1960s load-luggers from Coventry and Dagenham go head to head. Estates for the nation Ford Cortina meets Singer Vogue. The Ford Consul Cortina and Singer Vogue brought a generous helping of style to the market for austere mid-sized estate cars, says Andrew Roberts. Photography Tony Baker.
Ideal for a life on the roadThe year is 1963 and you are a hard-working corporation chap – and you would almost certainly have been a ‘chap’ at that time – with some specific criteria for your next company transport. You have decided on a medium-sized estate car costing less than £1000 that must have ample load space for any amount of sample boxes yet look smart enough for any golf club car park. There should also be sufficient performance for motorway work, while your fuel bills must be reasonable enough to appease the company accountant.
Most importantly, the car needs to reflect your status as a business executive with a generous Luncheon Voucher allowance and an in-depth knowledge of the menus of the Golden Egg. Thus, after rejecting the Oxford Traveller on the grounds of its middle-aged image and the FB Victor for its faint air of spivvery, there were only two choices: the Ford Consul Cortina Super and the Singer Vogue. Both are practical, mechanically straightforward and, best of all, neither has the plebeian overtones of a utility vehicle.
The Consul Cortina was launched in late 1962, and Ford added a 1498cc engine option in January 1963 plus an estate version two months later. The 1200 De Luxe was exceptional value at £683, which made it the cheapest five-door station wagon in the UK, but for an extra £102 14s 2d there was the decadent world of the Super. Above and beyond the lure of its 1.5-litre engine, cigarette lighter, heater, vanity mirror and carpets, was the distinction that the exterior decoration would surely bestow upon any owner.
The quite splendid Di-Noc plastic panelling on the Super’s flanks and tailgate was Ford GB’s attempt to lend the flagship Cortina estate an appearance reminiscent of the great American woodie, a form of car that really ended with the demise of the Buick Roadmaster in 1953. By that time, Dearborn had already begun to use Di-Noc instead of timber on the Country Squire and a decade later there seemed to be no reason why it should not also be applied to a Dagenham product. After all, this was an age of instant foods, Terylene suits and Victorian terraces being demolished in favour of nightmarish concrete jungles, so the trim on the Super was in keeping with this new Britain. It was also much easier to maintain than real wood.
Ford Consul Cortina Super road test
The Super Estate’s looks also helped to distinguish it from its contemporaries because the wood-built British shooting brake had begun to disappear by the early 1950s with the rise of unitary-bodied cars. By 1963, there remained the Morris Minor, which still featured timber for its construction, and the Mini Countryman/Traveller, which used decorative wood framing to lend a sense of faux traditionalism to a radical design. The Cortina employed a different approach. Its coachwork was the epitome of early-’60s ‘conservative cool’, but its decorations were apparently intended to give owners in Southampton the illusion that they were en route to a fishing weekend at Lake Tahoe.
Any owner of a lesser Cortina who still craved the prestige of ‘wood’ made from genuine plastic could always specify the fake timber trim as an extra – although the Super’s appearance did not meet with universal approval. A test of the De Luxe in Motor Sport noted that it was ‘mercifully without the ornate American imported Di-Noc trim that distinguishes (in the recognition sense) the Super 1500cc version’. You can just imagine a Tony Hancock-alike next-door neighbour looking askance when a new Super Estate took up residence in suburbia, muttering: ‘Stone me! That so-called timber is little more than a synthetic laminate covering.’
Beneath the cladding, however, is a practical and ground-breaking model. The Cortina was the first five-door, factory-built British Ford estate. It may have sounded surreal – a car named after an Italian ski resort with decorations that aped American middle-class aspirations, yet with dimensions ideally suited to the garage of a semidetached des-res in Bromley – but the Cortina is a well-executed design. The clean lines perfectly reflect Ford’s aims of creating a vehicle primarily associated with outings and jolly holidays in general, as illustrated by an entertaining PR film entitled Dual Carriage. The highlight of this celluloid gem is a swinging young couple performing the twist next to a blue and white De Luxe Estate, for the Cortina did have a more youthful image than offerings from BMC or Vauxhall – even if not all prospective owners went in for quiffs and bad dancing.
This prime example of the Cortina ‘woodie’ is equipped with a front bench, which always looks slightly incongruous in a small British car, and a four-speed column gearchange. The latter was not universally popular among Ford enthusiasts but MFF 199’s owner David Angel finds it “very pleasant and easy to operate”. The all-synchro transmission was a talking point for a reasonably priced British car in 1963 and, after a short acquaintance with the Super, it is easy to appreciate the Consul Cortina’s popularity.
In the words of Jon Pressnell in A Century of Motoring, one of the keys to its success was a ‘carefully calculated bodyshell that used a minimum of metal’, resulting in a spacious but comparatively lightweight family car that was easy to service.
Meanwhile, the Vogue was partially the result of the Rootes Group acquiring Singer in 1956. By the early ’60s, the marque was used on badgeengineered products that cost less than a Humber and were less overtly sporting than a Sunbeam, but offered greater prestige than a Hillman. It was originally planned that the Singer Gazelle and the Minx would be replaced by a new generation of larger models, but when the Super Minx and the Vogue saloons were launched in 1961 they supplanted the existing Audax range.
