Car of the Week: 1956 Ford Fairlane

1956 Ford Fairlane has survived wildfire, wrecks and life in general.
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Car of the Week 2020
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Dallas Israel of Oregon considers his 1956 Ford Town Sedan to be a survivor, but not because it has its original paint, chrome and interior and low miles. It’s survived Israel learning to drive, going to college, three wrecks, a failed trade-in attempt and three marriages. Most recently, it survived the 2020 Riverside Fire in Oregon that came within a mile of Israel’s home.

“My father bought the car in 1959,” he said. “I learned to drive in it -— I have been driving the car since 1962.”

Israel’s father found the Ford through a friend that had used the car to haul a trailer. Such work can mechanically tax a vehicle, but Israel’s father knew the Ford had been well maintained during its chores.

Although Israel learned to drive on the 1956 Ford, it wasn’t his first choice for a car. That honor goes to an Austin-Healey, even if it was a short-lived affair.

“I got this (Ford) from him to replace my first car, a 1959 Austin-Healey Sprite, which was pretty fragile for a teenager. I had problems with the transmission and every time we needed to work on it, we had to pull the engine. Dad got tired of that and he paid me $150 to get rid of the Sprite, and he sold the Ford to me for $150, so he got his money back and got rid of the Sprite.”

Ford Fairlanes were updated with different trim for 1956, including wider side trim, a different trunk emblem and chrome on the tail lamp lenses.

Ford Fairlanes were updated with different trim for 1956, including wider side trim, a different trunk emblem and chrome on the tail lamp lenses.

The sale was back in 1965, and Isreal and the Ford have together ever since — including through some rocky periods. Those trials seem to have made Israel appreciate the ’56 Ford even more.

“There is a lot of sentimental value to it since my dad is, of course, gone,” he said. “I remember taking trips from Tracy [Calif.] to Bakersfield to see my grandparents, and I had my first date in the car. I can’t pinpoint one thing. It got me through college and just growing up.”

Israel didn’t immediately treasure the Ford, especially in college when everyone else was driving sportier two-doors. He set out to change his situation upon graduation in 1969 when he tried to swap his four-door Ford for his second roadster.

“When I graduated from college, I bought a ’66 MGB and I wanted to trade the Ford for the MGB and the guy at the British car dealer gave me $50 cash to keep the Ford. So I guess from that point on it has been like an old tire — they never really go away. That is why I call the car a survivor.”

Since the import car dealer refused the Ford, Israel kept it as a second car and split driving time between it and the MGB. It worked out in his favor, because Israel’s second dance with a British mistress went about as well as his first.

“My first wife redlined the MG too many times and blew the engine, so we kept the Ford and bought another car after the MG, but the Ford stayed.”

His first wife quickly developed a reputation for being hard on cars, and it wasn’t long before the Ford also succumbed to her heavy-handedness.

“My first wife totaled it,” Israel recalled. “She pulled out in front of someone. I always wanted to try my hand at restoring something, so I fixed it. I drove it without a bumper and one front fender until I could start piecing it together again.”

Israel eventually had the Ford back together again and looking good, but that was not to last.

“An old lady pulled out right in front of me and I had no chance to stop,” he said of the second accident.

“The (third accident) wasn’t that bad, but the hood opened itself up and hit the windshield. That caused damage to both front fenders and the hood, so that was an ordeal.”

After each accident, Israel repaired the damage and had the car repainted in its original Georgia Peach and Colonial White two-tone. He said decent body and trim parts were relatively easy to find on the West Coast, with the exception of the replacement hood. He ended up finding a different hood in Arizona that wasn’t nearly as straight as the seller sold it to be. With some work, it’s still covering the Ford’s original 292-cid V-8. That 292-cid V-8 also received some attention, eventually getting a rebuild that included a bore of .030 inch that raised the displacement to about 312 cubic inches with a four-barrel carburetor.

The interior of Israel’s 1956 Ford Fairlane Town Sedan has been reupholstered in the original fabric.

The interior of Israel’s 1956 Ford Fairlane Town Sedan has been reupholstered in the original fabric.

He also noticed the front frame cross member had rusted — a common occurrence on 1955 and ’56 Fords -— but he easily found a replacement.

The years and miles took enough of a toll on the old Ford that Israel eventually had the car reupholstered in the original materials. That was in the late 1980s or early ’90s. Thanks to Israel’s care and the mild West Coast climate, the Ford never required a frame-off restoration. It’s been more of a rolling project; whenever it needs something, Israel has repaired it.

“It’s been a very good car, all in all,” he said. “It runs like a Swiss watch and of course I don’t hot rod it — it is just a nice cruiser, a nice driver.”

