Ford Image Gallery
Ford Image Gallery

Ford created stiff competition in the post-depression era with models such as this 1932 Deluxe Ford roadster. See more pictures of Ford cars.

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Ford Origins

Founded in 1903, Ford Motor Company skyrocketed from obscurity to dominate the American auto industry in less than 12 years. The foundation of this unparalleled success was the world's first mass-produced car: the cheap, simple Model T, whose lovable quirkiness was matched only by that of its creator, company founder Henry Ford.

Henry's decision to abandon his treasured "Tin Lizzie" after 19 years and a staggering 15-million cars -- the last not very different from the first -- came almost too late, and his company lost a lot in money and goodwill during the long changeover to the belated new Model A.

Yet despite keen competition from an aggressive Chevrolet and newcomer Plymouth, the Model A was a success, almost perfectly timed for the Great Depression that began soon after its 1928 debut. Ford built more than 1.1 million cars for 1930 -- almost twice as many as Chevrolet and more than 14 times as many as Plymouth.

The 1930 Ford Model A received a number of changes that seem minor now but were major at the time. All models retained the "little Lincoln" styling crafted by Henry's artistic son Edsel (who was named Ford Motor Company president in 1919), but the fenders were lower and wider, the hoodline was higher, and stainless steel replaced nickel plate on the radiator and headlight shells.

Enhancing the lower look was a switch to balloon tires on smaller 19-inch wheels (replacing 21-inchers). Running changes made during the model year included a numerically higher steering ratio for less effort at the wheel, and standardization of vacuum-operated windshield wipers that had previously been an extra-cost accessory.

As before, the Model A spanned a wide range of body types: coupes, sport coupes, roadsters, and cabriolets with or without rumble seat; "Tudor" and "Fordor" sedans; a surprisingly dignified Town Sedan; and a wood-body station wagon. Most could be had with Standard or DeLuxe trim, the latter typically featuring brighter colors and spiffier interiors. Prices ranged from just $435 for the basic two-seat roadster to $660 for the Town Sedan.

There was also a very deluxe Town Car with canvas-­covered formal roof. Not many sold at $1200 -- a mere 96 for the model year. Arriving in June was a $625 DeLuxe two-door phaeton, a jaunty five-seater with standard left-sidemount spare, chrome trunk rack, leather upholstery, and lower steering wheel and windshield. Another new style, bowing in the autumn of 1930, was the Victoria coupe sporting a slanted windshield, soon to be commonplace throughout Detroit.

Little visible change occurred for 1931 save a painted section atop the front of the radiator shell, which made identification easy. Chevrolet was still pushing hard, and Ford yielded the top spot in 1931 model-year volume, though only by some 4100 cars. Ford wouldn't top Chevy again until 1934 despite scoring a coup with America's first low-priced V-8.­

Early Ford models, such as this 1931 Ford Victoria, created plenty of buzz in the industry.

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1931, 1932, 1933, 1934 Fords and Ford V-8

Henry Ford had once contemplated a radical X-8 engine for the long-overdue Model T replacement, but ultimately settled for a more-conventional V-8 on which Ford engineers discreetly began work in 1930. But it was delayed by the peculiar conditions Henry imposed on his engineers, so the Model A appeared with only four-cylinder power as an interim measure. Model A production ended in autumn 1931, though sales continued through April 1932.

Then came a revised four-cylinder car, the Model B. Both this and the new 1932 V-8 Model 18 shared evolutionary styling, a 106.5-inch wheelbase (up three inches from the A's), and the same broad body-style array. The big difference, of course, was under the hood. The V-8 was a tremendous bargain: Standard roadster, coupe, and phaeton all listed below $500. Still, many buyers were wary, so Ford kept four-cylinder cars through 1934.

Ford's first V-8 was that now-famous cast-iron flathead that initially delivered 65 horsepower from 221 cubic inches. That compared with 40/50 horsepower from the 200.5-cid Model A/B four. With a relatively sensational top speed of 78 mph, the peppy V-8 Ford caused a storm of public interest, garnering over 50,000 advance orders. Millions flocked to see it on its March 1932 unveiling.

The old man kept a close watch over the V-8's development, badgering his engineers and telling them what to do. His perceived need for getting the engine to market as soon as possible left insufficient time for durability testing, so troubles surfaced early. Cylinder-head cracks and excessive oil burning were the most common, but some engine mounts worked loose and ignition problems cropped up. Though Ford replaced pistons by the thousands to ease owner worries, the engine difficulties hurt sales. But they'd be cleared up soon enough, and the V-8 became known as a reliable powerplant that could stand considerable "heating up." Hot rodders loved it.

Fords looked more flowing for 1933, reflecting Detroit's swing to streamlining. Edsel Ford had been an important force in Dearborn design for some time, and his tasteful new '33 Ford was universally applauded. The hood now extended back to the windshield, fenders were "skirted" and dipped low in front, sharp corners were rounded off, and rear-hinged doors appeared on closed models. Helping all this was a wheelbase lengthened to 112 inches (where it would remain through 1940) and a wheel diameter shrunk to 17. V-8 durability kept improving, and the frame was completely redesigned. With V-8 production at full strength, Ford's model-year volume rose by 100,000 cars -- impressive for difficult 1933, but not enough to beat Chevrolet. Still, the speedy Ford V-8 was attracting a legion of fans. Among them was no less than John Dillinger, who wrote Henry to praise the product -- an unsolicited testimonial from Public Enemy Number One.

Appearance became smoother still on 1934's 40A line. The V-8 itself got a new carburetor and manifold that increased advertised horsepower to 85 -- some claim actual power was 90. By now, most of its early problems were just bad memories. The four-cylinder engine was breathing its last. The Standard two-passenger coupe still sold for little more than $500, while the DeLuxe Fordor cost only $615. Safety glass was newly ­featured on closed models.

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Ford's 1938 Model 81A DeLuxe Fordor sedan sported a "different" and new look.

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1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939 Fords

The Ford station wagon, introduced as a 1929 Model A, had a body constructed of birch or maple supplied by the Mingel Company of Kentucky; assembly was by Murray and Briggs in Detroit. Starting in 1935, Ford built these bodies itself in a plant at Iron Mountain on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, an ideal location because of nearby hardwood forests that minimized transportation costs.

A fuller look marked the 1935 Model 48 Fords, with smaller windows and a more prominently Vee'd grille than 1933-34. Also new was an integral trunk for sedans. It added a bulky "bustle," but erased the increasingly old-fashioned external trunk rack and spare tire. A new camshaft and better crankcase ventilation further enhanced the lively V-8, and the frame and rear axle were beefed up.

Retained from Model T times was an exceedingly simple suspension: just a solid axle on a transverse leaf spring front and rear, an archaic setup that wouldn't be abandoned for another 13 years. This and the use of mechanical brakes through 1939 left Ford distinctly behind the times, but old Henry believed simpler was better, and he was nothing if not stubborn. Still, he did give in to steel wheels, which replaced traditional wires after 1935.

Ford made only minor styling changes for 1936, but they were good ones. The most obvious were a longer, more-pointed hood and a more sharply Vee'd grille to match. Industry design trends dictated hiding some previously exposed components, so horns now hooted from behind little covered holes astride the grille. Model choices were still numerous, but Standard and DeLuxe were now distinct series, with the latter listing twice as many body styles (seven to 14).

Offerings expanded for '37 with the addition of a small-bore 136-cid V-8, originally devised for the European market to take advantage of tax laws based on displacement. In America it came to be called the "V-8/60," as it produced that much horse-power. But though it made for cheaper new Model 74 Fords in a year of generally higher car prices, it didn't sell nearly as well as expected. Buyers evidently preferred higher performance over lower retail cost. Economy was supposed to be a strong point, but really wasn't. With this development, the familiar 221 flathead became known as the "V-8/85." For 1937 it benefited from improved cooling via relocated water pumps, plus larger insert bearings, and new cast-alloy pistons. It again powered Standards and DeLuxes now designated Model 78. V-8/60s were Standard-trim only.

Responding to GM's 1936 "Turret-Top" bodies, Ford adopted all-steel construction for 1937 closed models, belatedly discarding the fabric roof inserts of old. But this was easily overshadowed by crisp new bodies with headlamps nestled firmly in the fenders and a prow-type grille composed of fine horizontal bars (stretched rearward at the top). This and a lighter overall look made the '37 Ford one of the prettiest cars of the decade. President Franklin D. Roosevelt liked it enough to buy a convertible sedan for use at his Warm Springs, Georgia, retreat. In a year of questionable styling throughout the industry, Ford was a standout -- proof that streamlining didn't necessarily mean an end to distinctive, eye-pleasing automobiles.

The 1938 line ushered in "two-tier styling" for 60-bhp 82A and 85-bhp 81A series. Where Standards used slightly modified 1937 bodies, DeLuxes sported a different, new look. The romantic roadster was history, and the equally old-fashioned phaeton (a throwback to touring-car days) was in its final season.

Both body styles had long since lost whatever favor they once had, but Ford was far behind its rivals in realizing this fact (Plymouth's last roadster and phaeton appeared in 1932, Chevrolet's in '35). Closed rumble-seat types were also in their last year. With sales still slow, the V-8/60 line was reduced to just a coupe, Fordor, and Tudor. Styling for all models was a variation on 1937 themes, announced by more-bulbous faces.

DeLuxes were again fully restyled for 1939, bearing a lower Vee'd vertical-bar grille and clean front fenders with integral headlamps. As in recent years, this styling was created by E.T. "Bob" Gregorie under Edsel Ford's guidance.

By contrast, that year's Ford Standards looked like warmed-over '38 DeLuxes. The convertible sedan made a final bow, again in the DeLuxe line. Prices rose slightly, now covering a $599-$921 spread. Mechanical changes included internal engine enhancements inspired by the new Mercury and hydraulic instead of mechanical brakes. Old Henry had finally given in on the latter point -- three years after Chevrolet and 11 years behind Plymouth. But Ford still couldn't match their independent front suspension, and wouldn't until 1949.

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Ford stepped up the competition against Chevy with models such as this 1940 Deluxe Ford Convertible.

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1940, 1941, 1942 Fords

Gregorie made Fords even prettier for 1940 -- so much so that the DeLuxes in particular have long been coveted collectibles. Sealed-beam headlamps arrived, as elsewhere in Detroit, ­neatly housed in more upright fender nacelles.

The fenders themselves were beautifully curved to complement body contours; rear fender skirts, long a popular accessory, imparted an even sleeker look. Standards carried a '39 DeLuxe-style vertical-bar grille. DeLuxes bore a chromed horizontal-bar center section flanked by painted subgrilles in the "catwalk" areas between nose and fenders.

Nineteen-forty was the last year for the little-loved V-8/60 and the first for a Standard-trim wood-body Ford wagon. Yet despite a broad model slate, pretty styling, and prices in the $620-$950 range, Ford trailed Chevy in model-year output by a substantial 222,720 cars. Ford had been "USA-1" for 1934-37, then bowed to Chevy by about 55,000 for recession-year '38 (410,200 to 465,000-plus).

Some dealers had been disappointed in Edsel Ford's new Mercury, feeling a six-cylinder Ford would have been a better idea (which was, in fact, the original concept). Edsel promised a six, then had to reckon with his father. But Henry approved it in one of those strange turnabouts for which he was infamous. Edsel went to work, and the new L-head six bowed for 1941. With 226 cid and 90 horsepower, it had five more cubic inches than the V-8 and a like number of extra horsepower -- a bit embarrassing.

The '41s were the biggest, flashiest, and heaviest Fords yet. Wheelbase stretched two inches to 114, bodysides ballooned outward, and a stouter frame contributed to an average 100 pounds of added curb weight. Styling was evolutionary, with wider, more-integrated front fenders; a busy vertical-bar grille with tall center section flanked by low subgrilles; larger rear fenders; and more-rakish coupe rooflines. The lineup ­expanded, too: low-priced Special, midrange DeLuxe, and new Super DeLuxe, all offered with either six or V-8. Prices ranged from $684 for the six-cylinder Special coupe to $1013 for the V-8 DeLuxe woody wagon -- the first factory-built Ford to break the $1000 barrier.

But none of this did much for sales. While Ford's total volume improved to near 691,500, it remained about two-thirds of Chevy's, which went up even more, to slightly over a million.

The 1942 Fords gained a lower, wider, vertical-bar grille surmounted by rectangular parking lamps in the vestigial catwalks. The V-8 was pushed up to the same 90 horsepower as the six -- likely by the stroke of a engineer's pen. If the V-8 had to cost more, Ford reasoned, it should have at least as much power, even if only on paper. Specials were now sixes only, but the lineup was otherwise unchanged. Prices were hiked about $100 throughout. Ford built just 43,000 cars from January 1 through February 2, when the government ended civilian production for the duration of World War II. At that point, Ford's1942 model-year total was just shy of 160,500 cars, versus Chevy's quarter-million-plus.

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Ford made few changes for its 1948 models. The 1948 Ford Super Deluxe station wagon is shown here.

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Ford Sportsman, Henry Ford II Takes Over

A renowned pacifist during World War I, Henry Ford was in his late 70s when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But he realized that the Second World War was a very different situation, and had already geared his firm to war production.

Ford Motor Company duly turned out a variety of military vehicles including Jeeps (with American Bantam and Willys-Overland), and its new mile-long plant in Willow Run, Michigan, near Detroit, produced a variety of bombers through 1945.

Henry finally surrendered control of his company -- but not to Edsel, who died a broken man in 1943 at age 49. Despite the end of the war, the doddering mogul stubbornly continued to manage an increasingly troubled Ford Motor Company until his family insisted he step down. That came in 1945, when he handed the reins to grandson Henry Ford II, who would hold them for the next 33 years, most of them successful.

The great old man himself passed on in 1947. Unlike his grandfather, "HFII" consistently sought and encouraged talented managers. However, he just as ­consistently encouraged their retirement -- or fired them -- when they reached a certain level of power. Though the Ford family no longer owns a majority of common stock, Ford is still very much a family operation.

Young Henry quickly returned Ford Motor Company to civilian production after V-J day. Ford Division was again the industry's volume leader for model-year 1946, but Chevrolet would be back to full speed the following year and would remain "USA-1" through 1948.

