Nineteen fifty-five was a renaissance model year for Detroit, with fresh and exciting sheetmetal, abundant chrome, new manufacturing standards, cool features, and vastly improved technology. Chevrolet introduced the all-new overhead-valve V-8 we would come to know as the small-block Chevy. In 1954, Ford got the jump on Chevrolet with its own overhead-valve V-8 known as the Y-block. The Y-block didn't employ lightweight, gray-wall iron technology like the Chevrolet; however, it made power and offered solid dependability.
If you chat with anyone who was a teenager during the '50s about what life was like back then, their eyes get a faraway, euphoric look. They remember the best music ever, and they reflect on cruising, hanging out with buddies, flirting with girls, showing off, sipping a Cherry Coke, 23-cent-a-gallon gasoline, and dreaming of the future.
When Tom Barbee roared up to our photo shoot with his pastel-blue-on-white '55 Ford Fairlane two-door sedan, we got that same rush of euphoria. It was clearly a Ford Y-block-16 mechanical tappets and a persona unequalled. While the trend today is to go with contemporary power such as a modular V-8 or stroked small-block, Tom wanted authenticity in his car-building project. No other engine but the car's original Y-block would do because this was more than just a car project; it was a member of his family.
Tom has owned this car for 47 years, purchasing it when his first car, a '49 Ford sedan, was destroyed in an accident. He was in high school at the time. When he bought this sedan for chump change, it was an old Ford destined to be a cool classic. He drove it daily until 1972 when the engine failed; right about the time he and his wife, Barbara, were starting their family. They bought a '66 Falcon sedan and went about the process of raising kids. Their '55 post would sit in the California sun for a long time.
Fifteen years ago, Tom began to wonder what he would do with that old Ford out back. He'd had it too long to get rid of it, and he and Barbara couldn't imagine their lives without it. It wasn't until he noticed his wife outside sanding away on the body that he decided to act on a dream. Tom and Barbara worked on a plan that would both preserve the car's historical integrity and make it the best it had ever been. For one thing, Tom never wanted to leave this car's roots. It had to remain a '50s Ford through and through. He wanted to remain true to its original 292ci Y-block V-8 with only a few exceptions. Because the car was to be different from any other shoebox Ford around, Tom thought long and hard at how he could make that happen.
He decided to go with a '60s retro hot-rod approach with a hopped-up Y-block, a huge tachometer, and a big Hurst shifter sticking out of the floor. He wanted something conceived in the spirit of L.A.'s Van Nuys Boulevard and Motown's Woodward Avenue prior to the mid-'60s musclecar movement. We're talking the roar of prewar and postwar V-8 power-old Ford flatheads, Chrysler Hemis, Oldsmobile Rocket V-8s, Buick Fireballs, and of course the Ford Y-block. These were engines of the '50s and early '60s when Tom was coming of age. Crack the throttles and listen to 16 solid tappets and the crackly bark of postwar V-8 power. You'll also hear the whiz of a McCulloch VS57 supercharger donned from the '57 Ford parts bin.
The VS57 supercharger wasn't unique to only Fords back then, even though it was offered as a factory option in 1957. It was also available as an aftermarket bolt-on for everything from a small-block Chevy to the venerable Ford Y-block. Tom wanted his Y-block to be unique and included a trio of Stromberg 97 two-barrel carburetors inside the custom-made plenum. What else would you put on a nifty '50s Y-block?