The Salesman and the Statistician: Robert McNamara, Lee Iacocca, and the Ford Falcon

In late 1959, Ford Motor Company released the smallest car it had sold in the U.S. since the 1930s: the 1960 Ford Falcon. The Falcon proved to be the most successful of Detroit’s new breed of compact cars and it gave birth to many spin-offs and derivatives, from the Ford Mustang to the plush Granada. More significantly, though, the Falcon marked the flash point of a conflict between two different philosophies of management and two very different men: Lido Anthony Iacocca and Robert Strange McNamara. This week, the history of the 1960-1970 American Ford Falcon.

1963 Ford Falcon convertible badge

THE STATISTICIAN

Many years ago, former Ford engineer and executive Don Frey related to author David Halberstam a highly revealing (if possibly apocryphal) anecdote about the origins of the Ford Falcon. Frey claimed that the car that became Ford’s first domestic compact was born as a sketch on the back of a church leaflet. That in itself is hardly unusual in the lexicon of engineering history — many famous cars and airplanes (allegedly) began as doodles on the backs of napkins — but the doodler in this case was Robert S. McNamara and the “sketch” was not an artistic rendering, but a set of numbers.

The science of statistics as it is now understood was something of a black art before World War II. Businesses kept ledgers, of course, but the use of statistical analysis in business management was rare and the idea of using statistical modeling to drive business decisions was an extremely radical notion.

That was even more true in the U.S. military, but even before America entered the war, a few military planners recognized that a multi-front, intercontinental war — and the vast mass production enterprise supporting it — presented unprecedented organizational and managerial challenges that would demand new techniques.

One of those most influential of those planners was Assistant Secretary of War Robert Lovett, who in 1939 had met and been impressed by a young functionary in the Department of the Interior, one Charles Bates “Tex” Thornton. Although employed as a statistician, Thornton was anything but the stereotypical introverted egghead. An ambitious business student, Lovett found that Bates was persuasive as well as incisive and confident enough to not be easily intimidated.

Recognizing the potential value of these talents, Lovett arranged for Thornton to be commissioned into the U.S. Army Air Corps (later the Army Air Forces, not yet a separate service) and assigned him to establish and lead a new organization called Statistical Control. Its mission would be to measure and analyze the mountains of data involved in the coming global air war, devise recommendations, and ‘sell’ those plans to an often skeptical general staff.

Thornton’s first task was to recruit and train more people like himself. To this end, he enlisted the aid of Harvard Business School to develop and teach an intensive eight-week course in statistical analysis and scientific business management for young officers, the most promising of whom became part of Thornton’s new cadre.

One of the program’s instructors was a young professor named Robert McNamara. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in economics and minors in mathematics and philosophy, McNamara had earned his MBA from Harvard in 1939. After a brief stint at Price Waterhouse, he had returned to Harvard in 1940 as the youngest professor in the business school’s history. He began teaching Thornton’s program in May 1942, but less than a year later was commissioned as a captain in the Army Air Forces and assigned to Thornton’s command.

All of Thornton’s men, like Thornton himself, were highly educated, highly capable, and exceedingly cocksure in the way only the young can manage with impunity. (Thornton, the eldest of the group, was only 30 in 1943.) Such self-possession was a necessary attribute for their work, which was complex, often controversial, and undoubtedly rubbed many career officers the wrong way.

If Statistical Control’s recommendations were sometimes at odds with the Army’s conventional wisdom, they were seldom wrong at least from the standpoint of military efficiency. It was McNamara’s analysis, for example, that persuaded Major General Curtis LeMay to switch from high-altitude bombing of Japan to low-altitude incendiary attacks on Japanese population centers. This proved devastatingly effective, laying waste to 64 Japanese cities. The firebombing campaign also had a brutal human cost, resulting in more than a million civilian casualties — far more than both atomic bombs combined.

THE WHIZ KIDS

Thornton’s group harbored no particular ambition of remaining in the Army after the war and it’s unlikely that they would have thrived if they had. Theirs was not an especially politic science and their recommendations had led to the cancellation of many a superior officer’s pet project or personal crusade. During wartime, this was tolerated and even indulged because it directly benefited the war effort, but captains and majors who make a habit of contradicting generals seldom have fulfilling careers in a peacetime army. Besides, there was far more money to be made in private industry.

Not long after the war ended, Thornton saw an article in LIFE magazine about the financial crisis at Ford Motor Company. In late 1945, he, McNamara, and eight of their colleagues sent a telegram to Henry Ford II, boldly claiming that they could save his company.

Henry Ford II had recently inherited his grandfather’s auto company, which was in desperate straits. Old Henry’s intransigence had come close to destroying the corporation by the early forties and its survival was an open question. The elder Ford had for years surrounded himself with sycophants and anyone who dared tell him anything other than what he wanted to hear usually paid dearly for their candor. That included accountants and bookkeepers, whom Henry Ford categorically detested. By the time he was finally persuaded to retire in September 1945, basic financial questions like how much the company was earning, how much it owed, and how much it was spending to build each car were largely a matter of guesswork.

Henry Ford II knew that he needed help, so he decided to hire Thornton’s entire group at handsome salaries. The “Whiz Kids,” as they became known, were subordinate, at least at first, to a crop of Detroit veterans like executive vice president Ernest R. Breech, hired in mid-1946, but Thorton’s group would have a strong influence on the company’s future.

