Curbside Classic: 1961 Falcon – How To Build A Winning Compact

(first posted 3/21/2011)   That could be me sitting in that barber chair, for two reasons. Well, that is the exact chair I sit in when I get my hair cut. And I could see myself having driven there in my ’61 Falcon, like the owner of this one did in his daily driver.  I’ve always had a soft spot for the Falcon, despite its certain limitations. It appeals both to my left brain, for being so pragmatic and rational, as well as my right brain, where I’ve spent way too many hours mentally building the perfect 1961 Falcon, as if there was such a thing.  Didn’t Ford get it right in 1960? It certainly won the compact war that launched that year. There’s always room for improvement though, and the Valiant and I both eventually figured out the winning formula.

The story of the Falcon is that rare triumph of rationality in Detroit. The Big Three all committed themselves to finally building compacts for 1960, after having dithered about it ever since WW2. GM came extremely close with their Cadet in 1948, but decided it couldn’t meet its lofty 30%  (!) profit margin that it was making on big cars back then. They all kept compact programs on the back burner, and the very nasty recession that started in the fall of 1957 sealed the deal. Ramblers, Larks and imports were all hot, and the time had come to do what had to be done. The question was how each approached the task.

In typical GM fashion, it used its love for technical overkill and radical approaches to come up with the Corvair. More on that soon. And Chrysler? Their prowess for engineering excellence within more conventional parameters led to the Valiant, technically superior to the Falcon but utterly spoiled by Virgil Exner’s styling. We’ll take that up too, when I find one. The ’60-’62 Valiant (above) may rightfully enjoy a cult following, but it was utterly out of the mainstream styling taste, and its poor sales proved that conclusively.

The Falcon was conceived under the reign of Robert McNamara, that paragon of  the rational and pragmatic manager. He oversaw every unloving detail, and the end result speaks for itself: a very compact car that weighed a mere 2400 lbs yet could sit six (slim) adults in an interior not all that much smaller than a big Ford. Its 20-25 mpg was a huge improvement over the big cars too. No frills anywhere, and a sub $2000 price to go right up against the imports. Take that, Volkswagen!

Some have thrown aspersions at the Falcon, that it was designed to be a “disposable” car. How do you explain this fifty year old daily driver? Old Falcons are easy enough to keep running forever. Yes, the Australians had to beef it up a bit after they started building it there. But Aussie roads in 1960 were hardly representative of typical American conditions. Yes, the Falcon was no more rugged or over-engineered that necessary, but that’s what McNamara rightfully deemed as the only way to eke out a profit on the Falcon. And the obstacles to that were very substantial.

Detroit’s solution until 1960 was just to sell de-contented full size cars to those looking for a cheap car. A 1959 Ford Custom cost only some 25% more than a VW, and had four times the horsepower, about twice the interior room, and about ten times the luggage space. Keep the same lines running with one basic car, and make the big profits on the options and high trim models: a recipe that Detroit was hooked on since the Model T and GM’s up-selling magic.

The intrinsically expensive-to-build Corvair flew in the face of this reality, and only survived as long as it did because it morphed into the sporty Monza. As a basic economy car, its brief sales spurt in 1960 soon evaporated. And the over styled Valiant sputtered compared to the Falcon until it re-emerged in 1963 looking very much like a Falcon. Once it did that, thanks to its superior underpinnings, it went on to dominate the compact segment in the late sixties and early seventies.

The Falcon sold much better than the others; in fact in 1960, Falcon sales were about equal to Corvair and Valiant sales combined. And in 1961, it dominated even further. Of course, there was a flip side to this equation: a majority of Falcon sales came out of the hide of full-size Ford cars; meanwhile VW kept racking up one sales increase after another, despite Detroit’s compact assault. That explains why Ford instantly followed the Corvair’s lead with its 1960.5 introduction of the bucket-seat sporty Monza. By 1961, McNamara was gone, and Lee Iaccoca began squeezing more profit from the Falcon by tarting it up.

The 1961 Futura arrived with its Monza-like specs: chrome trim, bucket seats, and a bigger engine with a bit more oomph. And that was all just a prelude to the Mustang. Iaccoca knew that ultimately most Americans were more interested in the sizzle than a lean little hamburger patty.

That’s not to say that the Futura was truly sporty, by any stretch. The Falcon’s handling would never be confused with that word. It rode reasonably well enough in its effort to emulate the big cars. And due to its inherent lightness, handling was actually better than the typical big Detroit barge of the times. But that’s not saying a whole lot. It was not in the same league as the Corvair or the imports.

That’s not to say an old Falcon couldn’t be fun to drive; it was just a matter of adjusting expectations, especially if they had been honed on European cars of the time. The somewhat similar in concept Peugeot 404 that also arrived in 1960 had accurate rack and pinion steering, and a killer ride. Of course, that cost about 15% more than a Futura, and was hardly in the mainstream public’s eye.

The key to deriving any driving pleasure from a Falcon was this: avoid the automatic transmission like the plague. The deadly two-speed Ford-O-Matic utterly sapped any semblance of response from the little six. It was bad enough with the 101 (gross) hp 170 CID (2.8 L) six that arrived as an option for 1961. Teamed with the original 85 hp 144 CID (2.4 L) engine, it was an exercise in painful frustration. Falcon six automatics bleated and whined and moaned their way down the road for what seemed like an eternity before they finally shifted into Hi, and then it started again, never to end until it was finally and thankfully shut off. They always sounded tortured, or at least put upon.

Their personality was utterly transformed with the manual transmission. The 170 six with the stick had a semblance of direct response, and with its light weight, performance was not bad, in the context of either the times or with the appropriate point of view, today. Especially with a less restrictive muffler, a Falcon six with a stick gives off a pleasant little baby-growl, not unlike British sixes of similar size like the Triumph 2.5 or ? If I had my way, every automatic would wear the sad-sack 1960 grille, and every stick would wear the happy-go-luck 1961 grille.

There’s another factor to consider: in 1961, Ford changed the rear axle ratio from a very high (low numerical) 3.10:1 to a 3.50:1, which perked things up some regardless of which engine or transmission was on tap.

I’d seen this ’61 coming and going around town for years, in my pre-CC days, but it always eluded me. There are plenty of other Falcons around, but not a ’61 two door, the perpetual object of my mental Falcon building. My obsession for that vintage goes way back, right when the ’61 came out. I’ve always found the original ’60-’61 body style to be the most appealing, but the ’60’s grille struck me as a bit sad.

I had it all specced out in my mind: a ’61 Futura, with bucket seat and the rare four speed manual option. Yes, I saved the Falcon’s best little goodie for last. From 1961 and 1962, the Falcon was available with a British Ford sourced four speed, and even had a column shifter for it, as was the common European practice at the time. That combination, with a two-barrel carb added, preferably on a swapped-in 200 six, some Koni shocks, decent tires, and the closest thing to a conventional European sedan was (sort of) in reach. Unless you were applying the same kind of attention to a Valiant, that is. We’ll play that game another time.

Old Falcon sixes of this vintage have an enthusiastic following. Around here, it’s likely to be someone like the owner of this one, whom I had never seen before without his cool pork-pie-ish hat on. Have to take it off to get one’s hair cut, though. The Falcon is an integral part of his look, as are most folks’ cars. I’m a chameleon: this Falcon would work for me, some of the time, built to my specs, but certainly not all the time. But that’s hardly the Falcon’s fault. Now if it had that hot new aluminum cylinder head that is now available…

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