By John Gunnell
Henry Ford built his first car in the summer of 1896. Charles Ainsley gave him $200 for it, and Ford used the money to finance his second car. Attempts to form an automobile manufacturing company followed, and on June 16, 1903, Ford’s third company, the Ford Motor Co., was formed with great success.
In October 1908, the Model T arrived. Henry Ford was finished experimenting. The long-lasting T survived almost 20 years.
By 1926, after building 15 million Model T’s, Ford was finally convinced the “flivver” was outdated. He and son Edsel Ford followed it with the ubiquitous Model A. From 1927 to March 1932, about five million Model As were built. Then, the flathead arrived for 1932, offering 65 hp for $460 under one of the most iconic and loved body designs to ever be built. The V-8 Ford (and companion four-cylinder Ford) changed styling annually from that point forward, with the flathead V-8 surviving into the ’50s.
In 1935, Ford outsold Chevrolet, America’s best-selling car. Fords were finally fitted with four-wheel hydraulic brakes in 1939, and a six was introduced in 1941.
On May 26, 1943, Henry Ford’s son Edsel died and Henry returned to the presidency of Ford Motor Co. When he died in 1947, the dynasty ended and FoMoCo started its move into the modern age. New postwar envelope-body styling was introduced for 1949 and Ford remained “the car to have” for performance enthusiasts.
In 1954, Ford received its first overhead-valve V-8, and the perfect performance platform into which it could be installed — the two-seat Thunderbird — arrived a year later. Ford continued as a leader in the mounting horsepower race in 1957 when it offered a supercharged version of its 312-cid V-8, plus a 340-hp NASCAR version. New for 1958 was the famous FE series of 332- and 352-cid V-8s, which grew into the 390 and the awesome 427 engine. The next year was a beauty contest, thanks to the 1959 Galaxie. This Fairlane 500-based two-door hardtop with a Thunderbird-inspired roof gathered accolades and prizes for its styling.
Through the early ’60s, Ford continued on a steady-as-she-goes course, adding the compact Falcon in 1960 and the mid-size Fairlane in 1962. One of the most beautiful cars of the ’60s was the 1963-1/2 Galaxie 500 two-door hardtop. Its fastback-type roof evolved out of racing. The mid-’64-introduced 1965 Mustang remains history’s best-selling new car.
It wasn’t all about Mustang in the mid-’60s. Ford’s 1965 LTD was a low-priced car with a luxury image. The big news in ’66 was a restyled Fairlane with big-block V-8 options. By 1967, NASCAR allowed mid-size cars, and Fairlanes replaced Galaxies, dominating the big races.
As the muscle car era arrived, Ford continued to dominate the streets of America with pumped-up Mustangs, big-block Fairlanes and Torinos and Shelby Cobras and GTs. Horsepower ruled in the ’60s and early ’70s until insurance companies tightened the noose on “super car” owners. Experts recognize 1971 as the last year for true high-performance products from Ford until the ’80s.
In answer to the growing import threat of the early ’70s and new sub-compacts from AMC and Chevy, Ford introduced the Pinto. No automaker marketed a more complete line than Ford between 1976 and 1986. Its offerings ranged from the sub-compact Pinto through the big Thunderbird and LTD. Engine displacements ranged all the way up to a 460-cid V-8, which remained available through 1978.
In 1977, the “big ’Bird” gave way to a modified LTD II. The Torino and Elite vanished and Maverick was about to go, too. The Granada became the first U.S. car with a standard four-speed overdrive gearbox. A big LTD lasted until 1979 when the long-running line was downsized.
The LTD of the 1980s shrank and along with it, so did engine displacements. Thunderbird was also down-sized, but the Crown Victoria name re-appeared, bringing back memories of the beloved mid-’50s Ford model. Every Ford model endured a loss of sales, but so did most other domestic makers. There were bright spots for Ford during the 1980s; the front-wheel-drive Escort arrived for 1981 carrying a CHV (hemi) engine to become America’s best-selling car. The Granada was slimmed down during this period, and the LTD received a small 255-cid V-8 while a six-cylinder was standard in the T-Bird. Model year 1982 brought a hot Mustang GT and two-seat EXP.
