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Ford Corsair: the “smash hit” that never was

Ford didn’t get much wrong in the 1960s.

The Anglia 105E and Cortina were both runaway successes, while the Zephyr and Zodiac range catered admirably for the executive class.

But the Corsair, built to fill a gap between the Cortina and the Z-cars, never caught the public’s imagination.

This is the story of Ford’s odd one out.

In the early 1960s, Ford needed a new car to replace the dated Consul Classic, which had largely failed to cut the mustard for upwardly-mobile families looking for a mid-sized executive saloon.

The Classic, introduced in 1961, was based on a 1956 design and it was quickly overtaken in style and engineering by 1962’s all-new Cortina and updated Zephyr.

The segment in between the two cars was still considered important to Ford, who needed a car to compete in the £800 range against the likes of the Vauxhall Victor FB and Morris Oxford series VI.

Enter the Ford Corsair, a brave and bold design that echoed the early ‘60s Thunderbird with its sharply pointed nose with headlights breaking the V-shaped crease.

Ford Corsair

At the rear, vertical light clusters were in keeping with the Zephyr’s styling, as was the merest hint of fins.

Essentially, the car was a lengthened and re-skinned Cortina, sharing the smaller car’s windscreen and side windows, and, initially, its 1498cc Kent inline four engine.

It was given additional sound-proofing over its smaller sibling, with double-skinned steelwork and a superior finish to give the car a more refined feel.

It looked far more modern than its competitors, with styling that ensured it got plenty of attention when it was launched at the London Motor Show in October 1963.

Ford Consul Corsair model range

The Ford Consul Corsair – as it was originally known – was the first new car to be manufactured at Halewood, alongside the existing Anglia 105E.

It was offered in standard, Deluxe and GT form, with four doors as standard, though you could get a two-door by special order.

Ford Corsair GT
Corsair GT

The standard model came with a bench front seat, column four-speed gear change and virtually no equipment, and cost a shade over £653, while the £677 Deluxe added a duo-tone interior, windscreen washers, a passenger sun visor, plus the option at extra cost of separate front seats, a floor gear change and a heater.

The top of the range GT had all this plus an ammeter and oil pressure gauge mounted at knee level, and a tachometer perched atop the steering column.

It cost a touch over £804, more than £60 more than the Cortina GT to mark it out as a more upmarket machine, even though it used exactly the same 78bhp version of the Kent engine, punchier than the standard 60bhp unit courtesy of a 9-to-1 compression ratio, Weber two-barrel carburetor, high lift camshaft and four-branch exhaust manifold.

Ford Corsair advertising

Formula One champion Jim Clark poured Champagne over the first car, and also made a promotional video for Ford in which he extolled the Corsair’s virtues while putting it through its paces round a test track.

“Hmm, nice looking car – good lines, clean lines,” he says. “Buyers are getting more style conscious, and this one should really attract them.”

Ford’s sales pitch was to “the man who stills enjoys a sense of adventure”, or even bolder “for the man with a bit of the devil-may-care”.

“Flair” was another buzzword from the Ford advertising team, while renowned publisher Jocelyn Stevens eulogised in the official sales brochure that the car suited “the man of today”, who is “sophisticated, cool, tough – and on the outside, casually elegant. James Bond, with a dash of Peter O’Toole.”

Not many cars could measure up, but “for my money,” says Stevens, “the Corsair is up there with the best”.

Samantha Eggar, fresh from starring alongside Dirk Bogarde in Doctor in Distress, was employed to give a female perspective.

Importantly, the “thinking actress” found “the interior, attractive yet functional – even in a fairly tight evening dress I got in very comfortably”.

Summing up the woman’s viewpoint, she said the Corsair “is a lovely car to look at and a ‘feel good’ car to sit in – and you’d have to a lot of shopping to fill that boot!”

So how would those claims stack up?

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Off to a good start

Early reports from the motoring press were positive, with Autocar describing the GT they tested as “a worthy successor to the Classic”, “more roomy and better value for money”.

“Certainly its finish sets a fresh standard, even for Ford, in a car at this price,” it added, with “tastefully restrained trim…well finished and applied.”

The car’s tapered bonnet gave the Corsair an aerodynamic advantage over the Cortina, resulting in a slightly higher top speed of 96mph despite its extra weight.

Ford Corsair 1963

Indeed, it was only slightly slower to accelerate than the more obviously sporty Capri GT.

The magazine went as far as suggesting the Corsair “may easily prove to be Ford’s best yet”.

“In its GT guise it has nearly everything, except an open roof, for which a sports car driver could ask,” it wrote. “Its neat elegance and freedom from routine maintenance alone would ensure it a wide public, and this GT version could capture the imaginations of many who normally would never aspire to being anything but staid family motorists.”

Testers could only see one major flaw: the driving posture, with the steering wheel too close to the driver’s body for comfort, even with the seat back as far as it would go.

This sit-up-and-beg position was inappropriate, the magazine wrote, “for the control of a high performance car, as the Ford Corsair GT undoubtedly is”.

The following year, by which time the car had lost its Consul tag, the car again earned rich praise from Autocar, this time in Deluxe trim.

Ford Corsair press photo

Ford had addressed the cramped driving position by providing greater latitude with seat positioning, while handling, quietness and smooth running were up there “with the best in Europe”.

“By any standards the Corsair is an excellent, up-to-date car, and well above the international average for its class in terms of mechanical refinement and quiet running in general.”

Presumably, then, Ford dealers working overtime to deal with a surge of prospective Corsair buyers? Not quite.

What went wrong with the Corsair?

On the face of it, the Corsair had all the ingredients of another best-seller for Ford.

As CAR magazine wrote in 1966: “At first, the Corsair looked like being a smash hit.

