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Sunday, March 24, 2013

1955 Meteor

Listing for $2,810, only 151 Meteor Rideau Crown Victorias were built in 1955.

         It was announced to the press that the new Meteor line would be shown to the public on November 10, 1954. The 1954 model run wound down on October 7. It was time to change over and get the newest crop of Meteors rolling out the factory doors. Dealers were itching for them. Rumours ran rampant throughout the industry that 1955 was going to be the best year yet. 

         Unfortunately, labour negotiations between the union and Ford were not going well. Demands for a 30-cent-an-hour wage hike and other accrued benefits fell on deaf ears. Workers in Windsor laid down their tools on October 10 in a strike action. Five days later, 1,150 workers in Oakville followed suit and joined their 5,200 union brothers in Windsor. Office workers in Windsor were laid off on November 5 and the strike spread to the parts depot in Etobicoke, Ontario when 125 employees walked on November 15. 
The Lincoln Contiental Mark II was built in Wixham, Michigan.

         Dealers would have little to sell; all 968 Ford-Monarch and Mercury-Lincoln-Meteor showrooms were going to be pretty empty until vehicles started rolling through the pipeline once again. 

Imported models like Anglias, Prefects, Consuls, Zephyrs, Zodiacs, Lincolns, Thunderbirds, Ford’s Crown Victoria hardtops and Country Squire station wagons would trickle in from abroad but they weren’t the bread-and-butter cars that generated sales.  It was a grim Christmas for all the dealers in Ford of Canada’s kingdom. Ironically, in December, the company stock hit its high for the year, reaching $104 a share. 

When the 110-day strike was finally over in January of 1955, domestic production got under way. The first Meteors rolled out the doors of the Oakville plant on February 10, 1955. Dealers could heave a sigh of relief. It was a short-lived sigh because Ford officials announced substantial price changes on February 15. The price of base Meteor models rose from $68 to $79-more than a week’s wages for the average man. Niagara models jumped from $36 up to as high as $103. The Rideau line now cost $54 to $71 more than it did yesterday. Oddly enough, the price on the Ranch wagon was cut by $2 and the ragtop’s price was lowered by $52. 

Selling for $2,935, The Meteor Niagara Country Sedan found favour with 349 buyers in 1955.

When the Meteors finally did burst into showrooms, all thirteen models glittered and shone like the sensational stars they were. There were: “Five in the superlative Rideau Series; four in the distinctive Niagara Series: four in the dashing Meteor Series.” 

All Meteors carried a narrow, concave, vertically ribbed grille was sliced neatly in half at the centre by a giant chrome “V” in which a gold Meteor star was ensconced. Large bullet-shaped turn signals housed in massive chrome bezels flanked the grille.  Headlights sat deep within stylish visors with simulated air intakes stamped and painted into the bezels. A highly stylized flight form ornament graced the hood. From the sides, wheel wells were accented with heavy body creases and another crease ran across much of the rear quarter panel to the Jet-Tube rear lights that could hold optional back-up lights in their inquisitive fins. The greenhouse was improved. The Full-Scope Windshield was a full 33.2 centimetres (13 inches) wider than before and wrapped into the doors for “panoramic visibility.”  The rear bumper had “METEOR” stamped into it and the deck lid repeated the star-within-the-“V” theme seen on the grille. 

The Meteor shared its instrument panel with Ford and featured the see-though Astra-Dial instrument cluster in 1955.
Meteor’s famed Wonder Ride was hyped as now being better than ever and the Rideau Crown Victoria promised to roll “majestically over the royal road with style, performance and quality.”  It came in two-tone and tri-tone colour schemes, a special block pattern pleat in the seats. The steering wheel and column were offered in a range of colours to harmonize with the interior trim and the all-new Astra-dial instrument panel. The Crown Victoria shared top billing with the Rideau Victoria hardtop coupe, the Sunliner convertible, the Two-door Club Sedan and the posh four-door Town Sedan. 

A total of 661 units of the 1955 Meteor Rideau Two-Door Sedan was built. It sold for $2,461.