In sharp contrast to the previous generation of auto industry magnates, who were often driven by a fascination with machinery, most of the Whiz Kids had little if any interest in cars. Had the Ford opportunity not materialized, the group would simply have gone elsewhere, probably to a completely different industry. The Whiz Kids were the vanguard of an emerging philosophical movement in the business world that held that processes are far more important than products. It was a huge shift for Ford Motor Company, which had been dominated throughout most of its history by its founder’s deeply held (if sometimes arbitrary) convictions about how cars should be designed and built, even when that approach was not the cheapest or easiest route.

Over the next decade, the Whiz Kids played an important role in a thorough transformation of Ford’s inner workings, instituting modern financial controls, developing the company’s first real system of internal audits, and bringing order to production planning and cash-flow management. Thornton was fired in 1948, going on to found Litton Industries, but seven of the 10 Whiz Kids eventually attained senior executive positions at Ford.

ROBERT MCNAMARA: THE TECHNOCRAT

While others remained at Ford for longer, none of the Whiz Kids was as ascendant as Robert McNamara. McNamara became Ford’s controller in mid-1948 and by January 1955, he was vice president and general manager of Ford Division. In May 1957, he became group vice president, responsible for all of the company’s car and truck divisions.

Robert McNamara in October 1964
Robert McNamara, photographed in October 1964 during his tenure as secretary of defense. (Photo © 1964 Yoichi R. Okamoto; U.S. government public domain work)

McNamara was not, in the parlance of a later era, a people person. He was not necessarily unfriendly, but he had little interest in social maneuvering or in ingratiating himself with fellow executives and he could be exceedingly cold-blooded, using his rhetorical training and command of statistics to bludgeon any opposition. His passion, if that is the right word, was for systems and efficiency, something he viewed not simply as a desirable goal, but as a kind of moral imperative, one that he pursued with zeal.

The problem with McNamara’s supremely rational, numbers-driven approach was that statistical models alone do not make a car. He had no particular feeling for the various qualitative factors that separate a compelling automobile from a dreary one, nor did he respond well to engineers, executives, or sales managers who tried to base their arguments on those factors. To McNamara, a good car or a sales pitch was one that offered compelling, well-supported numbers.

This is not to say that the cars that originated during McNamara’s tenure were all Spartan and bland — he was responsible for the Ford Skyliner, the 1961 Lincoln Continental, and the four-seat Thunderbird, which he believed in strongly and for which he fought tenaciously. However, it would be fair to say that he had little personal concern with the traditional fascinations of the domestic auto industry: power, size, and prestige.

To his credit, McNamara was among the American industry’s earliest serious advocates of automotive safety, greater fuel economy, and even emissions control, uncommon concerns for any business executive of the Eisenhower era. Although he recognized that there was a business case for cars like the Thunderbird or Continental — and would not have supported them if there were not — McNamara felt that the median American car had simply become too big. By 1956, he had begun pushing for the creation of a new, compact Ford.

1961 Ford Falcon front
The Ford Falcon’s basic body shell was almost unchanged between 1960 and 1963 and received few mechanical changes other than the beefing up necessary for convertibles and the V8-powered Sprint. The main distinction from year to year was different grille styling and trim. This is a 1961; the 1960 had a concave grille, but otherwise looked substantially similar.

THE FORD FALCON

Ford had played with compact car designs for years and had seriously considered offering a so-called Light Car after the war, but the project was canceled when it became clear that it would cost almost as much to build as a standard car. Although he approved McNamara’s development program for the new compact, Lewis Crusoe, who had preceded McNamara as the head of Ford Division, had insisted for years that compact cars would never be profitable in the U.S. That was also the general attitude of the rest of the industry, a belief no doubt underscored by the commercial failures of Kaiser-Frazer’s Henry J and Hudson’s compact Jet. Nonetheless, McNamara maintained that there would be a market for a smaller, more fuel-efficient Ford, more akin to the company’s European offerings.

A cynic might say that the compact McNamara wanted to build was the sort of car he himself would choose, but McNamara’s own later remarks suggest that he, like AMC’s George Romney, felt some measure of social responsibility beyond the plain business case. While that may seem contradictory given McNamara’s predilection for numbers, it was consistent with his philosophy — after all, using a bigger car where a smaller one would do is wasteful, which was something McNamara could not abide.

Even McNamara might not have succeeded in selling the compact idea to Henry Ford II had it not been for the “Eisenhower recession” that hit the U.S. in the fall of 1957. The recession, which continued well into 1958, led to steep declines in the sales of big, glitzy, middle-market cars like Ford’s new Edsel (which McNamara had opposed and was looking for an excuse to kill). At the same time, sales of Nash’s compact Rambler and small imports like the Volkswagen Beetle were soaring. McNamara argued forcefully that Ford should introduce a U.S.-market compact of its own. The project received production approval in early 1958 for launch as a 1960 model, barely a year and a half away.

