Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Tim Benson likes to talk about how “he grew up in the back seat” of his jumbo-sized 1959 Ford Galaxie 500 sedan. These days, Benson’s about 6-foot-4 and he doesn’t have to spend much time in the back seat as the car’s owner and primary caretaker, but all those hours and miles riding in the second row as a car-crazed little kid have given him an appreciation and an unwavering affection for the big Ford.
It seems only fitting that the gregarious Big Lake, Minn., resident is the stunning car’s proud owner, but it has been anything but a quick and easy journey. The car first belonged to a family friend, then went to Tim’s dad, Jim, and eventually to Tim. Then it endured a rather lengthy — and expensive! — stint off the road being restored. In the end, though, Benson achieved his goal: preserving the venerable Galaxie and getting to add to all the great memories he has of the car.
“It was my dad in the passenger seat and Dick Carlson, his buddy, driving at the time," Benson remembers. "Dick owned the car. We lived in North Branch, Minn. And so I think from the time I was 10 or 11, maybe younger, we’d come to Iola [for the Iola Car Show] every year. We never missed. We usually stayed at the Blue Top [motel] in Stevens Point [Wis.]. We’ve been doing it since the ‘70s.”
Eventually, Carlson decided to sell the car, and Jim Benson decided he wanted it and sold off his ’54 Mercury to make room in his garage. “I continued to go to Iola in this car, but those two switched spots,” Tim recalls. “Dick would be the passenger and my dad would be in the driver’s side. Me and my buddy would be in the back and it’s always been a tradition. I haven’t missed one since the ‘70s. I’ve been here, no matter what.”
A few years back, Jim Benson figured he had owned the Ford long enough and decided to part with it. “He decided it was getting too much and he was going to sell the car and stay home and do yard work or whatever, and my buddies were all like, ‘You can’t let this leave the family, or North Branch in general. You just can’t do it.’ I talked to my dad and he told me he’d give me first crack at it. I had a ’65 Plymouth that was my first car, believe it or not. I had to sell that to get this. He sold this to me, oh gosh about 10 years ago. It still looked good and I was super excited, and I brought it to Iola, of course!”
The car was still unrestored and started to show the ravages of its age, so Benson decided to start sprucing it up a bit. He took it down to a shop owned by his buddy. Fred Ahern, and that’s when the future plans for the car began to change.
“We took the car to his shop to clean up the engine and maybe clean up the stainless a little bit, take some of the bumps out… Well, we get it up on the rack and me and my buddies were all excited, ‘Yeah we’re cleaning up the ’59 it means so much to us,’ and we get it up on the rack and take out the drain plug, and oil comes out, but also antifreeze. So Fred goes, ‘Plan B, we need to re-do this engine. So that night the whole front clip was gone. We took the fenders, everything off.”
From there, Benson found out just how challenging it can be to restore a 50-plus-year-old, full-size, chrome-laden 1950s cruiser. Even though the Ford was complete and in good shape for its age, there was nothing easy about bringing it back to like-new condition.
“Once you start a project like this, you don’t know where to stop. Basically, four years later, we redid the whole car. I’ve got about $60,000 or $70,000 into it. I probably spent way too much. There were times, I’m telling you, about halfway through it, where I wanted to call it quits because, ‘I’m getting buried here.’”
1959: A New Ford Arrives
The Galaxie 500 model arrived in 1959 as the top-of-the-line Ford full-sized car, and it brought a little confusion with it for car watchers. The Galaxie was originally part of the Fairlane series, which had previously been topped by the Fairlane 500. But shortly after new model introductions in late 1958, the Galaxie lineup was introduced offering the same two- and four-door sedans and hardtops as appeared in the Fairlane 500 series, plus it absorbed the Sunliner and Skyliner models. So, while confusing — there is even a “Fairlane 500” badge on the fenders of the ’59 Galaxie — the Galaxie became the new top model at FoMoCo. The only visual difference between the Galaxie and the Fairlane 500 was the styling of the top. Galaxies used the standard top with a Thunderbird style “C” pillar. The combination created one of the best-looking cars ever to come out of Dearborn.
The Galaxies were big, handsome, loaded with features, and offered a lot of equipment combinations. You could mix and match transmissions and engine sizes, and the options list included air conditioning, power brakes and windows, power steering, power seats, signal-seeking radio, fancy wheel covers, and two-tone paint. The amenities menu also included a padded dash, seat belts, kid-proof door locks and deep-dish steering wheel. The base power plant was a 292-cid overhead-valve V-8 with 200 hp. The optional 352-cid mill could be ordered in 225- or 300-hp versions, along with the 332 Thunderbird Special. They could be matched to the base three-speed manual, three-speed with overdrive, three-speed automatic and two-speed Ford-O-Matic.
In front, the grille was decked out in a array of stars and set off by quad headlights. The huge front bumpers wrapped around the front corners, and the hood and front fenders where decorated by gunsight-like chrome pieces. The doors and windshield were surrounded in brightwork, and a chrome molding ran front stern to stern along the tops of the fenders and over the doors.
Interiors were appropriately fancy, with three-tone seat upholstery and classy dashes and gauges. The speedometer had a wide, horizontal design and set back in the padded dash, surrounded by more brightwork and an abundance of shiny buttons and knobs.
