Car of the Week: 1956 Ford Customline

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Story and photos by David W. Temple

The full-size 1955 Ford appeared to be an all-new car, but in reality, it was a completely reskinned version of the 1952-’54 Fords. Joining the Ford lineup for the 1955 model year was the sporty boulevard cruiser dubbed the Thunderbird. It got its share of attention from the automotive press, but there was much to say regarding the heavily restyled big Fords.

Mechanical upgrades included greater horsepower for the Y-block engine and a revised front suspension called “Angle-Poised Ball Joint Front Suspension,” both of which made their debut in Ford cars for the 1954 model year. In back was a leaf spring suspension employing five leafs on all Mainline, Customline and Fairlane models except the station wagons, which had seven leafs. For 1955, the top-level Crestline name used during the three prior model years was dropped and replaced by the Fairlane tag.

Crown Victoria: The style leader

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Topping the hierarchy of 16 varieties of big Ford models in 1955 were two Fairlane Crown Victorias: an all-steel-roof version and the other with a 1/4-inch thick, blue/green-tinted Plexiglas insert in the roof over the front passenger compartment. The latter is often mistakenly referenced as the Skyliner, but that name did not appear on the car or in factory sales literature during 1955. Instead, it was called the Crown Victoria with the transparent roof section or skylighted top.

The transparent insert was inspired by a Lincoln experimental car dubbed XL-500. The body of the Crown Victoria with the skylighted top sat on a convertible X-type frame to recover the loss of body stiffness resulting from the removal of a substantial portion of steel from the roof. Both the Plexiglas- and completely steel-roofed Crown Victoria models wore a decorative stainless-steel band Ford labeled a “crown of chrome” that began at the B-pillar and arched over the roof. This, too, was an idea lifted from the XL-500. A stainless-steel spear met the base of the crown and swept back atop the quarters all the way to the tail lamps. The stainless band was mimicked on the inside of the top. Also, bright trim traveled the perimeter of the rear interior side panels and the top of the rear seat back rest before meeting at a “V” that dipped in the center. The molding did not substantially increase the strength of the roof itself, but a steel bar welded to the inner roof along with B-pillar panels added some rigidity to the body and, of course, provided attachment points for the crown molding.

A more graceful rear slope for the roof was adapted for both Crown Victoria models. For 1956, this roof line (minus the B pillar panel and Crown Victoria trim) was applied to any Ford two-door hardtop model. Furthermore, the name “Crown Victoria Skyliner” was used to denote the 1956 Crown Victoria with the Plexiglas insert.

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Fairlane followed by Customline

Even the “non-Crown” Fairlane Victoria two-door hardtop and the three other models in the Fairlane series — Sunliner (the sole convertible offering among all series), two-door Club Sedan and the four-door Town Sedan — had plenty of bright trim. In fact, the side molding on these models became known as the “Fairlane Sweep.” The stainless-steel Fairlane Sweep trim began as a narrow strip on the top of the front fender at the headlamp housing and arched downward while very gradually gaining in width all the way to the door where it reached its maximum dip. It then became a narrow molding, again arching upward steeply for a short distance, thus forming a check-mark shape. It then swept straight back across the quarter panel to the tail lamp. The Fairlane Sweep was modified for 1956; a wide, ribbed molding swept upward and back from the door to the tail lamp. The Fairlane Sweep provided a convenient break for the many optional two-tone combinations.

As in 1955, the 1956 Customline was again one notch below the Fairlane and one notch above the Mainline. The 1956 Customline series featured a unique bodyside molding treatment and bright hubcaps, and its interior included many features sometimes considered a luxury in its price class: two sunvisors; armrests front and rear; rear passenger assist straps mounted on the B pillars of sedan versions; and a choice of blue checker cloth or green or gray weave nylon cloth paired with vinyl.

The standard engine was the 137-hp, 223-cid six-cylinder with a three-speed manual transmission. Tubeless tires became standard for all models this year.

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Features to put Ford in front

Production of 1956 Fords began Oct. 17, 1955. Up front, a new grille and a wraparound parking lamp housing arrangement were distinctive differences from the previous year. The roof panels were altered to reduce overall height by 1-1/2 inches in Victoria hardtop models and 1 inch in sedans, yet they retained the same amount of headroom. A less noticeable change was the removal of the chrome “eye brows” from each headlamp housing. In back, the deck lid molding and Ford crest used for 1955 were deleted from the Fairlane series and in their place was a new single “V” molding incorporating the Fairlane name and Ford crest.

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Various improvements were made in the Y-block series of engines to keep in stride with the horsepower race. These included additional cubic inches and better breathing through enlarged passages in the heads and intake manifold, along with a higher lift camshaft. The Thunderbird Special this year was the 312 rated at 215 hp when coupled to a manual transmission or 225 hp with the Fordomatic. A dual-quad 260-hp 312 became available as a dealer-installed option later in the model year. Horsepower ratings went up in the six-cylinder and the two-venturi 272 due to a small boost in compression ratios. The four-venturi 272 was dropped. Gaining a few additional horsepower was the four-venturi 292 now rated at 200 hp with the manually shifted transmission or 202 hp with the automatic.

