1951-1956 Ford Consul and Zephyr

The 1951-1956 Ford Consul and Zephyr might have been made in Britain, but in their shape they were pure Dearborn. Not only that, but their engineering was inspired by a project that General Motors had killed off in 1947.

By any standards these were important new cars for Ford-UK, and for the British motor industry. In a country that had been torn apart by war, and whose economy had been ruined in the fight against Nazism, enormous debts to friendly nations had been incurred. The best way to pay off these debts, the government decided, was to design new cars and export them all over the world.

To be frank, at that time, Ford-UK's existing products were too old-fashioned to sell well abroad, so a new, modern range would have to be prepared. Therefore, Ford-UK developed two new cars from a rationalized design --calling the four-cylinder car a "Consul" and the six-cylinder version a "Zephyr" -- making them as modern and as technically advanced as it knew how.

Classic Cars Image Gallery

1952 Ford Consul
Production of the Ford Consul began in January
1951, and the 1952 Ford Consul seen here was
virtually unchanged from the first-year car. See more classic car pictures.

The new cars were completely new: a new style, new engines, new transmissions, new suspensions, and a new type of structure, which gave Ford-UK a flying start in the export business. Once the public got to know about them, they sold rapidly all around the world, and in a little more than five years a total of 406,792 of the cars were produced.

Such enterprise was long overdue. Ford Motor Company, Ltd. had been set up in 1911 to manufacture Model Ts from kits; it wasn't until 1932, when the tiny Dearborn-designed Model Y sedan was launched at a new factory at Dagenham, east of London, that Britons were offered a car developed especially for them.

Until the late 1940s, Ford-UK had to accept what Dearborn provided, for the early postwar cars were old-type hangover designs from 1939, both originally conceived in the USA. The latest tiny cars were the four-cylinder Anglia and Prefect, and the larger range was the V-8 Pilot. All had separate chassis frames, side-valve engines, and transverse-leaf spring suspension.

Like Ford-USA's 1949 models, of course, the Consul and Zephyr were the company's first new postwar designs. In a massive phaseout at Dagenham, Ford got rid of the old-style V-8s and offered these smart new models in their place.

The decision to give Ford-UK its head came in 1948, when a team of engineers visited Dearborn to discuss postwar expansion. It didn't take long for Henry Ford II, and his executive vice president, Ernie Breech, to decide on a course of action.

Ford-UK could go ahead with an all-new design, provided that its styling theme was the same as that which George Walker's team had just completed for the 1949 U.S. Ford, and that the ideas of an ex-GM engineer, Earle Steele MacPherson, were incorporated.

The British management team was delighted by this, for it ideally suited its existing skills. Although it had not previously tackled a major styling job, it was confident about building a new chassis.

The project went ahead rapidly; the first prototypes were built in 1949, the factory was reequipped that same year, and a pair of new cars -- Consul and Zephyr -- were unveiled in October 1950.

Get details on the development of these models in the next section.

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1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956 Ford Consul and Zephyr Development

Several real innovations were introduced during development of the Ford Consul and Zephyr, flagging the way for other companies to follow in the future. Not least among these was the choice of a new type of structure, but the development of a new family engine was also very important.

1951 Ford Consul
1951 Ford Consuls were built on a 100-inch
wheelbase, and compact MacPherson struts
were used for the front suspension.

History now tells us that engineer Earle Steele MacPherson had incorporated them all in his Cadet project for GM, schemed up between 1945 and 1947, before he joined Ford and became a rising star in Henry Ford II's hierarchy.

The abandoned Chevrolet Cadet had used a unit-body structure, an over-square ohv engine, a strut-type front suspension, small-diameter road wheels, a three-speed gearbox, brake and clutch pedals suspended from the bulkhead rather than sprouting from the floor, and integral fender/body styling.

It was light and technically advanced -- but too unfamiliar for GM's dinosaurlike management to appreciate. They canceled it, stating that it could not economically be made. MacPherson took his ideas to Ford instead.

The key to the entire project was the choice of a monocoque unit-body layout. In the British motor industry, unit-bodies were relatively new -- the first of all had been the Ten from GM subsidiary Vauxhall in 1937 -- though Morris Motors and Rootes were all ahead of Dagenham at this time.