“The body styling was exciting enough to get it talked-about without putting anybody off. Press road tests (including ours) were quick to show that the newcomer was both quieter and faster than its humbler Cortina sister.

“Its size and price seemed about right, and the speedy GT version made a nice halfway house for social-climbing sportsmen between Ford’s own Cortina GT and the about-to-be-introduced two-litre twins from Standard Triumph and Rover.

Ford Corsair rear

“Just as the Ford executives were pouring celebratory drinks all round, word came in that actual sales weren’t all they might be. Why?”

Why, indeed. There may be several reasons, among them a styling that many didn’t warm to; a reluctance to pay more for a re-skinned Cortina with the same engine; and that low-torque engine proving inflexible in a heavier car.

The solution, according to Ford, was to throw out the Cortina engine and install the 1,663cc Essex V4 unit designed primarily for the Transit commercial vehicle range.

Was the V4 the answer?

Ford launched the V4 Corsair with two catchlines, “I’ve got a V in my bonnet” and the somewhat contentious “the car that is seen but not heard”.

That was quite a stretch, given the harsh V4’s habit of vibrating enough to loosen fillings in higher rev ranges.

CAR noted a “woolliness (that) coincides with a vibration period and somehow the engine never really recovers; you feel that to push hard in the gears is taking a bit of a liberty”.

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On the plus side, the engine did add some low-speed liveliness, and ventilation was improved thanks to the introduction of the revolutionary “Aeroflow” system from the Cortina.

The Essex engine was improved for 1967, with better balancing of its 60 degree placement and capacity up to 1,996cc.

A 2000E (for Executive) model replaced the short-lived 2-litre GT in a bid to take on the hugely successful Rover P6 and Triumph 2000, which had taken hold of the UK mid-sized executive car market.

Executive bargain

Rover and Triumph had proved beyond doubt that there was a lucrative market between the top-of-the-line medium family cars and the big 2.5 to 3-litre six-seaters like the Zephyr 6 and Rover P5.

Not everyone who could afford it wanted a large, thirsty car.

The Rover and Triumph had been launched in 1963, and Ford had a stab with the 2-litre GT in 1966, but restricted top-end breathing gave a sadly disappointing ultimate performance.

The GT quickly gave way to the 2000E, which gained an extra 10hp by improved breathing through a twin choke Weber, plus larger ports to the Heron head combustion chambers and a higher lift camshaft.

Ford Corsair 2000E interior
Inside the Corsair 2000E

It gave the car much more zest at the top end, with a top speed nearing 110mph and, according to Motor magazine, the new car would “easily out-accelerate both (the Rover and Triumph) with a sporting verve that must impress anyone who wants some punch with his luxury”.

Ford’s chief weapon was price – at £1,007 it undercut the Triumph by £150 and the Rover by a whopping £350.

And, according to Motor magazine, the new improved Corsair would “easily out-accelerate both these with a sporting verve that must impress anyone who wants some punch with his luxury”.

The gear change was described as “superbly refined and worthy of comparison with a Porsche”, the brakes “outstanding”, while chunky radial tyres “transformed the car’s roadholding”.

A touch of luxury was provided by a walnut veneer dash, deep pile carpeting that Ford said “would look luxurious in a penthouse”, and elegant trim in black vinyl that “maintains this subtle atmosphere of leisured luxury”.

Added features included a carpeted and illuminated boot, special wheel trims, reversing lights, and a black vinyl roof.

Bill Boddy, writing in MotorSport, said the Corsair was “a truly lively and enjoyable car in the Ford tradition” that “should be a sales winner”, while CAR magazine said that Ford “had made a success of the Corsair at last”.

However, there were still drawbacks – a seat that wasn’t comfortable enough for the executive class, and an engine that remained too harsh for the class.

CAR wanted “less sound a fury”, Motor called it “noisy and not the smoothest”, and Boddy said it was “still not free from roughness when idling or at speed and is too noisy for an executive car”.

Success at last then, up to a point. And it still didn’t sell as well as either Rover or Triumph, despite the cheaper price.

Ford Corsair convertible and estate

As well as the saloon in its various guises, two coachbuilt conversions were available – an attractive Crayford convertible, and a load-carrying Abbott estate.

The standard Crayford was a fully open five-seater, but was also available as a 2+2 cabriolet, which had a smaller hood sunk deeper into the rear deck leaving only room for children in the back seat.

Ford Corsair Crayford convertible
Crayford convertible

Only 19 cabriolets were built under licence in Germany by Crayford partners Karl Deutsch.

When it was launched, the home-built convertible added £325 to the cost of a Corsair, nearly half as much again as the saloon’s asking price, to top £1,000.

There was very little competition for a five-seat convertible, and more than 100 customers bought an open Corsair, making it the company’s best seller at the time.

According to the Crayford Convertible Car Club, 75 are on its register – a much higher survival rate than the Crayford Cortina.

The company also tried to solve the engine problems, shoving the 3-litre Essex V6 under the bonnet as an option.

The Abbott estate of 1966 was also pricier than the saloon, at £1,149 in GT form, and Autocar was impressed, describing the “best of both worlds – speed, comfort and space”.

Ford Corsair Abbott Estate
Abbott Estate

The Corsair, therefore, offered something for everyone in its class, but sold only 310,000 between 1963 and 1970 – by contrast, the Mark I Cortina sold more than a million between 1962 and 1966.

Killed off in 1970 by the new, larger Cortina Mark III, only around 425 survive, according to the How Many Left website.

This rarity has seen prices rise in recent years, and the Corsair is finally now somewhat sought after as something very different from the Cortinas and Escorts that survive in greater numbers.

Ford deserves credit for trying something brave and bold with its styling – maybe the world just wasn’t ready for the Corsair.

Maybe it is now…

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