Like most other makes, Ford returned to peacetime with restyled '42 cars, though it bored its V-8 out to 239.4 cid for an extra 10 horsepower. Also, the low-priced Special Sixes were eliminated, leaving six- and eight-cylinder DeLuxe and Super DeLuxe. And there was now a second V-8 convertible, a novel variation on the standard item called Sportsman.

Developed from Bob Gregorie's wartime sketches, the Sportsman featured white ash and mahogany trim over its doors, rear body panels, and deck, as on the Chrysler Town & Country. This was an easy way to give an old design new appeal, and it boosted floor traffic at Ford dealers. But a $500 price premium over the all-steel convertible limited sales to just 1209 for '46, 2250 for '47, and just 28 for '48 (the last actually reserialed '47s).

Appearance alterations for 1947 involved shuffled nameplates and lower-mounted round parking lights. No changes at all occurred for '48, but the six was rerated to 95 horsepower, up five. Postwar inflation had pushed up prices, the increases averaging about $100 for 1947.

But nothing really new was needed in the car-starved early-postwar market, and Ford output exceeded 429,000 units for 1947. The total was only 248,000 the following year, but that only reflected an early end to 1948 production. The reason was the first all-new postwar Fords that went on sale with great anticipation in June 1948.

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Ford executives' creative approach to styling yielded more unique models such as this 1949 custom Ford convertible coupe.

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The 1949 Ford

Styling for these 1949 models was a competitive process, as Ford solicited ideas from freelancers as well as in-house designers. One outside team was headed by George Walker, who hired onetime GM and Raymond Loewy employee Richard Caleal to join designers Joe Oros and Elwood Engel.

When Caleal became disenchanted with the direction taken by the other members of the Walker team, he was given permission to pursue his own ideas at his home in Indiana. Working in his kitchen with clay modelers Joe Thompson and John Lutz, Caleal shaped his design.

Later, Henry Ford II and other Ford execs gathered at Walker's studio to view design proposals by Caleal, Ford styling head E.T. "Bob" Gregorie, and Oros and Engel. The executives selected Caleal's design, which went into production basically unchanged, except that his vertical taillights were made horizontal and bled into the rear quarter.

Though the 1949 Ford was nowhere near as radical as the 1950-51 Studebaker, it sold in numbers Ford hadn't seen since 1930: over 1.1 million for the extra-long model year. Reflecting this and later achievements, Walker was named design chief for all of Ford Motor Company in 1955.

The 1949 Ford was crucial to Dearborn's survival. Young Henry II was still scrambling to bring order to the organizational and fiscal chaos he inherited from his grandfather even as the company continued losing money by the bucketful. But the '49 was the most-changed Ford since the Model A, and was as much a hit.

Though wheelbase and engines were unchanged from the 1946-48 models, the '49 was three inches lower, fractionally shorter, and usefully lighter. Even better, it had a modern ladder-type frame with Dearborn's first fully independent front suspension (via coil springs and upper and lower A-arms), plus a modern rear end with open Hotchkiss drive (replacing torque-tube) and parallel longitudinal leaf springs supporting the live axle. It all added up to a sprightly performer that could run ­circles around rivals from Chevrolet and Plymouth. A '49 Ford couldn't quite reach 100 mph, but hopping up the flathead V-8 was still simple, cheap, and easy. Multiple carburetors, headers, dual exhausts, and other "speed parts" were as close as local auto stores.

Though Ford briefly considered retaining it, the low-selling Sportsman was dropped for '49 and other offerings regrouped into Standard and Custom series. The former offered six and V-8 Tudor and Fordor, along with business and club coupes. The better-trimmed V-8-only Custom deleted the business coupe but added a convertible and a new two-door structural-wood wagon (replacing the previous four-door style).

Prices rose again for 1949, the range now $1333-$2119. Over­drive was optional across the board at $97. Ford wouldn't have its own automatic transmission until 1951, though it tried to get one earlier. Studebaker had developed an excellent automatic for 1950 in association with Warner Gear. Ford wanted to buy it for its cars, but Studebaker refused -- much to its later regret.

The '49 Fords suffered handling and noise problems stemming from the rushed design program. Workmanship also suffered for the same reason, and a 24-day auto workers' strike in May 1948 didn't help either. Even so, these were very worthy automobiles -- the first tangible evidence that Henry II was firmly in charge. Ably assisting him was the youthful "Whiz Kids" team of executives and engineers he'd recruited, including one Robert S. McNamara.

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Ford's ingenuity with models like this 1956 Ford Crown Victoria earned it the No. 2 spot for manufacturing volume.

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1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956 Fords

The stage was set for a smart comeback in the '50s. And indeed, by 1952, Ford Motor Company had passed a faltering Chrysler Corporation to regain the number-two spot in manufacturer volume. The reason? Interesting cars that sold well.

Efforts for 1950 aimed at quashing the bugs from '49. "50 Ways New, 50 Ways Better," blared the ads. And the 1950s were better: tighter and quieter in corners and rough-road driving alike. A new confection was the V-8 Crestliner, a special-edition Custom Tudor priced $100-$200 above the standard article. It was snazzy, with a padded canvas-covered top and sweeping contrast-color panel on the bodysides, but sales were only fair at 17,601 for 1950 and another 8703 for '51. Crestliner's real purpose was to counter Chevy's true "hardtop-convertible," the 1950 Bel Air.

Otherwise, the 1950 Fords were predictably much like the '49s, though a crest instead of Ford lettering above the "bullet" grille provided instant I.D. Prices held steady, running from $1333 for the DeLuxe business coupe to $2028 for the Squire. Though still without a hardtop and a fully automatic transmission like Chevrolet, Ford bested 1930's imposing model-year output, making more than 1.2 million cars. But Chevrolet managed nearly 1.5-million, and would remain "USA-1" through 1953.

Seeking greater competitiveness, Ford slightly downpriced its '51 models and applied an attractive facelift featuring a new grille with small twin bullets on a thick horizontal bar. The Custom wagon now bore Country Squire script, but would be the last true Ford woody. Ford finally offered a self-shift transmission in Ford-O-Matic Drive -- a three-speed automatic to outdo Chevy's two-speed Powerglide.

However, only second and third gears worked automatically; a shift to low had to be made manually. A redesigned dash gave the interior a more upscale look. Also new for '51 was Ford's first hardtop coupe, the Custom V-8 Victoria. Though it, too, was a bit late, the Vicky proved no less popular than Chevy's Bel Air, selling some 110,000 that debut season. Ford's model-year volume declined by about 200,000 cars, but Chevy's fell a similar amount, reflecting new government-ordered restrictions on civilian production prompted by the Korean War.

Model-year '52 introduced a clean, new, square-rigged Ford with a one-piece windshield, simple grille, small round tail-lamps, and an "air scoop" motif on the lower rear flanks. Only detail changes would occur to this basic design through 1954. Wheelbase crept up to 115 inches for a revised model slate that started with a cheap Mainline Tudor/Fordor, business coupe, and two-door Ranch Wagon, followed by Customline sedans, club coupe, and four-door Country Sedan wagon. Topping the range was the V-8 Crestline group of Victoria hardtop, newly named Sunliner convertible, and posh Country Squire four-door wagon.

These wagons, by the way, were Ford's first all-steel models (the Squire switching from real wood to wood-look decals). Assisting in their design was Gordon Buehrig, the famed designer of Classic-era Auburns, Cords, and Duesen­bergs who'd also had a hand in the '51 Victoria. Doing more with less, Ford introduced a new 215.3-cid overhead-valve six with 101 horsepower as standard for Mainline/Customline. The flathead V-8 was tweaked to 110 horsepower.

Dearborn observed its Golden Anniversary in 1953, proclaimed on Fords by special steering-wheel-hub medallions. But aside from that and a few other cosmetic details, the '53s were basically '52s with higher prices, now ranging from $1400-$2203.

With the Korean conflict ended, Ford Division built 1.2 million cars to edge Chevrolet for the model year (Chevy consoled itself with calendar-year supremacy), but only by dumping cars on dealers in a production "blitz" so they could sell for "less than cost." Ironically, Chevrolet wasn't much affected by this onslaught, but Studebaker, American Motors, and Kaiser-Willys were, because they couldn't afford to discount as much. The Ford blitz is generally considered one of the key factors in the independents' mid-'50s decline.

The venerable flathead V-8 was honorably retired for 1954 in favor of a new overhead-valve "Y-block" V-8 (so-called because of its frontal appearance in cross-section). With 130 horse­power, this was easily the year's hottest engine in the low-price field. Together with ball-joint front suspension, also new, the Y-block greatly narrowed the engineering gap between expensive and inexpensive cars. Its initial 239 cid was the same as flathead displacement, but the ohv had different "oversquare" cylinder dimensions. Compression was 7.2:1 in base trim, but could be taken as high as 12:1 if required (which it wasn't).

The rest of the '54 story was basically 1953 save a larger, 223-cid overhead-valve six with 115 bhp. There was also a novel new hardtop called Skyliner, a Crestline Victoria with a transparent, green-tint Plexiglas roof insert over the front seat. This concept, suggested by Buehrig and realized by interior styling director L. David Ash, is a forerunner of today's moonroof. But it cast a strange light on the interior, and heat buildup was a major problem. That and a price identical with the Sunliner convertible's -- $2164 -- held '54 Skyliner sales to 13,344. Only the Country Squire and Mainline business coupe fared worse.

Retaining the 1952-54 shell, the 1955 Ford was completely reskinned, emerging colorful if chromey, with a rakish look of motion and a modestly wrapped windshield. Styling was handled by Franklin Q. Hershey, who also gets credit for that year's new two-seat Thunderbird (see separate entry). Club coupes were abandoned, wagons grouped in a separate series, and Crestline was renamed Fairlane (after the Ford family estate in Dearborn). With the "horsepower race" at full gallop, the 239-cid V-8 was ousted for a 272 enlargement, packing 162/182 horsepower as an option for all models. The standard six gained five bhp to deliver 120 total.

Skyliner was also ousted for '55, but Ford had another idea. This was the Fairlane Crown Victoria, a hardtop-style two-door sedan with a bright metal roof band wrapped up and over from steeply angled B-posts. The "tiara" looked like a roll bar, but added no structural strength; a Plexiglas insert rode ahead of it, as on Skyliner. A full steel-roof model was also offered for $70 less than the "bubble-topper"; predictably, it sold much better: 33,000-plus to just 1999. The totals were 9209 and just 603 for '56, after which the Crown Vic was dumped.

But Ford as a whole did splendidly in banner 1955, shattering its postwar record of 1953 by building nearly 1.5 million cars. Still, the division was done in by an all-new Chevy, which tallied better than 1.7 million. Volume for both makes declined in the industry's overall retreat for '56, but Ford dropped by fewer than 50,000 versus Chevy's loss of nearly 200,000.

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Ford offered several models with V-8 power, including this 1957 Fairlane 500 Skyliner retractable convertible.

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1957, 1958, 1959, 1960 Fords and Ford Skyliner

Ford's '56 line featured the expected mild facelift, plus more-potent engines and two new models: a Customline Victoria and the division's first four-door hardtop, the Fairlane Town Victoria.

Ford also began selling "Lifeguard Design" safety features, equipping all models with dished steering wheel, breakaway rearview mirror, and crashproof door locks; padded dash and sunvisors cost $16 extra, factory-installed seatbelts $9.

Buyers responded early in the model year, but the rush to seat-belts overtaxed Ford's supplier, so only 20 percent of the '56s got them. Ford continued to stress safety for a few more years, but put more emphasis on performance. Speaking of which, the 272 V-8 delivered 173 horsepower as a '56 Mainline/Customline option. A new 312-cid "Thunderbird" unit with 215/225 horsepower was ­optional across the board, and a midrange 292-cid V-8 offered 200 horsepower.

The 1957 Fords were all-new, offering a vast array of V-8s from a 190-bhp 272 up to a 245-bhp 312. The 223-cid six was standard for all but one model. There were now two wheelbases and no fewer than five series: 116 inches for Station Wagon and Custom/Custom 300 sedans (replacing Mainline/Custom­line), 118 inches for Fairlane and the new line-topping Fairlane 500.

All were available with six or V-8 power. Both Fairlane series listed two- and four-door Victorias, plus thin-pillar equivalents that looked like hardtops with windows up. The glamorous droptop Sunliner was now a Fairlane 500 and came with the base V-8. Haulers comprised plain and fancier Del Rio two-door Ranch Wagons, a pair of four-door Country Sedans, and the wood-look four-door Squire -- Ford's priciest '57 wagon at $2684.

Ford's '57 styling was particularly simple for the period: a blunt face with clean, full-width rectangular grille; tasteful side moldings; and tiny tailfins. More importantly, it was new against Chevy's second facelift in two years. Unfortunately, the Fords had some structural weaknesses (principally roof panels) and were prone to rust, one reason you don't see that many today.

But though Plymouth arguably won the styling stakes with its finned "Forward Look," 1957 was a great Ford year. In fact, the division scored a substantial win in model-year output with close to 1.7 million cars to Chevy's 1.5 million. Some statisticians also had Ford ahead in calendar-year volume for the first time since 1935, though the final score showed Chevy ahead by a mere 130 cars.

The Skyliner name returned in mid-1957, but on a very different Ford: the world's first mass-produced retractable hardtop. An addition to the Fairlane 500 series, it stemmed from engineering work done a few years before at Continental Division, which had considered, but didn't produce, the 1956 Mark II as a "retrac."

Ford sold 20,766 Skyliners for '57, but demand fast tapered to 14,713 for '58, then to 12,915. The model was duly axed after 1959, a victim of new division chief Bob McNamara's no-nonsense approach to products and profits. Skyliner "retracs" became prime collectibles, and the retractable-hardtop concept made a comeback in the new millennium.

For 1958, Ford countered all-new passenger Chevys and modestly restyled Plymouths with a glittery facelift featuring quad headlamps and taillamps, a massive bumper/grille a la '58 Thunderbird, and more anodized aluminum trim. V-8 choices expanded via two new "FE-series" big-blocks: a 332 offering 240/265 horsepower, and a 300-bhp 352. A deep national recession cut Ford volume to just under 988,000 cars. Chevrolet sold over 1.1 million, but spent much more money to do so.

Chevy then unveiled an all-new line of radical "bat-fin" cars for 1959. Ford replied with more-conservative styling that helped it close the model-year gap to less than 12,000 units. A major reskin of the basic 1957-58 bodyshells brought square lines; simple side moldings; a heavily sculptured "flying-V" back panel; and a low, rectangular grille filled with floating starlike ornaments.

