By Brian Earnest
Bill Harper knows how fishy it sounds when he tells the story.
The Linwood, Mich., insists he had absolutely no intention of buying a car when he took his annual Labor Day pilgrimage to Auburn, Ind., for the big ACD weekend shindig.
Of course, he should know better. When you’re not looking, that’s usually when opportunity knocks, and Harper, who has bought and sold plenty of old cars over the years, simply couldn’t help himself after he took a stroll through the car corral and saw his dream car for sale: a 1956 Ford Customline sedan in two-tone green.
“It was on one end of the car corral, and I didn’t want to even go look at it too close because I didn’t want to buy another car!” Harper said. “The guy wanted a lot of money for it and I didn’t spend too much time on it … Then the next day we saw the car had been moved and apparently had been sold because the sticker was gone and it had been pulled into a dealer tent. I’m pretty sure the dealer must have traded the guy a car for it.
“Well, the dealer wanted less money for it than the other guy, and as soon as he mentioned the price that I could have it for, my friend — who is my mechanic — he went through it and I decided to buy it. The big thing was all the original parts that were with it. That’s why I decided to buy it.”
By Sunday night Harper had the car home in his driveway and he was reliving his high school days, when he cruised in a similar green-on-green ’56 Customline Victoria hardtop. His first car had been a three-speed on the tree, and the second had the Fordomatic transmission and a few other other aftermarket differences, but Harper knew right away that he had finally found his replacement car.
“If this wouldn’t have been exactly the same two-tone green, and in this good of shape, I would never have bought it,” he said. “My high school car I kept for years and years and finally let it go, and I shouldn’t have… The headlights were starting to go and it had a few problems, and I was much younger and getting married and that sort of thing.”
It was hard not to be enamored with the pristine condition of the Customline. The odometer showed only 22,000 miles, the interior was in great shape and all original — the seats were protected by plastic seat covers — the chrome was all there and in fantastic condition, and the body only had minor paint touch-ups at some point in the past. A four-barrel carburetor had been swapped in for the original two-barrel atop the 272-cid V-8, and the previous owner had also opted for finned aluminum valve covers, Kelsy-Hayes spoked wheels and a period-correct dual exhaust. A screw-on oil filter and radial tires had also been mounted to make the Ford more driver and maintenance friendly, but the car was still original enough for Harper’s tastes.
“The dual exhaust, screw-on oil filter, and radial tires are remaining on the car. I plan to sell the four-barrel, aluminum valve covers and the fancy wheels and put the stock stuff back on,” he said. “It’s got a beautiful set of Kelsey Hayes wheels with Ford centers, which I believe were optional on the T-Birds in 1956. It's got the radial tires, which I don’t like the looks of, but I absolutely love … I’ve never used those on my cars before, but they do make a big difference. I’d heard that, but never broke down and paid the bucks for them, but they’re great. The Ford drives wonderfully.
“The body’s had some spot painting, but the interior has plastic on the seats. I’m not sure if they were on there originally or put on later. The dash has been done. All the padded dashes fell apart because of the cheap rubber they used. It’s been redone in black, which matches the deep dish steering wheel and column.”
The fact that Harper’s car is a two-door hardtop makes it by far the rarest of the 1956 Customlines. A total of 33,130 of the post-less Victorias left the Ford assembly lines for the model year. That’s not a bad number, but it was dwarfed by the 170,000-plus four-door sedans and 164,000-plus two-door sedans that were produced that same year.
The six-passenger Victorias carried a base price of $2,236 with the V-8 and weighed in at 3,312 lbs. The base V-8 was a 173-hp mill with a Holly two-barrel. Buyers could save $100 if they wanted the 223-cid six-cylinder, which was rated at 120 hp. All three Customline models rode on 115-inch wheelbases and measured 198.5 inches from nose to tail.
The Ford lineup underwent a bold restyling in 1955, and the same body shells returned the following year. The Customline was the middle trim level, one step up from the Mainline series and a rung below the top-tier Fairlane. The Customlines’ bodyside trim differed slightly from the Fairlanes — the downward dip in the chrome was found on the doors in the Fairlanes, but was seen on the rear fenders on the Customlines. The two rear fender horizontal trim pieces also ran straight back and ended just above the tail lights. In the Fairlanes, the trim pieces met the tail lights. Chrome moldings surrounded the windows on the Customlines and the trunk lids had the Ford crest with horizontal bars on either side.
In addition to the automatic transmission, popular options included power steering, power seat, power brakes, radio, heater, windshield washers, wire wheel covers, rear fender shields, continental kit, engine dress-up kit and white-sidewall tires.
Harper’s car was not heavily optioned when it was new. It carried two-tone paint, windshield washers, outside mirror, automatic transmission and not much else. But what was there was in great shape, and a lot of the parts that had been swapped out were part of the sale.
“What pushed me to buy it was all the original parts were there to put it back to original,” Harper said. “I’ve got the original wheels with the hubcaps and beauty rings. I’ve got the original intake manifold, carburetor, fuel pump, valve covers — everything to put it back to stock. I don’t know why they put such a huge  four-barrel on it. I figured they must have cammed it, but they didn’t. All it does is look good and use a lot of gas. I haven’t really got on it. Everybody tells me it will just put too much gas through the engine… It’s got a lot of pick-up, but with the original two-barrel it would still be good, too.
“We’ve had it up on the hoist and the original rubber is still in the suspension and all that. I can’t say for sure that [22,000 is] the original miles, but it doesn’t show wear of much more than that on the armrests, gas pedals and things that would show wear. The chrome is original, and it’s very close to perfect. They must have wiped it off every time it got wet, because old chrome has a tendency to pit.”
For now, Harper is going to leave the dual exhausts on the Customline. He may eventually go back to a single exhaust when he starts re-installing some of his other original parts. The lowering blocks, which have dropped the car’s profile slightly, will stay, he says.
Harper isn’t sure of the history of his Ford and why it was so gently used. He believes he is only the third owner — if you don’t include the dealer that had it for a day. “The first owner sold it with 19,000 [miles] on it in 1997, I believe,” he said. “I intend to call the guy and find out more, but I haven’t done it yet. I'm going to see if I can find out any more history about it.
“Maybe it was an old guy who didn’t use it much had it. I have no idea.”
Harper isn’t sure why, but he’s always been attracted more to lower-tier models than top-shelf cars, hence his affinity for the humble Customline over the Fairline. He says he’s always gravitated to the less-fancy cars, and he got exactly what he wanted with his new Ford.
“The first time I washed it the driver’s door side leaked, just like my old one did, and the passenger side was dry, just like my other one!” he laughed. “No, it’s great. It sits a little different than my first one, but it drives very similar.
“It's just like being back in the old days.”
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