Downstream from the Rideau clan was the Niagara family. It featured two and four-door sedans and a pair of station wagons. The more expensive Country Sedan carried eight passengers while the Niagara Ranch Wagon could haul six. 

The 1955 Meteor four-door sedan.

Anchored just a tad further down the river was the base Meteor series. Meteor’s bargain basement lineup embraced a no-nonsense Four-door Sedan, a Two-door Sedan, a Business Coupe and a rugged Ranch Wagon. 

The 1955 Meteor Ranch Wagon was an honest day labourer.

Meteor now shared its overhead valve V-8 engine with Ford, not Mercury. The 4.5-litre  (272-cubic inch) mill was new to Canadians this year. Meteor owners could choose either the 175 or the 162-horsepowered versions, the more powerful engine was standard on the Rideau and Niagara series. Even the base motor promised to deliver 11 percent greater acceleration in every driving situation. 

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The high compression engine was just part of the 1955 Meteor’s Trigger-Torque power train.  Merc-O-Matic, Touch-O-Matic Overdrive or Silent-Ease Standard Transmissions sent all that power torquing to the rear wheels in 7/100ths of a second. 

Cabins were spacious. Not a word was said in the sales brochure about the interior appointments of the base Meteor other than its black rubber floor matting and a sun visor on the driver’s side. A full page, however, was given over to describing the eleven different colours and patterns of seat covers that promised to “enhance the rich beauty of your car while protecting the original upholstery.”  

The second most popular Meteor was the Niagara Two-Door Sedan. It found 3,942 buyers who shelled out $2,306 in order to drive one home.

Niagara’s interior was touted as being “invitingly restful and unusually beautiful.” Flooring was still back rubber but it was  given two sun visors, arm rests front and rear, assist straps. Seats carried foam rubber cushions, upholstered in artistically tailored vinyl, woven plastic or broadcloth in contrasting colours. Inside a Rideau, prospective buyers were treated to luxurious High-Fashion broadcloth and vinyl upholsteries in exciting new colour combinations. To add to the pleasure, headlinings, door panels and other trim appointments were fashion-keyed. Sunliners and Crown Victorias were clad in all-vinyl. The latter had a folding centre armrest in the back seat.

Only 114 Meteor Business Coupes were built in 1955. The least expensive in the lineup, the three-passenger coupe listed for $2,064.

Meteor got ball-joint front suspension, larger brake drums, rode on the new tubeless tires. The frame was billed as being a new, Heavy Duty K-Bar Frame, engineered to accommodate each different Meteor body type.

Custom-Styled Meteor Accessories “contribute an extra measure of pleasure for you and your family. They add to the safety and comfort of driving under all conditions.”  
The most expensive model in Meteor’s 1955 stable was the Sunliner (rear) ringing up the cash register at $3,047. Exactly 201 of the posh ragtops were built.

One could order a Six or eight-tube push-button radio and, a rear speaker promised to deliver “Three-dimensional Reception.”  Also on the options list was turn signals (not required by law until January 1, 1956), a windshield washer for “Safety Clear” windshields, rear fender shields (Ford speak for fender skirts), Swift Sure Power Brakes, Master Guide Power Steering, Power-Lift Windows, Four-Way Power Seats and Sea-Tint Safety Glass.

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 Then there was a stem-wind clock, full wheel covers, a heater, Door Top or Belt Line mounted rear view mirrors, undercoating, standard or deluxe antennae, Anti-Glare Shade, Back-up Lights, Bumper Guards, Bumper Guard Wing Kits, a Brake Light Signals, Compartment Lights, Curb Signals, Door Handle Shields, Door Edge Guards, Dual Exhaust System, Electric Clock, Engine Heater, Exhaust Deflectors, Floor Saver Mats, Frost Shields, DeLuxe Licence Plate Frames, Locking Gas Cap, Rear Window Defroster, Road Lamps, Portable or fixed Spotlight, Sprazon Beauty Treatment, DeLuxe Steering Wheel, Sun Visor, Tire Chains, Tissue Dispenser, Vanity Mirror, Wheel Trim Rings, Window Vent Shades and Wire Wheels as just a few of the items a well-dressed Meteor might wear.  