All previous models continued, though now on the 118-inch wheelbase. Come midseason, a new Galaxie series of two- and four-door pillared and pillarless sedans generated high buyer interest and strong sales with their square but stylish Thunderbird-inspired wide-quarter rooflines. At the same time, the Sunliner convertible and Skyliner retractable gained Galaxie rear-fender script (but retained Fairlane 500 ID at the rear).

V-8s were down to a 200-bhp 292, 225-bhp 332, and 300-bhp 352. Also carried over from '58 was Cruise-O-Matic, Ford's smooth new three-speed automatic transmission that proved a sales plus against Chevrolet's Powerglide, if not Plymouth's responsive three-speed TorqueFlite.

For Ford Motor Company as a whole, 1959 seemed to justify the strenuous efforts of Henry Ford II and board chairman Ernest R. Breech. Assuming control of a third-rate company in 1945, they'd turned it into something approaching General Motors in less than 15 years.

Ford's path through the 1960s closely parallels that of rival Chevrolet. At decade's end, it was also selling only about 400,000 more cars per year than in 1960 -- despite expansion into important new markets: economy compacts, intermediates, and sportier standard-size models. Also like Chevy, Ford built these diverse types on relatively few wheelbases. (See separate entries for the stories on the personal-luxury T-Bird and the new-for '65 Mustang "ponycar," the two most-specialized Fords of this period.)

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This 1960 Ford Falcon two-door sedan hit the market the same year Lee A. Iacocca took over as Ford Division's general manager.

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Lee Iacocca Takes the Drivers Seat

Key management changes occurred early on. Lee A. Iacocca took charge as Ford Division general manager in 1960. George Walker left the following year and Eugene Bordinat became Dearborn's design chief. Iacocca soon put an end to the mundane people-movers favored by Bob McNamara, and by 1970 Ford was offering some exciting cars.

Ford also moved from "Chevy-follower" to "Chevy-leader" in the 1960s. Its compact Falcon far outsold the rival Corvair, its 1962 midsize Fairlane was two years ahead of Chevelle, and its phenomenally successful Mustang sent Chevrolet racing to the drawing board to come up with the Camaro.

The best way to summarize Fords of the '60s is by size. The smallest was Falcon, which bowed for 1960 as one of the new Big Three compacts (along with Corvair and Chrysler's Valiant). Wheelbase was a trim 109.5 inches through 1965, then 110.9 (113 for wagons). Two- and four-door sedans and four-door wagons were always offered, convertibles and hardtop coupes for 1963-65. All had unit construction.

To some, the pre-'66 Falcons were the ultimate "throwaway" cars: designed to sell at a low price -- initially just under $2000 -- and to be discarded within five years (some said one year). To others, though, Falcon was the Model A reborn: cheap but cheerful, simple but not unacceptably spartan.

A conventional suspension and cast-iron six -- mostly a 170-cid unit of 101 horsepower -- certainly looked dull next to Corvair engineering, but made for friendly, roomy little cars that rode well and delivered 20-25 mpg. Falcons were also easily serviced by "shadetree mechanics" who wouldn't go near the complicated Chevy compact. Though sales gradually declined due to competition from both inside and outside the division, Falcon was always profitable.

Falcon replied to the hot-selling Corvair Monza in the spring of 1961 with the bucket-seat Futura two-door. All Falcons were reskinned for 1964-65 with pointy front fenders and generally square, less-distinctive lines. The prime collector Falcon is the Futura Sprint, a pretty convertible and hardtop coupe offered from mid-1963 through 1965.

These were available with the lively "Challenger" small-block V-8 from the midsize Fairlane -- initially a 260 with 164 horsepower, then a 289 with about 200 horsepower for '65. It was a fine engine, which helps explain why its 302 evolution continued all the way into the 1990s. It completely transformed Falcon performance without greatly affecting mileage. Sprints offered special exterior I.D., vinyl bucket seats, console, and 6000-rpm tachometer. When equipped with optional four-speed manual transmission, they were great fun to drive.

The 1966 Falcons were basically shorter versions of that year's rebodied Fairlanes, with the same sort of curvy GM-like contours and long-hood/short-deck proportions of Mustang. Falcon continued in this form through early 1970. In 1967, its last year before emissions controls, the 289 packed 225 horsepower in "Stage 2" tune with four-barrel carburetor, and made for some very fast Falcons, the sportiest of which was the ­pillared Futura Sport Coupe.

The 289 was detuned to 195 horsepower for '68, when the aforementioned 302 arrived as a new option. This ran on regular gas with a two-barrel carb and delivered 210 bhp; with a four-barrel it made 230 horsepower on premium fuel, though emissions considerations soon put an end to that version.

Mid-1970 brought the final Falcons: a stark wagon and two sedans derived from the intermediate Torino (which had evolved from the Fairlane). These could be powered by everything from a 155-bhp 250-cid six to a big-block 429-cid V-8 with 360-370 horsepower. But the name had outlived its usefulness, and Ford had a new compact, the Maverick, so Falcon was consigned to history.

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The Ford Torinos, such as this 1968 Ford Torino GT fastback hartop coupe, had "more performance options than a salesman could memorize."

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1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 Fords and the Ford Fairlane

Back to 1962, Ford broke new ground with the midsize Fairlane, which was basically a bigger Falcon on a 115.5-inch wheelbase. In concept it was much like Virgil Exner's downsized '62 Plymouths and Dodges.

But unlike Chrysler, Ford retained full-size Customs and Galaxies -- a wise move even though Fairlane sold more than 297,000 units its first year and over 300,000 for '63. Helping the cause were attractive prices in the $2100-$2800 range.

The Fairlane was significant for introducing Ford's brilliant small-block V-8, the basis for some of its hottest '60s cars. Bored out to 289 cid as a '63 option, it packed up to 271 horsepower -- almost one horsepower per cubic inch. Powerful and smooth yet surprisingly economical, it was the definitive small V-8.

Tuned versions in sports-racers like the Ford GT40 and Shelby Cobra disproved the old adage about there being "no substitute for cubic inches." In fact, the GT40 nearly took the world GT Manufacturers Championship away from Ferrari in 1964, its first full season. Still, it was the big-block Ford GTs that won the LeMans 24-Hours, the world's most-prestigious sports car endurance race, two years in a row, 1966-67.

Initially, Fairlane offered two- and four-door sedans in base and sportier 500 trim, plus a bucket-seat 500 Sport Coupe. Four-door Ranch and Squire wagons and a brace of two-door hardtops were added for '63. Beginning with the '64s, Ford offered a growing assortment of handling and performance options, including stiff suspensions and four-speed gearboxes.

Fairlane was completely rebodied for '66 on a 116-inch wheelbase (113 for wagons) gaining a sleek, tailored look via curved side glass and flanks, stacked quad headlamps, and tidy vertical taillights.

Heading the line were the bucket-seat 500XL hardtop coupe and convertible in base and GT trim. Standard XLs came with a 120-bhp 200-cid six, but most were ordered with ­optional 289 V-8s. GTs carried a big-block 390 making a potent 335 horsepower. That engine could be ordered on any Fairlane, and racers were quick to put it in stripped two-door sedans, which earned respect for their competitive prowess.

With no change in wheelbases, Fairlane got another body and styling change for 1968. Joining the base and 500 lines was a new Torino series, Ford's lushest intermediates yet. A 115-bhp 200-cid six was standard for all but the Torino GT convertible, hardtop coupe, and new fastback hardtop (all duplicated in the 500 line), which came with the 210-bhp 302-cid V-8 as well as buckets-and-console interior, pinstriping, and more perfor­mance options than a salesman could memorize.

Ford's '69 midsizers were '68 repeats save for new fastback and notchback Torino hardtops called Cobra (after Carroll Shelby's muscular Ford-powered sports cars). These came with the 335-bhp 428 V-8 that had first appeared in the "19681/2" Mercury Cyclone as the "Cobra Jet." A $133 option was "Ram-Air," a fiberglass hood scoop connecting to a special air-cleaner assembly with a valve that ducted incoming air directly into the carb. Four-speed manual gearbox, stiff suspension and racing-style hood locks were all standard.

One magazine was actually disappointed when its Cobra ran 0-60 mph in 7.2 seconds and the quarter-mile in 15 seconds at 98.3 miles per hour! But most everyone admitted that of all the '69 "supercars" -- Plymouth GTX, Dodge Charger R/T, Pontiac GTO, Chevelle 396, and Buick GS 400 -- the Torino Cobra was the tightest, best-built, and quietest.

Torino Cobras could be potent racing machines. Ford discovered that the styling of the counterpart Cyclone was slightly more aerodynamic, and thus usually ran the Mercurys in stock-car contests over 250 miles long. Nevertheless, a race-prepped Torino could achieve about 190 mph, and Lee Roy Yarborough drove one to win the '69 Daytona 500.

Ford's biggest cars of the 1960s were variously offered as Custom/Custom 500, Fairlane/Fairlane 500 (pre-'62), Galaxie/ Galaxie 500, and station wagon. Their "standard" wheelbase swelled to 119 inches for 1960, then became 121 after 1968. These were heavy cars (3000-4000 pounds), and most weren't rewarding to drive except on an Interstate, but certain variations were surprisingly capable on winding roads.

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In 1963, Ford added this 300 four-door sedan to its lineup then renamed it the Custom/Custom 500 for 1964.

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Full-Size Fords

What we now call the full-size Fords began the decade with all-new bodyshells that would persist through 1964. The '60s were much longer, lower, wider, and sleeker than the boxy '59s, and even mimicked Chevy's batfins a little, but they looked good with their chrome-edged beltlines and bigger glass areas.

The Skyliner was gone, but there was a new fixed-roof Starliner hardtop coupe with sleek semifastback profile. Though less popular than square-roof Galaxies, the Starliner was just the thing for NASCAR racing by dint of its slipperier shape.

Starliner bowed out after 1961, when standards were face­lifted via a full-width concave grille (with '59-style insert) and a return to round taillights capped by discreet blades. That year's top engine option was the new 390-cid version of the FE-series big-block. This packed 300 standard horsepower, but was available, though on a very limited basis, as a high-compression "Interceptor" with 375 and 401 horsepower.

Chunkier, more-"important" styling marked the '62 standards, which regrouped into Galaxie/Galaxie 500/Station Wagon lines spanning roughly the same models. Reflecting the buckets-and-console craze then sweeping Detroit were the midseason 500 XL Victoria hardtop coupe and Sunliner convertible.

The "500" stood for the 500-mile NASCAR races the division was winning (Ford won every 500 in '63). "XL" purportedly stood for "Xtra Lively," though the standard powertrain was "just" a 170-bhp 292 V-8 and Cruise-O-Matic.

But options could turn this sporty hunk into a real fire-breather. Besides Borg-Warner four-speed manual gearbox and 300-, 340-, 375-, and 401-bhp 390s, there was a larger-bore 406 big-block providing 385/405 horsepower. An even bigger bore for '63 produced a 427-cid powerhouse with 410/425 horsepower. High prices -- around $400 -- made these engines relatively uncommon.

New lower-body sheetmetal gave the 1963 "Super-Torque" Galaxies a cleaner, leaner look, announced by a simple concave grille. A pair of cheap "300" sedans was added (renamed Custom/Custom 500 for '64), and there was more midyear excitement in a set of 500 and 500XL sports hardtops with thin-pillar "slantback" rooflines, a bit starchier than the old Starliner but again aimed right at the stock-car ovals.

The last, but most-substantial, restyle on the big 1960 body occurred for '64, bringing heavily sculptured lower-body sheet-metal, a complex grille, and slantback rooflines for all closed models.

The entire Ford line won Motor Trend magazine's "Car of the Year" award, partly because of the division's ever-widening "Total Performance" campaign. Performance was just what the big Fords had, with available small-block and big-block V-8s offering from 195 up to a rousing 425 horsepower. Even a relatively mild 390 XL could scale 0-60 mph in 9.3 seconds; a 427 reduced that to just over 7 seconds. The one major complaint was a marked tendency to nosedive in "panic" stops, aggravated by overboosted power brakes.

Ford had its best NASCAR year ever in 1965, winning 48 of 55 events, including 32 straight at one point. Luxury, however, got most of the showroom emphasis. All-new except for engines, the '65s were distinguished by simpler, more-linear styling announced by stacked quad headlamps. Underneath was a stronger chassis with a completely new front suspension evolved from NASCAR experience.

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Ford Competes with Chevrolet

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Arriving at midyear in 1965 were the poshest big Fords ever, the $3300 Galaxie 500 LTD hardtop coupe and sedan, claimed to be "quiet as a Rolls-Royce." The times were indeed a-changin'. With intermediates taking over in competition, the big Fords no longer needed any sort of "performance" image to support sales.

The 1965 platform got a minor touch up for '66, and LTDs gained "7-Litre" companions powered by the Thunderbird's big 345-bhp 428 engine. The following year brought new outer sheetmetal with more flowing lines and "faster" rooflines on hardtop coupes. LTD became a separate three-model series, adding four-door sedan but losing the slow-selling 7-Litre ­models. Hidden-headlamp grilles marked the '68 LTDs and Galaxie XLs as part of a lower-body restyle for all models.

A new bodyshell arrived for '69 with a two-inch longer wheelbase, a "tunneled backlight" for newly named "SportsRoof" fastbacks, and ventless door glass on hardtops and convertibles. LTD sales continued rising. Ford had built nearly 139,000 of the '68s; it built more than twice that number for '69.

Ford kept pace with Chevrolet in the '60s production race, and actually beat it for model years 1961 and '66. Ford would be number one again for 1970 and '71 at slightly over two-million cars to Chevy's 1.5/1.8 million. Ford enjoyed its first two-­million-car year in 1965, though that was a great year for all domestic automakers.

Ford wouldn't lead Chevy again until the late '80s, but it generally fared well in the '70s. Still, Dearborn was the last of the Big Three to abandon traditional full-size cars -- and the first to suffer for it. In the wake of the OPEC oil embargo and the first energy crisis, Chrysler pushed compacts while GM went forward with plans to downsize its entire fleet. Ford stubbornly resisted the winds of change, promoting its aging big cars on the basis of greater passenger space and the presumed safety of their "road-hugging weight." But the public didn't buy this cynical line -- or as many of the cars.

