Car of the Week: 1953 Ford Customline - Old Cars Weekly

Car of the Week: 1953 Ford Customline

Bob Bugarske’s “Plain Jane” 1953 Ford sedan certainly doesn’t look like a bad guy’s getaway car. But the future prison convict who once owned the Ford probably wishes he had used it that way.
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Car of the Week 2020
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Story and photos by Brian Earnest

Bob Bugarske’s “Plain Jane” 1953 Ford sedan certainly doesn’t look like a bad guy’s getaway car. But the future prison convict who once owned the Ford probably wishes he had used it that way.

“It came out of the Chicago area and the person that owned it, the story is that he was in prison for life in the Joliet penitentiary in the Chicago area an never saw the car again,” says Bugarske of his amazing, 18,000-mile Ford. “It supposedly sat for four decades in a garage, just parked, and he, unfortunately, was never able to enjoy it. It had very, very low miles on it. At that point. It may have had maybe 8,000 or 9,000 on it, and it must have gone into an estate then.”

Unlike its owner, after a lengthy slumber, the time capsule Ford received parole. It was rediscovered and sold to a collector/restorer in Hazelhurst, Wis. It was then sold to a doctor in Wausau, Wis., who had it “a good 5 to 10 years,” before he eventually started to lose interest in the car. In 2003, the doctor decided to park the car in his yard with a “for sale” sign on it.

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“I just happed to drive past and see it,” recalled Bugarske, a resident of Stevens Point, Wis. “I was not really looking for a car, but I just happened to see it and ended up buying it.” The car was still in remarkably original condition, save for a different front fender on the driver’s side, and a second set of tires that had been mounted at some point in its past.

“I just thought, ‘Holy cow, what a great original unrestored survivor!” Bugarske adds. “[The previous owner] did say to me that he regretted … changing the tires on the car when he and his sons got it. The original bias-ply tires were still on it. He put some radials on it and he regretted getting rid of those tires. He didn’t even think of keeping those tires. The original spare is still in the trunk with the original bias-ply. I took off the radials and bought some original-looking bias-ply tires. I kind of put it back to back to original-looking with the wide whitewall original bias ply-looking tires.

“I have done nothing else, really. I just enjoy it [the way it is].”

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All things considered, it would be hard to find a 1950s-era car that is more authentic than this ’53 Ford. The engine hasn’t been touched. The chrome and brightwork are wonderfully preserved. It evens SMELLS original.

And that’s what really makes the decidedly un-flashy four-door family hauler so special. Relatively few working class sedans from 1953 lived long enough to be turned into collector cars. And a very scarce few remained in tact and never got any sort of restoration to keep them driveable and looking good 65 years later.

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“It was a basic four-door sedan that way a typical family car back then,” Bogarske notes. “Which is fine with me. I wasn’t looking for or wanting some flashing two-door hard top or anything lie that. All the guys that enjoy [restored cars] might not like it. I think it’s terrific, but I like the original stuff and the different survivors that you see. I just think it’s been garaged always. When [the previous owner] had it, it was outside and it had all kinds of leaves and pine needles and stuff on it and it was kind of ugly looking then. But he said he always had it garaged in a climate-controlled environment.”

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1953: Ford Forges Ahead

There were plenty of reasons for Americans to smile in 1953. The average yearly inflation rate was less than 1 percent, the average cost of a new house in the U.S. was still about $9,500, and the Korean War was winding to a close. The “We Like Ike” crowd celebrated when triumphant World War II general Dwight Eisenhower was voted into the White House, and Jonas Salk perfected a polio vaccine.

If you were lucky enough to own another new 1953 invention — a color television set — you might have see commercials with Ford Motor Company celebrating its 50th year in business and extolling the virtues of its spiffy new ’53 models, which were one year removed from a major redesign in ’52. All 1953 Fords featured emblems on the steering wheels marking the company's 50th anniversary. Outside, the 1953 Fords retained their grille bullets which were now flanked by vertical ribs in the thick center bar and rectangular corner lights above the bumpers.

Mechanically, the new power-assisted brakes and power steering were big news. Both amenities had previously been available on Lincolns and Mercurys, and for 1953 made their debut on the flagship Ford line. Wheelbases grew by 2 inches in width, and wood trim was available for one last model year on Country Squire station wagons. It was also the final year of the Flathead V-8.

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The Ford line was divided into Mainline, Customline and Crestline series. The Mainline series was the base trim level for 1953 and included rubber window moldings, horn button instead of horn ring, one sun visor and an armrest only on the driver's door. The Customline series was the intermediate trim level for 1953 and included chrome window moldings, chrome horn half-ring, two sun visors, armrests on all doors and passenger assist straps on interior “B” pillars for easier rear seat egress. A horizontal chrome strip on the front fenders and a chrome opening on the rear quarter panel scoop. There was another horizontal chrome strip from the scoop opening to the back of the body. The Crestline series was the top trim level and was offered only with V-8 engines. This series included all trim in the Customline series plus wheel covers and additional chrome trim along the bottom of the side widows.

The base six-cylinder displaced 215 cubes and produced 101 hp. The 239-cid V-8, which was also rated at 110 hp. A three-speed manual transmission on the tree was standard. It featured a semi-centrifugal-type clutch and three-speed helical gears with synchronizers for second and third gears. A three-speed with automatic overdrive was optional for an extra $108. A Ford-O-Matic automatic transmission was a $184 upgrade.

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Other popular options included a Deluxe radio ($88); Custom radio ($100); recirculation-type heater ($44); Deluxe heater ($71); electric clock $15); directional signals ($15); windshield washer ($10); tinted glass ($23); and whitewall tires ($27).

The future prison inmate who purchased — or ordered — Bugarske’s ’53 Ford opted for an eight-cylinder four-door sedan in Seafoam Green and few other amenities. It carried a base price of $1,734 and was one of 374,487 four-door Customline four-door sedans built for the model year — and certainly one of the most well-preserved examples left today.

18,000 Miles … And Counting

Maybe the original owner chose a pale green four-door sedan so as not to call too much attention to himself in his law-breaking endeavors. It certainly isn’t a car that screams for attention, but its understated and unassuming looks are part of what make it cool — along with the fact that it’s only got 18,000-plus miles on the odometer.

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Aside from the fender that doesn’t quite match, the only noticeable flaw on the car is a tapped-up armrest on the passenger-side front door. Bugarske doesn’t know the story about either imperfection, but he isn’t too concerned. The imperfections are just a clear sign that the car is honest and unrestored.

He doesn’t hesitate to drive the car for fun during the warm weather months, and Bugarske doesn’t get too hung up on keeping the mileage to a minimum. The car regularly shows up at car shows around central Wisconsin. Parked alongside Corvettes, Mustangs and ’57 Bel Airs, it probably doesn't always get the attention it deserves, at least until people figure out that it is a pristine survivor with an interesting past.

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“The really enjoy seeing it and they remember the same type of four-door sedan that their parents or grandparents had,” Bugarske says. “It’s been in a couple of weddings and stuff, so that has been kind of fun. Some of these younger people, you’ve gotta teach them how to drive a three-speed [laughs]. Each of my daughters can drive this if they had to. Back 15, 20 years ago, I did teach them how to drive a stick on the floor, so they can get in anything and drive it.

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“It’s not perfect. It has little things here and there, but it’s fun and it’s a piece of cake to drive. It’s just so easy. The clutch and three-speed is just so easy, and it’s got enough get-up-and-go if you really need to. But it likes that 50 to 55 miles an hour. And that’s OK. Everybody passes you, but you get the thumbs up, so it’s fine.”

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