During the initial styling development, the compact had been codenamed “XK-Thunderbird,” but it received its official moniker in April 1958: Ford Falcon. (The name had been previously registered by Chrysler, which had used it for a Thunderbird-like concept car, but Ford secured the rights through a bit of inter-corporate quid pro quo.) The Falcon would be the smallest model Ford had offered in the U.S. since well before the war. The original proposal called for a curb weight of only 2,100 lb (about 950 kg), a four-cylinder engine, and seats for five, but Henry Ford II eventually insisted on six-passenger seating and the project’s chief engineer, Jack Hooven, successfully lobbied for a six-cylinder engine; those changes raised the target weight to 2,300 lb (1,043 kg).

Although Ford Division was now managed by James O. Wright (another of the Whiz Kids), it was plain throughout the development process that the Ford Falcon was McNamara’s car. McNamara monitored every step of the engineering and testing, driving Hooven to distraction with constant micromanagement. Any part that came in over-budge or failed to perform to specifications would be met with McNamara’s strong disapproval and stern admonishment.

1961 Ford Falcon dashboard
Even with every available option, the early Ford Falcon’s interior was far from plush — note the sparse instrumentation and bare-bones dashboard. Despite the 100-mph speedometer, the best an early Falcon with two-speed Fordomatic could manage was around 85 mph (135 km/h). Cars with the three-speed manual, like this one, were a little faster, but you still weren’t likely to win any drag races.

As you would expect, the Ford Falcon emerged as a paragon of efficient design. Unlike Chevrolet’s contemporary rear-engined Corvair, the Falcon was wholly conventional, relying on assiduous refinement of familiar technology rather than attempting anything radical or new. Despite its exterior dimensions, which would make the Falcon a midsize car by today’s standards, base curb weight was under 2,400 pounds (1,090 kg) — slightly above the original target, but nonetheless a testament to the virtues of unitary construction and a fanatical attention to design detail.

The Falcon was powered by a new six-cylinder engine of 144 cu. in. (2,365 cc) displacement, the smallest, lightest, and most compact engine Ford had offered in the U.S. in decades. The entire car was a triumph of packaging, giving away surprisingly little useful passenger room to the full-sized Fords despite being more than 32 inches (82 cm) shorter. The Falcon’s bench seats were 6 inches (153 mm) narrower than the big Ford’s and the rear seat had about 6 inches (15 cm) less legroom — a modest sacrifice considering that the Falcon had about 25% less box volume than the big car and weighed three quarters of a ton less.

The Falcon was thrifty as well as roomy, capable of more than 20 miles per gallon (11.8 L/100 km) in routine driving and close to 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km) in gentle highway cruising. It also rode softly, steered easily, and offered excellent visibility. Furthermore, it started at only $1,912, more than $250 less than the cheapest big Ford.

Supremely logical, frugal, and practical, the Ford Falcon was — exciting, it was not. Compared to the Corvair, the Ford looked dowdy; scaling down standard Ford design cues had made the Falcon looked smaller than it really was, lending a stubby quality to its essentially boxy shape. The interior was dour, acceleration was sleepy, and the handling was timid and imprecise. When operated in the sedate, sensible manner for which it was designed, the Falcon was perfectly livable, but it inspired no lust.

1963 Ford Falcon Futura convertible side view
Despite its stubby proportions, the Ford Falcon is not nearly as small as it looks. Overall length is 181.1 inches (4,600 mm) and wheelbase is 109.5 inches (2,781 mm), making the early Falcon roughly the size of a 1990s Honda Accord. By the nineties, the Falcon would have been considered a midsize car. An early Falcon sedan weighed only about 2,400 pounds (1,090 kg), but the convertible Falcon, which required significant extra reinforcement of the unitized body to compensate for the loss of the roof, added more than 300 pounds (135 kg) to that figure. Curb weight of a 1963 Falcon Futura convertible like this one is about 2,800 pounds (1,270 kg).

A PYRRHIC VICTORY

Whatever its limitations, when the Ford Falcon bowed in the fall of 1959, it quickly established itself as the best seller of the new Detroit compacts. Its styling may have been bland, but many buyers found it far more palatable than Chrysler’s peculiar-looking Valiant. While the Falcon had no engineering innovations to match Chevrolet’s new Corvair, the compact Ford also had no radical technology to alarm conservative shoppers. This proved a commercially effective combination; Falcon sales were an impressive 435,000 for 1960 and even higher for 1961, accounting for around 25% of Ford’s total volume.

Although the Ford Falcon was a hit, it failed to meet McNamara’s ambitious sales projections. Ford had anticipated a volume of more than 600,000 units, but the Falcon didn’t come close to that mark and never would.

1962 Ford Falcon wagon side
The Ford Falcon was also offered as a two- or four-door wagon; this is a 1962 four-door version. The wagon is a very practical size and is arguably better looking than the sedan, although the six-cylinder engines’ limited muscle was easily over-matched even in the lighter sedans, much less a loaded wagon.

Had McNamara remained with Ford, he might have tried to analyze that shortfall, but his time with the company was nearly at an end. Although he was promoted to company president around the time the 1961 models went on sale, he resigned less than eight weeks later to become secretary of defense for the new Kennedy administration.

Lee Iacocca, who replaced Jim Wright as general manager of Ford Division around the same time, had no illusions about why the Falcon had missed its mark. Iacocca had in some respects been McNamara’s protégé, but his perspective was very different from that of his former boss because Iacocca was something McNamara had never been: a salesman.

