10 most significant cars and 5 worth forgetting
by MARK PHELAN/ Detroit Free Press
You could learn the history of the United States in the 20th Century just by studying Ford Motor Co.'s model lineup over the years.
From the car that put the world on wheels to a hip convertible for the swinging '60s and onward to the soccer mom's favorite SUV, time and again Ford sensed the mood of the times and came out with a car to match it.
Here are a few of the superstars. All except the 1901 are listed in order of the model year in which they debuted.
1901 race car
Ford Motor Co. wouldn't exist if Henry Ford hadn't built this little screamer and driven it past Cleveland entrepreneur Alexander Winton on a racetrack in what is now Detroit. Ford had already failed in his first attempt to found a car company and, the financiers who helped him create Ford Motor Co. would have taken the money elsewhere without the dramatic proof provided by Henry I's victory on the track.
The small, light race car proved Ford could engineer and build cars with the best of them, and reinforced his passion for light and efficient cars rather than massive limousines.
"In some senses, it was Ford's first turnaround car," said Robert H. Casey, the John and Horace Dodge curator of historical resources at the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn. "It revitalized his reputation after failing with his first company."
It also began Ford's long involvement in motor sports.
"It's extraordinary that Ford's roots really come out of motor racing," said John McElroy, host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit." "Henry Ford I thought the best way to prove his engineering and products were sound was through racing."
Small, light and inexpensive, the Mustang recaptured some of the original Thunderbird character, but had a practical four-seat layout from the start.
"It was a really pretty car that came along at a time when big sedans and coupes dominated American roads," said Todd Lassa, Detroit editor of Motor Trend Magazine. "It was a brilliant design. Ford demonstrated they could build a wide array of variants, so the high-performance Shelby models created a glow that extended to the high-volume models."
Ford created the Mustang with an eye to the baby boomers, who were about to reach driving age, Casey said.
"The economy was good, and there was room for a car with a youthful flair that was cheap enough for young people to afford," he said. Ford built 559,451 1965 Mustangs and another 607,568 the next year.
The Mustang was so successful that the class of sporty little four-seaters it created is still referred to as "pony cars." As the Mustang nears its 40th anniversary, it has outlived its chief competitors, the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, and devotees are already lining up for the new model that goes on sale in mid-2004.
At one point in the 1920s, more than half the cars in the world were Ford Model Ts. The car was the first reliable vehicle priced within reach of ordinary people.
"It has astounding historical significance," said Thomas Bryant, editor-in-chief of Road & Track magazine. "The Model T put the world on wheels."
The Model T was chosen car of the century by an international panel of journalists and historians. Among others, it beat the original Volkswagen Beetle, the Mini, a flock of Ferraris and the original gull-wing Mercedes 300SL.
"It was a typical Henry Ford design," Casey said, "Light and strong. Its original target market was farmers. That's why it has so much ground clearance."
1940 Lincoln Continental
The first Lincoln Continental was a classy and refined luxury car Edsel Ford had created to take on European luxury brands. It boasted a V12 engine and a design that still turns heads.
"It was a really beautiful car that really made Lincoln a luxury brand," Bryant said.
The Continental was also a small car by the standards of the day, Casey said. "It was more of a personal car with a small backseat. It was primarily intended for two people."
John McElroy, host of the TV show "Autoline Detroit," said the car was the personal project of Edsel Ford, who died in 1943 and 49. "His father had built the world's best-selling car and Edsel wanted to build the best car in the world. It's still considered very elegant.
"I believe if Edsel had run" Ford Motor Co., "General Motors Corp. wouldn't have passed it to become the world's largest automaker," said McElroy.
1948 F1 pickup
This was the grandfather of the current F-series pickup, which is the best-selling vehicle in the world and the core of Ford's business.
"It created the F-series name, and it was a tough, versatile truck," McElroy said. "It was also highly styled, though; completely different from the slab-sided trucks that came before it.
"The modern era of Ford Motor Co. and its success can all be traced back to the F1."
It was the first all-new vehicle Ford developed after World War II, and gave birth to an entire family of trucks, including the F8 semi.
"Ford did a lot of work on the 1948 F-series," Casey said. "They called it the truck with the first million-dollar cab, because of the cost of developing it."
