Ford Zodiac Mk II

Tons of chrome, fins, bench seats; it must have been made in Detroit. Actually, it was Dagenham, says Sean O'Grady
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Indy Lifestyle Online

In his masterful, definitive account of the history of the Ford Motor Company in Britain, Martin Rawbone describes the Ford Zodiac Mark II thus: "The Mk II looked good from any angle. Rarely has a car been possessed of such balanced proportions."

He was right. So was Ford when, in 1956, it called its new trio of models, of which the Zodiac was the most joyous sister, "the Three Graces" (the Consul and Zephyr were the lesser siblings; the Zodiac was plush and had a smooth 2.5-litre straight six engine).

And, while it might seem a bit OTT to discuss a disposable 1950s consumer durable such as the Ford Zodiac in terms usually reserved for works of art, I think in this case it was entirely appropriate.

First, it is rare. The example you see here, in "Imperial Maroon over smoke grey", is part of Ford's historic vehicle collection, which the public affairs people were kind enough to lend to me. It has covered not much more than 20,000 miles since it was first registered in 1961.

It is, as they say in classic-car circles, a bit of a "time warp" machine. It has no seat belts, because there was no legal requirement to fit them and the car has been unmolested since. It wears cross-ply tyres, so it doesn't handle half as well as it would on more modern radial tyres, and it has a tendency to "tram line" in ruts left in the road by lorries and the like.

The valve radio is original. It works, too, but it has to be allowed to warm up. Bizarrely, that original Ford fitment will pick up Virgin. Not sure what they would have made of that back in '61. So the car is complete and original and delightful; it's like appearing in your own private episode of Heartbeat, or maybe Life on Mars.

Of course, rarity doesn't amount to desirability. This is where the Zodiac comes into its own. The lines were the work of a man called Colin Neale, Ford's chief stylist in Britain. Now, in today's world we have all manner of shapes and sizes of car, but back then styling a car pretty much meant arranging three boxes in a row.

Making those three boxes "work" in a coherent, visually attractive and practical fashion was much trickier than you'd think. It is the art of the possible; a series of compromises between fashion and engineering.

The Zodiac's compromises were successful, and pleased everyone. It was exquisitely styled; reminiscent of American Fords of the time but with more restraint. Hence the vestigial fins at the back, the careful use of chrome and the attention to detailing in exterior decoration and on the interior controls.

The switches are finished in chrome, as is the console-long parcel shelf. The mock heraldic badges that crop up everywhere look strangely authentic. Best of all is the inner chrome ring on the steering column, with which you activate the horn (a rich baritone sound). The wheel itself is huge and thin, as it should be to keep the steering as light as possible. The car has presence, inside and out.

It was a tremendous commercial success. Ford's UK production doubled from 1954 to 1958 (imagine that) and this range had a good deal to do with that. It fitted the mood of the times; emerging from the age of austerity, approaching the age of affluence. A cautiously optimistic car. The Ford looked less dowdy than its British rivals, the Austin Cambridge/Westminster, Morris Oxford, Standard Vanguard and Vauxhall Cresta, all of which looked nice, but never as graceful as the Zodiac.

If it was a jukebox on wheels, it was playing Cliff Richard and Lonnie Donegan rather than Elvis and Little Richard. Even today, its rock'n'roll credentials are a little forced. While the Ford Zodiac often appears at classic-car meets being driven by a teddy boy and his polka-dotted moll, very few teds could have afforded one. Fifty years ago, when they were first on sale, a Zodiac would set you back almost £1,000; about two years' wages for the average working man, or (say) £40,000 in today's terms. It was a professional man's transport built for tweed rather than speed, and not really intended as wheels for those given to slashing cinema seats.

Performance was respectable for the time: 88mph flat out, and 0-60 in 18 seconds. Even now, it can just about keep up. The worst feature is the wipers; they're vacuum-operated, which basically means that they go faster the slower you go. Counter-intuitive.

Most of the effort in a Zodiac is expended on keeping the thing going in a straight line and tackling corners with a good deal of advance preparation. The Borg-Warner three-speed has a barely perceptible "kick" when changing, and the brakes (front discs, back drums) are efficient.

When the time came to replace the Zodiac, Ford brought out a bigger, heavier-looking car. It's a trick all the manufacturers play on us now, making cars bigger and more expensive as the real incomes and wealth of their customers grow. It usually worked for Ford, as successive generations of Cortina/Sierra/Mondeo grew bigger and grander and faster.

Yet the Mk II Zodiac was probably the last truly successful big Ford. Even the Granada and its successors couldn't, in the end, counter the British deification of German marques.

The long line of big Fords, of which the Mk II Zodiac was the most distinguished scion, died out in 1999. The Zodiac was the first car to come from Ford's new discipline of "product planning", and was designed in all its beauty and built in Dagenham. They still make diesel engines there, but the heart that gave us that Zodiac beats no more. A pity.

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