(first posted 8/17/2016) The reason that the childhood story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears resonates so deeply with many of us is that there are so many things around us that are a little wrong. Things can be too big or small, too hard or soft, or too warm or cold. “Just Right” is something to be appreciated. In 1961, a woman went into a Ford Dealer and picked out this car. Quite unwittingly, she showed us what “just right” is all about.
The first generation Ford Falcon was a pivotal car, both for the Ford Motor Company and for the U.S. car industry as a whole. Before the 1960 Falcon, the market for compact cars had been for niche players. American Motors and Studebaker were able to make sales by going where the big three were not, each in its own not-quite-modern way. But then the big three made their big splash in the compact market in 1960 and never looked back. And of those three, it was the Falcon that proved how big the market for a compact in America could be.
The quest for the American compact car that was “just right” was a lot like the later search for a successful small pickup truck that played out a decade or so later. With the pickups, it took several stabs at new and unique configurations before someone brilliantly decided that the best compact truck was a smaller version of a standard truck. Ditto the compact car. Corvair went all whiz-bang on a rear engine and modern styling, while the Valiant went all – well, nobody was really sure. And then there were the stalwarts from AMC and Studebaker who kept on with their “something old, something new” formula. In the end, it was Ford that had the winning combination – simply take a standard Ford sedan and make it all smaller. There. Any questions? And boy did it work.
After Studebaker, Ford of 1960-62 was the most conservative of car companies, making conservative cars for conservative people. Did you like your 1951 Ford? Then you were sure to like a 1961 Ford too, because while there had been some important updates, there was clearly a continuation between the old and the new. And if that new ’61 Ford had become too big for your liking, the smaller Falcon should suit you to a T. Six cylinders up front, and cooled by water, hooked to a 3 speed manual or 2 speed automatic with a lever on the column and two bench seats for seating six friendly people – oddly, this was a configuration that, similar as it might have been to pretty much everything built ten years earlier by everyone in the industry, could not be duplicated in a compact found at either a Chevy or Plymouth showroom. Of course, the downside was that the shrunken-big-Ford formula of the Falcon took a bigger bite out of the sales of standard Ford models than was the case with Chevy or Plymouth.
For the Ford Motor Company, the 1960 Falcon was important for another reason: It would provide the basic DNA for the lion’s share of the company’s products pretty much up through the 1980 Ford Granada. Until the new 1972 Torino platform, this Falcon’s lineage would stretch to cover almost every Ford passenger car not called Galaxie/LTD or Thunderbird. Comets, Fairlanes, Montegos, Torinos, Mustangs, Cougars, Mavericks and that formerly mentioned “junior Mercedes” of the ’70s all sprung from this little car’s humble roots. That the basic platform would eventually punch (and punch very successfully) far above its intended weight class is a testament to the basic goodness of this little car.
The early Falcon has gotten a lot of screen time here at CC. We have done a nice but well used daily driver ’61 Falcon, but here we have the opposite – a gorgeous completely original black sedan, equipped just the way our imaginary Uncle Clem would like it. In case you missed it, we shared the wisdom of the Uncle Clems of life when we came across a stripper of a 1956 Plymouth. Uncle Clem is like the old folks so many of us grew up around. They were simple people from a simpler time, who didn’t need much to keep them happy. And they were suspicious of modern American life that was always trying to sell them bigger and better, new and improved. “I can save 100% by just keeping what I’ve already got” would be Uncle Clem’s response to an advertiser hollering about the 20% savings on a new whatzhit.
It wasn’t actually our Uncle Clem who bought and maintained this gorgeous little Falcon, but the current owner’s late grandmother. Mrs. JPC and I went out for dinner on a recent Friday evening, and I walked past the Falcon on the way in. It was hot and I was hungry and I just didn’t really care about someone who considers a stripper ’61 Falcon to be such a rare collectors item that it was worth a fast black respray in order to throw it online for a mere $10K. But after dinner, the car was still there, so I decided to walk over and look at it up close. And boy was I surprised. Just as I started taking pictures, I met Emmett and his friend, who told me all about this car.
