Younger readers may be bewildered by the sight of a fullsize, two-door station wagon, but rest assured-FoMoCo did build 'em this way right up until 1961, making this tastefully tricked out Ranch Wagon one of the last of its utilitarian breed. As in previous years, the two-door, six-passenger '61 Ranch Wagon was the most affordable of Ford's wagon lineup, but we happen to think it was also the most appealing, with those huge flanks unblemished by rear doors (four-door wagons were the Country Sedan). Even so, we don't normally spend much time waxing poetic about the aesthetics of station wagons. However, in the case of Donald Hardy's slammed and mildly hot-rodded Texas example, we're more than willing to make an exception. Hardy is the second-generation "Don" of Don Hardy Race Cars in Floydada, Texas, builders of many interesting projects going back a few decades, including original Gapp & Roush and Don Nicholson Pro Stock racers.
But back to the big subject at hand, which is a perfect example of the younger Hardy's penchant for understated hot rods. He prefers to leave the excess bling to others. Naturally, being lowered nearly to the ground exaggerates its already undeniable length, but the Ranch Wagon just looks so righteous in its happy banana-custard hue (actually, a stock '61 Ford color called Desert Gold), hunkering over those American Racing Torq Thrust IIs. Those rims, by the way, are a generous 18 by 7 on the nose and a whopping 20 by 8 out back. The suspension mods necessary to account for its low altitude are less complicated than you might think, with '71 Mustang spindles and shortened stock '61 coils being employed up front and re-arched leafs used to position the 9-inch rear axle. Air Ride single-adjustable (conventional) shocks are found front and rear. Amazingly, it rides way better than its minimalist road clearance would suggest.
On approach, this thing looks enormous-and it is-but once behind that thin-rimmed factory wheel, the view to the outside world is surprisingly unimpeded thanks to a low beltline and a very uncluttered greenhouse. Even as large as it is in diameter, there's more than a passing bit of effort required to crank that steering wheel, since it remains attached to the original manual steering box. Remember that in 1961 the factory installed rubber would have been narrower than many modern motorcycle tires. The fat 40- and 45-series BFGoodrich rubber now onboard further increases the sweat quotient at parking speeds, but makes up for the workout with prodigious grip at speed. This makes the wagon almost fun to blitz around with in traffic-it's a hoot chasing down BMWs with a bright yellow battleship, though it still takes many turns of the wheel to negotiate a typical urban intersection turn.
Rolling or not, this long-roof beast simply draws more attention than a Playmate at a monastery, even around car-jaded Detroit, where we did our photo shoot. Some of the appeal may be auditory, because the wagon speaks by way of a Flowmaster-muffled 312 Y-block, wearing dual Edelbrock Performer 500 carbs and sporting a solid-lifter bumpstick from Comp Cams. Though a 292 Y-block was a factory offering on fullsize '61 Fords, the 312 was not; Don just liked the idea of a more or less period-correct Thunderbird powerplant-sort of a 1961 "what if?" situation. Built more for reliability and usability than outright power, his 312 has reasonable 10:1 compression, and one of its first outings was in last summer's Hot Rod Power Tour, where it performed without a hiccup. During our seat time, we found the Y-block to be a willing and responsive partner to the sweet-shifting Tremec T-5 five-speed gearbox found downstream. And we love the 312's clean and uncluttered presentation underhood-almost as if the factory had placed it there.