Zephyr: The last of the big British Fords

Sixty years ago, everyone wanted a Zephyr Six, writes Andrew Roberts

In post-war Britain, the phrase "Big Ford" invariably meant the V8 Pilot, an undeniably handsome pre-war relic with a 3.6 litre engine designed to cope with the worst of the Empire's roads in the export-or-die era. That was until the Earl's Court Motor Show in 1950, when the new Zephyr Six caused a genuine stir as the first ever Ford of monocoque construction, the first British car to be fitted with MacPherson struts, and the first Dagenham product with definitely post-war lines.

The Zephyr Six was the ultimate Ford, especially compared to its rivals, such as the Standard Vanguard with its long stroke, slow-revving engine. The Ford was powered by a smooth, six-cylinder 2.2 litre engine controlled by an ultra modern three-speed steering column gear change. "Here's the Zephyr Six with the lid off to show you the works!" exclaimed the wonderfully patronising British Pathe newsreel announcer.

The styling of the Zephyr Six, and the short wheelbase Consul version, was largely inspired by the 1949 Detroit-built Ford Custom Tudor, lacking the running boards and split windshields still found on many British cars. When full production of the Zephyr started some 60 years ago, there were many automotive Jeremiahs wailing that no good could come of a car lacking provision for a starting handle.

The Zephyr Six interior was airy by the standards of the day, although Ford's claim that it was a six-seater was not terribly plausible. But where it could not hope to compete was in its level of equipment. The Standard Vanguard may have looked like a scarab beetle in a perpetual state of gloom and had utterly no reputation for performance, but its leather upholstery, clock and heater were not found on the Ford. Against this, the Zephyr Six boasted a smooth engine and, while a modern motorist may think the steering has been designed for all-in wrestlers, the gear change is remarkably precise.

Vauxhall launched its direct rivals, the E-Series Wyvern and Velox, later in 1951. GM still used pre-war names for their products whereas, in the UK at least, the Consul and Zephyr badges were as new as the product. These were the radical "five-star Fords", named for their five radical selling points: the monocoque body, which allowed the passenger compartment to be lower for improved handling and comfort; the MacPherson strut suspension; the hydraulic brakes on all four wheels; and the smooth, oversquare engines.

However, for £608, your new Zephyr Six was not entirely devoid of comforts. It came complete with twin sun visors, an ammeter, a fresh air vent, and vacuum-operated windscreen wipers. The latter was a device that would be associated with British Fords until as recently as 1962. They had the interesting habit of progressively slowing as the throttle was opened – driving a Zephyr uphill in the rain was definitely to be avoided.

The motoring press greeted the Zephyr Six with wild enthusiasm for its spacious interior, handling and ride. In Europe, Dagenham's sporting reputation was set in stone when Maurice Gatsonidès's Zephyr Six defeated Ian Appleyard's Jaguar Mk VII and won the 1953 Monte Carlo Rally. Two years later, a Zephyr Six came first in the East African Safari, giving Ford a certain tweed jacket and cheese cutter cap image entirely lacking in the Velox. For mild-mannered motorists, the Zephyr Six was the epitome of an affordable cruising car with its respectable 80mph top speed. For drivers frequenting roadhouses on the Kingston bypass, sporting Terry-Thomas moustaches and generally regarding themselves as a bit of a cad, there was always the option of buying an after-market Raymond Mays head to raise the top speed to 95mph. Combined with a soft-top, this gave you the nearest thing to Hollywood that many Britons were ever likely to experience.

Even now, there are local newspapers archives containing black and white photographs of Miss Portsmouth Co-Operative Dairy 1954 or Miss Swindon MacFisheries 1955 being taken on a parade of honour in a Zephyr Convertible. No other car in the class could boast a "semi power-operated hood", one that would, at the press of a Bakelite button, automatically and partially open the top. To appreciate the impact this must have made in its heyday, just consider that in 1952 not only were television sets and refrigerators uncommon sights in British houses, there were several parts of the UK that lacked electricity. A Zephyr Six seemed as much a harbinger of a Britain slowly emerging into colour as films starring Diana Dors' platinum mane and Laurence Harvey's pompadour. Dagenham's marketing brilliance saw several British films feature a five-star Ford – George Cole used one to help defeat the mad assassin in The Green Man and David Tomlinson drove a Consul Convertible in Up the Creek.

Off-screen, Peter Sellers, an actor who seems to have literally owned every car sold in the UK, was so inspired by the 1953 Monte Carlo victory that he immediately bought a Zephyr Six. That same year saw the launch of possibly the ultimate Ford. This was the car that was the object of all teddy boys' desire as they queued to jive to Ken Mackintosh and his band at the Southampton Gaumont – the Ford Zephyr Zodiac. It was also the year Ford launched their latest entry-level model, the 103A Popular, a pre-war relic with a specification so utterly dismal the official extras list included indicators, a boot floor and a passenger windscreen wiper. Meanwhile, the Zodiac appeared to hail from another universe. Its higher compression ratio gave it a small but useful advantage over the Zephyr Six, and although at £851 it cost as much as a small house, its raison d'etre was one of utter luxury. Who could resist a Ford decorated with gold-plated lettering and equipped with fog, spot and reversing lamps, wing mirrors, duo-tone paint, whitewall tyres, leather trim, a cigarette lighter, a heater, windscreen washers and a passenger vanity mirror? Why, there was even a clock in the roof!

By the time the five-star Fords were replaced in early 1956 by the Mk II range, the Zephyr brand had created its own class of motoring in the UK, one associated with go-ahead sales managers or provincial police forces. The Mk II went on to become Britain's first ever motorway patrol car and the star of the first season of Z Cars. The 1962 Mk III became widely recognised for its canted tailfins, electric windscreen wipers, and for Bryan Mosley landing on a dark green 1964 example after swiftly departing a multi-storey car-park in Get Carter.

But the Mk IV, with its aircraft carrier like nose, interesting handling and ill-designed independent rear suspension was to be the last of the big British Anglo-American-style Fords. When the final examples left the production line in early 1972, to be replaced by the elegantly Germanic Granada, it marked the end of a post-war epoch. The Zephyr name, along with drape jackets, Gee's Cough Linctus and actresses forever saying "BD to Z-Victor One" in an approximation of a Scouse accent, had passed into social history. It was a simpler world then, when Ford was capable of selling thousands of Zodiac Mk Is using the stark marketing slogan "The Zephyr-Zodiac is a Lovely Car!".

And who can say fairer than that?

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