Ford Taunus: the big-selling saloon that time forgot. Ford’s continental star. Three generations of German Taunus The Fords that fell off the radar. The German-built Taunuses were a long-running success story. It’s a shame that they’re now largely forgotten, says Jon Pressnell, after sampling the landmark Cologne saloons. Photography Tony Baker.
Given today’s global motor industry with its globally homogeneous products, it’s easy to forget how even the biggest multinationals once espoused localism, offering distinctly different models made in countries just a day’s drive from one another. Ford is as good an example as any: at the dawn of the 1950s, it was building a wholly different range in Britain, France and Germany.
Standalone German Fords would last until ’1976, when the Cortina Mk4 and the last generation of Taunus – named after a German mountain range – became the same thing. Despite this, how many of us today recall the earlier Taunuses?
These cars were produced up until the dawn of the 1970s, when the Cortina and Taunus became mechanical sisters under their still-different bodywork and the Consul/Granada displaced Britain’s Z-cars and the bigger Taunus models. Yet these Taunuses, in particular those from 1957’s P2 onwards, were very much part of the European scenery – even in Britain, where they were at one stage sold via Lincoln Cars Limited.
In 1963 and ’1964, more than 40% of Cologne production was exported, and at one time the early-’60s P3 was France’s top-selling import. If we leave aside the revived pre-war Buckel or ‘humpback’ model and the 1970-on TC-series Taunus/Cortina, a total of 4.36 million Taunuses were made, from the first properly post-war design, the G13 12M, through to the last of the ‘M’ series in ’1971. So they are a familiar part of the classic scenery in their homeland. In Britain the breed is almost extinct, although in France there is a small but lively scene, animated by Frank ‘Taunusman’ Rousset, creator of the club Taunus Mania, who owns no fewer than 15 of them.
The Rousset collection begins with a 1959 P2, and we’re in the Alsace region of France to sample four of his fleet. First, though, a thumbnail prologue. The Taunus story goes back to 1939, when the 1172cc G93A was the first Cologne model to bear the name. Re-entering production in 1948, this continued until ’1952, when it was replaced by the G13-series 12M.
Designed in the US, the G13 was Ford of Germany’s first monocoque, and also brought in independent coil-and-wishbone front suspension.
The 1172cc sidevalve engine of the G93A was retained, but in 1955 a 15M variant arrived, with a new pushrod 1500cc unit – unrelated, it has to be said, to that used in Britain’s Consul. The 12M continued until late 1962, but the 15M was phased out in June 1958, a few months after the August ’57 announcement of the P2 Taunus.
Compared to its podgy predecessor, the P2 was a splash of exuberance in tune with the optimism of the booming wirtschaftswunder or ‘economic miracle’ of the late ’50s. The mechanicals were much the same, apart from the key introduction of MacPherson strut front suspension and a 1698cc engine. The larger and heavier body was new, however, and pure Americana.
Again styled in the US, it was a shrunken ’55/’56 Detroit Ford in everything but the absence of a wraparound ’screen – a fortunate omission, given that this was a feature of the rival Opel Rekord announced at the same time. With its cut-back front, zig-zag waist moulding and dinky rear fins, the P2 instantly became known as ‘the Baroque Taunus’. In September 1959, it received a flatter roof with a lipped rear.
Rousset’s car is a second-generation P2, and has the standard three-speed all-synchro ’box; a four-speeder was optional (and standard in some markets), and overdrive was available, as was a Saxomat automatic clutch. It’s a four-door, but it also came as a two-door, a two-door estate and a van. Deutsch made a few cabrios, a practice that would continue with the P3 and P5 Taunuses.
To drive, the 60bhp P2 is an easy, soft, gentle thing. The sweet column change has a relatively long throw, the clutch is smooth and the lowgeared worm-and-roller steering, with its big wheel quite close, is nicely well-oiled; the brakes, meanwhile, are short-travel and effective.
