Tom Shaw
October 1, 2008

You gotta love the '50s: cheap gas, cool old round-top Coke machines and jukeboxes, and some of the best Fords ever were available new for just a few thousand bucks.

One of those great '57 Fords was a new model called the Ranchero, a unique hybrid blending a heavy-duty station wagon chassis, and a passenger car cab and front end, with a cargo bed in the rear. Ford had been building F-1 pickup trucks since 1948, but those were conventional trucks. This new Ranchero shared not only the handsome styling with the big Ford, but its engine options, too. Ford offered it in two models for '57.

Model MSRP Production
66A Ranchero Custom $2,173 15,277
66B Base Ranchero $2,064 6,428

Model 66B was your basic rig, light on trim and goodies, while model 66A dressed things up a bit with more elaborate trim and color choices. Statistics show that buyers preferred their Rancheros with some gingerbread by a margin of over 2 to 1.

Don Lett, a retired electronics businessman from Dallas, likes his classic Fords with modern running gear. In the '90s, he had Time Machines in Hudson, Florida, build an early Merc cruiser with Lincoln Mark VIII running gear. The project was a big hit, so when Don decided to add a classic Ranchero to his fleet, he naturally turned back to Time Machines, which specializes in these types of advanced conversions and has displayed many finished projects at the internationally attended SEMA show in Las Vegas.

Don's plans called for a first-year Ranchero body, powered by LincolnMark VIII running gear, just like his earlier Merc, and some suspension updates to give the car an aggressive stance with an improved ride. Don got busy looking and found a dry, well-preserved '57 body that would serve as a starting point.

"It was a really solid car," recalls Time Machines' leader, Mike Staveski. "From our perspective, it was about as rust-free as you can get."

Dismantling and removal of the old stuff was the first order of business. The front suspension and feeble, old drum brakes were pulled off, along with the original steering box, control arms, spindles, and coil springs.

In their place went a modern power-assisted rack-and-pinion system, eliminating lots of hiding places for loose steering and the slow ratio of the factory turning system.

"We added a Mustang II-style frontend from Fatman Fabrications, which really opened everything up," Mike told us. The Fatman suspension points weld to the factory frame and Time Machines' skilled fabricators created mounts for the new engine and transmission.

Offering up its parts for the project was a '98 Lincoln Mark VIII. Mike has swapped his share of Ford modular motors and says that getting the engine to sit where it's supposed to is usually the toughest task. "The biggest thing is getting them in-it's a very wide motor," he said. Fortunately, the '57's engine bay is huge, and with the new suspension and steering there was even more room.

Mike went with the Mark VIII's factory 4R70W automatic trans, which was plenty strong enough and already mated to the 32-valve late-model V-8 engine. Factory engineers do extensive driveability testing, and keeping the engine and trans together as a unit meant that the Ford fuel mapping and calibration would transfer intact.

Under the bed, the rearend is a stock Ford 9-inch with tall, 3.00 highway gears, and 31-spline axles-one of the toughest rearends ever used in a passenger car.

The 4.6L V-8 uses a light alloy block and heads, runs 9.9:1 compression, and is rated at 280 hp at 5,750 rpm. That's on the tame side, but Don really wasn't after rocket-ship acceleration. Instead, he wanted a car that had ample power, but also had top-notch driveability, and was easily capable of long, effortless road trips when the road beckoned.

So they elected to skip the hop-ups and use a factory computer. Extra effort was made in the engine's appearance, as the cam covers were plated and the intake was finished in red. Firewall plates cover the back of the engine compartment, helping to create a very clean engine bay. Don even took some of the work on himself, moving the Mark VIII fuel pump into the Ranchero's fuel tank.

The driving experience is a dream, as the classic '57 Ford benefits greatly from the updated driveline and suspension. No longer does the Ranchero follow every rut in the road thanks to skinny bias-ply tires, nor does it take forever to change direction, or get going under its own steam thanks to a lo-po engine. Instead, "it now rides, corners, and accelerates like a modern-day sports car-it's got plenty of power, yet I can get 24 mpg out of it," relates Don.

The engine's running manners are flawless, and because the drivetrain doesn't depart from the factory calibration, its operation is just as smooth as if it were still powering a Lincoln. That's worlds better than the old, original 190hp 272-cid Y-block engine.

Big, wide whitewall radials are mounted on T-Bird wire wheels, making an unmistakable premium statement. Steering is quick and precise thanks to a modern rack-and-pinion system, and an ABS Power Brakes booster applies boost using electrical current. The center of gravity is lowered thanks to a 2-inch drop in the front spindles.

Inside, the modernization continues with the Mark VIII's electrically adjusted leather bucket seats, and center console adapted to the '57's cab. A modern stereo fills the original dash location, while a Vintage Air A/C system keeps the cab cool and comfy through underdash outlets. The dash is padded, and twin spotlights are operated through interior handles. An ididit steering column mounts a LeCarra steering wheel wrapped in matching leather. Custom door panels integrate modern power window switches, though old-timers may recall that power windows were a factory option on the '57 Fords.

The body was kept mostly stock, though there is a vinyl bed cover. Don came up with some N.O.S. gold-anodized side trim, a signature piece found on the flanks of '57 Fords. Ford called its red/white color scheme Flame Red and Colonial White.

There's no denying the sensory impact of the finished product. The refurbed Ranchero works on all levels. Most classic Ford buffs agree that '57 was one of Ford's best styling years ever.

Ranchero Time Line
December, 1957: Ranchero Debuts
1960: Ranchero based on compact Falcon
1967: Ranchero moved to intermediate Fairlane
1968: Redesigned Fairlane/Ranchero introduced
1970: Fairlane/Ranchero redesigned again, 429 available
1972: Torino/Ranchero redesigned
1977: Last major redesign
1979: Ranchero production ends

They didn't need focus groups to tell them whether they had the styling right. Stylists had instincts; just let them work. There's more creative expression in the Ford crest on the tailgate than a whole container ship full of imports. They didn't have a lot of government regulations to work around; they just made the best designs they could think of. And if engineers had modern engines back then, you can bet they'd have built 'em just like Don Lett's retro Ranchero.

The Details
Don Lett's '57 Ranchero

Engine
'98 Lincoln MK VIII donor
281 ci/4.6-liter
Teksid aluminum block
Aluminum heads, 4 valves per cylinder
280 hp at 5,750 rpm

Transmission
4R70W four-speed automatic overdrive

Rearend
9-inch
31-spline axles
3.00 gears

Exhaust
Stock 4.6 manifolds
Custom 2 1/2-inch diameter exhaust
Walker Dynomax mufflers

Suspension
Front: Fatman Fabrications, Mustang II-style
Rear: Stock leaf springs, antisway bar, Monroe gas shocks

Brakes
Front: Ford Racing, 11-inch rotors, single-piston calipers
Rear: Ford Racing, 11-inch rotors, single-piston calipers

Wheels
Front: Kelsey-Hayes Thunderbird wire wheels, 15x6
Rear: Kelsey-Hayes Thunderbird wire wheels, 15x6

Tires
Front: Coker WWW M&S Radials, P215/75R15
Rear: Coker WWW M&S Radials, P215/75R15

Interior
Lincoln Mark VIII electric seats, console, shifter, ididit tilt steering column, LeCarra leather-wrapped steering wheel, custom door panels, power windows

Exterior
Flame Red over Colonial White paint, twin Ford accessory spotlights

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