Curbside Classic: 1960 Ford Starliner – Haste Makes Waste


(originally posted 7/31/2011)

Follow your own path.

Have the courage of your convictions.

Haste makes waste.

Ford would prove each of these adages with its 1960 full-size cars, although not in a way the company would have liked.

“The roots of the 1960 Ford stretch back to that watershed year in American automobile history, 1957. That year, Ford outflanked its old rival with two Fords–the Custom series on the 116-inch wheelbase, and the swank Fairlane on a two-inch longer span. The 1957 Chevrolet so revered today looked stodgy by comparison, so for the first time since the 1930s, Ford beat Chevrolet in the sales race.

During this time, Ford was planning its 1959 and 1960 models. By now, Robert McNamara was in charge, and he couldn’t see the point of having Fords on two wheelbases. So for 1959, they would all ride on a 118-inch wheelbase. Ford bucked the trend towards soaring tail fins and even sleek rooflines, and the midyear Galaxie series was set to feature a boxy, square roofline lifted from the four-seat Thunderbird.

Then Ford obtained the tooling plans for Chevrolet’s 1959 models. Ford officials initially couldn’t believe that GM was planning to build a Chevrolet with such wild, radical styling. Meanwhile, Chrysler’s 1957 models were still selling as fast as the corporation could–or more accurately, couldn’t–build them.

When Ford management realized that GM was serious, the proposed 1959 Ford suddenly looked as stodgy as the 1957 Chevrolet did against those flashy, low-slung 1957 Fords and Plymouths. What to do? It was too late to junk the planned 1959 Ford.

While all of this was happening, several Ford stylists were working on an advanced styling study dubbed Quicksilver (above). When top Ford executives, including Robert McNamara saw it, they thought it could be used for the 1960 Ford, as it looked sleeker than the planned model, which was a facelift of the 1959 model. Henry Ford II enthusiastically agreed, and since his name was on the building, the planned 1960 Ford was junked.

The Quicksilver was adapted as quickly as possible for production. Unfortunately, this meant altering the dimensions of the styling prototype, as Ford still needed to use the 1959 frame. The Quicksilver had to be raised two inches, altering its proportions. The final car was very wide–so wide, in fact, that it was over the legal limit for a vehicle to be classified as a passenger car in some states. Those states agreed to look the other way for one year.

An unforeseen problem was that the 1959 Ford turned out to be far more successful than even its creators had anticipated. Ford closed much of the gap that Chevrolet had opened up in 1958, and if the Galaxie series had been available at the beginning of the model year, Ford may very well made it a dead heat. Chrysler Corporation sales, meanwhile, plummeted for 1958, and only inched up for 1959, as buyers rejected the finned styling and were still nervous about Chrysler’s build quality. GM’s wild 1959 models met with a mixed reaction, and the corporation was already preparing to backpedal with its 1960 models.

Unfortunately, the wheels had already been set in motion, and the 1960 Ford appeared, looking very much like a warmed-over 1959 Chevrolet.

The roofline of the Starliner series appears to be directly cribbed from the 1959 Chevrolet, which, in turn, stole it from the 1957 Plymouth. Even the deluxe wheel covers of the Starliner looked like copies of those featured on the 1957 and 1959 Plymouths. In the back, the traditional Ford pie-plate taillights were gone, replaced with odd-looking half-moon units.

This Starliner hardtop coupe, along with the Sunliner convertible, took best to the new styling.

The sedans look like taxicabs…

…while the four-door Galaxie hardtop mated the square, Thunderbird-inspired roofline with the swoopy lower body. Ford had called the 1959 Galaxie “married in style to the Thunderbird.” For 1960, the Thunderbird roofline should have asked for a divorce.

While Ford suffered a big decline in full-size cars sales for 1960, the upshot was that buyers didn’t have an aversion to Ford products–the Falcon outsold the Corvair and Valiant combined, and the Thunderbird scored a nice increase in the final and third year of its styling cycle.

The standard excuse is that the Falcon stole sales from its big brother, while the Corvair was so radically different from the standard Chevrolet that it appealed to a completely different buyer. Only problem with that theory is that standard Chevrolet sales remained strong when Chevrolet rolled out its own Falcon in 1962 (the Chevy II).

The rushed development didn’t help assembly, even though Ford ambitiously promoted these as the Finest Fords of a Lifetime. A Popular Mechanics Owners Report on the car noted that only 50.8 percent rated it as excellent, the lowest excellent rating ever recorded for a car at that time. Over 15 percent listed their chief complaint as poor workmanship. Ironically, 87 percent of owners of the all-new Falcon rated it as excellent, the highest recorded by the magazine for any American car!

The Finest Fords of a Lifetime still didn’t completely enclose the shift linkage in the steering column, even though Chevrolet, Plymouth and Rambler did. Ford prospects would have to wait until 1963 for that to happen.

What was under that wide, flat hood? The engines were carryovers from 1959: a 223 six, and the 292 and 352 V-8s. They were reliable, solid engines, but no one was going to borrow Dad’s Galaxie to take on Impalas or even Furys in the stoplight grand prix.

For 1961, Ford revised the lower body, giving the front a more traditional Ford look, and returning the pie-plate taillights to the rear. This 1961 Starliner shows the effect, which I find to be much more attractive. Ford continued to improve workmanship and build quality, while cleaning up styling, but still lost ground to Chevrolet until the Mustang and the “quiet as a Rolls-Royce” LTD helped the division find its groove.

Reacting to Chevrolet hadn’t gone well for Ford in 1960. Henry Ford II, however, remained obsessed with GM. He had poached talent from GM to lead Ford’s rebirth, most notably Ernie Breech of GM and Bendix Aviation Corporation and Harold Youngren of Oldsmobile. His GM obsession would reach a peak in the late 1960s, when he hired Bunkie Knudsen away from GM. One wonders if he ever appreciated that Ford’s greatest successes after the mid-1950s were largely the work of two men (Robert McNamara and Lee Iacocca) who had never worked for the General, and were the result of Ford blazing a new path instead of following its rival’s tire tracks. The 1960 Ford, unfortunately, didn’t blaze its own trail, and paid the price.