Certainly not this onlooker, who’s being forbearing while I bother to shoot it. “Why?” “For show and tell”.  The Cougar’s fat is not just an illusion: it sets the high water mark for weight of the Falcon platform. Nominally listed at 3900 lbs for the convertible (bare and empty), as delivered these would have exceeded the two-ton mark.

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#18  1975-1980 Granada and Mercury Monarch, and 1977-1980 Lincoln Versailles  109.9″ wb; 58.5″/57.5″ track

The Granada is often assumed to be sitting on the Maverick four-door’s “platform”, since it shares the same 109.9″ wheelbase. But the Maverick had the original narrow-track Falcon body architecture, whereas these cars have the track dimensions of the wider gen2 platform as used by all of the other post 1966 cars, save the final Mustang and Cougar. It was the final mix-and-match opportunity for the Ford engineers to piece together a “new” car for a new era. The Granada and Monarch were Euro-luxo-Broughmo-compacts, or something like that. And they’re way overdue for a full CC here.

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If the 1973 Cougar was the heaviest (and most unloved), the 1977-1980 Versailles has to have a few accolades saved for it. It certainly was the most expensive car ever built out of humble Falcon bones: $14,670 in 1980  (north of $40k adjusted).  And it was the only one to come with standard rear disc brakes, which makes finding one in the junkyard with its rear axle still attached a very unlikely proposition. But if the gen1 Seville was cynically priced, given its Nova roots, the Versailles trumps it by a healthy margin.

At least the Seville was based on the 1975 Nova, one of the best handling American cars of its era. The Versailles was still wearing the same basic front suspension configuration of the original Falcon, which along with pillow-ride springing made for anything but Mercedes-challenging handling and ride dynamics. A fitting or sad ending to the 1960 Falcon’s roots?

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Table of Falcon Platform Variants

Falcon platform variants

Postscript: My sources, assumptions and conclusions may not all be correct. Please let me know if there are corrections and/or additions to be made. Like all posts at CC, it’s a work in progress, never really complete until the last comment.