There’s a decent turn of speed, with cruising at 50-60mph adequately refined, despite a relatively low third gear, and on its soft suspension the 17M jounces along in a contented and relaxed way. As for the two-tone interior, that has a certain typically transatlantic Ford flavour, albeit with a little more of that white plastic that the Germans so loved in the ’50s. The décor chimes well with the styling, and indeed with the P2’s road behaviour. In its friendly usability, the car reminds you of a smaller-scale MkII Zephyr/Zodiac – and that’s a pretty good recommendation.
The P2’s fashion-led looks were never going to be long-lasting. Not only that, but the Rekord outsold it more than threefold. It was thus hardly a surprise when after just three seasons the Ford was replaced by a more contemporary model. A total of 239,978 had been made. Introduced in October 1960, the new P3 was a revolutionary shape for its time. Designed with at least a nod towards the contemporary Falcon and Thunderbird, it was intended to stand apart from the sharp-edged Pininfarina lines of the larger saloons from BMC, Peugeot and Fiat. Accordingly it took a completely different direction, with aerodynamically honed and softer forms plus a refreshing lack of chrome ornamentation.
With its fall-away front and rear and its oval headlamps – a motif repeated on the back panel and the dashboard – the P3 was as much of a surprise in its aesthetics as NSU’s Ro80 would be in seven years’ time, and it was soon nicknamed ‘the Bathtub’. The shape was effective, though, clocking a 0.40 drag coefficient, against the wardrobe-like 0.50 Cd recorded by the P2.
Mechanically the P3 differed little from its predecessor, other than the additional availability of a 1498cc unit – and from September ’1961 a 1758cc TS with a twin-choke carb. As before, there was a two-door estate, the Turnier. It was offered with a side-opening rear door, a US-style drop-down tailgate with glass that wound down, or a conventional top-hinged one-piece tailgate.
An unusual feature of the estate was horizontal rear lights integrated into the edge of the roof. This gave the tail a clean look, but legislators in France and England frowned upon the design, obliging cars for these markets to be fitted with bulbous round add-on lamps perched on the wings. Ford capitulated, and for ’1963 revised the rear to incorporate low-set triangular units.
Rousset’s 1963 P3 has the 1500 engine and the optional four-speed ’box, which was standard on the TS. The smaller power unit develops 55bhp, it’s beautifully free-spinning, nicely refined, and provides relaxed 60mph cruising, progress aided by a gearchange that has the same easy slickness as that on the P2. The steering is lighter and more vague – real American steering – and the ride is softer, too, with a fair amount of roll on corners. It’s all a bit cut-price Yank, in fact, but at least the front discs are European in their effectiveness. These were optional on the TS from April ’62 and available at extra cost on lesser models from the ’1963 model year, at which stage they became standard on the TS.
The dashboard curves round into the doors and slopes away at the bottom, giving a sense of extra space. There’s a harmonious well-styled lightness of touch to the cockpit, with modern, cri ply lettered instruments, and rocker switches incorporated into the lower rail along with the cigarette lighter and the ashtray. The three-tone trim is again more United States than Federal Republic, but the overall effect is of a bright modernity that must surely have appealed to the young and successful businessmen of vibrant early-’60s Germany – who would have no doubt enjoyed the Ford’s Americanised handling and adventurous styling.
The P3 lasted four years before being replaced. An impressive 669,731 had been made. This was a massive increase over the output of the P2, so there is no doubting the model’s success: sometimes, even, it had outsold its Opel rival. This time, therefore, the change in styling would be more evolutionary, the lines of the new P5 being a well-considered refining of those of the P3, to which it was clearly related. Longer and wider, the cars were heavier, but also – with a Cd of 0.37 – more aerodynamically efficient.