LEE IACOCCA: THE SALESMAN

The college-educated scion of an Italian immigrant, Lido Anthony Iacocca joined Ford engineering in the late 1940s, but found the work dull and quickly realized that there were few opportunities for an Italian engineer, even a highly educated one, in a WASP-dominated company. He switched to sales, which proved a better fit for his personality.

In 1956, Iacocca, then working in Ford’s Philadelphia sales district, caught McNamara’s attention with a highly successful promotional campaign that was subsequently adopted nationwide, resulting in more than 70,000 additional sales; whatever McNamara’s feelings about salesmen, these were results he could appreciate. The campaign earned Iacocca a promotion and later that year brought him back to Dearborn as truck marketing manager for Ford Division. He became car marketing manager in 1957.

Iacocca and McNamara had a good working relationship. Unlike the Ford executives who regularly clashed with McNamara, Iacocca respected McNamara’s priorities and was willing to learn from him, although Iacocca was also smart enough to grasp McNamara’s limitations and even to recognize when he was bluffing, using his intellectual bluster to make points for which he didn’t really have strong evidence. McNamara’s influence was also counterbalanced by that of Iacocca’s immediate boss, Charlie Beacham, a tough but genial good ol’ boy who commanded loyalty through unpretentious empathy rather than force of intellect. Iacocca could be arrogant and sometimes brusque, but he was a far more political animal than McNamara was and was fluent in the messy, unscientific emotional machinations of the selling process that McNamara disdained.

1963 Ford Falcon Futura convertible front 3q
The deep creases of the Ford Falcon’s body sides are not simply decorative — they serve to stiffen the panels, allowing them to be adequately rigid without being thicker and heavier. Tricks like this helped to achieve the Falcon’s impressively low curb weight, although some choices would alarm modern safety advocates; for example, the top of the fuel tank forms the trunk floor. The Falcon lent its platform, suspension, and some of its running gear to the later Mustang, although the Mustang had its own body shell.

Where Iacocca really outshone McNamara and many other Ford executives of the time was in his grasp of the market and the customer. As he later told David Halberstam, Iacocca was dismayed at how few senior Ford executives seemed to grasp things that Iacocca considered obvious, such as the fact that the affordability of the monthly payment mattered more to most new car buyers than the actual transaction price. (Iacocca’s successful 1956 sales campaign had promised a new ’56 car for 20% down and only $56 a month.) Similarly, Iacocca, like every successful salesperson, well understood the value of ‘upselling’ — convincing a customer to choose a bigger or more expensive product or more accessories than he or she originally had in mind — and knew that even so-called entry-level customers were motivated as much by ego, lust, and fear as logic or reason, but these ideas mystified Iacocca’s non-sales colleagues and seemed lost on McNamara.

Viewing it from this perspective, Iacocca considered the Ford Falcon fundamentally misguided. Its design reflected McNamara’s assumption that buyers placed the same value he did on efficiency, which Iacocca recognized was only rarely the case. For the most part, the Falcon sold because it was cheap, not because customers were swayed by its single-minded parsimony or because it was an intrinsically desirable car. For the same reasons, the Falcon was not a big profit-maker however well it sold; to keep the price down, there were few extra-cost options and the appeal to cheapskates meant that customers were less likely to order the extras that were available. Ironically, McNamara had also authorized a slightly bigger, fancier version of the Falcon — the Comet, originally intended as an Edsel — but it was reserved for Lincoln-Mercury, which did Ford dealers no good. Moreover, since the Falcon’s sales not come with a corresponding increase in Ford’s total volume, the compact was effectively stealing sales from Ford Division’s bigger and more expensive cars.

1962 Ford Falcon Futura interior
The Ford Falcon Futura included Thunderbird-style bucket seats and vinyl upholstery. Despite its significant extra cost, the Futura outsold the plainer base model by a substantial margin.

1963 Ford Falcon convertible console
The interior of this well-used 1963 Ford Falcon Futura convertible shows off the pleated vinyl upholstery, stainless steel trim, and center console storage box (known to designers as the “booze box”) included with the Futura trim package. Note that although this car has a center console, the shift lever is still on the steering column.

Iacocca wasted no time in chipping away at the Falcon’s utilitarian image. A bigger 170 cu. in. (2,780 cc) engine had been added to the options list even before he became general manager, providing 101 hp (75 kW) and a useful boost in performance. Iacocca followed this late in the 1961 model year with a new model called Falcon Futura. Probably inspired at least in part by the early success of the Comet and Chevrolet’s new Corvair Monza, the Futura cost a substantial $248 more than a basic two-door sedan, but dressed up the Falcon’s otherwise cheap and dreary cabin with full carpeting, additional sound insulation, jazzy vinyl and stainless steel trim, a center console, and Thunderbird-style bucket seats. A convertible was added for 1963, joined at mid-year by a two-door hardtop and the Falcon Sprint, powered by the 260 cu. in. (4,267 cc) V8 from the larger Fairlane. All were a long way from the starkly equipped four-cylinder compact McNamara had originally advocated.