The other vital ingredient was the use of a new family of engines -- a four cylinder and a closely related inline six. Not only were these to be built on new machinery, but they were to be equipped with overhead-valve gear. This was a worldwide "first" for a Ford product, and it finally brought Ford-UK into line with its major competitors.

There was another famous, and trend-setting, design feature that the rest of the world hastened to follow in the next two decades -- the "MacPherson strut" front suspension. What must have been galling for General Motors was that the man who invented this space-efficient type of independent suspension had worked for them between 1934 and 1947, but his bright ideas had usually been ignored.

What we now know as the MacPherson strut, probably the world's most common form of independent suspension, evolved in the GM Cadet project by combining long tubular shock absorbers with external coil springs, and locating them in tall towers that directed the vertical travel of the wheels and also formed the "king pin" around which the front wheels could turn.

This strut layout was a masterpiece of simplicity, with just three links holding the wheel in place -- the strut itself, the single-piece transverse lower arm, and the antisway bar that doubled as a drag link for the wheel hub.

When the Ford Consul and Zephyr debuted in 1950 -- complete with MacPherson struts -- they caused quite a sensation. Get the full story in the next section.

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1951 Ford Consul and Zephyr Debut

When the 1951 Ford Consul and Zephyr were unveiled at the London Motor Show in October 1950, just a few weeks before production was due to begin, they caused a sensation at what was, in any case, a show full of innovation.

Other new cars had unit-body structures, others had new engines, but no others were so obviously the result of a complete rethinking of automotive layout.

Britain's The Motor magazine actually wrote that: "One of the rarest and most important of motoring events, the announcement of a new Ford range is an event which alone would ensure the success of the 1950 Motor Show."

The distinguished technical editor of that magazine, Laurence Pomeroy, Jr., was so impressed that he bought himself a Zephyr and spent the next several years progressively modifying it in search of a 100-mph top speed.

Then, as later, potential customers were not so much taken by the engineering of a new car as by what it looked like, so Ford salesman had plenty to talk about with the new models, especially as two similar-looking cars hid different engines in different wheelbases.

Working in a way which would become more familiar in other firms in future years, Ford chose the same basic unit body and exactly the same four-door cabin, but then used different wheelbases and different engines. The Consul rode on a 100-inch wheelbase, whereas the Zephyr, with its longer six, required a 104-inch wheelbase.

1951 Ford Consul interior
The 1951 Ford Consul and 1951 Ford Zephyr
shared a three-speed transmission and
steering-column shaft control.

In technical terms, all the differences were ahead of the windshield and firewall, for the three-speed transmission and its steering-column shaft control were shared between the two types.

The lines of the new cars were simple and uncluttered, featuring what stylists call a "straight-through" fender-crown line. In the then-current American Ford idiom, they were notchback sedans with slab sides.

Apart from its longer nose, the Zephyr could be recognized by its use of a full-width grille with a horizontal motif and bumper overriders, while the Consul was shorter, had no overriders, and used a more compact grille with vertical chrome bars.

Compared with most North American cars, their instrument-panel styles were extremely simple. A flat pressed-steel panel housed a semicircular speedometer ahead of the driver's eyes, with a similar glovebox lid cutout on the other side (which made a changeover from right-hand to left-hand steering very simple to carry out).

Minor controls and space for a radio installation were grouped in the center; a heater was available as an optional extra, but in those days many buyers made do and wore overcoats instead. Other interior fittings included a bench seat and a large Bakelite-rimmed steering wheel. The emergency brake was applied using what the British called an "umbrella handle," which was tucked up under the instrument panel.

Continue to the next section for more information on the features of the 1951 Ford Consul and Ford Zephyr.

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1951 Ford Consul and Zephyr Features

Production of the 1951 Ford Consul began in January 1951, and of the 1951 Ford Zephyr in February, with bodyshells provided by Briggs Motor Bodies, whose factory was close to the assembly plant at Dagenham, England.

Even though there was a great clamor for new cars, within a year the dashboard design had to be changed in response to criticism about the lack of storage space. Out went the flat style, and in came a new layout, with a shapely cowl sitting atop a full-width parcel shelf, the speedometer and auxiliary instruments now located in a separate housing. It was the only important visual change that needed to be made to a successful design.

1951 Ford Consul, rear view
The 1951 Ford Consul was built on a 100-inch
wheelbase and styled according to the basic
­theme laid down for the 1949 U.S. Ford.