Sure, a small part of Israel wishes his father had bought a sportier Crown Victoria or Sunliner version of the 1956 Ford Fairlane all those years ago, but he’s more than content with the Town Sedan. Since it’s been in the family for so long and it carries so many memories, he has absolutely no plans to ever part with it.

“It just hung around all of these years,” he said. “I told my son if he wants it, it would be nice to keep it in the family for the next 30 years or so.”

The Lifeguard ’56 Fords

The 1956 Fords closely resembled the 1955 Fords they followed, but the basic design of the 1956 Ford actually went back to 1952.

Following the wildly successful 1949-1951 Ford design, Ford completely restyled its cars for 1952 and put the new body on a new chassis. The redesign gave more flair to the rear of the cars, which had a quasi-fin in which round new taillamps and their supporting metal extended several inches beyond the trunk with jet exhaust-like flair. The cars looked lower with a stamped character feature in the design of the rear fenders. The headlamps were now frenched into their bezels for a very custom look, and the grille was an open and airy evolution of the grilles immediately before them. The new body was called a “Ford Coachcraft Body,” which suspiciously recalled Coachcraft, a California coachbuilder that had been building custom bodies since 1940 — some of them on Ford chassis. The Fords were advertised as “The big new ’52 Ford” and “the only completely modern car in its field.”

A six-cylinder was available for the thrifty-minded and to keep Ford in step with its competitors Chevrolet and Plymouth, which only offered sixes. However, Fords of this era could still be fitted with the famous flathead V-8 engine that also kept them one step ahead of the competition.

Ford was selling safety in 1956 and its Lifeguard safety features included a deep-dish steering wheel, a rearview mirror with “give” and new door latches that were less prone to allowing the doors to open in a collision.

Ford was selling safety in 1956 and its Lifeguard safety features included a deep-dish steering wheel, a rearview mirror with “give” and new door latches that were less prone to allowing the doors to open in a collision.

On the outside, Fords were simply given different trim and grille treatments from 1952 to 1954 model year. The big change for 1954 was the new overhead-valve V-8 that helped Ford keep pace with performance and technological advances.

For 1955, Chevrolet and Plymouth were all new and all modern from top to bottom — new bodies with wrap-around windshields and new V-8 engines. Ford was still able to sell its cars as being new — “Discover the thrill of a totally new Ford,” said ads — even though the engine and body were based on the 1954 components, but with major updates and improvements. Very few people knew the 1955 272- and 292-cid V-8s were based on the new-for-1954 239-cid V-8, and the 1955 body, now labeled as a Crestmark body, was a serious update to the 1952-’54 body given new outward sheet metal and a new cowl to accommodate 1955’s wrap-around windshield.

The 1955 Ford design is credited to Franklin Q. Hershey, who also designed the original Thunderbird that inspired full-size 1955 Ford styling. Like the Thunderbird, the big 1955 Fords used hooded headlamps and small fins atop Ford’s now-trademark round taillamps. The peaks of the hooded headlamps and tailfins were visually connected by a straight line that also formed the beltline, giving the Fords a cohesive modern look. Adding to the modern appearance was a lower top to the trunk and a hood that barely domed above the top of the front fenders. Graceful new side trim on the top new Fairlane model began atop the headlamps and then curved down the front fenders to a dip in the door. The trim then checkmarked back up the doors and then ran parallel to the ground until terminating in front of the rear taillamps. An exaggerated interpretation of this trim also appeared on Ford’s 1955 Mystere concept car.

The eight-cylinder Thunderbird engine of the 1956 Ford passenger car was called a “Y-8” for its “deep block” design and displaced 292 cubic inches. This four-barrel engine developed 202 hp and had a compression ration of 8.4:1. Ford carried the “Y” engine theme to the front fenders where a “Y8” emblem identified the V-8 in 1955, and a thunderbird in the shape of a sideways “Y” denoted the “Y-8” in 1956.

The eight-cylinder Thunderbird engine of the 1956 Ford passenger car was called a “Y-8” for its “deep block” design and displaced 292 cubic inches. This four-barrel engine developed 202 hp and had a compression ration of 8.4:1. Ford carried the “Y” engine theme to the front fenders where a “Y8” emblem identified the V-8 in 1955, and a thunderbird in the shape of a sideways “Y” denoted the “Y-8” in 1956.

Ford also shuffled model names for the new 1955 models. In 1954, Crestline was at the top, but was replaced in 1955 by the Fairlane; the midline Customline and low-line Mainline names were carried from 1954 to 1955 and ’56. The Fairlane series was the most diverse with the most models: a Sunliner convertible, the Crown Victoria with additional trim including a novel stainless band that stretched over the roof to form a B pillar; a Skyliner variation of the Crown Victoria in which the front half of the roof had a see-through Plexiglas panel; the Club Victoria two-door hardtop; the Town Sedan four-door sedan; and the Club Sedan two-door sedan. In 1956, a four-door hardtop was a must and Ford added this model with the Fordor Victoria during the year.

