One of our biggest challenges in writing these articles is that we sometimes become fascinated by something for reasons that aren’t easy to articulate. Some of our subjects have obvious interest, like the Ford Skyliner or the Jaguar XK120, but others may be puzzling to the casual observer. That is certainly the case with this week’s subjects, which are thoroughly unexceptional in engineering and design and have styling that could charitably be described as ordinary. However, they were at the forefront of an emerging debate that is still going on: the question of exactly how big an American sedan ought to be. This week, the history of the 1960-1965 Mercury Comet and 1962-1965 Ford Fairlane.
A SEA CHANGE
The early 1960s saw a profound shift in the way U.S. automakers approached the mass market. Until 1959, the Big Three’s bread-and-butter cars were very much of a piece; there were different trim series, different body styles, different engines, and sometimes minor variations in wheelbase or length, but you could speak with authority about “the Ford” or “the Chevrolet.” Discounting specialty cars like the Ford Thunderbird or Chevrolet Corvette, each manufacturer’s different models were nearly identical in basic engineering, concept, and size.
The independent automakers, looking for niches in which they would have less direct competition, were the first to challenge this paradigm. Nash introduced its compact Rambler in 1950, followed a year later by Kaiser’s Henry J and in 1953 by the Hudson Jet. None of these small economy cars replaced the companies’ bigger models, but they provided a cheaper, more economical alternative. Most were not particularly successful (only the Rambler survived past the mid-1950s) and the Big Three went on with business as usual. It was not until the recession of late 1957 and 1958 that compact sales increased enough to make GM, Ford, and Chrysler take notice. As we have seen, they each developed compact models of their own, which emerged as the Chevrolet Corvair, Chrysler’s Valiant, and the Ford Falcon.
THE EDSEL COMET BECOMES A MERCURY
In the summer of 1958, a few months after Ford’s Falcon was approved for production, the management of Ford’s recently unified Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln division began lobbying for their own version of the new compact. The 1958 model year had been horrendous, with the Edsel a particular disaster, and the division’s new management wanted to make sure they’d have something to sell if buyer interest in economy cars continued to grow. (Similar dialogues were taking place at GM, which is how Buick ended up selling Opels and Pontiac briefly offered English Vauxhalls.) M-E-L’s version of the Falcon was originally intended as an Edsel, known internally as the Edsel B. It was eventually named Comet.
Making an Edsel out of the Falcon posed an interesting challenge. The Falcon was engineered as a strictly no-frills package, offering maximum usable space with minimal cost and weight. The Mercury-Edsel-Lincoln division was supposed to be luxurious and upscale, but for economic reasons, the Comet had to share as much of the Falcon’s hardware as possible.
In a later era, the company would probably have settled for slightly different trim and styling, but at the time, newly minted M-E-L general manager Ben Mills was struggling to justify the division’s continued existence. Mills convinced Ford group vice president Robert McNamara that the Comet needed greater distinction from its Falcon sibling, so while the Comet would share the Falcon’s basic body shell, suspension, and powertrain, both wheelbase and overall length were stretched to create different proportions. The first Comet would be 13.8 inches (351 mm) longer than the Falcon on a 5-inch (127mm) longer wheelbase, weighing about 160 lb (73 kg) more. Cabin volume was nearly identical, although a longer tail gave the Comet a slight edge in trunk space.
In November 1959, not long before the Comet entered production, Ford announced that it was shuttering the Edsel brand after the 1960 model year. The Comet actually survived the demise of the Edsel brand, although it no longer carried Edsel identification. When it was launched in March 1960, Comet was technically a separate marque, albeit sold through Lincoln-Mercury dealers.
Despite the late introduction and lukewarm reviews, the Comet sold well: more than 116,000 units in its shortened debut season. Its first full year was even better, tallying almost 200,000 sales — more than 60% of Lincoln-Mercury’s total business. For 1962, the Comet was finally badged as a Mercury, which did nothing to dampen its success.
THE MIDSIZE FORD FAIRLANE
The development history of the midsize Ford Fairlane is somewhat obscure — in most accounts it is overshadowed completely by the compact Ford Falcon and sporty Ford Mustang — but we speculate that it was inspired by the development and perhaps the early success of the Comet. Ford’s market research had already indicated that there were buyers who liked the idea of a no-nonsense, smaller car that wasn’t quite as small or as Spartan as the Falcon. The Comet confirmed that assessment. The natural follow-on was a bigger compact Ford — that is, an intermediate.