In large measure, this denial reflected the personal view of chairman Henry Ford II, who decreed there would be no wholesale rush to smaller cars, no vast capital investment in new technology. As a result, Ford greeted 1980 a critical two to three years behind GM in the fuel efficiency and "space" races -- and at a critical sales disadvantage next to its domestic foes and a horde of fast-rising Japanese makes. The firm would recover, but not before making drastic product changes.

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Ford Pintos, designed with a rear fuel tank, were notoriously dubbed "the barbecue that seats four."  The 1971 Ford Pinto fastback coupe is shown here.

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1970, 1971 Fords, Ford Pinto and Ford Torino

Leading the 1970 line were modestly facelifted full-size Fords with "poke-through" center grille sections on LTDs and XLs, plus revamped rear ends on all models. Four series were offered: Custom, Galaxie 500, XL, and LTD. The sporty XLs were in their final year. Luxury was further emphasized with a new LTD Brougham hardtop coupe, hardtop sedan, and four-door sedan.

Broughams also featured in the 1970 Torino line, which shared new exterior panels "shaped by the wind" with a three-model Fairlane 500 series. Wheelbase grew an inch; profiles were lower and five inches longer. The Torino Cobra returned as Ford's "budget muscle car" with standard 360/375-bhp 429 V-8. It was a blistering performer and its new hardtop body with concave backlight was distinctive, but hot-car demand was fast-waning everywhere, and only 7675 were built for the model year.

Ford scored much higher 1970 sales with its new compact Maverick, a semifastback two-door on a 103-inch wheelbase. Introduced in early '69, Maverick was much like the original Falcon in size, price, performance, and simplicity; even its basic chassis and powertrain were the same. Arriving just below $2000 and backed by an aggressive but light-hearted ad campaign, this import-fighter scored an impressive 579,000 model-year sales, contributing greatly to Ford's production ­victory over Chevy.

Bolstering Maverick's appeal for '71 was a notchback four-door on a 109.9-inch wheelbase (almost the same as the original Falcon's), a sportier two-door called Grabber, and a newly optional 302 V-8 as an alternative to the 100-bhp 170 six. With minor changes, Maverick would carry the division's compact sales effort through 1977, which it did tolerably well, though its old-fashioned engineering looked increasingly so with time and the arrival of more-capable domestic and foreign competitors.

Of course, there was little here to interest enthusiasts. The Grabber looked snazzy but was pretty tame even with V-8. And certain requisites like decent instruments and front-disc brakes were either late in coming (the latter didn't arrive until '76) or not available.

Maverick's last gesture to the youth market was the Stallion, a 1976 trim package similar to those offered on the Pinto and Mustang II. The Maverick kit, which was strictly for two-doors, included black paint accents, twin door mirrors, styled steel wheels, raised-white-letter tires, and special badging. More popular was the Luxury Decor Option (LDO), a 1973 package available for either body style through the end of the line. It comprised upgraded interior appointments color-keyed to a special paint scheme crowned by a matching vinyl top.

Ford's major 1971 announcement was the four-cylinder Pinto, a 2000-pound, 94.2-inch-wheelbase subcompact with fastback styling in two-door and Runabout three-door hatchback ­models. A direct reply to Chevrolet's Vega, also new that year, it was smaller, less technically daring, less accommodating, and its performance and fuel economy were nothing special compared to that of many imports.

Yet Pinto usually outsold the trouble-prone Vega as well as many overseas contenders. Offered with 98- and 122-cid engines through 1973, then 122- and 140-cid fours, it was progressively dressed-up and civilized with nicer trim and more convenience options. Three-door wagons arrived for 1972, including a woody-look Squire (some called it "Country Squirt"). By 1976, there was also a youthful "Cruising Wagon" with blanked-off side windows and cute little rear portholes. Still, Pinto remained primarily basic transportation throughout its long 10-year life.

Though Pinto served Ford well in a difficult period, it will ­forever be remembered as what one wag called "the barbecue that seats four." That refers to the dangerously vulnerable fuel tank and filler-neck design of 1971-76 sedan models implicated in a rash of highly publicized (and fatal) fires following rear-end collisions.

Sadly, Ford stonewalled in a number of lawsuits all the way to federal court, which severely tarnished its public image, even if Pinto sales didn't seem to suffer much. What ­really put Pinto out to pasture after 1980 was not bad publicity but relative lack of change -- and the advent of a much better small Ford.

The midsize Torino proved exceptionally popular in the early '70s, then fell from favor once fuel economy became a pressing consumer concern. The 14-model 1971 lineup was basically a carryover of the previous year's. The Cobra fastback coupe remained the most-exciting of this bunch, though its standard engine was downgraded to a 285-bhp version of the ubiquitous 351 small-block first seen for 1969. High-power and big-inch engines began disappearing at Ford and throughout Detroit in 1972. By 1980, only a mildly tuned 351 remained as an option for full-size Fords.

Except for engines, the 1972 Torino was all-new -- and a big disappointment. Like GM's post-1967 intermediates, models divided along two wheelbases: 114-inch two-door hardtops and fastbacks (including semisporty GT variants) and 118-inch sedans and wagons. Body-on-frame construction appeared for the first time, and dimensions ballooned close to those of late-'60s Galaxies and LTDs.

Symbolic of most everything wrong with Detroit at the time, these Torinos were needlessly out-sized, overweight, and thirsty, with limited interior room and soggy chassis. Ford tried to make them passably economical, then gave up and simply fitted a larger fuel tank. After getting just 13.5 mpg with a '76, the auto editors of Consumer Guide® decided that "the more buyers learn about the Torino, the more reasons they will find to opt for a Granada."

Equally dismal was the tarted-up Torino bowing at mid-1974 to answer Chevy's popular Monte Carlo. Sharing a coupe bodyshell and running gear with that year's new fat-cat Mercury Cougar, this Grand Torino Elite leaned heavily on "Thunderbird tradition" with most every personal-luxury cliche of the period: overstuffed velour interior, a square "formal" grille, stand-up hood ornament, and a vinyl-covered rear half-roof with dual "opera" windows. Initially priced at $4437, the Elite didn't sell as well as the Monte, though over 366,000 were built through 1976. After that point, a downsized, downpriced T-bird rendered it redundant.

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The 1975 Ford Granada, shown here, skyrocketed in sales to become Ford Division's best-seller.

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The Ford Granada

Granada was a far more rational proposition and one of Ford's best-timed ideas of this decade. Introduced during 1975, it was conceived as just a slightly larger Maverick using the same chassis and drivetrains.

But when the fuel crunch ­boosted small-car sales, Ford decided to retain Maverick and launch its erstwhile successor as a more-luxurious compact half a step up in price. This explains why the Granada appeared on the four-door Maverick's 109.9-inch wheelbase.

Adroitly keyed to the changing market, Granada blended American-style luxury with the mock-Mercedes look then in vogue. Buyers wholeheartedly approved, and Granada zoomed from nowhere to become Ford Division's top-seller, outdistancing the full-sizers and swollen Torinos by wide margins. It was soon a familiar sight on American roads. Not that it performed that well on those roads with its untidy cornering response and a roly-poly ride on rough sections.

Nevertheless, Granada bridged a big market gap at a crucial time, appealing to both compact buyers with upscale aspirations and big-car owners now energy-conscious for the first time. Offerings through 1980 comprised six and V-8 four-door sedan and opera-window coupe in base and plusher Ghia trim (the last referring to the famed Italian coachbuilder bought by Ford in 1970).

There was also a gesture toward sport in the 1978-80 ESS -- for "European Sports Sedan" -- but it was only a gesture. Maverick's true successor bowed for 1978 with a name borrowed from Ford's Australian subsidiary: Fairmont. It was undoubtedly Dearborn's single most significant new product of the decade, although few knew that outside the company. Why? Because Fairmont's basic engineering would be the foundation for most Ford Motor Company cars introduced through the mid-'80s, including a new-generation Mustang and T-Bird.

Billed as the first FoMoCo car designed with the aid of computer analysis, the Fairmont (and its Zephyr twin at Mercury) was a common-sense car and pretty conventional. Though conceived around a traditional front-engine/rear-drive format, it was a big improvement over Maverick: clean-lined; sensibly boxy for good interior space on a shorter 105.5-inch wheelbase; lighter and thus thriftier than many expected.

Engines were familiar -- initially the 140-cid Pinto four, 200-cid six, and 302-cid V-8 -- but there was a new all-coil suspension with modified MacPherson-strut front end geometry, which mounted the coil springs on lower A-arms. Aside from better handling, this arrangement opened up more underhood space for easier servicing. A front stabilizer bar was standard, as was rack-and-pinion steering, offered at extra cost with variable-ratio power assist, a new item shared with several other Fords that year.

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Ford focused on downsizing and better fuel economy in the late 1970s. The 1978 Ford Fairmont Squire is shown here.

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Ford LTD

The "Fox" program that produced Fairmont was one of Ford's first projects initiated after the 1973-74 energy crisis, but it wasn't Dearborn's only attempt at downsizing. For 1977, the old Torino was refurbished with cleaner exterior sheet metal and "badge-engineered" to pass as a new-wave big car.

Called LTD II, it was only a little lighter than before, and sales went nowhere. One reason was the simultaneous arrival of a new downsized Thunderbird on this same platform. With much lower prices than before and that magical name, the T-Bird swamped LTD II in sales.

Besides a new Fairmont-based Mustang, 1979 saw the fruition of the "Panther" design project in an LTD that was genuinely downsized. Yet it was less successful than the Fairmont or Mustang -- and that was curious. In size and execution this smaller LTD was fully a match for shrunken GM opponents, riding a 114.3-inch wheelbase yet offering more claimed passenger and trunk space than the outsized 1973-78 cars. Styling was boxier and less pretentious, and visibility and fuel economy were better. So were ride and handling, thanks to a new all-coil suspension with more-precise four-bar-link location for the live rear axle.

Coupes, sedans, and wagons in two trim levels were offered. With all this, what Ford trumpeted as a "New American Road Car" should have scored even higher output than the 357,000 recorded for '79. The new LTD thus trailed the big Oldsmobiles for second place in full-size car sales and ran far behind Chevrolet's Caprice/Impala.

Two factors seemed to be at work. One was GM's two-year lead in downsizing. The other was a severe downturn in the national economy -- abetted by another fuel crisis -- that began in the spring of '79 and put a big crimp in all new-car sales.

The new LTD would enjoy a sales resurgence, but not before Ford and the U.S. auto industry passed through three of their bleakest years ever. Those years -- 1980-82 -- saw Ford Division output drop from 1.16 million cars to just under 749,000. But thanks to an economic recovery and an ever-changing line of ever-improving Fords, the division went back above the 1.1-million mark -- and would stay there through decade's end. In the process, Ford overhauled Chevrolet, becoming "USA-1" for 1988.

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The Ford Escort, shown here as a 1981 GLX liftgate wagon with Squire Trim, was practical, low-priced and a best-seller for Ford.

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Ford in the 1980s: Ford Escort Replaces Ford Pinto

A division mainstay throughout the '80s was the subcompact Escort, the new front-drive 1981 replacement for Pinto. Billed as the first in a promised fleet of Ford "world cars," it was ­jointly designed by the firm's U.S., British, and German branches under Project "Erika," but the European version ended up sleeker and faster than its American cousin.

The practical, low-priced U.S. Escort set a fast sales pace with at least 320,000 copies in each of its first two years. Volume eased to under a quarter million for '85, then returned to at least 363,000 each year through decade's end. The peak was 1986 at over 430,000.

Numerous refinements marked Escort's evolution through 1990. There were always three-door hatchbacks and four-door wagons, plus hatchback sedans after 1981. All rode a 94.2-inch wheelbase and employed transverse-mounted four-cylinder engines -- a new "CVH" single-overhead-cam design with hemispherical combustion chambers -- initially teamed with four-speed overdrive manual or three-speed automatic transaxles.

An optional five-speed manual came along for 1983. All-coil four-wheel independent suspension persisted throughout, with MacPherson struts and lower control arms fore, modified struts on trailing arms and lower control arms aft. Rack-and-pinion steering and front-disc/rear-drum brakes completed the basic specs.

Escort's original 1.6-liter (98-cid) engine had just 69 horsepower, but by 1983 was up to 72/80 horsepower with two-­barrel carb or 88 horsepower in optional throttle-body fuel-injected form. The last was standard for a new three-door GT model, which also came with five-speed, firm suspension, and black exterior trim.

An optional 2.0-liter (121-cid) 52-bhp diesel four from Mazda arrived for 1984 -- just in time for the start of a gas glut that quickly killed most all diesel demand in the U.S. That engine duly vanished after '87. A more-exciting 1984 development was a turbocharged 1.6-liter GT with 120 horsepower and a suitably uprated chassis. It was fast and fun but crude and not very quiet. A more-convenient, restyled dash was featured across the line.

A mid-1985 upgrade brought a larger 1.9-liter (113.5 cid) "CVH" with 86 horsepower in carbureted form or 108 with option electronic port fuel injection. The latter was newly standard for GT, which gained its own asymmetric body-color grille, aluminum wheels, bigger tires, rear spoiler, and rocker panel "skirts." All Escorts were mildly facelifted with smoother noses in the "aero" idiom pioneered by the '83 Thunderbird, marked by flush headlamps.

By 1987, Escort's plethora of alphabet series had been sifted down to a stark three-door called Pony, volume-selling GL (all three body styles), and three-door GT. The base engine was treated to throttle-body injection and moved up to 90 horsepower.

Styling became smoother in mid-1988: revamped rear quarters for sedans, a new grille and spoiler for GT, and minor cleanups elsewhere. GL was renamed LX, and the dash was restyled a second time. As with previous midyear model revisions, this one carried into 1989 and then 1990 practically without change. Escort's high success was not matched by an unhappy sporty coupe offshoot, the EXP.

New for 1982, it was Ford's first two-seater since the original Thunderbird, but its "frog-eye" styling wasn't in the same league. And though an Escort underneath, it cost considerably more. Still, first-year sales were respectable at over 98,000. But they plunged ominously to under 20,000 for 1983.

The following year, EXP picked up the "bubbleback" hatch of its discontinued Mercury twin, the LN7, as well as Escort's new dash and 120-bhp turbo option. Sales recovered to over 23,000.