Speaking of four-cylinders, Iacocca also dispatched McNamara’s planned follow-up to the Falcon: an even smaller car codenamed Cardinal. Intended for joint production with Ford’s German subsidiary, the Cardinal was Ford’s first front-wheel-drive car, powered by an unusual 60-degree V4 engine. Ford had spent $35 million on the U.S. version of the Cardinal, but in April 1962, only two months before the slated start of production, Iacocca convinced Henry Ford II that the project would be an Edsel-sized disaster and persuaded him to cancel it. The German version went forward, emerging later that year as the Taunus P4, but it would never be sold in the United States.

As Plymouth would later discover with its sporty Barracuda, Iacocca found that the Falcon’s dowdy image was not easily shaken. The Futura was a strong seller because it provided a significantly more attractive interior for only a few dollars more a month than the basic car, but the convertible was never more than a niche item and the Sprint was a flop; a strong showing in European rally competition meant little to most American buyers.

1963 Ford Falcon Futura convertible front
Grille treatment is the main distinction between the different model years of the early Ford Falcon. The Thunderbird-style fake hood scoop trim was added for 1962 and retained for 1963.

Iacocca was not discouraged because he was already busily shepherding a purpose-built new model that was designed to do what the Falcon Sprint could not. That model, which became the Ford Mustang, was as much Iacocca’s car as the Falcon had been McNamara’s. It was not so much a replacement for the Falcon as a reinvention, representing what Iacocca felt the Falcon should have been in the first place. Iacocca made no secret of the fact that his goal was for the Mustang to beat the Falcon’s first-year sales, which it soundly did. Indeed, the Mustang soon established a lucrative new market segment that would generate substantial profits for Ford for the next 40 years.

EXIT FORD FALCON, ENTER FORD MAVERICK

Once the Mustang debuted, the Ford Falcon was relegated to an increasingly marginal role in Ford’s U.S. lineup. The original body got a substantial makeover for 1964, making it look bigger (which it wasn’t) and somewhat less stubby. For 1966, the Falcon was completely redesigned and enlarged, becoming essentially a cut-down version of the midsize Fairlane and sacrificing a measure of its previous space efficiency for a greater resemblance to its Mustang sibling. Neither interesting enough to tempt sporty-car buyers nor frugal enough to represent a serious competitor to the latest small imports, the Falcon languished in obscurity through 1970.

Ford discontinued the compact Falcon midway through the 1970 model year, although the name was briefly transferred to the base model of Ford’s intermediate Torino line. It was gone by the following year in the U.S., but local versions of it continued to be built in Australia. (The Australian Falcon, famous to moviegoers worldwide for its role in the Mad Max film series, underwent a wholly separate evolution, and its descendants are still sold today. That complicated history is outside the scope of this story, but we’ve written about it separately: Australian Falcon part onepart two.)

1962 Ford Falcon Futura rear 3q
Although this 1962 Ford Falcon Futura coupe looks like a hardtop with its padded roof and thin B-pillars, Falcon didn’t offer a true hardtop model until the mid-1963 of the Sprint, which brought significant structural reinforcements necessary to cope with the Sprint’s heavier and more powerful engine. “Dog dish” taillights are a styling feature shared with contemporary big Fords; stylist Joe Oros adopted them for the ’57 models, inspired by an earlier scale model done in Ford’s Advanced studio.

The supreme irony of the Falcon story is that in mid-1969, Iacocca essentially repackaged the original Falcon’s running gear to create the new Ford Maverick. The Maverick had notably sportier styling than the Falcon ever did, but in size, mechanical components, and under-$2,000 starting price, it was the same wine in a new bottle. The Maverick even emulated the old Falcon’s limited option list, much to the annoyance of Ford dealers. Considering the success of options-laden models like the Mustang, LTD, and Lincoln Continental Mark III (all Iacocca inspirations), the Maverick’s merchandising strategy represented uncharacteristic backpedaling, but Ford needed something to battle the growing popularity of small, fuel-efficient imported cars like the Volkswagen Beetle and the new subcompact Ford Pinto was not yet ready.

The popularity of compact cars continued to grow throughout the seventies, further sparked by the 1973-74 OPEC embargo and the subsequent introduction of the first CAFE standards. Iacocca, by now Ford’s president, was almost was almost sorry he had killed the Cardinal a decade earlier; in his 1984 autobiography, he admitted that by the mid-seventies, it would probably have been very popular. (By then, of course, the old FWD Taunus P4 and P6 were dead, replaced by a larger, more orthodox RWD model closely related to the English Ford Cortina.) The Maverick continued to sell well after the introduction of the Pinto, surviving through 1977. Even then, it did not really expire; Ford repackaged the platform yet again to create the luxury-oriented Granada, which would linger in the early eighties, several years after Iacocca’s departure from Ford.

1962 Ford Falcon Futura engine
The Ford Falcon’s six was cast iron, but thin-wall casting techniques made it surprisingly light; dry weight was only about 350 lb (160 kg). Early Falcons used 144 cu. in. (2,365 cc) and 170 cu. in. (2,780 cc) versions of this engine, with four main bearings; a 200 cu. in. (3,280 cc) seven-bearing version became optional in 1964. The smaller engines were adequate with manual transmission, but provided sluggish pickup in the heavier wagon and convertible, particularly with the optional two-speed automatic. The optional four-speed manual transmission, added in 1963, provided better all-around performance, but few Falcon buyers were willing to pay the extra $180, so the four-speed was rare.