Despite the long strike, production added up 23,590 Meteors, giving Ford’s star seventh place in the domestic industry behind Chevrolet (79,308), Ford (56,326), Pontiac (40,516), Dodge (39,525), Plymouth (33,325) and Buick (23,762).

Copyright James C. Mays 2005 All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

1967 Rambler Rebel Briarcliff, Mariner and Westerner

In the 1960s, automakers' targeting of limited production models to specific markets began to proliferate on a grand scale.  Vehicles weren't just transportation anymore, for a few extra sales everything became special.  The Dodge boys pushed their White Hat Specials, Buick dealers offered the California GS Special, and Ford featured a Big Sky Country Special for customers in the Rocky Mountains. Regionalism became more pronounced as trends were charted and new markets for specific territories were discovered.

There was a common theme in the selling of these special vehicles. The   showcased offering was made different from its ordinary off-the-assembly-line kin by combining special options together in a single package.  By purchasing the extra cost goodies in a package, consumers saved money and dealers could afford to dicker a bit more, too.   This new type of thinking was calculated to meet the growing sophistication of the public's taste.  

The 1966 Rambler Classic.

The single most ambitious scheme to create cars that appealed to specific regions in the 1960s came from American Motors when the unique Rambler Rebel wagons hit the market. The name Rebel was a new name for the company's intermediate line, prior to 1967 mid-sized Ramblers had been known as Classic.  

Rebel was not just a new nomenclature, the car itself was new from the ground up.  No other vehicle to come from Detroit had been so changed in a single season.  The  strong, upright Teutonic look of 1966 gave way to sleek, svelte lines that featured the long hood/short rear deck theme with a graceful coke-bottle swell in the rear quarter panel. A long, hungry venturi grille caused Rebel look fast even with the gearshift lever in Park.  The company's designers made automobile history by being first to integrate the fenders into the bumpers.   Truly exciting and most rare for Detroit offerings, AMC's ultra-modern, thin-all V-8 powerplants were introduced in the all-new cars. 

Vince Geraci was a stylist at AMC.  He remembers how disappointed the team was when Motor Trend did not name the Rebel and Ambassador lines as Car of the Year. Despite their beauty, the automotive press mean-spiritedly dubbed AMC's whole lineup as 'the me-too cars' in the fall of 1966. Dismissing the stunning vehicles as copy cat also-rans, hacks wrote that the last independent would cease manufacture soon, just as Studebaker had scant months before. Customers didn't want to buy an orphan so they drove past the Rambler dealer when new car shopping that autumn.

Roy Abernethy, circa 1966.

In January of 1967. head honcho Roy Abernethy was forced into retirement and Roy Chapin took his place as President and CEO.  Chapin moved fast to regain the confidence of consumers and bankers. The company's product was good, but if the company was to survive, the cars needed to be flogged like never before. Chapin brought in new people to implement his lifesaving plan. 

The story goes that he was chatting with Henry Ford II at the Grosse Point Yacht Club and said he was thinking of raiding Ford for a VP of Sales.  Ford told him about Vince G. Raffolio who had done great things for Ford sales in Great Britain.  Chapin liked what he saw and brought him into AMC's head office on Plymouth Road. Raffolio looked at the product lineup and immediately ordered the three special Rambler Rebel wagons. Rambler had laid claim to as much as 10% of the American station wagon market for itself in the past before the company lost its sizzle. Dressing up Rebel wagons was brilliant.  

The one-off Rambler St. Moritz made the auto show circuit in 1966.

Jim Alexander worked at American Motors in 1967.  He recalls that the wagon trio was a hurry-up assignement.  In-house designer Wade O'Connell's special talents were called upon to create the insignias for the three special wagons. (He later created the immortal Gremlin character.) The specs and the option package list, that defined the models was drawn up. The hot stamps for embossing the insignias on the seats and soft trim were created in the shop and cost very little. Within days after Chapin's takeover, AMC's public relations people announced the sharp limited-edition wagons.  Full-page, four-colour advertisment advertisements were taken out in major magazines to show them off.
This American Motors' concept wagon, AMX III,  appeared in February 1967.