The little-changed '85s sold some 26,400 early into the calendar year, when Ford suspended production. The car then reemerged in mid-1986 as the Escort EXP, with a similar new flush-headlamp front, revamped dash, and 1.9-liter engines for two models: 86-bhp Luxury Coupe and 108-bhp Sport Coupe.

Though nearly 31,000 were sold, EXP was still unequal to Japanese two-seaters like the Honda CRX and Toyota MR2. With base and luxury coupe, EXP eased below 26,000 for '87, then was abandoned in 1988 as a bad bet, though this did free up assembly-line space for regular Escorts.

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Ford produced "Detroit-style" luxury cars throughout the 1980s with models such as this 1983 Ford LTD Crown Victoria.

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Ford Crown Victoria, Ford Granada and Ford Fairmont

Another constant of Ford's 1980s fleet was the full-size 1979-vintage LTD, which continued beyond 1990 with just minor yearly alterations to equipment, styling and engines.

The changes are easy to chart: standard four-speed overdrive automatic transmission and 255-cid V-8, a new uplevel series reviving the Crown Victoria name (1980); no more 351 option (1982); standard 302 V-8 with throttle-body fuel injection for all models renamed LTD Crown Victoria (1983); sequential multiport injection for 150 horsepower (versus 140), premium LX series added (1986); two-door coupe canceled, "aero" front and rear styling for remaining four-door sedan and Country Squire wagon (1988); standard driver-side air bag, new-style dash, and revised equipment (1990).

Despite the year-to-year sameness, many buyers still craved big, Detroit-style luxury, and the fact that fewer such cars were available as gas became cheaper again only worked in the Crown Vic's favor. Though sales fluctuated, this line was good for an annual average of well over 118,000 -- considerably more in some years. As late as 1990, Crown Vic did a healthy 74,000. By that point, though, the cars themselves were sourced ­mainly from Canada.

While Fairmont continued carrying Ford's banner in the compact segment, two derivatives served as the division's midsize warriors. First was a new 1981 Granada, basically the two- and four-door Fairmont sedans with a square eggcrate grille, bulkier sheetmetal, and somewhat plusher appointments. Fairmont wagons transferred to this line for '82. This Granada sold respectably: about 120,000 a year. Engines were the same as Fairmont's: standard 2.3-liter four, optional 200-cid six, and "fuel crisis" 255 V-8 (the last eliminated after '81).

For 1983, Granada was transformed into a "small" LTD -- as opposed to the "big" LTD Crown Victoria. This was also an uptown Fairmont, restyled with a sloped nose, airier "six-light" greenhouse, and modestly lipped trunklid.

Along with that year's new Thunderbird, it announced Ford's turn to "aero" styling. By 1984, Granada engines were initially carried over along with a new 232-cid V-6. By 1985, only the four, V-6, and an optional 165-bhp 302 V-8 were fielded, the last reserved for a semi-sporting LX sedan that sold just 3260 copies. Undoubtedly helped by image rub-off from its big sister, the little LTD sold a lot better than Granada: nearly 156,000 for '83 and over 200,000 in 1984 and '85 -- Ford's second-best-seller after Escort.

Fairmont, meantime, finished its run in 1983 after few interim changes from '78. Two sedans, plain and fancy wagons, and a smart "basket-handle-roof" coupe reviving the Futura name were offered through 1981 (after which the wagons became Granadas). Engines were the usual Fox assortment: 2.3-liter four, 200-cid straight six, and small-block V-8s (302 cid for 1978-79, 255 cid for 1980-81).

Sales tapered off along with the economy, dropping from the first-year high of nearly 461,000 to less than 81,000 by 1983. Still, that was a fine showing in a turbulent period. The Fairmont had more than done its job.

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The Ford Tempo proved to be yet another fast-selling, low-priced Ford model. The 1984 Ford Tempo GL coupe is shown here.

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Ford Tempo and Ford Taurus

Filling Fairmont's shoes for 1984 was a new front-drive compact called Tempo, a notchback four-door and coupelike two-door with "jellybean" styling on a 99.9-inch chassis with suspension much like Escort's. Power came from a 2.3-liter four, only it wasn't the Pinto/Fairmont ohc "Lima" unit but a cut-down version of the old overhead-valve Falcon six, rated at 84 horsepower.

It didn't work that well, but Ford tried to make it better, fitting throttle-body injection and adding a 100-bhp "H.O." (high-output) option for '85. The latter somehow lost six horsepower by '87, then returned to its original rating. Several trim levels were offered, including better-equipped Sport versions with the more powerful engine and firm suspension. Escort's 2.0-liter diesel option was listed through '86, but generated few sales. The standard manual transaxle shifted from a four- to five-speed after '84, with a three-speed automatic optional all years.

Tempo was treated to a mild flush-headlamp facelift for 1986, when it also became one of the first low-priced cars to offer an optional driver-side air bag. The following year brought another interesting new option: all-wheel drive, a part-time "shift-on-the-fly" setup intended for maximum traction on slippery roads, not dry-pavement driving or off-roading.

For 1988, Tempo four-doors were reskinned to look like junior versions of the new midsize Taurus, an effective "nip-and-tuck" operation. A new, rather Japanese-looking dash was shared with unchanged coupe models. Offerings now comprised base GL and sporty GLS coupes and sedans, plus four-door all-wheel drive and luxury LX models. Tempo then marked time for 1989-90 aside from price/equipment shuffles.

Despite prosaic mechanicals and increasingly tough compact competition, Tempo proved another fast-selling Ford. It averaged 371,000 buyers in its first two seasons and another 280,000 for 1986-87. Sales then turned strongly upward for 1988-89, breaking the three-quarter-million mark for the two years combined. Dearborn designers and decision-makers evidently had the inside track on what appealed to American buyers.

Yet, even they were likely surprised by the success of Taurus, the front-drive 1986 replacement for the junior LTD in the all-important midsize market. Riding a 106-inch wheelbase, these four-door sedans and four-door wagons represented Ford's strong­est-ever claim to Detroit design leadership: clean, smooth, and carefully detailed, yet not lumpy like some other low-drag "aero" cars. Dominating the spacious interiors was an obviously European-inspired dashboard with some controls sensibly copied from the best of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Saab.

As expected, Taurus engines mounted transversely in a chassis with all-independent suspension. Sedans used MacPherson struts and coil springs at each corner, supplemented at the rear by parallel control arms. Wagons eschewed rear struts for twin control arms, a system better able to cope with the wider range of load weights wagons carry.

Initial engine choices began with a 2.5-liter 88-bhp four, an enlarged Tempo unit available with standard five-speed manual or, from late '87, optional four-speed overdrive automatic transaxles. Most Tauruses, though, were ordered with the new port-injected 3.0-liter "Vulcan" V-6, a 60-degree overhead-valve design rated at 140 bhp and teamed with automatic only.

For 1988, Ford added a reengineered version of its 90-degree 3.8-liter V-6 as a new option. Horsepower here was also 140, but the 3.8's extra torque provided quicker acceleration than the 3.0. With its ultramodern styling, good performance, and prices far lower than those of certain covetedGerman sedans, Taurus charged up the sales chart like a bull in a china shop. Ford sold over 236,000 of the '86s and nearly 375,000 for '87 -- astounding for what was, after all, a very daring departure for a middle-class American car.

But there were still those who wanted a Taurus with performance and mechanical specifications as sophisticated as its styling. They got one, and 1989 was showtime -- or rather SHO time: a new "Super High Output" 3.0 V-6 with overhead-cam cylinder heads and four valves per cylinder (instead of two), plus dual exhausts.

Engineered with help from Yamaha, the SHO engine turned out 220 horsepower, good for seven seconds 0-60 mph, according to Ford; Consumer Guide® managed "only" 7.4 -- still great going. The SHO came only in a sedan with standard antilock all-disc brakes, a handling package with larger antiroll bars, and 15-inch aluminum wheels wearing high-speed V-rated tires. Lending added styling distinction were unique lower-body extensions and inboard front fog lamps. The interior was special too, boasting multi-adjustable front bucket seats, sport cloth upholstery, center console, and, to match the high-winding engine, an 8000-rpm tachometer.

Nevertheless, the SHO was a very slow mover on the sales chart, mainly because there was no automatic option and the mandatory Mazda-supplied manual five-speed suffered balky, high-effort shift action. Production was thus meager through 1990: about 25,000 or so. But Taurus as a whole kept up its initial rip-snorting pace, besting 387,000 for '88, 395,000 for '89, and 333,000 for recession-plagued 1990. Thoughtful yearly upgrades helped. Among the most thoughtful: optional anti-lock brakes for sedans and a standard driver-side air bag for all 1990 models.

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Ford's original 1989 Probe was based Mazda's MX-6 and almost replaced the Mustang. The 1997 Ford Probe GT is shown here.

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The 1989 Ford Probe

We shouldn't leave this decade without mentioning the Probe, which was new for 1989. A sporty hatchback coupe based on Mazda's MX-6, it was a high point for Dearborn's then 15-year-old partnership with the Japanese automaker. This had been such a success that Ford not only bought a 25-percent stake in Mazda but decided to entrust it with all of Ford's own small-car development for North America. The Probe was the first fruit of that decision.

The original Probe will ever be remembered as the car that almost replaced the Mustang. Ford changed its name only at the last minute amid howls of protest from Mustang loyalists who'd have no truck with a Japanese design -- and with ­"inferior" front drive at that.

The name itself came from Ford's exciting early-'80s series of aerodynamic concept cars, but proved to have unexpectedly offensive connotations. To produce the car, Ford and Mazda set up a new factory in Flat Rock, Michigan, not far from historic River Rouge, as part of a joint venture aptly named Auto Alliance. The plant also turned out MX-6s and 626 sedans for Mazda's U.S. dealers.

With all this, the Probe is at best a "half-American" car despite all-Ford styling and availability of the 3.0-liter Taurus V-6 on midrange LX models for 1990-92. (The base GL used a 2.2-liter Mazda four, the top-line GT a turbocharged version). Probe was redesigned for '93 on a new-generation MX-6 platform with 102.9-inch wheelbase (versus 99), again with much more dramatic styling than its cousin. Power was exclusively Mazda: a 2.0-liter four for the base model, a 2.5 V-6 for the sporty GT.

Probe was a timely Ford weapon against sporty Japanese compacts like Toyota Celica, Honda Prelude, Nissan 200SX -- and Mazda MX-6. Sales were good at first -- more than 117,000 by 1990 -- but then fell victim to a sharp drop in sporty coupe demand. The second-generation Probe was the last, with production ending in '97.

Despite its ultimate demise, Probe was as much a symbol as Taurus of Ford's strong '80s resurgence, a phoenix-like renaissance engineered by Donald E. Petersen (president from 1980, chairman after 1984) and his young, enthusiastic executive team. From an automaker that was as near to collapse as Chrysler was in 1980, Dearborn remade itself into a trimmer, more-responsive, and vastly more-efficient outfit while fielding aggressive products that were usually right on target.

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1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 Ford Trucks

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Ford was still the home of "better ideas," but by 1990 it was also home to some of America's most-popular and respected automobiles. The same was true of trucks -- important given the boom in light-truck demand that began in the mid-'80s and continued into the '90s and beyond. If anything, Ford was even more successful here than it was with cars. For example, 1982 saw the full-size F-Series pickup begin a long reign as America's top-selling vehicle of any kind.

Ford's Ranger (a 1982 newcomer) became sales king of compact pickups. Dearborn also scored big in the burgeoning sport-utility field with Explorer, the upscale 1991 four-door replacement for the two-door Ranger-based Bronco II. Ford did fumble with minivans, but not seriously. Though its new-for-'86 rear-drive Aerostar was way outpolled by Chrysler's front-drive models, sales were consistent and high enough that Ford stayed the Aerostar's planned 1994 execution, letting the older minivan run alongside the new front-drive Windstar.

By the mid-'90s, these truck successes added to the continuing popularity of Taurus and Escort to make Ford the sales leader in five vehicle segments: full-size pickups (F-Series), midsize car (Taurus), sporty-utility vehicles (Explorer), subcompact car (Escort), and compact pickup (Ranger). More­over, Taurus took over as the country's top-selling car line in 1992 to end the Honda Accord's three-year reign, though not without cash rebates and other sales incentives.

With all this, Ford Division remained "USA-1" in the early '90s, selling well over a million cars a year and a like number of light trucks. Chevy did move about 40,000 more domestic cars in ­calendar '91, but that was the only time it surpassed Ford in these years.

Two different Dearborn regimes presided over this remarkable sales performance. First, Don Petersen handed over the chairman's gavel in 1990 to his one-time number-two, Harold A. "Red" Poling; at the same time, the president's job was reactivated after a two-year lapse for Phillip Benton, Jr. Both these men were Dearborn veterans, but they were merely a transition team, for late 1993 ushered in the worldly wise Alex Trotman as both president and chairman.

As a veteran of Ford Europe, Trotman brought a more-international outlook to the company's "Glass House" headquarters, which was soon populated by many of his European colleagues. One of their first projects was an ambitious corporate reorganization dubbed "Ford 2000." Announced in 1994, this aimed to mobilize all of the firm's global resources to further improve quality, shorten product development times, and achieve greater manufacturing efficiencies.

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Ford Redesigns the Ford Escort

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Though it wouldn't be evident on the road until middecade, Ford 2000 seemed a prudent plan in light of the automobile industry's ever-increasing globalization. Meantime, Ford Division had redesigned its Escort for the first time since the 1981 original.

Arriving in spring 1990 as an early-'91 model, it was another "world car," though in the same way as Probe. Here, Ford applied "mini-Taurus" styling to the latest version of Mazda's small, front-drive 323/Protege to produce a competent Japanese-style subcompact with much greater sales appeal against rival Toyotas, Hondas, and Nissans.

Initial body styles were the same as before. So was the basic "CVH" engine retained for all Escorts save the sporty GT three-door. That one benefited greatly from a new twincam, 1.8-liter Mazda four with 16 valves and 127 lively horses.

Though the CVH gained sequential-port fuel injection and distributorless electronic ignition, it remained a gruff and noisy slogger with just 88 horsepower. At least it was cheap, and that combined with more efficient production in Mexico as well as Michigan to make for very low list prices: $7976 for the stark three-door Pony to more than $11 grand for the GT. A crisp four-door notchback bowed for 1992 in mid-range LX trim, and there was a sporty LX-E version with the GT's engine and firm suspension, plus rear disc brakes -- a kind of pint-size Taurus SHO.

