Very few businesses have been around as long as Ford Motor Company (1903) or are as successful for as long. Given the nature of longevity, paired with changes in technology, consumer tastes, and envelope-pushing design, any organization is bound to create some truly iconic products. Those same factors, however, can also lead to some pretty notable exceptions, as well.
That said, here is a compilation of the some of the most successful and least popular Fords in history. We realize this is completely subjective and some readers will have doubts about cars on our most popular list, while some may herald the benefits of those on our least popular list. Still, this is a pretty good jumping off point for antique auto collectors. Also, note this list limited to cars.
Most Popular and Successful Fords
Even if you are not a "car guy," odds are you have heard about these cars and even be able to recognize most (if not all) of them on sight. Here, then, are some of the most popular Fords in history.
Model T. To say the Ford Model T changed manufacturing would be an understatement. While it wasn't the first car Ford produced—that was the Model A—it was certainly the one that shaped not only the auto industry, but the entire nation. From 1908 to 1927, Ford built 16.5 million Model Ts. In 1908, there were only 18,000 miles of paved roads in America. The Model T was the launching pad for introducing new ways to eat (drive-through restaurants), be entertained (drive-in movies), travel (bye-bye choo-choo), and make a living (the $5 work day). In short, the Model T was more than a car; it was a pivotal event in world history.
Escort. Following Ford's troubles with the Pinto (see below), Ford found itself desperately in need of introducing a new small car to the American market in the early 1980s. They turned to the Ford Escort, which had been a steady seller in Europe since its introduction in 1968. Throughout the '80s, the Escort went on to be a consistent seller for Ford, eventually becoming one of the best-selling small cars of all time. While the Escort didn't score tremendously high in any single category, it did many things rather well. It was affordable. It got good gas mileage. It was much safer than the Pinto. It wasn't ugly. And, it scored decent marks for dependability. Overall, the Escort was greater than the sum of its parts and buyers certainly agreed.
Thunderbird. Originally introduced in 1955 as Ford's response to the Chevrolet Corvette, the Thunderbird started its life as a two-seater that eventually went on to define a new niche of automobiles known as "personal luxury cars." Its original life as a muscle car is the stuff of legends with its 4.8L V8 engine and speedometer that reached 150mph. In its early years, the Thunderbird heartily outsold the Corvette; however, by its 10th generation launched in 1989, the Thunderbird became too heavy and expensive to produce. Because it only came with a V6 engine, those who craved the rev of older models to look elsewhere. Ford discontinued the line in 1997, before resurrecting it again from 2002-2005.
Mustang. No conversation about muscle cars is complete without ample time dedicated to the Mustang—and for good reason. Introduced in 1964, the Mustang was Ford's most successful launch since the Model A. It has been in production, uninterrupted, since then. Now in its sixth generation, Mustang purists cite either the '65 or the '82 Mustang as the best in the lineup. The 1974 Mustang, which was the launch of the second generation Mustang, has gotten some flack over the years. It was a smaller model built with fuel efficiency as a core part of the design. While it sold very well, the muscle-minded enthusiasts often turned up their noses. This left the door wide open for the '82 Mustang powered by a 4.9L engine with 157 horsepower, which was exceptional for the time. In doing so, the '82 Mustang is the production car that really threw down the gauntlet among automakers to see who could cram the most "ponies" under the hood.
Taurus. The Taurus might not be much of a collectors' car today, but its importance upon its release in 1986 was monumental to the American auto industry. At the time, Japanese automakers, Toyota and Honda, were flooding the world by marketing small, fuel-efficient, safe, affordable cars. Significantly, the 1986 Ford Taurus became the life raft the U.S. market needed to stay afloat in turbulent waters while doing major redesigns to most of their major models. With its design that hinted at the Mustang and its front-wheel performance, the Taurus gave many Americans a reason to buy an American car again. Along the way, it was named 1986 Motor Trend Car of the Year. Further, the second-generation Taurus was the best-selling car in America from 1992-1995—every year of its production.
Least Popular Fords in History
Not all car can be winners, right? The cars on this list are here for a variety of reasons, be it safety issues, fickled markets, or just generally uninspired design.
Pinto. Not just one of the least accepted Ford's in history, the 1971 Pinto goes down as one of the biggest mistakes in automobile history. This small car priced at $2,000 was just what the market wanted. What the market didn't want, however, was a rear mounted fuel tank with no reinforcements to protect it in the event of a collision. The end result was that when Pinto drivers were rear-ended, the cars would sometimes burst into flames. The secondary level of damage, came when a paper trail revealed that Ford knew about the problem, but since the cost to fix the problem was considerably higher than the legal costs associated with the problem, they chose the former. It was a mistake Ford would never make again.
Edsel. It's easy to say that the Edsel was a "land yacht" that cost a fortune and was launched just as the U.S. was heading into a recession. Sure, those are significant reasons why the Edsel was one of the greatest introduction flops in history. The truth is there were a number of missteps with the Edsel. There were quality issues. The front end design was meant to be distinct...and wound up being different for all the wrong reasons. Ford's marketing team of the day hyped the Edsel for a year prior to its release, leading many consumers to feel the Edsel was over-promised and under-delivered. At the same time, when most car manufacturers were offering just a few models of each car, Ford offered the Edsel in a whopping 18 different versions!
Festiva. Looking to piggyback on the success of the Ford Escort and be more competitive in the Asian market, Ford introduced the Ford Festiva in 1986. As a subcompact, it was considerably smaller than the Escort. Branding the Festiva as a Ford, however, overlooked the multi-national and multi-corporate effort that went into creating this little piece of automobile history. It was originally designed and built by Mazda—Ford held a controlling share in the company—to be badged as a Ford and sold in Japan and the Americas. In Australia and Europe, it was known as the Mazda 121. Another Ford partner, Kia, sold the same car in South Korea and Europe under the name Kia Pride. To say the car was lackluster would be a huge understatement. In addition to numerous quality issues, the "luxury" version of the Festiva listed standards, such as a tachometer and cloth seats. The car never sold well in North America. Ford's answer wasn't to make it better, nor was it to stop making the car. Instead, they simply stretched it out a little and rebadged it in 1993 as the...Ford Aspire.
Aspire. Just as animals are predisposed to certain types of maladies because of their DNA, so too are vehicles. The Aspire, little more than the renamed unpopular Festiva, seemed doomed from the start. The Kia version was even rebadged as the Kia Avella. Regardless, the change wasn't enough to breathe life into a rather uninspired venture. It still looked like a duck, swam like a duck, and quacked like a duck. Calling it a swan wasn't enough to sway users. Ford eventually discontinued production of the vehicle in 2000.
Ford's Progress Model Builds Success
Overall, Ford's longevity is a clear indication of its ability to meet consumers' needs and, in many cases, anticipate those needs. The net effect is clearly in Ford's favor. For every Festiva, there is a Model T. For every Edsel, there's a Mustang. The Ford Company's progress is a model of reaching for future success by not being afraid to fail.