The new midsize Ford took its name from what had previously been the popular mid-level trim series of Ford’s full-size line: Fairlane. (As we mentioned in our history of the Ford Skyliner, the name was derived from Fair Lane, the Ford family’s Dearborn estate.) Unlike the Comet, the Fairlane didn’t share the Falcon’s body shell, but it had a similar unitized structure and suspension. It was 2.2 inches (56 mm) longer than the Comet on a 115.5-inch (2,934mm) wheelbase and weighed about 200 pounds (91 kg) more. The Fairlane was quite a bit bigger than a Falcon, but more than a foot (312 mm) shorter than a 1962 Ford Galaxie. Despite its smaller size, the Fairlane actually had slightly more rear legroom, headroom, and trunk space than the Galaxie, although its narrower width cost the smaller car a modicum of shoulder and hip room.
For critics who felt standard-size cars had become too big, the Ford Fairlane represented a welcome dose of moderation. The Fairlane was actually very similar in size to the enormously popular 1949 Ford and Ford’s press materials called the new car “a return to the traditional size” of the low-priced market.
THE FORD FAIRLANE V8
The Ford Fairlane broke no new ground in styling or engineering, but it did introduce what would become the company’s most important new engine since the 1932 flathead V8. Developed by engineer George Stirrat, the new small-block V8 used the latest “thinwall” casting techniques to make it as small and light as possible. Unlike Buick’s small V8, the Ford engine was all cast iron, which was both cheaper and more reliable than aluminum, but was actually more compact than the Buick. The Ford V8’s dry weight was only 470 pounds (213 kg), heavier than the aluminum Buick engine, but around 65 lb (30 kg) lighter than a small-block Chevrolet V8.
The new V8 was initially a Ford Fairlane exclusive, although it eventually replaced the last of the 1954-vintage Y-block engines in all of Ford’s cars and trucks. In its initial form, the V8 displaced 221 cubic inches (3,620 cc) and produced a respectable 145 gross horsepower (108 kW). It very quickly increased to 260 cu. in. (4,267 cc) and then to 289 cu. in. (4,728 cc) and finally 302 cu. in. (4,942 cc). Most of these versions were quite mildly tuned, but knowledgeable hot rod artists could easily extract 300 or more horsepower (224 kW) with a little massaging. Ford would use this basic engine through the year 2000 and it is still produced as a crate motor for restoration or racing use.
The V8 gave the Fairlane notably better performance than the standard 170 cu. in. (2,780 cc) six and could run rings around its Ford Falcon and Mercury Comet cousins. Still, the Fairlane was no drag racer, particularly with the two-speed Fordomatic that most buyers ordered. Motor Trend‘s early Ford Fairlane 500 with the 221 cu. in. (3,620 cc) V8 and automatic needed more than 13 seconds for the 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) run and couldn’t quite reach 95 mph (153 km/h). Car Life found another Fairlane with the optional 260 cu. in. (4,267 cc) engine and automatic about a second quicker to 60 mph (97 km/h), with a top speed over 100 mph (161 km/h). Fuel economy was reasonable for an American car of this size and era, usually ranging from 16 to 19 mpg (12.4 to 14.7 L/100 km).
DEFINING THE MIDDLE GROUND
When the midsize Ford Fairlane debuted for the 1962 model year, it found itself in that most enviable of arenas: an untapped market niche. Unlike the Falcon, the Fairlane neither looked nor felt small and it was as roomy as the Buick Special, and Oldsmobile F-85, which had debuted the year before. The Fairlane was bigger and roomier than the senior compacts and was cheaper than any of them except the Tempest. As a result, the Fairlane outsold all of its competitors by a significant margin, racking up nearly 300,000 sales. Sales were even better for 1963, totaling more than 340,000.
The Ford Fairlane’s success caused a great deal of soul searching at GM. The general managers of Oldsmobile and Buick had
been uneasy about being in the compact market in the first place, believing their customers had come to expect bigger cars. The Fairlane was closer to where they felt they should be. Chevrolet, meanwhile, had no intermediate at all and the appearance of the Fairlane pointed out the big gap in size and price between its compact Corvair and Chevy II and the cheapest full-size Chevy. Chevrolet was in no immediate danger — it outsold Ford by around 50% in both 1962 and 1963 — but it was a chink in the division’s armor that could not be ignored. GM’s response was to shift the Tempest, F-85, and Special to a new intermediate-size A-body platform for 1964, which was shared by the new Chevrolet Chevelle.