LEGACIES

What are we to we make of the North American Ford Falcon and its many reinventions? As hopeless as the original seemed to Iacocca from a salesman’s perspective, the Falcon eventually paid off handsomely for Ford Motor Company. If we include the Maverick, the Falcon- and Maverick-based Comets, the early Mustang, and the American Granada, the total production tally for the North American Falcon platform amounted to more than 11 million units — a sow’s ear transformed into a veritable silk purse industry. That was an achievement that we suspect McNamara himself would have approved, whatever initial reservations he might have had about the dilution of the original concept.

Nonetheless, we can’t entirely escape the conclusion that despite their commercial success and better-judged styling and marketing, Iacocca’s later Falcon derivatives were ultimately far more conservative than the car he often characterized as the quintessential bean counter’s special. Whatever the original Ford Falcon’s shortcomings, none was the product of compromise or conceptual ambivalence. The first Falcon was an entirely new car with an entirely new engine, designed and engineered at considerable cost and with a single-mindedness of purpose rarely seen at Ford since the departure of Henry Ford I. By comparison, the Maverick, the Granada, and even the Mustang were primarily merchandising concepts: different ways of packaging and selling familiar goods.

1972 Ford Maverick front 3q
Particularly in sportier “Grabber” trim, the Ford Maverick’s curvier bodywork and sporty, semi-fastback styling disguised the fact that it was a lot like the earlier Ford Falcon underneath, sharing much of the same running gear. The two-door sedan, like this one, rode a 103-inch (2,616mm) wheelbase, but the four-door Maverick’s 109.9-inch (2,791mm) wheelbase was nearly identical to that of the earlier Falcon. The Maverick was less space-efficient than its predecessor, but offered a similar combination of utilitarian virtues. The Maverick and its Mercury Comet sibling were sold in the U.S. through 1977, although production continued in Brazil until 1979.

The Falcon also strikes us as a missed opportunity. As with Ford’s short-lived safety campaign of a few years earlier, McNamara’s genuine abhorrence of needless waste had yielded a commendable impulse that he did not really know how to sell to anyone who didn’t already share his narrow and specific world view. The people who could have bridged the gap, like Iacocca, were either alienated by McNamara’s ruthlessness and lack of empathy or disinterested in his goals; it was only after the public mood had already shifted in that direction that Iacocca acknowledged that McNamara’s interest in safety and fuel economy had been ahead of the curve.

In his 1984 memoir, Iacocca spoke of the necessary balancing act between salesmen and statisticians in product development. While we could site numerous examples of one side winning out over the other to the detriment of both, what we find considerably more worrisome in the postwar era has been the gradual synthesis — not simply in the auto industry, but in almost every aspect of the modern world — of the worst aspects of both philosophies with the virtues of neither. Most sectors of today’s economy seem driven by an exhausting and unsustainable blend of frenetic hucksterism and merciless, reactionary penny-pinching, resulting in a virtually endless parade of gimmicks and marketing permutations dressing up a steadily diminishing number of permissible ideas. We certainly don’t hold Lee Iacocca or Robert McNamara personally or individually responsible for that trend, but their respective careers serve to illustrate where and how it began.

We’re no longer sure there would have been a real alternative given the circumstances of the postwar business world (at Ford and elsewhere); perhaps not, given the various pressures and conflicting ambitions involved. If there were, however, we suspect that the auto industry and indeed the United States would look very different today.

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NOTES ON SOURCES

Background on Robert McNamara and Lee Iacocca came from Thomas R. Bonsall, Disaster in Dearborn: The Story of the Edsel (Automotive History and Personalities) (Stanford, CA: Stanford General Books, 2002); Douglas Brinkley, Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress (New York: Viking Press, 2003); Ford Motor Company, News Department [James Wright resignation press release], 1 May 1963; David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Crest Books, 1973), and The Reckoning (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986); Tim Darling, “The Whiz Kids: How 10 Men Saved America (and Then Almost Destroyed It),” Amnesta.net, July 2008, www.amnesta. net, retrieved 27 October 2008; Lee Iacocca, Iacocca: An Autobiography (New York: Bantam Books, 1984); Richard A. Johnson, “The Outsider,” American Heritage Summer 2007, www.americanheritage. com, retrieved 27 October 2007; Randy Leffingwell, Mustang: America’s Classic Pony Car (Ann Arbor, MI: Lowe & B. Hould Pub., 1999); Randy Leffingwell and David Newhardt, Mustang: Forty Years (St. Paul, MN: Crestline/MBI Publishing/Barnes & Noble Publishing Inc., 2003, 2006); Heinz P. Schlichting, “Road Testing Ford’s Cardinal,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 118, No. 6 (December 1962), pp. 84-87; and The Fog of War – Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (produced by Errol Morris, Julie Ahlberg, and Michael Williams, directed by Errol Morris, United States: Sony Pictures Classics, 2003).