Basically a re-skinning of the P3, the P5 kept the same mechanicals bar the engines. These were new and related 1500 and 1700 V4s and a 2-litre V6, with power ranging from 60bhp for the 15M up to 90bhp for the 20M TS. Strangely, they again shared nothing with Dagenham’s V4s and V6s. A pillarless coupé was a new body style, and the Turnier also came as a four-door – Germany’s first estate of this configuration. With the widest range to date, a full 746,458 P5s were made, over three model years.
Rousset’s P5 is a V6 2-litre 20M TS, and he admits that if he could keep just one Taunus this would be it. That’s no surprise, in coldly rational terms, because it feels totally modern. There’s better weight to the steering, more control to the suspension, decent medium-travel servo brakes, and strong performance that soon has you hitting a lazy 75mph. Unexpected is the clunky action of the floor change, which lacks the smoothness of the preceding column shifts.
Possibly more of a downside is the slightly garish interior, with its metal-flecked seats and plastic-chrome instrument panel. Despite an emphasis on quality in the advertising of the period, the P5 was a Ford, not a Mercedes. Bear that in mind, and you can see the car’s appeal. Lightly retouched over its predecessor it may be, but the P5 is a generation ahead – and with that 85bhp V6 would surely have eaten its nearest British equivalent, the not dissimilar Corsair. How should one judge our trio of Taunuses?
Let’s face it, none of them is likely to light blazing fires of automotive ardour. They are pretty prosaic machines. Pushed to explain his love of the cars, Rousset could come up with nothing more solid than the nostalgia they evoke.
But I’ll buy into that. The P5 is a bit modern for me, although I could see myself in a snazzy duotone P2. It has to be a more sensible way of playing the pocket-sized-Yank card than smoking around in a flathead-V8 Simca Vedette while watching the fuel gauge head southwards. The ‘Bathtub’ P3 presses a few buttons, too: as a car that I associate not only with childhood European holidays, but also for its stylistic bravery.
These Fords are usable old things, but not so old that they aren’t everyday-practical. They have a period charm and rarity that is arguably lacking in the Austin Cambridges of this world, while being perfectly agreeable to drive. That’s not a bad set of virtues, don’t you think?
Thanks to Frank Rousset of Taunus Mania: www.taunusmania.com; Jean Walter, Alexandra Dusolle-Lochert and Michel Wiederkehr
‘IT WAS A SPLASH OF EXUBERANCE IN TUNE WITH THE LATE-’50s GERMAN ECONOMIC MIRACLE’
P4 – the front-wheel-drive Taunus
The P4 12M was an accident of corporate history. Ford’s compact Falcon was an instant success in the States, but it had not really taken the fight to VW, so Dearborn went a size smaller in its bid for a Beetle-beater. The new design was based around a V4-powered front-drive module (above right); this would incorporate the suspension and steering and could be slotted into the shell as one unit. This ‘Pony Pac’ would be made in Germany and shipped to the US, where the car would be assembled in Kentucky. It would also be built in Germany. At the last moment, however, Ford in the States got cold feet over the dreary-looking sub-compact, which was both over-budget and under-developed.
Having been branded “a loser” by Ford general manager Lee Iacocca, the car – coded ‘Cardinal’ – was handed over to Cologne, which launched it in September ’1962. Conceptually flawed, the Pony Pac posed problems, not least with the transverse-leaf suspension, which had its lower arms pivoting off the gearbox until a 1964 redesign. But Ford persisted, and with a restyle in ’1966 (below) the front-drive 12M and 15M continued until 1970, by which time more than 1.36 million had been made.
The 1183cc unit of Rousset’s ’1963 12M develops only 40bhp, but the P4 goes well enough, and the four-speed column shift is okay. Its drum brakes – discs came in for ’1965 – are acceptable. The Ford rides no better or worse than one would expect of a car with a leaf-sprung dead axle and has no handling quirks; the steering, by box instead of the rack of the ’1966-on P6, is adequately quick. This very ordinariness suggests that no salient advantages came from the added cost of front drive. The Cortina was surely a more sensible way forward.