Ford's determined effort to make the F1 comfortable was the first step on the road to today's pickups, which are often as well-equipped and accommodating as luxury cars.
Ford was reeling after World War II, having fallen to No. 3 in sales, behind GM and Chrysler. Things were so bad that the Navy discharged Henry Ford II early to save the company. The 1949 Ford was the result. The company had designs for a big new Ford sedan, but Ernie Breech, a former GM executive Henry II had hired, scrapped the design at the last minute and told the engineers to start over.
"It looked very modern," Casey said. "It was smaller than the other designs and it was enormously successful."
The hurried development process led to a lot of quality problems, but the pent-up demand for new cars was so great that the 1949 line sold like hotcakes, and Ford burned the midnight oil fixing the problems.
The 1949 line included sedans, coupes, convertibles and a woodystation wagon -- the only station wagon on the market that year.
"It was a huge transition from the bulbous old designs to a low-slung, modern-looking car," said David C. Smith, editor at large of Ward's Auto World magazine.
"It was a smash hit, and it still looks good today."
Ford cashed in on postwar affluence and created an icon with the two-seat T-bird, which was created to be a pretty boulevard cruiser rather than a sporty competitor for the Chevrolet Corvette.
The T-Bird wandered far from those roots over the years, including some bloated coupes in the '70s, '80s and '90s, but the heart of the car is a continuation of the 1940 Continental's ideal of the personal car to haul a couple and minimal gear, Casey said.
"A lot of GIs came home enamored of the little British and Italian sports cars," he said. "The economy was strong in the mid-1950s. It was the first time a lot of households could consider having two cars, and the Thunderbird was designed for those buyers."
The four-seat Thunderbird followed in 1958. It outsold the Corvette by a margin of 5-1 and established a precedent of Ford using the T-Bird to set the styling direction for its mainstream sedans for decades.
Ford's first attempt to combine its European and American engineering resources to develop a single car it could sell around the world, the Escort laid the groundwork for global engineering projects at most of the world's automakers.
While the actual North American and European versions of the Escort shared almost nothing but their shapes, the front-wheel-drive Escort got Ford into the high-mileage game as gasoline prices soared.
"A small, front-drive car was a breakthrough for Ford," Casey said.
The American Escort "fell far short of the European car in terms of drivability and customer appeal, but Ford sold a lot of them," said ToddLassa, Detroit editor of Motor Trend magazine.
The original Taurus was another in the line of turnaround cars that have pulled Ford out of dire straits, Casey said.
Facing mounting losses and falling sales in the 1980s, Ford Chairman Donald Petersen took a huge risk when he bet Ford's future on the radically new Taurus. The bet paid off. The Taurus was the best-selling car in the country for years.
Its aerodynamic styling and responsive handling reinvented the American sedan and moved Ford to the forefront of automotive design.
"It was one of the first American cars to capture the imagination in a long time," said FrankMarkus, technical director of Car and Driver magazine.
It also raised Ford to the level of prestigious European brands in terms of interior space and design, Lassa said.
"The Taurus was brilliant and courageous," Bryant said. "It changed the look of the American sedan. Ford deserves high marks for courage."
The sport-utility vehicle that created and cashed in on the '90s move to trucks, the Explorer became the best-selling SUV in the world.
"It was an amazing piece of product planning," McElroy said, tapping a huge market no other company had recognized. "It wasn't the first SUV, but it was the first to hit the sweet spot in the market."
The Explorer was the first SUV to lure large numbers of buyers out of passenger cars and into a light truck, Lassa said.
That success owed largely to the SUV's back doors, said McElroy, also a commentator for WWJ-AM (950) . "They were the easiest to get in and out of, the easiest to use with a child seat, and the backseat was the most comfortable."
The Explorer's success forced automakers from Mercedes-Benz to Honda to recognize that the SUV market had become too big and profitable to ignore.
Fruitful giant has had lemons
Ford Motor Co. created icons like the Model T, Mustang and F-series pickup, but it's also had its share of forgettable cars. This is the company that coined a new synonym for failure with the Edsel, after all. Here's a brief look at some of Ford's lesser achievements, listed in order of the model year in which they debuted.