All V-8s now had an automatic choke. Minor revisions to the carburetors, distributors and differentials were made in the interest of improved fuel economy, and in some models, the transmission was modified to withstand higher torque.

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Inside, upholstery patterns were altered and the instrument panel was redesigned. The Astra-Dial instrument panel was replaced for 1956 with a conventional arrangement. The round heater/defroster controls, radio and clock of the previous year were replaced with rectangular units. Other updates included replacing the six-volt electrical system with a 12-volt setup — something which was happening industry wide over the preceding few years — and a new “Signal-Seek” radio was offered.

For the 1956 model year, Ford managers emphasized safety features under the banner “Lifeguard Design,” as well as performance. Some of the Lifeguard features were standard and others composed an option group. The Lifeguard equipment resulted from a two-year study conducted by Ford Motor Co. in cooperation with Cornell Medical College, the American College of Surgeons, the National Safety Council and other groups. Test crashes were conducted with crash-test dummies, instrumentation and cameras to record the reactions of the “occupants” and the behavior of the test car. As a result of these tests, the steering post was recessed from the steering wheel a little more than 3 inches and the steering wheel itself was designed to bend away from the driver. Furthermore, the door latches were redesigned to reduce the possibility of doors opening during a collision. The double-grip door latch employed an interlocking striker plate made of high-tensile chrome-molybdenum steel to overlap the door latch rotor. The inside rear-view mirror was given a special backing to prevent the glass from shattering, too. Optional safety equipment was composed of webbed nylon seat belts plus a padded dash and sunvisors. Safety did not sell; few people ordered the optional Lifeguard package.

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Putting the ’56 to the test

Road test reports on the 1956 models were largely positive. Writing for the July 1956 issue of Popular Mechanix, Tom McCahill praised the new Ford with more metaphors than a politician has promises: “For 1956, Ford is fielding a family car that’ll be a real high-performance, high-powered bomb. The horsepower race has invaded the low-price field with all the fury of a starved wildcat thrust into a cage of Easter bunnies… The Fairlane I tested had a 292-cubic-inch engine with enough torque to yank an elephant through a keyhole by the tail.”

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With all seriousness, Cahill noted, “Bill France, the president of NASCAR, said to me, ‘Tom, the one thing you can’t take away from the Ford is that they have the best steel in the entire industry regardless of price.’ He was referring to the fact that under the terrible beatings of stock car racing, Ford cars break fewer axles, wheels, frames and front-end assemblies than any other make.”

Motor Life reported 0-60 mph average times of “just a shade over 9.5 seconds” in its November 1955 issue.

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One particularly unusual Customline

Total sales figures represent another measure of success. Ford’s passenger car production number (excluding Thunderbird totals) for model year 1956 was 1,392,847 units. Of those, a total of 33,130 were the two-door hardtop Customline Victoria like the model shown here owned by Jimmy Blackburn of Texarkana, Texas. Blackburn purchased it from a collector in southern Illinois roughly a decade ago. This car is largely original with a partial repaint of a couple of front panels as a result of minor damage, which probably occurred sometime in the 1960s. Otherwise, it still wears its original paint, upholstery and chrome plating. Its odometer reflects the true mileage of nearly 82,500 since new.

This Customline’s vehicle identification plate reveals that it was built on or near the date of June 5, 1956, at the Dallas, Texas, assembly plant with the optional 292 four-venturi engine. Coupled to the engine is the Cruise-O-Matic transmission, which was also optional. Other extra-cost options and accessories on this car include power steering, AM radio, clock, fender skirts, backup lamps, rocker panel molding, rear stone shields and a springtime special two-tone paint combination comprised of Berkshire Green (darker color) and Springmist Green which is denoted on the VIN plate as “VWS” (“V” = Berkshire Green, “W” = Springmist Green and “S” for either spring color or special). Its trim code of “C” denotes light-green vinyl and medium-green cloth for the interior.

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This Customline Victoria an unusually well-equipped, second-tier car. Many buyers spending the money required to obtain these options on a next-to-top level Ford would have chosen the top-of-the-line Fairlane Victoria instead. The difference in the base price between the two models was $101, nearly a five percent discount over the Fairlane. The original buyer may have been motivated by special pricing near the end of the model year.

Blackburn’s Customline Victoria is one of many such cars in his collection, and he is always on the prowl for similar survivor-class cars.

Author’s Note: Much of this article was assembled from the author’s book, “Full Size Fords: 1955-1970,” published in 2010. It is still available as a print-on-demand book through cartechbooks.com or other online book retailers, but be aware this version has black-and-white content only.

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