Ford of Great Britain found itself in the enviable position of being able to do no wrong during the post-War years with its large cars. From the Pilot V8, to the Consul, Zephyr and Zodiac, big car buyers flocked to their local blue oval dealership.
But in 1966, it seemed that the company stalled with the Zephyr/Zodiac Mk4 – a car that missed its targets by some considerable distance. Or did it?
The big blunder
In the years after world war two, Ford of Great Britain’s flagship cars have hardly been motors for what you might call shrinking violets. Since the Mk1 Zephyr and Zodiac of 1951, with their MacPherson Strut front suspensions and Aston Martin-style grilles, this particular breed has been favoured by the pushy middle manager in a hurry.
And ever keen to meet the wishes of its customers, Ford regularly updated the Z-cars, allowing them to grow easily with their buyers’ wealth. The fins got bigger; and styling more trans-Atlantic; and their power units ever more powerful.
The development of the Zephyr/Zodiac Mk4
But despite this upward curve, the arrival of the Zephyr and Zodiac Mk4 in 1966 was still an exercise in shock and awe. It also proved that Uncle Henry in the UK was more than capable of dropping the ball, and launching an executive car that would prove to be completely outclassed by the brilliant Rover and Triumph 2000s. But let’s face it, Ford wasn’t alone in that.
The 1966 Zephyr and Zodiac should have been good, though. They topped a range that offered something for everyone – Anglia, Cortina, Corsair pretty much covered all bases in the mass market. And although the mid-sized Corsair wasn’t exactly racing out of the showroom, it was selling well enough not to be too embarrassed by the raging success of the Anglia 105E and Cortina Mk1. In that climate of success, 1962’s Project Panda, which began to take shape as the next generation Zephyr and Zodiac, was bound to do well.
The all-new car (it shared very little with its predecessor) was designed around Ford’s new V-series four- and six-cylinder Essex engines, and was to be longer and wider than before. The styling would be bold, too – and like the Corsair, it would reflect American thinking, not just in terms of dimensions, but also detail.
A very successful stylist
Roy Haynes – who would go on to oversee the Cortina Mk2, and then the Morris Marina for British Leyland – was involved in the design process. But the generous proportions, Mustang-apeing looks, and exceedingly long bonnet were the brainchild of ex-Detroit man, chief engineer Harley Copp. According to Ford’s figures at the time, the drag co-efficient was 0.47, an industry average performance, but a 10 per cent improvement over the Mk3.
To ensure that the vast expanse of space under the bonnet was filled, Copp suggested the spare wheel was moved forward. His suggestion that it could be mounted between the engine and the radiator certainly improved boot space, but also helped give the car strange weight distribution. Even before the launch, there was disquiet within the Ford engineering team that the Zephyr 3008E had some ‘interesting’ handling traits.
The late fitment of anti-roll bars in the run up to the launch went some way to improving the ride/handling balance of Ford of Great Britain’s first car with independent semi-trailing arm rear suspension, but it would prove to be far from enough.
A troubled launch
The Zephyr (3008E) and Zodiac (3012E) Mk4 range was unveiled in the Spring of 1966. As before, the top Zodiac models were treated to six-cylinder power, while the junior (in price) Zephyr came with a choice of 1996cc V4 power, and a 2495cc V6. The 2994cc Essex engine fitted to the later Granada and Capri was used exclusively in the Zodiac and Executive in the UK, although certain export Zephyrs also received the larger power unit.
Standard equipment across the range included an adjustable steering column, that spare wheel in the engine compartment, a heater and Aeroflow ventilation. On the plusher Zodiac, you also got electric window washers, two-speed wipers, a cigar lighter, rev counter, clock, ammeter, and reversing lights as standard. It was generously equipped – just hat the market wanted.
Weeks after the initial unveiling, journalists were treated to an exotic launch in North Africa. Perhaps the location helped the motoring writers see past the dynamic uncertainties, because initial reports were far from unfavourable – with some surprise being expressed at the styling and proportions.
All was not well with Ford
It wasn’t until the first full UK road tests were published that it became clear that all was not well in the Ford camp. For a start, the new engines weren’t as smooth as those they replaced. Although the V6’s gravelly, slightly coarse note was acceptable in 2.5-litre form, that V4 used in the entry level Zephyrs, was really quite an unhappy beast.
Motor magazine in its 1966 road test of the 3.0-litre Zodiac pulled its punches a little saying, ‘since this is the first UK Ford to have all independent suspension, we approached it with particular interest. Let us say right away that in comparison with the previous Zodiac, the extra cost of this arrangement is justified. But by comparison with the best all-independent saloons from other manufacturers, we found it a little disappointing.’
It went on: ‘It is possible even on a dry corner to lift the inner wheel right off the ground… which brings the tail round rather sharply. Even on bends of the 80mph variety, we encountered this condition when a bump or wave in the road surface raised the tail and increased the camber angle of the rear wheels. On wet roads the throttle must be treated delicately to avoid wheelspin. Some of this may be blamed on the weight distribution, which puts only 41.5 per cent of the unladen load on the driven wheels, but most it we thought on a roll centre too high at the back, giving excessive weight transfer.’
It wasn’t all bad…
On the positive side, Motor praised the Zodiac’s performance (0-60mph in 11 seconds and a maximum speed of 105mph) and interior space. ‘The rear seat will easily take three people,’ it stated. ‘And the legroom is generous.’ As for performance. ‘acceleration is certainly a outstanding feature of this new Zodiac’.
Ford reacted swiftly to extensive press criticism about the ride and handling. In September 1967, it fitted radial-ply tyres on the V6 cars to improve grip, and this went some way to improving the more nose-heavy car. In addition, power steering found its way into the Zodiac and Executive models, while the unassisted cars had to make do with exceptionally labourious gearing. In the launch cars, that was set at 5.5 turns from lock-to-lock, but in order to improve steering weight (and no doubt discourage spirited driving), this was raised to an eye-opening 6.4 turns!
Further tweaks were carried out in October 1969, but sales were dropping – and rapidly. The end of the road for the British designed and built large Ford was nigh…
From Z-cars to Granada
You couldn’t accuse Ford of not developing the Zephyr and Zodiac, then. And it was the same with the model range, as well as the engineering that underpinned them. Just months after the launch of the saloons, Ford unveiled the five-door estate version at the 1966 London Motor Show. As before, the shooting brake was actually converted by coachbuilders ED Abbott, and created by adding bespoke panels to partially finished cars supplied by Ford at its facility in Farnham.
At the top of the range, the Executive was added as a trim level above the Zodiac – as was the case with the Cortina (1600E) and Corsair (2000E). Like the standard Zodiac, the Executive featured stylish quad headlights, but in addition to this, it also boasted optional automatic transmission (or overdrive manual), power steering, sunroof, reclining front seats, walnut fascia, full instrumentation, carpeting throughout, reversing lights, fog lamps, and a boost in power to 136bhp – and all at a Jaguar XJ6-rivalling price of around £1600.
During its six-year production run, around 150,000 Zephyr and Zodiac Mk4s were built. The long-held view that the Z-cars were a commercial flop would seem to be untrue – after all, the Austin 3 Litre managed a mere 9992 cars during its four-year life, while the golden 2000s from Rover and took nigh-on 15 years to notch up their 300,000-plus sales.
However, they were an engineering failure, and their troubled life directly led to Ford continuing down the pan-European route for its executive cars, with a single car – the Granada – being created to replace the Z-cars and their German counterparts, the P7 series.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.