The massive T-Birds of the ’70s seemed forgotten as the 10th generation arrived in 1983, loaded with curves and — before long — an optional fuel-injected four-cylinder turbo, a close-ratio five-speed and a “quadra-shock” rear suspension.
Not many new models received as much publicity as the front-wheel-drive Taurus, the leader of the 1986 pack. Then, Ford Motor Co. broke records in 1987 with $4.6 billion in net income. New for 1987 was a four-wheel-drive Tempo and a five-liter Thunderbird Sport model. Ford was now the American car sales leader, ahead of Chevrolet’s grand total by 66,000 cars. There seemed to be no stopping Ford, especially in 1989 when it realized a 40,000-car sales increase.
A little-changed T-Bird marked its 35th birthday in 1990 as most models went unaltered. In spring 1992, Ford introduced an all-new Crown Victoria. Then, in 1995, the Contour “world car” replaced the Tempo as the 1995 Aspire debuted early in 1994.
A V-8 Taurus SHO sedan was offered for the first time in 1996. An all-new ’98 Escort ZX2 was made available in “Cool” or “Hot” versions. They featured unique body panels and frameless door glass. Alas, there was no Thunderbird.
A new Ford Focus was introduced in 2000. It was a sophisticated compact aimed at the worldwide market. In September, the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village celebrated a centennial of Ford racing with a special event.
A new two-passenger Thunderbird returned on the Lincoln LS platform for 2002. Ford started taking orders on Jan. 8, 2001, the day the car made its production debut at the Detroit Auto Show. The 2002 Thunderbird captured Motor Trend magazine’s “Car of the Year” award, but by the end of 2003, the company announced plans to drop the expensive, slow-selling model by 2005 or 2006.
In 2005, Ford designers nailed it with a beautiful new retro-styled Mustang that looked like a throwback to the ’60s. Another hit of the same season was the Ford 500, a good-looking family sedan. Unfortunately, it was the pretty, two-seat Thunderbird’s last year. The Fusion — a new-generation “world car” — arrived in 2006, but the company lost $12.7 billion that year. For enthusiasts, 2007 was the year of the Mustang Shelby Cobra GT 500 model, which did 0-to-60 in 4.9 seconds and the quarter mile in 13.1 seconds at 115 mph. The Edge was also introduced, while the Five Hundred and Freestyle nameplates were dropped and Taurus was revived. Ford sold its Aston-Martin luxury brand and announced plans to sell Jaguar, too.
In 2009, Ford announced it would bring more of its European cars to the U.S. market and shortly thereafter, the Gen VI Fiesta arrived. The Volvo brand was sold in 2010, and the following year, the Crown Victoria was put out to pasture. In 2011, an electric Focus was unveiled and Ford projected that its sales would reach eight million vehicles per year by 2015. A Gen III Focus was unveiled as a 2012 model.
A Gen IV Mondeo/Fusion was previewed at the 2012 Detroit Motor Show. It was the first time since 1994 that Ford’s Euro and U.S. mid-size cars shared a platform. The Gen IV Transit/Tourneo was launched for 2013, along with a Gen II Transit Connect and facelifted Fiesta. The next-gen Mustang also bowed in 2013, but as a 2014 model. Other new entries were a Gen II Edge and Lincoln MKX counterpart.
Although today’s Fords, with the exception of the Mustang, have names that collectors are unfamiliar with, don’t be floored when future generations start looking for barn-find Fusions in 20 years. Ford’s refusal to take government bailout money has made it popular with car buyers, and it’s pretty much a given that future collectors will go after cars that were popular when new.
Ford fans should check out these Blue Oval resources from Old Cars Weekly:
- Standard Catalog of Ford 1903-2002
- Just Fords: Fascinating Finds & Great Machines From the Blue Oval
- Mustang: The Original Pony Car