­Fifty years ago, of course, buyers expected less from cars, and they certainly got less. The Zephyr only had a 68-bhp engine, and a top speed of 80 mph. This modern car tended to settle into a cruising speed of about 65 mph, and before 100 miles had been completed, the driver's back was aching after sitting on the primitive bench seat -- and, by the way, he had to hang on tightly to the wheel to keep from sliding in all directions on tight corners.

The Consul, which sold faster than the Zephyr, had a mere 47 bhp, and a top speed of little more than 70 mph.

In both cases, the cars used what were then considered to be tiny wheels: 13-inch diameter at a time when a conventional British car used 16-inch wheels. They had a very soft suspension, and were soon renowned for the ease with which they spun their driven rear wheels on greasy surfaces.

At the time, both cars had very front-heavy weight distribution, and because the composition of most 1950-style tires was once described as being a mixture of "compressed camel dung and used bus tickets," their grip on wet roads was poor.

Still, the new range was certainly successful, even though it was not yet seen very often in Britain. For British customers there were lengthy waiting lists and enormous frustrations because all car companies were still obliged to export the greatest part of their output.

By the end of 1951, however, there was a change of government, and a slight easing of the financial pressures, which meant that more cars were released for home-market delivery. The result was that more people could expect to pay £717 ($2008) for a Consul or £816 ($2285) for a Zephyr, and take delivery before their patience ran out.

For the time being, however, there was only one version on offer, the four-door sedan. Ford had expansion in mind, however. The first prototype convertible was shown in 1951, a prototype station wagon (to have been named "Horsham") was developed, and Ford-Australia even dabbled with the idea of building a "Ute" pickup version of both cars in its factory.

For sales information on these two British Fords -- and details on the 1953 models -- go to the next section of this article.

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1953 Ford Consul and Zephyr

By 1953, the Ford Consul and Zephyr models needed little advertising to keep the orders rolling in -- but outright victory in that year's Monte Carlo Rally by Maurice Gatsonides' "works" Zephyr added a great deal of spice to the reputation.

This, at least, did much to counter the Zephyr's growing reputation for being difficult to handle on wet roads. Writing in Autosport magazine, ex-racing driver John Bolster commented that "the resulting tail slides are always easily controllable," which may have been too kind, while The Motor's Laurence Pomeroy wrote that it was possible to "promote ready wheelspin and a quick breakaway at the back. But due to the direct and positive steering such slides can be quickly ended, or accurately controlled, according to choice. . . . [I]t is a safe and pleasing car for the experienced man."

The Consul and Zephyr models transformed Ford-UK's image in the early 1950s, and sales boomed as never before. Production for 1952 came to 60,600 cars. In 1953, the rate jumped to no fewer than 92,300. Not only that, but the convertible was now available, and a new and more plush car, the Zephyr Zodiac, was on the way.

1953 Ford Consul convertible
New for 1953, the 1953 Ford Consul convertible
had a three-stage top.

The convertible took ages to develop, for chopping off the roof meant that much underbody stiffening was needed to restore rigidity. In the end, the contract for this shell went to Carbodies of Coventry, and the open models were much more expensive than the sedans -- in the case of the Zephyr £960 ($2688) as against £754 ($2111).

The Consul's soft top was manually operated, but on the Zephyr power actuation was standard.

The Zephyr Zodiac was launched in October 1953. Based very closely on the Zephyr, it had a slightly more powerful engine, and had more complete equipment, including two-tone color schemes, extra driving lamps, leather upholstery, and many other "comfort" features as standard. For this glitzier four-door sedan, UK customers were asked to pay £851 ($2383).

By this time, Ford-UK had started the expansion that was to give it British market leadership in the 1970s, as a new small car had also been introduced.

Except that they still used side-valve engines, the new Anglia and Prefect models were really Consuls in miniature, for they also had unit-body shells, MacPherson strut front suspension, and three-speed transmissions.

In the next section, find out how the Consul and Zephyr fared in 1954, 1955, and 1956.

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1954, 1955, 1956 Ford Consul and Zephyr

Perhaps ironically, from 1954-1956 the Ford Consul and Zephyr wound up competing with the very car they had been asked to emulate.