Additional information on the origins and performance of the Falcon, Comet, and Maverick came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1960-1963 Mercury Comet,” HowStuffWorks.com, 21 August 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1960-1963-mercury-comet.htm, accessed 30 April 2009; Cars That Never Were: The Prototypes (Skokie, IL: Publications International, 1981); and Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Eric Dahlquist, “Ford’s Maverick,” Motor Trend Vol. 21, No. 5 (May 1969), pp. 28-30; “Design Development of a Car – The Ford Falcon,” Canada Track & Traffic March 1961, reprinted in Falcon Performance Portfolio 1960-1970, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 1998), pp. 26-28; Tim Howley, “Full Dress Falcon: 1963 Sprint V-8,” Special Interest Autos #67 (January-February 1982), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Postwar Fords: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), pp. 96-103; Richard Langworth, “Not for Production: 1957 Dart/Diablo, 1955 Chrysler Falcon,” Special-Interest Autos #30 (September-October 1975), pp. 21-26; “Maverick Gets More Oats,” Road Test August 1970, pp. 18-23; Alex Meredith, “SIA comparisonReport: 1965 Falcon vs. 1965 Mustang,” Special Interest Autos #110 (March-April 1989), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Mustangs: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, Second Edition, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2000), pp. 24-33; “The Comet: A penetrating analysis of Fo-Mo-Co’s new ‘not-big-not-small’ car,” Road & Track April 1960, reprinted in Mercury Comet & Cyclone 1960-1970 (A Brooklands Road Test Limited Edition), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 1999), and the following period road tests: “Preliminary Road Test: Ford Falcon” Sports Cars Illustrated November 1959; John R. Bond, “Road Test: Ford Falcon,” Road & Track November 1959; Duncan Maxwell, “Testing the Ford Falcon,” Cars January 1960; “The FORD FALCON Fordor Sedan (The Motor Road Test No. 2/60),” The Motor 15 January 1960; “Falcon Road Test,” Motor Trend May 1961; “Falcon FUTURA,” Motor Life August 1961; “Road Test: Ford Falcon Futura,” Motor Trend September 1961; “Falcon,” Motor Life October 1961; “Falcon,” Motor Trend November 1961; “New Car Classic,” Cars April 1963; “1963 Ford Falcon Futura Convertible,” Car Life October 1962; Jim Wright, “Falcon Convertible: Ford’s compact flips its lid,” Motor Trend December 1962, and “Falcon Sprint,” Motor Trend February 1964; “Ford Falcon Sprint,” Car Life June 1964; David Phipps, “Mini-Cooper S vs. Falcon Sprint,” Car and Driver July 1964; and “Ford Falcon: What Is a Falcon?” Road Test March 1965; “Fairlane & Falcon,” Motor Trend November 1965; Robert McVay, “Falcons – a pair,” Motor Trend March 1966; “Ford Falcon,” Car and Driver March 1966; Bill Hartford, “PM Owners Report: Ford Falcon: more faithful than flashy,” Popular Mechanics June 1967; “’70 Falcon,” New Cars 1970; and “1970½ Falcon Is Really a Fairlane,” Road Test May 1970; all of which are reprinted in Falcon Performance Portfolio 1960-1970.


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22 Comments

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  1. Considering the Falcon is still made today in Australia and was the “last of the v-8s” in MAD MAX, I was surprised none of this was mentioned in this ad. Was this about the Falcon or Lee Iaacoca and McNamera

    1. It’s mentioned briefly ([i]It was gone by the following year (except in Australia, where the nameplate remains in use today)[/i]), but not in any great detail. The Australian Falcon’s story diverges so much from that of its U.S. counterpart — especially in the seventies, when it evolved in a very different direction — that I decided I couldn’t do it any justice within the scope of this article. In many respects, they’re two very different car lines that happened to have the same name. I made the decision that it was better to gloss over the other than to not give it the treatment it deserves.

      I would love to do a follow-up about the Australian Falcons, if I had appropriate pictures. It’s an interesting story in itself, and of course there’s the [i]Mad Max[/i] tie-in.

      1. Let me know if I could give you any help – if I don’t have the photos you need I could get them. I also know a reasonable amount about Aust. Falcon history.

        1. Could you drop me a line via the contact form and let me know how best to reach you?

          Thanks!

  2. Three comments on the article: first, the 1964/65 Falcons were a distinct body and interior from the 1960-63 models, not remotely part of the same series. They did share many of the same driveline parts, however. Second, the photo of the ’61 dashboard shows a three-on-the-tree manual, not a two speed automatic (the clutch pedal is visible as well). And third, as you note, the Falcons have become modestly collectible, a fact that perplexes my family as well… even though a ’65 Falcon Ranchero was until very recently part of our family fleet, and another Falcon is assuredly in my future.

    1. [quote]first, the 1964/65 Falcons were a distinct body and interior from the 1960-63 models, not remotely part of the same series. [/quote]
      A fair point. I amended it to “package,” because I was less referring to the specific internal structure and more its size, configuration, and intent — the ’64-’65 is beefier, but its overall dimensions are very, very similar, as is its packaging.

      [quote]Second, the photo of the ’61 dashboard shows a three-on-the-tree manual, not a two speed automatic (the clutch pedal is visible as well)[/quote]
      Ack! You’re absolutely right. Careless of me. Text amended.