Only evolutionary changes would occur through 1996, save the admirable adoption of a standard passenger airbag for '95 supplementing the already included driver's restraint. An optional fold-out child safety seat was also added that year.

Sales remained strong despite the yearly sameness. A clever new "one price" program helped. Begun in 1992, this offered any of the four LX models with several popular options for just $10,899 with five-speed manual transmission or $11,631 with optional four-speed automatic.

Ford was copying the no-hassle price policy of GM's Saturn subsidiary, but it was nonetheless a timely counter to Chevy's Cavalier, which was doing the same thing -- not to mention Japanese small cars that were rapidly moving up the scale due to a strengthened yen.

Unfortunately, everyday Escorts couldn't match many import-brand competitors for pep and refinement, so it's just as well that the freshened '97s went on sale in early 1996.

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Ford's successful 1979 Crown Victoria got a face-lift in the 1990s. A latter-model 1999 Ford Crown Victoria is shown here.

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Ford Redesigns the Ford Crown Victoria

Ford modernized two more of its cars for 1992. First up was a replacement for something even older than the original Escort: the big, vintage '79 Crown Victoria.

Reaching showrooms in March 1991, it was virtually all-new despite retaining the basic rear-drive "Panther" platform and wheelbase. There was new styling, of course: smooth and rounded in Dearborn's now-expected "aero" mold, but not "jellybean" chunky. A grilleless Taurus-type face replaced the dated standup eggcrate.

Other passe stuff like vinyl roof covers, opera lights, and wire-wheel covers was forgotten, too. So was the LTD name -- but also the Crown Vic wagon, Ford having concluded that minivans and sport-utility vehicles had now largely replaced traditional full-size wagons in buyer affections. That left a four-door sedan with airy "six-light" roofline in base and uplevel LX trim; a sportier Touring Sedan was added in the fall.

Like its 1990 makeover of the aged Lincoln Town Car, Ford went much further with this new Crown Victoria than was absolutely needed to satisfy the market. Where GM was content to merely rebody its largest cars, Ford overhauled the chassis, adding standard all-disc brakes with optional antilock control and making numerous tweaks to steering, springs, shocks, and suspension geometry. The result was surprisingly agile and responsive for a traditional full-size Detroiter and a vast improvement over the old Crown Vic. It was also a more-potent big Ford with adoption of the 4.6-liter overhead-cam V-8 first seen in the '91 Town Car.

The first member of Dearborn's new "modular" engine family, it delivered 190 standard bhp or 210 with dual exhausts, a gain of 40-50 horses over the old pushrod 302. The uprated engine was included in a Handling and Performance package that was standard for the Touring Sedan and optional on other models.

As its name implied, this also delivered firmer damping and wider wheels wearing performance tires, as well as ABS and traction control. All models came with a driver-side air bag per Washington's insistence; a passenger-side restraint was also available.

All this plus starting prices in the low $20,000s lit a fire under Crown Victoria sales, which jumped past 152,000 for 1992, the highest since '85. Volume then declined to under 110,000, but remained healthy through decade's end.

Buyer requests prompted the addition of conventional grille for '93, when the Touring was dropped. The passenger airbag became standard for '94. The '95s got a mild facelift, "gullwing" taillights, revised climate controls and newly standard rear defroster, heated door mirrors, a radio antenna embedded in the rear window, a "battery-saver" feature, and displays for outside temperature and "gallons to empty." Even with all these additions, base price was comfortably below $25,000.

Incidentally, the Crown Vic became an "import" for a few years in the early '90s, built north of the border with a high level of Canadian content. The reason was CAFE, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy law that took effect with model-year '78 but had lately been relaxed somewhat.

Still, the Crown Vic had fair thirst (about 17 mpg city, 25 highway, as rated by the Environmental Protection Agency) and was thus a drain on Ford's domestic fleet-average economy. As an "import," the Crown Vic counted in Ford's non-domestic CAFE along with the tiny South Korean-built Festiva, whose really high mileage more than offset the big car's.

Later, Ford didn't need such tricks to comply with CAFE, so parts and labor were re-sourced to make the Crown Vic truly "American" again. Such is the silliness sometimes wrought by well-meaning regulations.

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Ford spent $630 million on updating the '86 Taurus for 1992. The older 1988 Ford Taurus model is shown here.

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1992 Redesigned Ford Taurus

Ford's other 1992 freshening involved the top-selling Taurus. With competitors pushing hard, the basic '86 design was now in need of an update, so Ford spent a cool $650 million to give it one. Much of the money went toward things that didn't show but made a good car even better, particularly in the areas of noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH).

Among these were a stiffer unibody structure, a suspension revised for a smoother ride with no harm to handling, more-responsive power steering, extra sound-deadening in strategic places, engine adjustments for improved drivability, and a more-precise solid-rod shift linkage for the dashing SHO. Ford also dropped the weak four-cylinder engine, which pleased some buyers apart from rent-a-car companies.

Inside, the '92 Taurus presented a redesigned dash with subtle ergonomic refinements and space for a newly optional passenger airbag. Outside was…a disappointment. Though every body panel was new save the doors, the '92 was hard to tell at a glance from previous Tauruses -- as critics loved to point out. But buyers didn't seem to care.

As mentioned, Taurus took over as America's most-popular car line in '92. Calendar-year sales were smashing at over 397,000, and model-year production was a record 368,000. But that was only a prelude to '93, when model-year output surged to nearly 459,000.

The '95 tally was almost as good: just over 410,000. Like Escort, Taurus wouldn't see another major change until late decade. The most-important interim development was standardizing the passenger air bag for '94. An interesting '95 variation was the SE (Sport Edition) sedan, a kind of budget SHO delivering alloy wheels, rear spoiler, sport front seats, and other extras for about $18-grand with base 3.0-liter V-6 or just under $20,000 with the punchier 3.8. Interestingly, the smaller "Vulcan" V-6 got some needed NVH improvements in preparation for the all-new second-generation Taurus.

Let's not forget the 1992-95 SHO, which gained greater visual distinction through more-aggressive styling front and rear, plus bolder cladding for the lower bodysides. In addition, Ford finally added a four-speed automatic to the SHO's option list for 1993.

To maintain performance parity with the five-speed model, the 3.0-liter Yamaha V-6 was enlarged for the shiftless SHO to near 3.2 liters (192 cid), yielding a useful 20 extra pound-feet of torque (220 in all), though no more horsepower. SHO pricing remained unusually steady in these years, but neither that nor the automatic was much help to sales.

With base stickers straddling $25,000, the top-line Taurus still faced competition from a host of formidable foreign sports sedans and usually suffered by comparison. But though eclipsed by those cars for image -- and ultimately by a V-8 successor for perfor­mance, the V-6 SHO was a rewarding driver's car with a pleasing blend of American and European characteristics.

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Ford Contour Replaces Ford Tempo

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Interest value was definitely not a trait of the early '90s Tempo. Soldiering on with few evident differences from one year to the next, Ford's front-drive compact tended to get lost in the great gray mass of Detroit market-fillers that you were more apt to rent on vacation than put in your driveway.

Yet for all its crushing dullness, Tempo remained a decent seller, with steady model-year production of well over 100,000 units through swan-song '94 -- and the '93s made a surprise spurt to better than 238,000. Tempo's only changes of note in this period were loss of the AWD option after 1991 (when it was called "Four Wheel Drive") and the '92 addition of the 3.0-liter Taurus V-6 as standard for top-line GLS models (which then went away) and an option elsewhere.

Base prices remained very attractive, rising no higher than the low $12,000s. While that betrayed an aging design long since paid for, it also helped Ford to keep moving this metal. Tempo's 1995 replacement stood to be a far easier sell. Called Contour, it was another stab at a "world car," born of "Ford 2000" thinking as an Americanized version of the year-old European Mondeo.

But unlike the original compromised U.S. Escort, Contour was very close to its transatlantic cousin, having the same smooth, tightly drawn styling, plus an ultra-stiff structure and a sophisticated all-independent suspension that contributed to crisp, taut handling. Even the Mondeo dash was little altered for the States. Unfortunately, so was its snug interior. Despite a wheelbase half-an-inch longer than Taurus', the Contour was frankly cramped in back, with little underseat footroom and marginal knee, leg, and headroom.

Still, this was the closest America had yet come to an affordable European-style sports sedan. Critics raved. Road & Track called Contour "a giant step forward in the compact sedan arena." Car and Driver termed it "stunningly satisfying." Those verdicts came from road tests of the top-line SE model and its 2.5-liter "Duratec" V-6.

A new all-Ford design optional on lesser Contours, this engine made 170 spirited horses -- enough for Consumer Guide®'s five-speed car to charge from 0 to 60 mph in just 8.9 seconds. GL and midlevel LX models came with another new engine: a 2.0-liter multivalve twincam four called "Zetec," an outgrowth of Ford Europe's recently introduced "Zeta" family of small, high-efficiency powerplants. In line with a fast-growing Detroit trend, both Contour engines could go 100,000 miles without a tune-up. And, of course, either could drive through an optional four-speed automatic.

Ford spent a record $6 billion to introduce Mondeo, Contour, and Mercury's companion '95 Mystique. That was twice the expense of the original Taurus program, but included the high costs of developing two brand-new engines, manufacturing facilities, and the usual new-model tooling.

Even so, Ford had bet heavily on these cars (dubbed "CDW127" in the company's new internal code, the letters denoting "World car" in the "C/D" size class), so it was vital they succeed.

Contour did succeed, but not as well as the car it replaced. A minor recall slowed early deliveries, but the real problem was sticker shock. With buyers still flocking to well-equipped Japanese cars, Ford decided to ladle on all kinds of standard features (including dual dashboard airbags), but this only pushed Contour quite a bit upmarket from Tempo, which had been relatively cheap.

Many prospects thus balked and walked when Contour arrived at a minimum of $13,300, over $1000 more than a late loaded Tempo. Opt for an SE with desirable extras like ABS and traction control and you were well over $20,000, which was Taurus money.

Ford had underestimated the price sensitivity of Contour's target market, as telling a miscalculation as that tight back seat. Ford tried to correct its mistakes for 1997 by adding a lower-priced low-frills Contour and scooping out the front seatbacks and rear-seat cushion for a little more aft legroom. A modest reskin followed for '98, when the two low-line models were dropped and the LX and SE became better dollar values through careful realigning of prices and standard features.

But nothing seemed to help, so Ford pulled the plug on Contour after 2000. Sibling Mondeo continued, however, remaining quite popular in Europe -- enough to be accorded a full redesign a few years later.

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The Ford SVT Contour

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Before the end, Contour got a megadose of Euro-style performance, courtesy of Ford's Special Vehicle Team. SVT had been formed in the early 1990s as a semi-autonomous part of the Dearborn organization, charged with souping-up various vehicles for sale through selected Ford dealers.

Having made its mark with hot Cobra Mustangs and rapid F-150 Lightning pickups, SVT was asked to realize the Contour's full sport sedan potential for 1998. Marketers doubtless hoped the new model's image would boost sales for the rest of the line.

They didn't get that, but enthusiasts got a "stealth" driver's car that could go hunting for BMWs, even on twisty roads. A reworked suspension with stiffer springs and shocks, bigger brakes, and 16-inch rolling stock made cornering nimble and near neutral -- a revelation for a domestic front-drive sedan -- yet ride was scarcely less supple than in mainstream Contours.

To complement the chassis, the 2.5 Duratec V-6 received higher compression, deep-breathing exercises, and other measures to achieve 195 bhp (later 200), delivered through a mandatory short-throw five-speed manual gearbox. Cosmetic alterations were subtle but sufficient for those in the know, and there were plenty of extra niceties such as leather upholstery. The only options, in fact, were a power moonroof and CD player.

Even so, the base price was amazingly low at around $23,000. A comparable 3-Series BMW or Mercedes-Benz C-Class cost thousands more, yet the SVT Contour was easily their equal on a road course or a dragstrip, running 0-60 mph in about 7.5 seconds in most road tests.

Collectible Automobile magazine thought the SVT Contour so good that it would one day be a coveted keepsake. "No doubt about it…Ford has finally produced a genuine European sports sedan right here in the U.S.A. (Hear that, "Buy American" diehards?)"

Alas, many enthusiasts either didn't believe their ears or thought the Blue Oval badge too ­ proletarian. In any case, production was slightly more limited than even SVT had planned: about 10,000 in 1998-99, plus a handful more in phaseout 2000.

Ford was somewhat wide of the mark with the erstwhile replacement for its old truck-like Aerostar minivan. Unlike Mercury's two-year-old Villager, which Ford built in Ohio to a Nissan design, the new 1995 Windstar was Dearborn's own front-drive minivan, using a modified Taurus platform and drivetrains to furnish a similarly car-like driving feel. Ford also gave it standard seven-place seating on a 120.7-inch wheelbase, slightly longer than that of Chrysler's extended-length Grand models.

Overall, Windstar was eight inches longer than a Grand and nearly a foot longer than Villager. GL and LX price levels were offered in the $20,000-$24,000 range. Nice looks, high utility, and a full range of passenger-car safety features netted healthy sales.

Even so, Ford was only catching up, not advancing the art, and Windstar was never a threat to the sales-leading Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth minivans -- not even after being lightly restyled as the 2005 Freestar.

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The all-new 1996 Ford Taurus shown here was dubbed by one journalist as having a "pre-dented" look.

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1996 Ford Taurus

There was nothing half-hearted about the all-new 1996 Taurus. From nose to tail, top to bottom, it was an orgy of ovals on a lozenge-like form with concave lower bodysides -- what one journalist termed a "pre-dented" look.

Chairman Alex Trotman hoped another daring design would grab the public like the original Taurus had and turn the styling spotlight away from the new "cab-forward" Chrysler/Dodge models competing with Taurus. At one point, Trotman reportedly walked through the styling studio, looked around, and said to those present, "You're not scaring me enough."

Unfortunately for Ford, the result must have scared off some buyers, for Taurus promptly lost its standing as America's top-selling car line and would never get it back. One wag thought the '96 model so odd as to imagine, "If they could have made oval wheels work, they'd have used them."

