April 1, 2005

Elvis was The King. Girls wore hoop skirts. Boys combed their hair in ducktails. Gas was less than 20 cents a gallon. A new Ford was as low as $1,339. These were the '50s, a very positive time in American postwar history, especially for car lovers. During World War II (1941-45), Ford and the rest of Detroit built tanks, planes, boats, and other wartime equipment instead of automobiles. By 1946, the public was starved for new wheels. The '46-'48 new cars from Detroit were warmed-over prewar models. Still, demand was so great they sold like hotcakes. Finally, the all-new '49 Ford arrived. Time to celebrate. Families were just getting started in a promising postwar environment. Cars became a giant departure from their prewar predecessors, both in styling and mechanical advances, particularly at Ford. Henry Ford II brought his "whiz kids" into the company, and with them new styling, engineering advances, and advanced manufacturing methods.

The '49 Ford continued through 1951 with minor styling changes. It was not a chrome dream, nor did it have fins, both '50s design hallmarks. Ford had not yet cut loose from old to new. The '49-'51 Ford body was clean with slab sides. Glass was angled and not as rounded. The grille was somewhat pretentious with its jet engine nose. Chassis design no longer incorporated the old transverse buggy springs, which Ford kept through 1948. Likewise, Ford replaced the straight axle up front with a modern, independent front suspension that featured coils. The new hypoid rearend, featuring an open rear axle, suspended with longitudinal leaf springs (Hotchkiss drive), replaced Ford's antiquated torque tube drive.

These advances are important for restomodders today. Tom Schlitter, a collector in Colorado who has owned dozens of '50s Fords, stock and modified, told us, "These postwar Fords are easily adaptable to today's suspensions. You can put a 9-inch under them real easy with disc brakes. When you go with an earlier Ford [pre-1949], you have to completely revamp the frame and cut out cross-members. You don't have to do any of that on the '50s cars."

The '49-'51 era includes one of the most collectible Fords of all time-the two-door woodie station wagon. These eight-passenger two-door wagons (no four-doors) are popular classics today. The Beach Boys popularized them in song in the '60s with hits like "Surf City" and "Surfer Girl." Al Jardine of the Beach Boys told us, "The surfing crowd used the woodie as their own special statement. It was a good long vehicle that served a variety of purposes. You could stick a surf board in the back, just take off, and search for the best waves in California."

Coupes and convertibles are also hot in the "shoe box" '49-'51 series. The Crestliner was Ford's response to Chevrolet's Bel Air. Ford introduced its first hardtop-the Victoria-in the '51 model year.

As desirable as the '49-'51 Fords are today, even hotter are the '49-'51 Mercurys. Customized into leadsleds, these Mercs have become the quintessential hot rod of the '50s. Finding a buildable postwar Mercury coupe or convertible is about as challenging as finding one of the '49-'51 Ford woodie two-door wagons. Collectors have cherry-picked them for decades. An alternative is the '49-'51 Lincoln, which has a similar body style with tons of luxury trim.

The first major restyling of the '50s produced the '52-'54 Fords, Mercurys, and Lincolns, which are the least desirable style of the '50s. Exceptions are the '54 glass top Skyliner series and any of the station wagons, such as the two-door Ranch wagon and the four-door Country Squire.

The big news in this decade was the arrival of the 239ci OHV V-8 for 1954. Until that year, Fords, Mercs, and Lincolns were powered by flatheads. Also of great importance was the new ball joint front suspension, which replaced the old king pins. Lincoln came out with ball joints in 1952. Ford and Mercury didn't introduce the ball joint front suspension until 1954.

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