      [quote]even though a ’65 Falcon Ranchero was until very recently part of our family fleet, and another Falcon is assuredly in my future.[/quote]
      The Ranchero is an interesting case that really deserves a separate article. Like the Mercury Comet, it was a sort of half step between the Falcon and the Fairlane, before eventually becoming a Fairlane. Nostalgia value aside, I think the Ranchero (and the little wagons) are probably the most [i]useful[/i] Falcon variants — if you were a small business owner, or did a lot of gardening or home improvements, a ’65 Ranchero actually would make a lot of sense.

      1. YOUR PICTURE OF THE 61 WITH “DELUXE INTERIOR” IS MOST DEFINITELY A STANDARD INTERIOR – THE DELUXE INTERIOR HAD MUCH NICER LOOKING SEATS AND A HORN RING FOR 2 OF THE MORE OBVIOUS DIFFERENCES.

        1. Thanks for the correction; I’ve amended the text.

  3. In addition to Australia, the Falcon also went to Argentina, where it had a long and eventful career that a lot of people there would wish you wouldn’t know about.

  4. Not sure I agree with the legacies.

    Lee Iacocca made the K car.

    Isn’t that the same idea as the Ford Falcon?

    1. The K-car was conceived and approved for production before Iacocca arrived; it was John Riccardo’s project, not Iacocca’s. Iacocca had the task of selling it — something he did very well — but by then, he didn’t have a lot of choice but to make the best of what Chrysler had to work with. I think the later K-car derivatives, like the FWD Daytona and the “EEK” New Yorker, were really more reflective of Iacocca’s product-planning sensibility.

      Iacocca’s tenure at Chrysler has some strong parallels to what happened at Ford in the sixties, actually. Iacocca inherited a rather plain-Jane compact, conceived before his arrival. He quickly began looking for ways to add some merchandising sizzle to the basic mechanical package: the convertibles in ’82, the minivan and the Daytona/Laser in ’83, the FWD LeBarons, and so on, culminating in cars like the 1990-1993 Chrysler Fifth Avenue and Imperial. It was a lot like the way the basic Falcon package gave way to the Mustang, the Maverick, and then the U.S. Granada.

      I do have to give Iacocca credit for his willingness to change his tune to suit the tenor of the marketplace. He opposed airbags in the early seventies, but then became one of Detroit’s biggest boosters for them in the late eighties; he opposed the Cardinal in the early sixties, but in the mid-seventies, he and Hal Sperlich pushed hard for FWD compacts, only to have Henry Ford II resist. The problem is that if your decisions are solely based on merchandising (an area in which Iacocca’s instincts were very good for many years), you eventually end up with, well, the Y-platform Chrysler Imperial.

  5. I learned how to drive in a ’61 Falcon wagon with three on the tree.

    And, you’re right; it was quite dull, but actually pretty peppy for its size, even with the 144 six.
    Also, a school friend had the Sprint model with the 260 V-8 and four on the floor, and even with four people on board, it hauled ass – and sounded like it, too.

    That was a nice car.

    1. The three-speed stick makes a big difference — most early Falcons had the two-speed Ford-O-Matic, which makes them rather lethargic.

  6. Nice story – learned a lot about MacNamara and his rationale behind these products. Lee is always a fun guy to read about too.

    I do have to ask about this line though..”A convertible followed for 1962, and…” Are you saying convertibles were added in the year 1962, or implying they were ’62 model Falcons? Based on my knowledge, convertibles were introduced mid way through the 1963 model run, when the V8s were added. I’m in two Falcon clubs and many people call these “63 1/2s”. I just think this area should be clarified.

    I would also ask that the white convertible in the head on picture, be listed as a ’63 model. The caption mentions hood scoops being added for ’62, but that car is a ’63. Just feel it should be clarified.

    If you ever need pics of a red & white ’65 Falcon Ranchero or other Falcons – let me know!

    I also have the orginal sales brochures for 57-79 Rancheros.

    1. You’re right, the convertible and hardtop were both added to the line in mid-1963. That was a text error that I’ve now fixed.

      As for the photo captions, I will try to clarify; since each photo has a tool tip saying what it is, I tend to presume it’s clearer than it may be. Sorry about that.

  7. Okay…just wanted to mention it.

    I plan to read all of your articles, since I really enjoy each one and feel that I can learn a lot from what you have here.

    Plus you have a nice mix of domestic and import brands – that’s a bonus as well. Thanks for doing these!!

    Now about the lack of truck articles….

  8. Dear Sir,
    Thanks for a great article.
    I wonder, can You help with finding the part listed above.
    I will be most thankfull.
    Yosi.

    1. Yosi,

      I’m not able to help with parts or repair services — sorry!

  9. Yesterday I found your site through TTAC, and I am impressed with it thus far, and for that I thank you. I appreciate the mix of makes and topics like this piece on Robert and Leedo.

    Thanks again

  10. Thanks for the great article and delving into personality types and psychology. Very interesting read!

  11. I am the author of The Ford Falcon;1960-1963. I interviewed Robert S. McNamara in late 1982. He was proud of his work on the Falcon project and said that Ford Motor Co. made $60 million profit on the 1960 Falcon. The updated edition of my book is available at Amazon.

    Phil Cottrill

    1. Phil — I haven’t read your book, but he had a point; Ford got a lot of mileage (no pun intended) out of the Falcon’s design and architecture.

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