While limited editions weren't new, what was most unique was the bold distribution strategy.  Designers created the trio of Rebel wagons to appeal to a American consumers in widely diverse parts of the country, unlike localized offerings such as the St. Louis Mustang which was sold only in the Show-me State.

These three wagons were going to increase Rambler Rebel sales by 1,550 units for the factory. While dealers might have ordered their quota of wagons for the year and not be interested in ordering any more, zone managers now had an exciting traffic builder to offer, one guaranteed to lure people into the showroom. As Jim Alexander says, "Special editions meant there was something in the pipeline, it kept the factories working."  In the dark days of 1967 when American Motors' fortunes were at their lowest ebb, that was more than an accomplishment, it was a miracle.

            The resulting cars were breathtaking.  Westerner wore a ranch theme, and went to dealers in Dallas-Ft. Worth, Denver, San Antonio, Houston, Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit.  the Westerner's body was white and the side panels were simulated tan leather.  Inside the Rebel wagon the upholstery was white and brown vinyl. 500 of the specially trimmed Ramblers were sold in the Midwest and Southwestern states.

The Briarcliff  was seen on showroom floors in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Providence, Hartford, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Albany and Memphis. It was given a country club look and was decked out in traditional hunt club colours, designed to appeal to the ‘horsey set’ in  eastern markets.  The bright red finish was complimented with black camera grain side panels.  Inside the cabin, Don Stumpf, AMC's Director of Interior Styling, employed black antelope grain vinyl on the seats and door panels to compliment the exterior.  Only 400 of the classy Briarcliffs were built.

The largest batch in the trio, 600 Mariners were sold in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Eugene, Miami and Tampa and St. Petersburg markets. Each was decked out in nautical trim appropriate to coastal US markets.  The body colour was bright blue with side panels finished in a simulated bleached teakwood.  Blue antelope grain vinyl upholstery with blue suede bolster panels in the interior completed the sailing theme. 

All three special Rebel wagons were given  the 200 horespower. 4.75-liire (290-cubic inch) V-8, automatic transmission, power steering and brakes, radio, Rambler's famous Airliner reclining seats, heavy-duty suspension and white side walls.  The only options not offered were the bigger  5.6-litre (343-cubic inch) V-8 and the company's All-Season air conditioning.

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Copyright James C. Mays 1996
All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

1979 Ford Ranchero

The 1979 Ford Ranchero was the final year for the stylish car-based pickup truck.
 Ford’s Ranchero had been introduced as a 1957 model. The sleek model was based on the stylish full-sized passenger Ford Fairlane. Over the years it rode on a compact frame and was later designated as an intermediate. 

The 1957  Ranchero was cobbled together  with parts from Ford's two-door station wagon and the Skyliner.

Ranchero came full circle in its twenty-third and final model year; it once again rode on the longest wheelbase Ford offered in passenger cars. Just as General Motors had done the year previously, the newest and final incarnation of the LTD-the full-sized Ford-was downsized to a 2 098-millimetre (114.7-inch) wheelbase for all models. Ranchero, though still an intermediate-based vehicle, was now larger than the marque’s flagship!

The 1978 Ford Ranchero GT
There was little corporate enthusiasm left for Ranchero. Touted in what little literature was published as a truck that offered “full-sized comfort and economy,” Ranchero owners were also promised a “full measure of enjoyment.”  Even the lowest priced 500 model now came with SelectShift Automatic transmission, a V-8 engine and a mind boggling host of standard equipment including power steering, power brakes and steel-belted radial tires. The very upscale Squire and the sporty GT models were continued virtually unchanged from last year.