In 1948, a small number of dealers began selling the Anglia and Prefect in the United States. They added the Consul in 1951, the Zephyr a year later, and the Zodiac for the 1955 selling season. According to the American-published Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, from 1600 to 4200 British Fords were sold in the States per year between 1951 and 1956 -- though how many of them were Consuls and Zephyrs isn't known.

1955 Ford Zephyr Zodiac
Production of the “Mark I” 4-cylinder Consul and
6-cylinder Zephyr peaked in 1955, the year
this 1955 Ford Zephyr Zodiac was made.

The Consul, Zephyr, and Zephyr Zodiac carried on successfully in their original forms until 1956 because they offered remarkable value for money, and were widely seen as cars that could go a lot faster if modified. Success by factory-backed cars in events like the East African Safari, which a Zephyr won in 1955, all helped to foster the image.

Their relatively limited performance and "tail-happy" handling were often tackled by tuning specialists. In 1950s Britain, an entire cottage industry grew up to provide free-flow exhaust systems, new multibody carburetor systems, different gearboxes, stiffened suspensions, and special interior packages.

If an owner was determined enough, he could double the price of the car -- but he could also achieve 100-mph motoring at a lot less than Jaguar prices.

Only months before these cars reached the end of their run, Ford added Borg-Warner overdrive as an optional extra. This unit, which bolted to the back of the existing three-speed transmission, not only offered an extra ratio on any forward gear, but incorporated a freewheel that worked at road speeds of less than 30 mph.

The highest production rates were achieved in 1955 when no fewer than 101,176 cars were produced at Dagenham, England, but early in 1956 they gave way to a new Mark II range.

Although they preserved the famous names, the new cars had longer wheelbases, were longer, wider, heavier, more powerful -- and even more successful.

For selected specifications for the 1951-1956 Ford Consul and Zephyr, including engine, construction, and performance details, consult the table on the next page.

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1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956 Ford Consul and Zephyr Specifications

The following chart lists selected specifications for the 1951-1956 Ford Consul and Zephyr, including engine, construction, and performance specs.

1952 Ford Zephyr
The larger Ford Zephyr had a 104-inch wheelbase.
The 1952 Ford Zephyr is shown here.

1951-1956 Ford Consul and Zephyr: Selected Specifications
Wheelbase (in.)
Consul 100.0
Zephyr 104.0
Overall length (in.)
Consul 166.0
Zephyr 171.8
Overall width (in.) 64.0
Overall height (in.) 60.8
Tread, front/rear (in.) 50.0/49.0
Weight (lbs)
Consul 2435
Zephyr 26051
Layout Front-engine, rear-wheel drive
Type unitized body/chassis
Material steel
Consul inline ohv 4-cylinder
Zephyr inline ohv 6-cylinder
Material cast-iron block and head
Bore × stroke (in./mm) 3.13/79.37×3.00/76.2
Displacement (cid/cc)
4-cylinder 92.0/1508
6-cylinder 138.0/2262
Horsepower @ rpm
4-cylinder 47 @ 4400
6-cylinder 68 @ 40002
Torque (lb-ft) @ rpm
4-cylinder 72 @ 2400
6-cylinder 108 @ 20002
Compression ratio 6.8: 13
Main bearings
4-cylinder 3
6-cylinder 4
Carburetor 1-bbl Zenith downdraft
Valve lifters mechanical
Transmission 3-speed manual, column-mounted shifter4
Final-drive ratio
Consul 4.63:1 (early), 4.56:1 (late)
Zephyr 4.38:1 (early), 4.44:1 (late)
Front independent coil-spring with MacPherson struts and antiroll bar
Rear live axle, semielliptic leaf springs, lever shock absorbers
Steering and Brakes
Steering type worm and nut
Brake type Girling 4-wheel hydraulic drums
Tires and Wheels
Tire size
Consul 5.90×13
Zephyr 6.40×13
Wheels steel disc
0-60 mph (sec.)
Consul 31.1
Zephyr 21.1
Quarter mile (sec.)
Consul NA
Zephyr 21.5
Top speed (mph)
Consul 75
Zephyr 81
Total Production
Consul 231,481
Zephyr 152,677
Zephyr Zodiac
1Zephyr Zodiac 2660 pounds. 2Zephyr Zodiac 71 bhp at 4200 rpm and 112 pound-feet at 2000 rpm. 3Zephyr Zodiac 7.5:1. 4Borg-Warner overdrive optionally available for 1956.

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