Before, the Ford Fairlane had had little direct competition, but now it faced a host of formidable rivals. Its 1964 sales fell to fewer than 280,000 units.
THE SMALL GET BIGGER
Both GM and Ford assumed that the major reason the Ford Fairlane had outsold the GM senior compacts was that it was bigger than any of them. (The failure of the Mercury Meteor suggested otherwise; see sidebar.) The initial 1964 Chevrolet Chevelle was actually a bit smaller than the Fairlane, but the other A-bodies were noticeably larger: the Oldsmobile F-85 and Pontiac Tempest were each 5.4 inches (137 mm) longer than a 1964 Fairlane. For 1965, Ford stretched the Fairlane another 1.2 inches (30 mm), giving the intermediate bulky, slab-sided styling that contrived to make it look even bigger than it was.
The idea of jockeying to offer the biggest smaller car seems more than a little absurd, but the equation of size and value was (and remains) deeply ingrained in the American psyche. That went for engines, as well as the cars themselves. Pontiac had upped the ante in 1964 with the big-engine Tempest GTO, which included a 389 cu. in. (6,372 cc) V8 with 325 gross hp (242 kW). Its GM siblings quickly followed suit and in 1966, Ford began offering its own 390 cu. in. (6,391 cc) FE-series V8 in the Fairlane.
The big engines added power, but they also added weight: installing the 390 (and the chassis reinforcement that it required) made the big-engine Fairlane about 430 pounds (195 kg) heavier than the basic six-cylinder car. A 1962 Fairlane with V8 and automatic had weighed 3,150 lb (1,429 kg); a 1966 Ford Fairlane GTA with the 390 and automatic weighed over 3,500 lb (1,588 kg).
The added bulk didn’t dissuade customers. The U.S. economy was in good shape in the mid-sixties, gasoline was cheap, and the promise of big-engine power was alluring to young Baby Boomers just reaching driving age. By 1966, buyers were losing interest in compacts like the Falcon and Corvair, while intermediate sales continued to rise. The Ford Fairlane sold almost 320,000 units in 1966 and, after an abysmal 1967 run, around 380,000 for 1968.
The Fairlane accomplished this without ever being particularly exciting. Other than a handful of cars offered with the rare and expensive 427 cu. in. (6,986 cc) “side-oiler,” even Fairlanes with big-block engines had lukewarm performance compared to the hottest GTOs or Dodge Chargers. Car Life, testing the raciest big-block 1966 Ford Fairlane, concluded that it was still basically a family sedan. As for its styling, the most generous critics called it pleasant and bland. It was hardly an eyesore, but it was not a car dripping with sex appeal.
FAIRLANE IN TWILIGHT
The Ford Fairlane nameplate survived until 1970 in the U.S., although starting in 1968 the top intermediate models were renamed Torino, possibly at the behest of Ford’s Italian-American vice president, Lee Iacocca. In 1971, the Fairlane name was dropped entirely (except in Australia; see the sidebar) and all midsize Fords became Torinos.
By then, Ford’s midsize cars had become gargantuan. A 1972 Ford Torino four-door was 211.3 inches (5,359 mm) long on a 118-inch (2,997mm) wheelbase, tipping the scales at 4,250 lb (1,928 kg) — actually larger than a full-size car of a decade earlier. In the interim, the big Fords had also grown larger; a 1972 Ford LTD was 218.4 inches (5,547 mm) long on a 121-inch (3,073 mm) wheelbase, weighing close to 4,800 pounds (2,175 kg). The industry’s former compacts, meanwhile, were beginning to approach the size of the 1962 Ford Fairlane.
This growth came to an abrupt halt in the late 1970s, when new federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules forced Detroit to downsize its bread-and-butter cars. The new full-size models shrank to what had previously been intermediate dimensions. The 1979 Ford LTD sedan, for example, was 209 inches (5,309 mm) long on a 114-inch (2,896mm) wheelbase, roughly the size of a pre-downsizing Torino. The new midsize Ford Fairmont, meanwhile, was about the size of an early Mercury Comet.
