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?
"These carburetors were built by Quality Restoration," Tom says. "My dad used to run 97s when he ran the Salt Flats, and I always liked them. They were a problem until I turned them over to Quality Restorations, but I haven't had a problem with them since."
Check out the custom billet-finned aluminum crown that keeps those 97s protected and pressure proof-positive. That's a ceramic-coated Edelbrock 553 tri-power manifold from the '50s. The finned aluminum Thunderbird valve covers are mounted not with bolts but with studs midcover.
A balanced and blueprinted 292-inch Ford Y-block with a 0.030-inch overbore keeps JP Performance forged-aluminum slugs tracking and squeezing smoothly. The ceramic-coated Red's headers are designed specifically for Y-block applications. On top are Ford 312 iron heads for improved flow and torque. Deep in the valley is a Sig Erson mechanical camshaft sporting 0.500-inch lift and 286 degrees of duration on both sides of the chambers. The result is an aggressive idle that makes this thing sound like an FE-series big-block when the throttles are goosed. It's aggressive, which wakes us up to the possibilities that exist with a Y-block.
Tom says the biggest challenge was outfitting the supercharger and getting it to work properly. For years, he searched for all the right parts-no easy task considering how rare these things are to begin with. Parts he could not find had to be made. After all that, he learned the VS57 wasn't working worth a flip. That's when he sent it off to RAI Corporation. Craig Conley, a Shelby expert, rebuilt the McCulloch and helped Tom set it up. When he installed the VS57, the engine came alive. Tom could have gone with the car's original three-on-the-tree manual gearbox, but he wanted the sound and feel of a '60s high school hot rod. He found a '64 Ford Top Loader along with a 28-spline 9-inch with 3.56 gears; both fit the car perfectly. Under hard acceleration, it's the dawn of the '60s again, with euphoria unmatched.
Tom and Barbara could have visually treated their sedan an infinite number of ways. Again, they remained true to the period with pastel blue and white just as the car was in 1955. Magnum 500 wheels weren't around in 1960, but they look sharp wrapped in blackwall Firestone Firehawk radial tires.
There's nothing quite like a '50s two-door sedan, the whine of First gear in a Top Loader, and oldies pouring out of a radio speaker to get the adrenaline flowing. We can visualize a young Tom with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his shirtsleeve-arm out the window, cruising for chicks, looking for adventure a long time ago. Because Tom and Barbara are unable to do that "back to the future" thing and relive their youth, this '55 post sedan is the next best thing.
'55 Ford Fairlane Sedan
Owner: Tom and Barbara Barbee, Riverside, CA
292ci Ford Y-Block V-8
Bore: 3.75 inches
Stroke: 3.30 inches
Sig Erson mechanical camshaft, 0.500-inch lift, 262 degrees duration
Stock valvetrain with adjustable cast rockers
Three Stromberg 97 carburetors
McCulloch VS57 supercharger
Cast pistons with Perfect Circle rings
Top Loader four-speed
Limited Slip differential
Red's ceramic-coated headers
Custom dual exhaust
Flowmaster Series 40 mufflers
Front: Stock suspension system, one coil removed from springs
Rear: Stock suspension with leaf springs
Front: Drop 'Em & Stop 'Em disc kit installed by the Mustang Market
Rear: Stock drum
Front: Magnum 500, 15x6.5-inch
Rear: Magnum 500, 15x7-inch
Your title here...
Front: Firestone Firehawk, P215/65R15
Rear: Firestone Firehawk, P255/60R15
Custom upholstery performed by Riverside Upholstery, Auto Meter gauges, Hurst shifter, and a period-correct pair of fuzzy dice
DuPont Deltron in pastel blue and white