For 1956, Fords were simply updated. After all, why mess with a good thing? While Ford was updating its trim to the carried-over sheet metal, it incorporated a few tricks common among all manufacturers to make existing bodies looks lower and longer. Most notably, ’56 Ford parking lamps went from round to oval and the side trim became wider.

Fords for 1955 had V-8 engines that displaced 272 cubic inches or 292 cubic inches in the Thunderbird V-8 (the overhead-valve six displaced 223 cubic inches); these engines were mounted in a beefed-up frame incorporating a ball joint front suspension system. Starting came from a six-volt electrical system. For 1956, the V-8 engine choices remained the same but with the added availability of a 312-cubic-inch Thunderbird Special engine that came standard with a four-barrel; dual four-barrel carburetors became available for race applications later in 1956. All engines in 1955 and ’56 were touted as having “Trigger Torque” power. Ford also made a 12-volt electrical system standard in 1956 and routed the exhaust through the back bumper that year.

While the subtle styling changes were applauded and the mechanical improvements welcomed, Ford marketing was focused on new safety enhancements marketed under Lifeguard design. It didn’t replace Ford’s promotion of Thunderbird styling and Thunderbird performance, but Lifeguard design marketing certainly overshadowed them.

Lifeguard design came from Ford-funded research at Cornell University’s Medical College that showed that most harm to vehicular occupants in a collision was caused by being thrown from the car, harm from striking the instrument panel and windshield and impalement by the steering wheel and column.

Ford claimed that “Lifeguard design means greater protection for you and yours against injuries resulting from accidents. It embraces a whole new family of safety features” designed to prevent harm to occupants in a collision. Those standard safety features included double-grip door latches to keep doors from springing open in an accident; a deep-center steering wheel that “gave” to protect the driver from being hurt by the steering column and wheel; a shatter-resistant Safety-Swivel Mirror with “give;” and a seat track designed to keep from sliding forward in a collision. Optional Lifeguard equipment included seat belts and cushioned instrument panel and visors.

In this day of lane alerts, automatic braking and backup cameras, such basic safety features are appreciated. However, car buyers in 1956 had little to no interest in safety. In an article for Old Cars Weekly during the 1980s, Tim Howley said he knew many 1956 Ford owners. “They all raved about the car’s good looks and snappy performance and cursed the seat belts. Research showed that less than six percent of buyers were influenced by the safety pitch. In fact, research strongly indicated that the safety story was turning buyers away to Chevrolet.”

This strange device undergoing testing is an automobile roll-over simulator. Being put through its paces at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, it features a 1956 Ford four-door sedan body mounted between two turntables, which rotate while recording the motion of the “dummy” occupying the front seat. Another dummy (right), representing a six-year-old child, was also used in the tests.

This strange device undergoing testing is an automobile roll-over simulator. Being put through its paces at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, it features a 1956 Ford four-door sedan body mounted between two turntables, which rotate while recording the motion of the “dummy” occupying the front seat. Another dummy (right), representing a six-year-old child, was also used in the tests.

Indeed, Ford led Chevrolet in sales through the first half of 1955, but Chevrolet came out slightly ahead by the end of the year, leaving Ford second in sales — 1,435,002 Fords to 1,682,708 Chevys. In 1956, the comparison was more dire for Ford, which recorded 1,392,847 car sales against Chevrolet’s 1,574,740 cars. Ford would rebound in 1957 when it again outsold Chevrolet.

Although 1956 Fords looked great and handled and performed well, Howley said they had a “so-so reputation” when new. “Buyers complained about poor gas mileage (13-17 mpg with four-barrel 292 V-8), body squeaks, leaks, rattles and generally poor quality workmanship. The interior vinyl, while bright, was cheap, and quickly took on a flophouse look. The dual exhausts through the bumpers soon rusted the bumpers. The soft stainless steel grille dented easily. By 1959 or ’60, most ’56 Fords looked worse than cars 10 years their seniors.”

Certainly these observations weren’t consistently experienced and the 1956 Ford has had a strong following for decades, including right up to today. The most sought-after examples remain the Sunliner convertible, the Crown Victoria and Crown Victoria Skyliner and the Victoria hardtops. Ford’s station wagons were in their own series and they have a following of their own, especially the two-door wagons in which the Parklane two-door wagon was at the top.

Today, any surviving 1956 Ford is a handsome treasure from the nifty ’50s, when Ford was building beautiful cars that performed as well as they looked.

Crown Victoria Association
Recognizes 1954-1956 Fords
www.thecvaonline.com

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