The Vogue Estate – ‘loaded with luxury features’ – was launched in May 1962, just three months before the range was facelifted as the Series II. ‘Our’ handsome Sage and Empire Green test car is a rare surviving example of the Series I, as denoted by its bench front seat, white front indicators and lack of reversing lamps. My first impression of the Vogue is of Rootes’ famed attention to detail; the toolkit stored in the lower half of the horizontally split tailgate, the child locks on all four doors and the air vent to cool the driver’s feet. The Singer cost nearly £200 more than the Cortina, a substantial sum back in 1963, but its cabin is more comfortable than the Ford’s.
Singer Vogue road test
There’s a folding armrest on the front bench and wood on the dash that has traceable connections with a tree. The overall effect is of the ethos of a gentleman’s club carefully, and rather tastefully, applied to a modern office. It has been so long since I last encountered a Vogue Estate – they all seemed to vanish from British roads circa 1979 – that its appearance comes as a pleasant surprise. Only a year separates the Singer from the Ford, yet it seems to hail from an older design idiom – late ’50s as opposed to early ’60s. Both are strongly influenced by American design tropes and the Singer seems to be more substantial than the Ford, although it is actually shorter by an inch or so. The slim pillars make for an airy cabin while the quad headlamps also help to distinguish the Vogue from the Super Minx and lend the Singer that vital ‘M1 appeal’.
Some 54 years ago, a Vogue owner might have also given some consideration to the Cortina but would ultimately have regarded it as too flash by half. The Singer could never be described as stolid, but its appeal veered more towards jaunty rather than flamboyant – a station wagon equally well-suited to a badge bar and whitewall tyres.
The vestigial tailfins denoted (mild) frivolity, but the starting-handle slot in the front bumper reminded the driver of the mundane cares of everyday life. On the road, the front seat occupants are constantly aware of its lack of sideways support, so the armrest is essential to keep them in place. This is not to imply that the Vogue Estate is prone to lurching around corners because it is an agreeably understated machine.
As with the Cortina, today’s drivers may find the all-round drum brakes lacking in stopping power, but you soon become acclimatised to the Singer. The driver has plenty of leg and hat room, while the strip speedometer looks splendidly elaborate, even if it is not that clear to read.
Above all, what the Singer offered the motorist was a sense of ease. Steve Brown, the owner of our fine test Vogue, has fitted a Humber Sceptre transmission, but the standard floor-change with synchromesh on the top three ratios was well regarded for its precision. The Singer may not have offered the same degree of excitement as a Sunbeam Rapier, but its light clutch, the controllable understeer and air of refinement make you realise why the Vogue was sought-after in its heyday. It fulfils its brief of providing smart and undramatic transport with flair and verve.
On paper, the Singer and the Cortina may have been rivals but each appealed to a distinct niche of the British car market. You can just envisage a two-tone Vogue on the driveway of a three-bedroom house in a new town. Some owners of SM1500s and Roadsters might look in shock at the Hillman underpinnings, but the Vogue Estate was perfectly suited to its select customer base. A traveller in fine wines who dreamed of being invited to the MD’s point-to-point meeting, and who was renowned for being a bit of a wag at his Rotary Club, would have regarded a Singer as proof that he had ‘arrived’.
In contrast, the Cortina would have been quite at home in Carry On Cabby; it still strikes me as the ideal offduty car for Sid James and Hattie Jacques. The Super Estate, however, presented Ford’s dealers with a challenge on a par with selling the Consul Classic in 1961 – namely that some forms of Americana just do not work in the UK. Di-Noc looked at home on a Country Squire in Connecticut, but when applied to a Cortina the result was akin to the mid-Atlantic accent affected by Roger Moore in early episodes of The Saint. The Singer’s American influences are more apparent because Roy Brown’s styling for the Cortina was a clever compromise between Detroit panache and British reserve. The Super’s trim singularly tipped the balance on a car that did not require any sales gimmicks. The Consul Cortina was succeeded by the facelifted ‘Aeroflow’ model in October 1964 – and the ‘woodie’ versions remained listed until ’65 – but no other British Ford was ever clad in a similar way.
Today, both cars are as seldom encountered as decent programmes on ITV2. The Super Minxbased Vogue Estate was replaced by the Arrow series in 1967, three years before the demise of the famous marque, and ‘our’ Vogue is a vivid reminder of a distant age. There are those British cars with an innate appeal to pipe smokers and the Singer definitively fits that select category, which means that the few survivors generally avoid the common fate of a Super Estate. That is, being converted into a surf wagon. You have more chance of finding a Corgi diecast model than an original ‘woodie’, which is a matter of great regret. Any motor vehicle can provide insights into the era in which it was built and, in terms of social history and sheer automotive fun, the Ford Consul Cortina Super Estate is absolutely priceless. Besides, from a distance, Di-Noc can even look a bit like real wood.
Thanks to The Mark 1 Cortina Owners’ Club (www.mk1cortina.com); Martyn Wray at the Singer OC (www.singeroc.free-online.co.uk); everyone at www.shillingstonehouse.co.uk