There were ovals ­aplenty inside too, including a large one in the middle of the dash with oddly curved arrays of look-alike pushbuttons for audio and climate functions. Neither critics nor many consumers were amused.

More's the pity, for the 1996 model represented a major improvement over past Tauruses in many ways. The value-oriented GL sedan and wagon got an updated Vulcan pushrod V-6, while the nicer LXs were treated to a 3.0-liter version of the twincam Duratec V-6 with 200 bhp, considered by many buyers to be well worth its $500 premium.

Topping the line was a new SHO with 235 bhp from a 3.4-liter V-8, another Ford-Yamaha collaboration. Wheelbase on all models added 2.5 inches, benefiting rear leg room, as well as handling in concert with a revised suspension.

But certain rivals, notably the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, now had a slight edge in ride ­quality, a big one in build quality -- and were fighting fiercely for Taurus's number-one sales spot. Worse, price hikes of around $1000 chilled early demand, prompting the addition of a detrimmed price-leader G sedan during the '96 season.

Yet for all the controversy, Taurus sales remained strong, actually improving by some 11 percent for 1996 over the prior model year. Volume then held at around 400,000 through 2000. But Taurus still relied far more on fleet sales each year than its leading Japanese-brand rivals, so Ford earned somewhat less on every sale and owners received less at trade-in time.

Ford was more on target with a redesigned Escort that rang up more than 655,000 sales for model years 1997-98 and more than 100,000 each for '99 and 2000. The previous Mazda Protege-based design returned with a smooth new wrapper and a 110-bhp 2.0-liter single-cam Zetec four-cylinder, thus ousting the old CVH engine at last. Models comprised two sedans and a wagon at first, a single sedan after 1999. All aimed to provide nothing more than economical yet stylish transportation at a low price, which was all many people needed.

Pricing probably helped close many a sale. Even with a heavy option load, these Escorts seldom broke the $17,000 barrier, yet they were more refined and better built than previous models, enough to stand comparison with some import-brand rivals. But they were only a short-lived bridge to the year 2000 and the debut of a far more ambitious small Ford.

Despite its seeming lame-duck status, Escort kept selling well enough that Ford decided to keep it around longer than planned, offering a special fleet sedan to nonretail customers for 2001-02.

For those who missed Escort's spunky GT hatchback, Ford offered the new 1998 Escort ZX2, a sporty coupe with a separate trunk and Taurus-like styling. Appearances notwithstanding, basic architecture and underskin components were shared with other Escorts, while the engine was the same twincam Zetec found in the base Contour. With 130 bhp and relatively low weight (2470 pounds), the ZX2 was frisky, though no neck-snapper. Signaling its mission of wooing younger, cash-short enthusiasts, it initially came in "Cool" and better-equipped "Hot" versions.

Yet once again, Ford's aim was slightly off. Consumer Guide® and others thought ZX2 a bit pricey for what it delivered: $12,580 base for a '98 without air conditioning. And though Ford trimmed $1000 off the price of a "Cool" model for '99, CG repeated that "…ZX2 looks sportier than it performs."

This must have sounded all too familiar to Ford folks who remembered the unlovely and unloved EXP. A zippy $1495 SR package was added for 2000 with an extra 13 horses, tuned suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, alloy wheels, performance tires and special seats, but it did nothing to spark sales.

By 2002, the ZX2 (minus Escort badging) was down to some 52,000 calendar-year orders, then slid below 25,500, a poor showing for the low- to midteens pricing. Ford stayed the course one more year, then abandoned the sporty-coupe market, which was fast shrinking anyway.

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Ford Faces Tire Problems and Changes in Management

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Despite its product fumbles, Ford Motor Company seemed in great shape as the new century opened. Corporate profits hit a record $7.2 billion in 1999 as the stock market and new-vehicle demand stayed strong in an unprecedented boom economy.

Ford Division remained "USA-1," owning five of the country's top-10 sellers, including the big F-Series pickup and midsize Explorer SUV. Both were vital high-profit assets in a market gone mad for trucks, and Dearborn gave them yearly improvements to protect their class-leading sales status. The Explorer, for example, was redesigned for 1995 and given optional V-8 power the following year. Answering competitive SUV challenges, Ford soon fielded the F-150-based Expedition and, a bit later, the jumbo Excursion and compact Escape.

Dearborn was no less expansive in the luxury field, pouring major money into new products and plants for Jaguar and Aston Martin, acquired in the 1980s, then adding Land Rover, another British icon, and well-regarded Volvo of Sweden. In 1999 these four makes were combined with Lincoln and Mercury into a new division, Premier Automotive Group (PAG).

Nineteen ninety-nine also witnessed historic changes in top Ford management. Chairman Alex Trotman retired, handing the reins to 42-year-old William Clay Ford, Jr., great-grandson of the company founder and nephew of the late Henry Ford II. At the same time, hard-charging Jacques Nasser was elevated to president and chief executive officer after two years as head of North American operations.

But suddenly it all turned sour. First, the economy unraveled as overpriced "tech stocks" tanked, taking Wall Street and the economy down with them. Then, in 2000, the cash-cow Explorer and its original-equipment Firestone tires were implicated in rollover crashes linked to almost 300 deaths and scores of injuries. Nasser traded charges with Firestone officials in the media and before Congressional investigators, then ponied up $3.5 billion to replace some 6.5 million tires.

But months of damning publicity clobbered Dearborn's image -- and its stock price. So did a string of recalls and launch glitches involving the new Escape, 2001 Thunderbird, redesigned '02 Explorer, and the small Focus, Ford's latest attempt at a "world car." Other new models like the Lincoln LS and sister Jaguar S-Type didn't sell as expected. Longtime Japanese affiliate Mazda was also in trouble, a further drain on corporate coffers.

And there was worse. After burning through more than $15 billion in 1999-2000, Ford lost a staggering $5.45 billion in 2001 and almost a billion more in '02. Part of that came from having to match the costly zero-percent financing program instituted by GM to jump-start a stunned market after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Equally ominous, Ford's near-term domestic product pipeline looked dry, and Jaguar was gushing red ink.

Many things had obviously gone wrong. Most pundits blamed CEO Nasser. So did the Ford board, who sacked "Jac" in October 2001. A reluctant Bill Ford took command. Nasser had overreached.

Buying Volvo and Land Rover was costly enough, but Nasser also splurged on wispy e-commerce ventures, a chain of auto repair shops in Britain, Norwegian-built electric cars, even junkyards. "The plan, theoretically, had promise," said trade weekly Automotive News. "[But the] acerbic Nasser left out a couple of ingredients: building reliable vehicles, and keeping the troops happy."

Some wondered whether Bill Ford could turn the company around, but he silenced many skeptics by moving swiftly to put Ford's "Glass House" in order. From now on, he declared, Ford would build great cars and trucks, period. No more of Nasser's grand vision for a cradle-to-grave "transportation company."

After shuffling key executives and drawing up a new organizational chart, Ford announced a recovery plan that aimed to achieve $7 billion in pretax profit by 2006, mainly through "leaner" manufacturing, "smarter" engineering, plant closures, worker layoffs, and supplier concessions. New models were supposed to help, particularly new cars, which Ford heralded by proclaiming 2004 as "The Year of the Car." But recovery proved stubbornly elusive.

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2006 Ford Sales Decline

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By 2006, Dearborn counted five straight years of declining sales representing over a million units lost -- Detroit's worst performance by far. Market share, which had been sliding for a full decade, was down to 17.4 percent, the lowest since 1927, and seemed likely to go lower still.

The Economist in Britain observed that the '02 plan "failed to anticipate rising competition from [import brands] and the impact of soaring health-care costs." Ford was also being squeezed by escalating raw materials costs and -- the big hit -- a sharp drop in demand for its most profitable SUVs, triggered by a spike in gas prices during 2005 to over $3 a gallon in many places.

This "perfect storm" was also battering General Motors. Like Ford, GM still relied too much on truck sales and was trying to "shrink its way back to profitability" in the face of market changes it hadn't foreseen. But more downsizing wasn't the answer.

Aside from enormous pension and health-care expenses, both companies had to contend with "job banks" of laid-off workers who still drew most of their former pay, thanks to lush contracts negotiated with management in palmy days. And there was still the thorny problem of weaning buyers off the costly purchase incentives they'd been used to for years.

A final indignity for Ford was an exodus of talented people, a "brain drain" the company could ill-afford in this new crisis. Though not unexpected amid so much turmoil, the constant personnel shuffling only added to the perception that Ford -- GM too -- was heading toward bankruptcy. As one example, Ford went through no fewer than four executives in five years in the position of president of North American operations.

With all this, Ford was in a fight for its life. As The Economist noted: "Now the struggle is simply to make the car business profitable. This could be the last chance to fix Ford this side of the bankruptcy courts." Defiantly, Ford said Chapter 11 was not an option and announced a new restructuring effort in January 2006.

Though light on many specifics, this "Way Forward" plan called for closing 14 North American plants by 2012, thus erasing some 30,000 jobs and cutting build capacity by more than a fourth.

Ford also promised new vehicles that "people will ­really want." To execute the plan, Ford installed Mark Fields, the architect of a recent turnaround at Mazda, as president of the Americas, with Anne Stevens as his chief operating officer. "We lost our way," Fields admitted. "We lost touch with our customers, particularly our car customers." One result was that Chevrolet became America's top-selling nameplate in 2005, finally wresting the crown from Ford after 19 years.

Though increasingly eclipsed by the likes of Honda and Toyota, several Ford cars did well in the early 2000s. Despite too many recalls, the front-drive Focus was an unqualified success, drawing more than 389,000 orders in debut 2000 and around 300,000 each calendar year from 2001 to '04.

This "big and tall" subcompact had a big job, being assigned to fill the market shoes of the Escort, ZX2, and Contour. But Focus was a masterpiece of space utilization, offering more passenger and cargo space than those earlier small Fords, as well as most of its rivals.

Initial engines were the proven 2.0-liter Zetec fours -- 110-bhp single-cam and 130-bhp twincam -- but most everything else was appealingly different. Start with the "New Edge" styling, a parting gift from corporate design chief Jack Telnack. An avant-garde mix of curves and creases, New Edge didn't work on every car, but it did here, lending a visual personality that set Focus apart from every rival.

Engineering was no less artful, especially the all-independent suspension that drew rave reviews for delivering both a smooth ride and class-leading handling. It was the sort of small car one expected from Europe. Sure enough, the Focus was developed "over there" and brought to North America with minimal change for local production.

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Ford hit the jackpot with the 2000 Ford Focus, winning the 2000 North American Car of the Year award. The 2001 Ford Focus ZTS is shown here.

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Ford Focus

Focus bowed with two-door hatchback, four-door sedan, and four-door wagon body styles, each aimed at a specific audience. The hatchback played both entry-level and sporty roles, offering the widest range of options. The more conventionally styled sedan and wagon emphasized value, practicality, comfort, even luxury with the right options. A hatchback four-door joined the mix for 2002 for even broader market coverage.

To Ford's undoubted delight, the Focus was a critical success most everywhere, winning awards in Europe and the 2000 North American Car of the Year trophy. Consumer Guide® gave its "Best Buy" endorsement to the 2001-04 models. The honor was rather remarkable considering that Focus was fending off new import competition with only evolutionary changes, mainly a confusing parade of model names and equipment shuffles.

A notable exception was the SVT Focus, arriving for 2002 as a two-door hatchback pitched toward the fast-growing "sport compact" market. A companion four-door hatch was added for '03.

Like other SVT efforts, the "factory tuner" Focus delivered numerous upgrades at a surprisingly modest price, initially $17,480. The twincam Zetec engine, for example, was lifted to 170 bhp via new pistons, revised cylinder head, variable intake-valve timing, and new intake and exhaust manifolds. Also on the menu were a mandatory new six-speed manual gearbox, firm suspension with 17-inch wheels, and larger four-wheel disc brakes.

Other Focuses offered ABS, electronic traction control, and front side airbags at extra cost, but these were standard for the SVT. So were unique front and rear fascias, side sills, and a rear spoiler, all de rigueur for a "hot hatch." Inside were special SVT gauge graphics and two extra gauges, leather/cloth seats with heavier front bolstering, aluminum pedal caps and shift knob, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Enthusiasts loved it, but the SVT Focus wouldn't be around long, departing after 2004. One reason was that Ford needed to freshen its small car to maintain buyer interest. The result was a refocused 2005 lineup with more orthodox styling inside and out, plus more competitive "value" pricing.

The sportiest of the lot was a new ZX4 ST sedan, which was no SVT but had significance for its standard engine: a new 2.3-liter twincam four-cylinder that rated Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle status (PZEV) under the ultratight emissions limits of California and four northeastern states.

Available for other Focus models in those five areas, the PZEV four was about as clean as a gasoline engine could be with existing technology -- not far behind the gasoline/electric powertrains earning headlines, goodwill, and profits for Toyota and Honda.

Even better, a PZEV Focus cost far less than a Toyota Prius or Honda Civic Hybrid, was much simpler and easier to maintain, and possessed noticeably more low-end torque that improved acceleration, especially with automatic transmission. It was quite a coup, yet went all but unnoticed amid Dearborn's deteriorating fortunes.

The big Crown Victoria was all but invisible long before the crisis took hold, a relic of much happier times for Ford and all of Detroit. Taxi and law-enforcement fleets were its main buyers as the century turned, sister Mercury Grand Marquis having taken the lead in retail sales.

Still, Ford could afford to keep the "Vicky" around and even splurge for occasional changes: a Grand Marquis-like restyle for 1998, standard horsepower bumped to 220 for 2002, and a few new features along the way.

Calendar-year sales were down to the high 70,000s by '02, when Ford tried adding a little youth tonic with an LX Sport model. This offered a nostalgic buckets-and-console interior with floorshifter, a dual-exhaust V-8 pumped up to 235 bhp, and the firmer-handling suspension available for the mom-and-pop LX.

Extensive revisions occurred for 2003, perhaps because that was Ford's centennial year. A redesigned frame, altered suspension geometry, and a switch from recirculating-ball to rack-and-pinion steering all aimed to improve ride and handling, which they did -- a little. No-cost antilock brakes were laudable, as was first-time availability of front side airbags except on the price-leading Standard.