To spark sales the boys in marketing field tested a Limited Production Package. A very small number of these Rancheros were built and sent out to dealers at mid-year. They came equipped with dark red leather interiors, centre-folding arm rests, a power driver’s seat, factory air conditioning, power steering, power brakes and cruise control as standard equipment. These Rancheros’ power windows, door panel pod controls and full-length armrests were borrowed from the sumptuous Mercury Cougar XR-7. Each Ranchero was crowned with a vinyl roof and dressed to the nines with Magnum 500 wheels or wire wheel covers. 

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The very luxurious 1979 1/2 Ranchero carried a frighteningly high-price tag, over $10,000 but wore only a wide wheel lip moulding and a vinyl top to dress them up. Plain looking, almost drab on the outside, they languished on dealers’ lots. Part way through the trial period, dealers were shipped additional mouldings and instructed to paint the wide insert moulding to match the vinyl roof. The extra dress up trim was a bid by management to help dealers move the slow selling vehicles. Alternately, Ford sent out stripers to decal three stripes onto the rear quarter panel. Finally judged as too expensive to sell in the general market place, the idea was ultimately scrapped three months before the end of the model year. The irony was that the late entry, half-year model ceased production before the regular 1979 models.  Those few that still do exist quickly became highly sought after by collectors.

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Without advertising to promote them and nothing new in the pipeline, Ranchero fans could hear the death rattle for their beloved truck. There were Ford dealers who didn’t even bother to offer Rancheros in 1978 and 1979.

In its final year, Ranchero sold a paltry total of 25,010 units.  Breakdown was 12,093 of the 500 models while the sporty GT stood at 12,159 units delivered and the upscale Squire sputtered out at only 758 units.

Ranchero was being widely outsold by the Econoline at 184,722 units and the hot, smaller Courier, that racked up a clean 75,761 sales. Total Ford truck sales for the model year were 1,198,308 units. It was game over for the car-based truck and Ranchero was laid to rest.

There was no Ranchero in the 1980 lineup because there was no suitable car to hang it from. Ford officials told the press bluntly that Ranchero was a casualty of upcoming stringent federal safety regulations. Officials said further that Washington’s dictates were taking so much of its corporate time and resources that there was neither time nor money to adapt the Ranchero theme to one of Ford’s new compact car platforms. 

Ranchero would not die a quick or easy death. A last ditch effort to keep the stylish hauler in Ford's stable nearly succeeded. A total of 211 prototype Ford Durangos was built under contract by National Coach in New Jersey. These were based on the new Fairmont Futura Coupe. An additional trio of Mercury Durango pickups was cobbled together, too. They all used a reinforced fiberglass bed cut down from the 1979 Ranchero. A unique full-width tailgate incorporated the taillights and the license plate holder in the tailgate assembly. That meant they could not be driven with the tailgate open. A sticker on the doorjamb, next to the data plate, warned drivers not to do so.

In anticipation of an order of 25,000 units, National Coach spent a substantial chunk of change to greatly enlarge its factory capacity. It was for nothing. In the end, the project was scrubbed.  All 211 of the trucks were all sold off quietly to consumers in 1981 and 1982.  

A  Ranchero, based on the Crown Victoria, was cobbled together and used at Ford as a parts chaser. Refitted several times, its last update was in the mid-'80s.

 Proposals to resurrect the Ranchero are made from time to time within Ford, but others argue more successfully that a revived passenger-car based truck would only cut into sales of the highly popular Ranger. 

The 2013 Ford Falcon Ute Mark II is built in Australia.

Even though Ranchero disappeared from North America it soldiered on gallantly in permanently entrenched markets in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina. The last Argentine Ranchero was built on September 21, 1991. Still based on the compact 1960 Ford Falcon body, it was powered by a four-cylinder Peugeot diesel engine. The South African, New Zealand and Australian markets still offer solid markets for the pickup cars.

Today there are more than 25,000 dedicated individuals who have preserved Rancheros. It is estimated that 100,000 Rancheros, or one out of five ever built, still exist. Don’t rule out the possibility that the pickup car may return to the market one day. Should it ever happen, there will be plenty of Ranchero fans ready to buy!

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Copyright James C. Mays 2004 All rights reserved.