Vintage Motor Life Review: 1960 Ford Falcon – The Resurrection of the Model A

A huge swath of Americans in 1960 had grown up or lived with Henry Ford’s Model T and A. Ford preached the gospel of minimalism, with no excess of size, weight or other unnecessary elements. But starting in the 1930s, even Fords began swelling. And this trend accelerated in the ’50s, reaching a zenith (or nadir) in the 1960 full-size Ford, the widest car ever sold in the US. And plenty long too.

This was a painful reality for many who longed for more elemental transport, but weren’t ready to buy an import, especially Ford loyalists, of which there were many. As such, the 1960 Falcon was something of the second coming of Henry Ford: compact, upright, sensible basic and economical. The only element he would have objected to was its six cylinder engine, as he had a deep irrational dislike of that obviously ideal configuration. A rough four cylinder, like the 153 in the Chevy II to come would have suited him much better.

Motor Life reviewed the new Falcon, in two parts: in an instrumented test as well as a longer over-the-road trip.

Motor Life notes that in addition to being the long-awaited return of the Model T and A, it also wasn’t quite as cheap or austere either. A 1930 Model A Tudor sedan cost $495, which was only $878 in 1960 dollars ($7700 in 2019 dollars). So yes, the base price of a 1960 Falcon Tudor at $1912 was almost twice that amount.

Due to its light weight (2,380 lbs as tested), power assists were unnecessary, and the steering was light, although a bit slow with 4.6 turns. The brakes were deemed good. And cornering was termed “excellent”, “capable of taking turns well beyond the capabilities of most American sedans”. That needs to be put in perspective, as Car Life was not an enthusiast magazine, and the frame of reference was normal driving, and the comparison was with the typically ill-handling big cars of the time. I don’t think anyone is going to accuse the Falcon of being a canyon carver, especially in direct comparison to either the Corvair, Valiant or most imports.

The ride was a bit firm, “but with less bounce and float than the big Fords”. True that. And “it does shake on rough surfaces”. true that too. There’s no question that the Corvair had a better all-round ride quality, most especially so when the road turned rough.

As to the Falcon’s new 144 CID (2.3 L) inline six, it’s noted upfront that economy is good, averaging 24.6 mpg. But it was all-too painfully clear that Ford tuned the engine and set its rear axle ratio to maximize fuel economy at the expense of performance. The made a point of noting that its real-life performance was decidedly less than its tested 0-60 time of 17.3 seconds.

The problem was that Ford specified a very high (low numerical) 3.10:1 rear axle ratio. That gave good cruising economy, but made the gap between 2nd and 3rd gear of the manual column-shifted transmission downright problematic. Passing from 50 mph was a problem, as the wheezy little six was out of breath in 2nd gear by that speed, and grossly lacked torque in 3rd at that speed. It was the same problem as with the Corvair and really all American cars with three-speed transmissions, unless they had a husky V8, but in this case the situation was exacerbated by the engine’s unwillingness to rev and the axle ratio.

Motor Life rightly pointed out that the problem would be solved by a four speed manual, and Ford did offer a UK-sourced unit starting in 1961 at extra cost, but the typical economy-minded buyers of Falcon shunned it. The more obvious and cheaper solution was to revise the axle ratio, which Ford did in 1961, lowering it to 3.50:1.  That helped, somewhat. And of course there was a bigger 170 CID six with 101 hp optional in 1961 too, which helped even more. A ’61 with the 170 and the four speed was the hot ticked, but a very rare little bird.

Why did Ford do this in the first place? Bragging rights about the Falcon’s economy, at the expense of its performance. Since the Big Three compacts were inevitably not going to be fully competitive with the VW and other imports on fuel economy due to their larger size and engines, they were set up to make the most of what could be squeezed out of them. But drivers wanted a more balanced package that performed adequately too, so Ford had no choice but to respond to the complaints.

Somewhat ironically (in relation to the Corvair), the Falcon’s trunk came in for criticism, as it “was proportioned so poorly that a pair of normal suitcases have to be juggled to fit“.

The interior came in for mostly good marks (this is a base interior; the tester appears to have had the deluxe version), except for a few minor nits.


On to the Cross-country test:

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