A brand that deserved a better fate, as evidenced by the many collectors who cherish the striking-looking cars to this day. Ford created Edsel to give it a brand to compete with Oldsmobile and Buick buyers. Edsel's launch was delayed several times before going on sale in the fall of 1957.
The Edsel range consisted of the Ranger, Pacer, Corsair and Citation and totaled 18 models, including station wagons and convertibles.
"Much of the problem was timing," said Todd Lassa, Detroit editor of Motor Trend magazine. "It came out during the first big postwar recession."
In addition, the start of production was rocky, and quality was shaky even by the standards of the time.
The four factories building Edsels were already running full time, building Fords and Mercurys, and the company further increased the assembly line speed to squeeze in the extra Edsels. That ensured that the workers resented the cars, and plant managers looked at the Edsel as a problem waiting to happen.
Ford killed the brand after the 1960 model year. It had sold just 110,817 Edsels -- barely half the projected sales for the brand's first year.
"People said the grille looked like somebody sucking on a lemon," said John McElroy, host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit." "It came out with a premium price as a recession began. Mix that together and you have a flop."
The Maverick sold far beyond Ford's expectations when it hit the market in mid-1969, but by the end of the car's life, it had become known as a rust-prone, muscle car wanna-be.
"The Maverick was an honest attempt to build a small car with sporty appeal, but nothing about its mechanicals supported that," said Thomas Bryant, editor-in-chief of Road & Track magazine.
Ford stopped building the Maverick in 1977 -- but not until the little car had been subjected to the indignities of two-tone paint schemes and the Stallion option package, which included a stallion decal on the front fenders.
A good car gone bad.
The Pinto began its life as an enjoyable and fuel-efficient little car, McElroy said, but things went downhill fast.
"The '71 Pinto had a 100-horsepower German engine and was superbly built," McElroy said. "Then they put an anemic 2.3-liter American-made engine in it and had to meet the new emissions standards. It became a slug: heavy and slow, with bad handling and poor fuel economy."
Despite the fact that Larry Shinoda, the same man who designed the classic split-window Chevrolet Corvette, penned the Pinto design, the car also had "hideously bad drag," thanks to a "uniquely wrong" angle for its rear window, said Frank Markus, technical director of Car and Driver magazine.
However, it was the Pinto's infamous fuel-tank fires that defined the car's short, unhappy life.
A series of the highly publicized fires led to lawsuits, and a Ford memo referring to the problem surfaced in the muckraking magazine Mother Jones, McElroy said.
"All small cars at the time had the same problem, but Mother Jones had the memo, and the lawyers had a field day," he said.
"It's unfortunate that a car that started out as a good, nimble little machine ended so ignominiously," he said. "It deserved a better fate than being taken out behind the barn and shot."
Ford built the Pinto through the 1980 model year and replaced it with the Escort.
1991 Mercury Capri
It seemed like such a good idea at the time: Have renowned Italian design houses Ghia and ItalDesign create a little convertible, use Mazda parts for quality and build it in Australia to keep it affordable.
The best-laid plans . . .
The front-wheel drive Capri was repeatedly delayed within Ford, eventually hitting the market about the same time as the vastly superior and more attractive Mazda Miata.
"It was almost free of redeeming qualities," said David C. Smith, editor-at-large of Ward's Auto World magazine. "It had absolutely no curb appeal."
In addition to a design that had grown old before the car ever went on sale, the Capri was burdened by quality problems.
"Ours was in the shop all the time, and it was no fun to drive when it was running," Markus said.
Ford killed the car in February 1994.
2002 Lincoln Blackwood
The first attempt to build a luxury pickup, the Blackwood was another example of an apparently can't-miss concept that went down in flames. A $52,000-plus pickup designed for the horsey set, the Blackwood lacked 4-wheel drive and couldn't tow a horse trailer.
"It was uniquely unsuited to its target market," Markus said. "Never has a product so richly deserved failure."
Lincoln expected to sell 10,000 Blackwoods a year but had sold fewer than 3,600 when it killed the truck in November 2002, barely a year after it went on sale.
"I never understood what they were trying to achieve with the Blackwood," Smith said. "It was a styling exercise with no utility whatsoever. It died young, and it deserved to."
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....