The car market was simple before the 1960 model year.
Plymouths came in one size - big - and the choices were simple: station wagon, hardtop, sedan and convertible. Lavish amounts of chrome separated high-line sedans from base models destined to be taxis or budget rides.
With the exception of premium cars such as the Thunderbird and Corvette, the same was true for Ford and Chevrolet. One car in one size was supposed to fit everyone's needs.
But the Big 3's strategy of "one size fits all" changed forever in the fall of 1959, when several small, stylish vehicles called economy cars debuted, namely the 1960 Ford Falcon, Chevrolet Corvair and Plymouth Valiant.
A changing market
The Big 3 instituted their small-car blitz to protect their turf. Those cars were the Big 3's response to the growing number of imported cars, especially the Volkswagen Beetle and Renault Dauphine, and the success of Nash Motors' - later American Motors' - Rambler. The Rambler had bucked the "bigger is better" trend in the 1950s with a line of attractive small cars.
In 1950, the combined sales of imported small cars, such as the English Ford and Volkswagen, and small U.S. entries, such as the Crosley, Henry J and Rambler, hardly amounted to a speck on the American highway. Combined sales were about 51,500, a mere 0.8 percent of the 6,326,526 cars sold that year. And imports totaled just 0.3 percent of the U.S. market - about 18,000 cars - according to Automotive News.
But their sales were increasing in the early 1950s, and Robert S. McNamara wanted to know why. He was assistant general manager of Ford Division in 1952 when he initiated the creation of the Market Research Unit, according to Phil Cottrill in his book, The Ford Falcon, 1960-1963. One of the unit's first projects was to determine who was buying small cars and why.
Wind was shifting
By 1954, combined sales of all imports and small U.S. cars rose to an estimated 64,500, out of total car sales of 5,534,637 units, according to Automotive News. Although that number was tiny compared with the 1,400,440 big Fords sold that year, Ford's market research revealed an interesting statistic: About 5 percent of those polled said they would seriously consider buying a small car if it met certain criteria.
According to George Brown, Ford Division's marketing research manager, shoppers would consider a small car if it offered good gas mileage and utility: It had to have enough legroom and headroom and a trunk big enough for luggage.
According to a Ford survey in 1954, the U.S. market for small cars could be as high as 275,000 vehicles.
The demographics were interesting, too. What surprised Ford were the people showing interest in a small car. "If anything," Brown said when the Falcon was introduced, "the idea of an economy car seemed to appeal more to higher income, college-educated, multicar, younger families."
Rambler led the way
Nash Motors was one of the first domestic automakers to offer a small car. In 1950, Nash introduced the stylish Rambler, a car that was considerably smaller than the Big 3's offerings.
In a 1955 speech titled "The Dinosaur in the Driveway," American Motors chief George Romney blasted the competition's "bigger is better" credo, saying, "Cars 19 feet long, weighing two tons, are used to run a 118-pound housewife three blocks to the drugstore for a package of bobby pins and lipstick." AMC was formed in 1954 when Nash and Hudson merged.
AMC's redesigned Rambler debuted in 1956. It had a line of sedans, hardtops and wagons that were larger than previous Ramblers yet smaller than the Big 3's offerings. The new Rambler was a hit: AMC sold 91,469 Ramblers in 1957, and in 1959, sales jumped to 363,372.
But even before the Rambler tallied six-digit sales, the Big 3 identified two trends that showed a big market for small cars:
1. The number of licensed drivers would soar in the coming years.
2. Expanding prosperity would bring a dramatic increase of two-car families.
The green light
In March 1957, Ford Motor Co. gave the green light to determine what type of small car that buyers wanted: front- or rear-engine; four- or six-cylinder; four-, five- or six-passenger. In November 1957, Ford Chairman Ernest Breech told Ford management the results of the survey: The public didn't want anything exotic.
The 1960 Falcon was no-frills economy transportation. It had a conventional 90-hp six-cylinder engine and simple styling. The price? $1,912 for the two-door Falcon, compared with $2,257 for the big two-door Ford.
The Falcon weighed 2,366 pounds, about three-quarters of a ton less than the big 1960 Ford Galaxie 500 sedan. The Falcon's wheelbase was 9.5 inches shorter than the big Ford's, and the Falcon was 11.5 inches narrower. It was 32.6 inches shorter. It seated six, had a good-sized trunk and promised 30 mpg on the highway.
Henry Ford II, speaking at the press introduction for the Falcon in September 1959, said: "We believe economy cars will accelerate the increase of multiple-car families. The Falcon and other economy cars may liberate many more American women from the inconveniences of the one-car household - just as the Model T once freed the American farm family from its isolation."
He was right. The Falcon was a runaway success - 435,676 units were produced the first year. And 1961 was even better: 489,323.
The end of simplicity
The Falcon's introduction didn't mean merely the arrival of a small Ford. It meant the end of simplicity in Big 3 lineups. Henry Ford II predicted that lineups were going to get interesting - and complicated.
"One thing is clear," Ford told journalists. "We are on the way to providing a still wider variety of types, sizes and shapes of automobile ... to meet the varied needs of a people of constantly rising living standards."
With the arrival of the Falcon, the era of the economy car had begun. Within a few weeks of the Falcon's introduction, the Chevrolet Corvair and Plymouth Valiant debuted. Several months later, the 1960 Mercury Comet bowed.
An article in the December 1959 Motor Life said the greatest accomplishment of the Falcon, Corvair and Valiant "is not listed in their specifications."
"It is the greater choice they have given the American car buyer.''
The Falcon's legacy
After the success of economy cars, Ford created the intermediate segment. Such models as the 1962 Ford Fairlane and Mercury Meteor were larger than the Corvair, Falcon and Valiant but smaller than the standard-sized cars.
Then, in 1964, Ford launched the pony car era with the sporty, four-seat Ford Mustang. The Mustang was followed a few years later by the Chevrolet Camaro, AMC Javelin, Dodge Challenger and others.
There are two ways to measure the Falcon's success: in unit sales and in the number of Falcon components that eventually were used to create other vehicles. The Falcon's chassis, engine and other components found their way, either totally or in part, into a long list of successful vehicles.
Among them were the Falcon van (later renamed the Econoline); the Ford Mustang; Mercury Cougar; Ford Maverick, a compact sedan; Ranchero pickup; and even the Ford Granada and Mercury Monarch sedans, which arrived in the 1970s.
"The Falcon was the breath of fresh air the industry needed after the suffocating excesses of the late Fifties," wrote Karl Ludvigsen in the July 1995 issue of Car and Driver magazine.
"GM immediately copied the Falcon, building the Chevy II, later the Nova. Without those new platforms, there would have been no Mustangs, Cougars, Camaros and Firebirds. By celebrating simplicity, the Falcon set new standards.
"It's a lesson some could relearn today."