Benson’s car was ordered with the big 352 V-8 fed through a four-barrel. It shifts through a three-speed on the tree with an overdrive gear. “The car is a little weird because it’s got this chrome package, and you wouldn’t think a four-door car would have all this chrome,” Benson notes. “My dad and Dick had done some research and think it’s more of a government of sheriff or detective type car, or a government official-type car because of the chrome package. It is a top-of-the-line chrome package. With the bigger engine, the stick three-speed on the tree with the overdrive, it’s kind of rare. The overdrive was the most expensive thing. The upgraded engine was only 50 bucks! And the 15-inch tires are still rare, which is why they thought it’s more of a police-type of car …. And of course it’s got the rocker moldings, tinted glass, electric two-speed wipers, washer, padded dash, visor ... backup lights, clock, four-way manual front seat, power steering...”
Benson’s car was one of 174,794 Galaxie 500 town sedans built in the car’s rookie year, making it by far the most popular full-size Ford. The total bill for the car was about $3,300 when it rolled off the lot at Arnold Brothers Motor Co. in Boulder, Col.
The Big Comeback
Even when things looked bleak, Benson said he was never short on motivation to get his big sedan back on the road. His sense of urgency peaked when he found out big sedans were going to be featured in Iola a few years back. “They were having a four-door theme, and I thought that would be so cool to bring Dick and my dad… I wound up calling them and asking them, ‘Hey, what do you think of my car? Is there a chance we could be in that?’”
The answer was yes, but the journey to get the car under the tent at Iola was full of challenges. “It wasn’t just me and Fred doing it, I had two other voices [laughs],” said Benson. "Dad and Dick were always telling me, ‘OK, I think you need to get this chromed … I think you need to get this back to original.. blah, blah, blah.’ But they would not let me stop.
“Probably one of the biggest frustrations was I couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. We’d get done with one thing and there would be another thing. Like if you took underneath cars back in the ‘50s, the undercoating was almost like tar. That took me almost six months of lifting up the back and and trying to power wash this tar off of it. That was one of the major projects.
“And my dad and Dick would do whatever it took to keep it running. We found stuff in the engine — like it had a ‘60s truck carburetor on it. It had one of the heads, it was from a ’64 truck … The main block was good, but we went out and got all ’59 Ford parts and put them on it.”
Some of the trim pieces turned out to be the biggest headaches, not surprisingly. Some pieces Benson was able to replace, some he was able to fix. The red-white-and-blue emblem on the nose below the hood ornament turned out to be particularly challenging. Since no replacement could be found, Benson wound up having to get each part of the emblem restored by hand, including hand-painting the background in the emblem. "It was like a five- or six-piece restoration,” he says.
“The package tray, there were two holes for speakers. I had to have original, so we had to redo the package tray, and we had to redo the kick panels, and that was all done all done by hand by a guy from North Branch. This car has had a lot of people who did a little here and a little there. A lot of people from town have had a hand in restoring this car.”
Benson sourced a new interior from Jerry’s Classics in Arkansas. “He was the only one that had the right color, right pattern and everything. We had to rebuild the springs and all that. And we did the headliner, because it was falling down a little bit and all this little stuff was falling out of it… Then I went and had custom floor mats made that said ‘Galaxie’ on them.’”
Once he got the front end all sorted out and got all new rubber suspension pieces in place, the car has rode and driven like it should. Finding the right tires has helped, too. “It rides perfect, absolutely," Benson says. "The first set of tires I had were radials, and you’d think they’d be great. But I had one that was out of round, one that was separating and one was just out of balance, and it was just all over the place. I went and got the factory-looking bias plys. They are actually radials that look like bias, and they ride fine.”
Benson chuckles when he recalls how he was almost finished with his lengthy wresting match with the car and got an unexpected offer. “When I got it out that first week, I remember the overdrive was having problems. I took it down to a shop to get it looked at and a guy offered me an ungodly amount of money for it! And I had just gotten it out, too.”
Benson says he hadn’t gotten the big payoff he wanted — getting the car to Iola in time for it to have its turn in the spotlight under the feature tent — so he turned down the offer. The payoff came a few months later, when the car shared the stage with several dozen other stellar sedans at the big popular Wisconsin show. Nobody there that weekend had more fun than the Bensons and Dick Carlson.
“When I saw Dick and my dad under that tent, I swear I just cried,” he says. “Then, to make the story even better, I showed up there one of the mornings and a local TV show was there and they were interviewing Dick and my dad, and they were like grumpier old men. They were arguing about the car and going back and forth … It was so perfect! I’ll never forget that.”
“I get emotional when I talk about it, I guess. I know I probably spent too much money on the car, but to see Dick and my dad having their moment like that with this car, it was just priceless.”
Dick Carlson died two years ago, but Benson still brings a photo of the two of them from many years ago whenever he shows the car — particularly in Iola. He doesn’t need a photo to help him remember all the good times he’s had in the ’59 Ford over the years, but it’s still a happy reminder that he likes to keep with him.
“He instilled, and my dad instilled, the value of car shows,” he says. “And Iola especially.”
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