Though stickers had inevitably risen over time, the Crown Vic still offered a lot of good old-fashioned American metal for the money at around $24,000-$30,000. But old-fashioned it was, and sales continued trailing off toward oblivion, falling below 64,000 for calendar '05.

Taurus, too, seemed increasingly passé as the new century progressed, the basic 1995 design being left to soldier on while the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry enticed buyers with three clean-sheet makeovers. Such intense competition and a more knowledgeable public made "new or die" imperative even in the family car field, yet Ford had staked its future more on new trucks than new cars.

Not that Taurus was entirely neglected. A 2000-model restyle, much of it patterned on the less radical Mercury Sable, aimed at wider public acceptance, as did a new, more user-friendly dashboard. Airbags and seatbelt pretensioners were improved in line with growing buyer demand for safety features. (Who could have imagined that back in 1956?) But the interesting SHO was canceled for lack of interest, and other Tauruses changed hardly at all over the next six seasons.

Given that, calendar-year sales were remarkably good, running in the low 100,000s through 2002, then jumping past 200,000 in 2003-04. Still, one suspects most of these cars went to fleets and skinflint consumers, and then only with heavy "cash on the hood."

Taurus was supposed to depart after 2005, when just two varieties of sedan and wagon appeared as a transition to all-new replacements. Yet such was the uncertainty in Dearborn that planners allowed Taurus to hang on through 2006, reduced to just a pair of sedans with the old pushrod V-6.

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The 2006 Ford Fusion, shown here, was slated to "put Ford back in the car game."

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2005 Ford Five Hundred and 2006 Ford Fusion Sedans

Hopes were high for the 2005 Five Hundred and '06 Fusion sedans. Bracketing the Taurus in size, price, and character, they represented an end run around the problem of competing head-on with the perennially popular Accord and Camry.

The Five Hundred could have replaced the Crown Victoria: over a foot shorter overall and some 500 pounds lighter, yet no less spacious on a wheelbase just 1.8 inches trimmer. The secret was high-profile styling with an overall height of 61.5 inches, up 3.2 inches on Crown Vic and 5.4 on Taurus.

Ford used this to elevate seating some four inches above that in most other cars. The tall body also provided a more natural seating posture front and rear, plus vast trunk space. Another talking point was a new unibody corporate platform.

Known within Ford as D3, it was designed in collaboration with Volvo to be very strong except in a crash, when it would absorb energy in a controlled, protective fashion. Optional "passive safety" pluses were front torso side airbags, plus curtain side airbags that deployed from the ceiling above the side windows. Serving "active safety" were standard antilock four-wheel disc brakes and traction control.

Though classed as a large car by Consumer Guide®, the EPA, and others, the Five Hundred arrived with a midsize-car engine: a modestly improved "Duratec 30" twincam V-6 with 203 bhp. Drivelines were brand-new, however. Most front-drive models employed a six-speed automatic -- Ford's first -- and there were all-wheel-drive versions with a "gearless" continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).

The AWD/CVT combination was unique among family cars and thus somewhat risky, but many buyers took a liking to Five Hundreds so equipped for their all-weather traction and promise of good fuel economy.

Mileage was at least respectable at 19-20 mpg, but power was lackluster despite respectable 0-60-mph times of 7.5-8.0 seconds with either powertrain. A new 250-bhp 3.5-liter V-6 was planned for 2007 to address the lack of zip.

Most all the above also applied to Freestyle, essentially a Five Hundred wagon marketed as a "crossover" SUV in a market where "station wagon" rivaled "minivan" as a kiss of death for sales.

Slightly larger than Explorer, with lots of room, nice looks, pleasant driving manners, and competitive $25,000-$30,000 pricing, the Freestyle should have sold like 25-cent Starbucks lattes. Instead, it managed fewer than 85,300 orders from launch through the end of 2005.

That was so far below expectations that Ford briefly considered dropping the Freestyle after just three model years. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and the twenty-first-century Country Squire was given an indefinite reprieve.

The Five Hundred fared better at more than 122,000 sales for the same period, but that didn't help Ford's bottom line very much. Some critics blamed tepid buyer response on me-too styling, citing a close resemblance with the six-year-old Volks­wagen Passat. The similarity was easy to explain. J Mays had succeeded Jack Telnack as Ford design chief in 1997, and Mays had helped shape the Passat in his previous job at VW/Audi.

There was no visual cribbing in the 2006 Fusion, the second prong of Ford's latest assault on the high-volume family car market. A good thing, too, because this "new" midsize sedan was already familiar, amounting to a slightly enlarged Mazda 6 without the "zoom zoom" pretensions.

Most everything hidden was the same or very similar: adept all-independent suspension, standard four-wheel disc brakes, even engines: base 2.3-liter four (originated by Mazda) and available Duratec 3.0 V-6. But it wasn't a complete copy. The Mazda, for example, offered both engines with manual and automatic transmissions, while V-6 Fusions were confined to automatic.

The Ford also had somewhat softer suspension tuning because it wasn't trying to be as sporty as the Mazda. It also claimed more rear-seat room, thanks to an extra 2.1 inches in wheelbase.

Styling, of course, was the most obvious difference, and many thought the Fusion was better looking. It was certainly hard to miss with its bold three-bar grille, a signature destined for future Ford cars (plus an early Five Hundred facelift) and a dim nod to 1966 Galaxies.

Fusion bowed in S, SE, and top-line SEL versions. The last were the nicest inside, with contemporary metal-look accents, tasteful "piano black" panels instead of the usual test-tube wood, easy-read gauges, and convenient, logical controls. Regardless of trim, Fusion showed the same good workmanship as the Five Hundred, the best ever from Ford and fully competitive with Accord and Camry.

Even materials were better than expected for the prices. The prices were right, running from just over $17,000 to near $22,000 before options. Ford held back on some standard features to make those numbers, charging extra for traction control, torso and curtain airbags, and antilock brakes, but at least the charges were reasonable.

Though Fusion was just emerging as this book was prepared, first reviews and early sales reports suggested Ford had come up with a winner. Car and Driver, for one, thought that with "stylish looks, fine road manners, practical configuration, and aggressive pricing, the Fusion should make a strong impact in the mainstream-sedan segment -- and truly put Ford back in the car game."

Dearborn must have rejoiced, because upscale Fusions with different styling and feature mixes would have the daunting task of luring new buyers to Lincoln and Mercury, nameplates already given up for dead in many quarters.

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2007 Ford Edge

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Fusion's CD3 platform was the starting point for Ford's first mid-size crossover SUV, the 2007 Edge. Though Dearborn was slow to enter this new fast-growing segment, the Edge itself was well-timed, arriving just behind a larger, redesigned Toyota RAV4 and ahead of a new-generation Honda CR-V.

Edge faced those class favorites with bold styling on a 111.2-inch wheelbase, making it larger than the Japanese-brand duo and close in size to the Chevrolet Equinox and Pontiac Torrent.

Being late to game allowed Ford to learn the rules for winning it, so the Edge offered most everything competitors did and a few things they didn't. Prime among the latter was an Advance Trac antiskid system with Roll Stability Control, available with either front-wheel drive or full-time all-wheel drive. Volvo had developed RSC for its XC90 SUV, and Ford fast adopted it for the truck-based Explorer and Expedition.

Basically, RSC employed various sensors that monitored vehicle attitude and would automatically activate the stability system to prevent a tip -- within the laws of physics, of course. This was a definite sales asset, especially for Ford after the Explorer rollover debacle.

Like other Dearborn SUVs, car- and truck-based alike, the Edge also offered optional front torso side airbags and curtain side airbags -- what Ford called a "Safety Canopy. " Ford also mined Volvo's deep experience with safety design to design a unibody structure that was tight, strong, and solid. Antilock four-wheel disc brakes were standard.

Edge debuted with a single powerteam comprising Ford's new 250-bhp 3.5-liter V-6 and a six-speed automatic transmission. Interestingly, that gearbox was designed and built in conjunction with GM.

Things really were tough in Detroit. Ford also hoped to gain a competitive, er, edge with a versatile five-passenger seating package, a center console big enough for a laptop computer, and "lifestyle" options such as a plug-in for digital music players, rear-seat DVD, and satellite radio.

Still another class exclusive was a full-length, twin-panel "Vista Roof" with tilt/sliding forward section measuring 2x2.5 feet. With all this and more, the Edge seemed another hopeful sign that Dearborn would eventually find its "Way Forward."

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The charismatic and street-legal Ford GT, shown here in a 2005 model, impressed both car buffs and the general public alike.

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2004, 2005, 2006 Ford GT

Saving the best for last brings us to the 2004-06 Ford GT. One of the most charismatic roadgoing sports cars ever built, it was nothing less than a modern but faithful, street-legal reincarnation of Ford's legendary midengine GT40 endurance racer, four-time winner of the grueling 24 Hours of LeMans (1966-69), the ultimate "Total Performance" Ford.

Previewed as an engineering prototype at the 2002 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the GT was developed for production by a small dedicated team. The goal was to have it ready in time for Ford Motor Company's huge June 2003 centennial gala in Dearborn.

The team had just 16 months but kept the appointment, and the first three production examples delighted the thousands in attendance.

The GT arrived with one major glitch: lower suspension control arms that proved prone to cracking because of faulty casting. Ford swallowed its pride and recalled all 448 GTs built in 2004, the first full production year. The arms were replaced, and a new casting method devised.

The GT looked nearly identical to the GT40, but was built on a foot-longer wheelbase of 106.7 inches. Acceptable road-car passenger space was the rationale, but the cockpit was still race-car cozy for six-footers. Overall length-width-height measured 182.8x76.9x44.3 inches.

The GT40 had been named for its rakish 40-inch height, so that designation would have been technically incorrect here. But "GT44" didn't sound right, and another company had legal claim to "GT40" and wouldn't give it up, hence the simple GT moniker.

Despite sharing the same classic lines, the GT was better than the GT40 in many ways, thanks to 40 years of technical progress. Take aerodynamics. Because the basic body shape acted like an inverted wing, the GT40 was infamous for being less-than-stable at racing speeds. Not so the GT, the result of several effective modifications that were very hard to spot. Small front air "splitters" created downforce at the nose, while side splitters beneath the doors worked together with an enclosed bellypan to smooth airflow on the way to rear "venturi" exits.

Both cars employed an aluminum space-frame overlaid with aluminum panels, but the GT benefited from manufacturing techniques unknown in the 1960s. As a result, it was claimed to be 40 percent stiffer than Ferrari's formidable F360 Modena, a key rival, yet curb weight was just under 3400 pounds, more than respectable for a fully dressed road car.

Power by Ford was a must, so the GT received a supercharged version of Ford's all-aluminum 5.4-liter V-8. Unique twincam heads with four valves per cylinder, dual fuel injectors at each port, and heavily fortified internals boosted output to rarefied levels: 550 bhp and 500 pound-feet of torque.

Ford proudly noted that these numbers were comparable to those of 7.0-liter racing GT40s. A twin-disc clutch and Ricardo six-speed manual transaxle conveyed all the might to the rear wheels through a helical limited-slip differential. Braking was by massive Brembo-brand four-wheel discs of 14 inches across in front, 13.2 in back, all cross-drilled and clamped by four-piston monoblock calipers under antilock control.

Rolling stock was suitably beefy but not "bad boy" outrageous, with Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires wrapped on 18x9-inch cast-alloy rims fore, 19x11.5s aft. Suspension was the same at each end, comprising upper A-arms, lower L-shaped arms, coil-over monotube shocks, and thick antiroll bars.

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Ford GT, a Bargain in its Class

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For all its race-car breeding and heritage, the Ford GT was quite happy to dawdle along at town speeds and could "soak up road imperfections with ease," to quote Road & Track. The cockpit was comfortable too, and handsomely appointed with racing-style seats, leather upholstery, and an impressive spread of gauges and toggle-type switches across the dashboard.

There were also unexpected conveniences including automatic climate control, power windows/locks/mirrors, tilt steering wheel, and keyless entry. Options were few: a booming 260-watt McIntosh sound system, lightweight BBS forged wheels, painted brake calipers, and the traditional "LeMans" striping on the nose, roof, tail, and rocker panels.

The only drawbacks to commuting in a GT were Thighmaster-high clutch effort and the very limited visibility associated with midships cars. Such humdrum matters were fast forgotten on the open road, and especially on the racetrack.

Acceleration was predictably explosive, with typical 0-60-mph times of just under 4.0 seconds, 0-100 in less than 9.0, standing quarter-miles in the low 12-second area at over 120 mph, and an estimated top speed of around 190.

Handling was no less impressive: race-car sharp yet road-car forgiving, with mild understeer changing to power-on oversteer whenever your right foot commanded. Skidpad grip was world-class at near 1g, and Road & Track's test car ran the slalom some 2-mph faster than the much-acclaimed Ferrari Modena.

"It is about time that a U.S. automaker enters the supercar ranks," R&T concluded. "Watch out. America is roaring back to the top." And so it seemed. Several magazines both at home and abroad drove the GT against Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, and other pricey "exoticars," and picked the Ford not only for its stunning abilities, but as the best value.

Value in a supercar? At just five bucks shy of $150,000 before destination charge and Gas-Guzzler Tax (triggered by low EPA ratings), the GT was the bargain in its class. Not that many sold at list. After all, supply was limited -- about 4000 worldwide max, said Ford -- and demand for this thrilling machine was many times greater.

With gotta-be-first types waving checkbooks and dealers seeing potential windfalls, market prices soared overnight, reaching a quarter-million or more by some accounts. There were even reports of owners blatantly "flipping" barely used GTs in pursuit of a fat, fast profit.

But all this only adds to the mystique of a fabulous Ford that was gone way too soon, shot down by "Way Forward" cuts along with the Wixom, Michigan, plant that built the cars carefully and largely by hand. Will we ever see its like again? Well, the GT was the starting point for the striking Shelby GR-1 concept coupe of 2005, so that's one possibility.

First, though, Ford Motor Company must get back on its feet. Can it succeed? While we can't say for sure at this writing, we think there's a better-than-even chance. Several planned products hold promise, especially the hybrid-power versions of the Fusion and other models to follow up on the popularity of the 2005 Escape Hybrid, the first gas/electric SUV from an American auto manufacturer.

Ford has lately staked its reputation -- and thus its future -- on innovation. For the sake of everyone in the company and all who love cars, we hope Ford will come up with the "better ideas" it so urgently needs.

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