AROUND AND AROUND
The effects of downsizing proved to be temporary, and by the late 1980s cars were again getting larger. The growth is no longer simply an American phenomenon; the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, which began as superminis, are now as big as the mid-size Honda Accord and Toyota Camry of 20 years ago. The Camry and Accord, meanwhile, are now classed as “large cars.” As those models have grown, the manufacturers have introduced new, smaller products to fill the gap. Clearly, the pattern established by the intermediates of the sixties and seventies continues apace.
Looking at all of this suggests several interesting conclusions:
- Customers like having choices, but more choices don’t necessarily mean higher sales. Both the Falcon and the Ford Fairlane were commercially successful when they were first introduced, but Ford’s total sales during that period remained almost flat. Rather than attracting new buyers, the new models seemed to simply divide existing customers into smaller subcategories. (The only new Ford product of the period that actually seemed to increase total sales was the Mustang.)
- Consumers are motivated by perceived value, which is not necessarily the same thing as size. Automakers tend to assume American consumers always like bigger cars, but the evidence suggests that that is only partly true. Within the intermediate class, buyers did seem to prefer the bigger models, particularly when the prices were similar. On the other hand, if we compare the sales of Ford’s intermediate and full-size cars in the sixties, it appears that the growth in intermediate sales was largely at the expense of the low-line big cars. The price difference between a deluxe Ford Fairlane 500 and a basic full-size Ford was not huge, perhaps $150, but buyers preferred the former, trading sheer size for plusher trim and more equipment. Mercury buyers, meanwhile, clearly felt that the midsize Meteor wasn’t worth the modest price premium over the Mercury Comet, larger dimensions or no.
- There seem to be certain sizes that American consumers particularly like, which manufacturers are continually reinventing under different names. Buyers loved the 1949 Ford and the 1955 Chevrolet, for example, and when those models grew beyond recognition, their dimensions were reinvented as the early-sixties intermediates, which buyers loved again. When fuel economy standards forced downsizing in the late seventies, that size was reinvented a third time. Not coincidentally, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, the best-selling sedans in America in recent years, are again approaching those dimensions.
Interesting as all that may be from a marketing standpoint, none of this helps to make the early Fairlane any more exciting in its own right. There was nothing wrong with it, but after practically creating its market segment, it consistently failed to stand out from the crowd. There’s little honor, it seems, in defining the middle ground.
FTC DISCLOSURE NOTICE
From 2012–2014, the author worked with former Ford executive Chase Morsey Jr., who was involved with the marketing of the original Comet, on the writing of Mr. Morsey’s memoir, The Man Who Saved the V-8, which also discusses the Comet. This article was published prior to (and separate from) that project.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our account of the origins of the Comet comes 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, sand Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); 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); James Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); and David Halberstam, The Reckoning (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1986). Additional history of the small-block Ford came from Isaac Martin, Ford Windsor Small-Block Performance (New York: HP Trade, 1999). We also consulted the following period road tests: Jim Wright, “Ford Fairlane 500,” Motor Trend April 1962; “Ford Fairlane 260 Sports Coupe,” Car Life August 1962; “Ford Fairlane 500: Pity the Belabored Fairlane, Starter of Trends and Standard for the Industry,” Car Life March 1965; and “Ford Fairlane GTA: Genuine Imitation Joins Supercar Spectrum,” Car Life March 1966, all of which are reprinted in Ford Fairlane 1955-1970 Performance Portfolio, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1998); “Car and Driver Road Test: Torino Cobra: A redesign of the Torino chassis results in a Forrestal-class Super Car,” Car and Driver December 1969, and Jim Brokaw, “The Long and the Short of It,” Motor Trend March 1972, both of which are reprinted in Ford Torino 1968-1974 Performance Portfolio, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2004); “The Comet: A penetrating analysis of Fo-Mo-Co’s new ‘not-big-not-small’ car,” Road & Track April 1960; “Comet: Mercury’s small car adds pounds but loses power,” Motor Life April 1960; “Comet 170: A minor facelift and a larger engine for 1961,” Road & Track January 1961; Jim Wright, “3 from Mercury: Comet, Meteor, Monterey,” Motor Trend May 1962; “Mercury Comet Stresses Low Upkeep,” Automobile Topics November 1962; “Comet Caliente: A Finer Filly for Track or Touring Is Posted For Mid-Range Sweepstakes,” Car Life January 1964; John Ethridge, “2 Comets: Hot & Cool,” Motor Trend May 1965; and “Mercury Comet,” Road Test November 1965, all of which are reprinted in Mercury Comet & Cyclone 1960-1970 (A Brooklands Road Test Limited Edition), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1999).