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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Ford finally dropped all hint of prewar styling and engineering in 1955 with a brand-new finned body style loaded with chrome, plus a new sports car called Thunderbird.

Journalists of the era called the T-bird the Darling of Dearborn. The Thunderbird was a sport/luxury two-seat sports car, quite different from standard Ford passenger cars of the era. There's no question the T-bird is the most collectible Ford of the '50s. In fact, a USA Today poll revealed the highly styled '57 two-seater is the most popular collector car of all time. The '55 is no less attractive, however. The six-volt electrical system used prior to 1956 is not as desirable, which tends to affect value. Amos Minter, who has owned virtually every collectible Ford of the '50s, asserts that in passenger cars, the next most popular Ford of the Fabulous Fifties is "by far the '56 Ford convertible."

In the next breath, Minter says, "After that would be the '56 Ford Victoria two-door hardtop. It is more popular than the Crown Victoria. Naturally, the Crown Victoria [603 built] with the glass top is definitely the rarest Ford car of the '50s."

Mercury also got a complete restyle for 1955. Lincoln waited until 1956. The '55 and '56 Mercury Montclairs are very popular with collectors. The Sun Valley is Mercury's version of the Crown Victoria with the glass top roof. Just 1,787 Sun Valleys were built in 1955. Apparently, the glass roof allowed sunlight to heat the cab. When these cars were new, this feature wasn't very popular. Today, people love the novelty of a glass top.

Ford finally cut loose with chrome and fins in its longer, lower, wider '57 model, which actually outsold the Chevrolet that year. The Custom and Custom 300 series were built on the shorter 116-inch wheelbase. These low-buck models, once overlooked for the flashier Fairlane and Fairlane 500s on the 118-inch long wheelbase, are hot. The Custom two-door models are short-bodied cars and thus extremely popular with the restomod movement today.

Well known are the '57 F-code Thunderbirds with supercharged 312 Y-block V-8s. Exactly 211 were built. More obscure are the passenger car F-code Fords, that, when mated to Ford's supercharged Y-block V-8, created the quintessential street NASCAR stocker. Although supercharged 312s have been located in a broad range of passenger cars, including one station wagon, several Skyliners, and a half-dozen Fairlane 500s, only three or four of the two- door sedan Customs, which fits the formula of a stock car racer, have been authenticated. They are extremely rare.

The two most popular passenger cars of 1957 were the Sunliner, Ford's convertible that year, and the Skyliner, which had more than a transparent roof. The segmented steel roof actually folded into the trunk. The retractable roof gave the Skyliner its nickname-retractable.

Ford got quite creative with a combination pickup truck/car in its '57-'59 Ranchero carline. The Ranchero went over to the Falcon chassis in 1960. These cars are extremely popular today with car builders.

Ford styling, which stayed pretty much the same for years, veered from the norm in 1958 and 1959. Ford was in a sales race with Chevrolet to be Number One. Ford countered the all-new '58 Chevrolet with twinset headlights flanking a blazing new grille. Even the taillights were quad-style. Collectors seem to favor the '57 style over the '58, though both are very popular. The '59, however, is not as popular, with its more conservative body lines and heavier chrome grille.

Meanwhile, the '57 Lincoln Premiere is the most collectible of the '56-'57 Lincolns, probably because they are "way over the top" with abundant chrome and huge fins.

Thunderbird entered the ranks of passenger cars in 1958 with new styling and a back seat. as a result, sales jumped from 21,380 to nearly 38,000. Today, the two-seater 'Birds are the most highly coveted Fords of the '50s. The four-seater Thunderbirds are nowhere near as popular, but have a loyal following. Convertibles feature a soft top that folds into the trunk. Inside, there's an instrument panel layout reminiscent of an aircraft cockpit. Bucket seats are separated by a console. The '58-'60 Thunderbird is a very special series, with a claim to being the world's first "personal" car.

Another popular Ford of the fabulous '50s is the ill-fated '58-'60 Edsel. Edsel became the name of a new Ford Motor Company division that was to become a dealer network, but it just didn't turn out that way. The Edsel was conceived for a market that ultimately did not exist. Within the line were four series: Ranger, Pacer, Corsair, and Citation. Each was offered in a range of body styles: convertibles, two-door hardtops, four-door sedans, and station wagons.

As nearly everyone knows, the Edsel was a huge marketing flop, with production tipping the scales around 63,000 for 1958, 45,000 for 1959, and 3,000 for 1960. The radical horse collar grille motif might have been the car's worst feature when they were new. Today, it's pure nostalgia, along with the Edsel's other unique features (e.g., Teletouch Drive and the rotating drum speedometer). The Edsel was futuristic in many ways, yet few people came to the party.

For decades, Edsels were throwaway cars no one wanted, but from the outset, people collected them. one Ford aficionado told us, "Long-time, die-hard Edsel collectors don't have just one Edsel, their entire yard will be filled with them, as if they didn't save them, no one else would. Edsel buffs will restore a six-cylinder, four-door hardtop, which costs as much to do as a more expensive convertible or two-door hardtop."

The most collectible Edsel is the '58, which has the genuine look everyone associates with this carline. The horse collar grille remained for 1959, which kept the Edsel identifiable. In 1960, with the Ford/Mercury/Lincoln redesign, the Edsel looked more like a Pontiac than an Edsel. It remains the rarest Edsel out there.

As the '60s dawned, a new feeling swept Detroit. Baby boomers who rode around in Mom and Pop station wagons would soon be wanting new, exciting cars of their own. Fins and chrome would be out. Ponycars with svelte new bodies, sans fins and gobs of chrome, would be in.

Today, those same baby boomers who wanted ponycars at 18 are having a nostalgia fit over the cars of the '50s, boosting the popularity of these finned cars. Cars of the '50s are hot. They are very amenable to restomodding. Style-wise, there's nothing quite like them in the world.