It turns out that this car is a stunning original with all of 51,000 carefully-applied miles on the odometer. Emmett’s grandmother bought it new, and after she passed away, Emmett and his mother have continued to treat it like the member of the family that it has become. I wish I had thought to ask Emmett’ for his grandmother’s name. But I don’t suppose it matters whether she was named Elsie or Emma or Irene, her personality shines through in this little car. In fact, it isn’t too much of a leap of the imagination to believe that Emmett’s grandma was related somehow to our dear old Uncle Clem.
In fact, I can imagine Clem accompanying her to the Ford dealer. “Those salesmen will hold you up like a stick-up man if you try to go in there by yourself”, Clem might have said. And in 1961, he may well have been right. Grandma would have probably agreed with Clem’s wisdom about black paint being the only color that will hold up over time. “I agree Clem, and it looks elegant in black, anyway.” And who says that a basic little black sedan couldn’t be dressed up with some whitewall tires? Despite Clem’s grumbling, there was nothing wrong with Grandma showing just a little class. I could just hear her say “Now Clem, there is no reason to brag to the world about how cheap you are. I think the white sidewalls make the car look nice.” And she would have been right. And while Clem would have never put up a modern confustication like an automatic transmission, he would reluctantly agree that no self respecting lady of 1961 should have been expected to row a gearshift – it wasn’t 1947 anymore.
If the brochure is any guide, the blue valve cover and air cleaner tell us that Grandma stuck to the basics in this Falcon’s powerplant. The little 144 cid (2.4 L) six was none too powerful, but it also did not add to the price of the car, like the “big” 170 cid (2.8L) mill with the red paint on it. Clem would have been adamant about this one. “The standard engine is all you need, especially with the automatic you are getting. Too much power will tear that transmission right up.” Grandma would have agreed, but for more practical reasons. “Heavens, I don’t need a race car. If you leave plenty of time to get where you are going, you don’t need all that extra power. Besides, I want a car that is good on gas.”
In the true form of that vanished breed of car buyer, there was no foolishness here like the “Deluxe Trim and Ornamentation Package” with such fripperies as ashtrays and armrests for those in the rear seat. Clem would have jumped in with “First, nobody has any business smoking in the car – makes it stink. And who besides the driver needs an armrest? Ya got a lap to rest your arms on for free, so use it.” And door operated courtesy lights and a fancy white steering wheel? “Pshaw!” Let’s not even mention all of that extra chrome trim all over the outside, to which Grandma might have said “Good heavens, we can’t have everyone at church thinking I’ve gone and bought a Lincoln Continental. It just wouldn’t be seemly.”
That sliver-gray interior is something that really fascinates me. Almost American manufacturer offered a version of this color for a very short time in the two or three years either side of 1960, only for it to completely disappear. It is funny that I am all aswoon over gray interior in a 1961 car when I am so thoroughly sick of it in anything built over the last thirty years, but . . . yeah. It undoubtedly satisfied Uncle Clem (“You won’t get tired of it and it won’t go out of style”) and Emmett’s Grandma (“I think the fabric looks stylish, so there’s no need to spend money on the Deluxe upholstery.”
Other than new whitewall tires (except for the original one which continues to live on the spare wheel in the trunk), and some basic maintenance items, this car is pretty much just the way Ford built it, perhaps right down to the upside-down parking brake handle. I have actually never seen an early Falcon in the state of preservation as displayed in this car. Emmet’s grandma was clearly someone who took care of her things. “If you don’t take care of what you already have, you will never have anything” is something she may well have said to her grandchildren. And if she did, Emmett certainly took the advice to heart, because he is proving to be a wonderful steward of his Grandmother’s Falcon. She had a lot of options when she went to buy her new car in 1961. Hindsight proves that she made a good choice, and got something that proved to be just right.