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Car of the Week: 1957 Ford Custom (with supercharger)

Ford was looking for the performance edge in early 1956. The answer was a supercharger on Ford’s existing Y-block engine for the express purpose of racing. Ford would also make the hot engine optional for 1957 Ford passenger car and Thunderbird models.
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In early 1956, Ford Motor Co. undertook a performance testing program dedicated to dominating stock car racing, because “....a performance program is deemed essential to the maintenance of the Ford car and Thunderbird performance reputation,” stated a Ford Motor Co. executive communication dated Nov. 26, 1956. The program would provide the resources for a competitive edge that would make Ford cars and those who drove them successful on the stock car circuit, particularly in NASCAR races.

Behind the scenes at Ford Motor Co., the performance team had been developing an engine that was still considered novel in the United States. Their work was centered around a McCulloch Motors Corp. VR57 supercharger on Ford’s existing Y-block engine for the express purpose of racing, but Ford would also make the hot engine optional for 1957 Ford passenger car and Thunderbird models. If successful, the company planned to phase out its two existing dual-four-barrel 312-cid V-8 racing engines of 270 and 285 hp, which would be replaced by the 300-hp supercharged 312-cid V-8 engine. The 312-cid V-8 was based upon the Ford Y-block, an engine design named for its deep piston skirting that caused the engine block to resemble a Y. The performance team expected the supercharged Y-block engine to be the future and looked to its use beyond the race track and the 1957 model-year cars.

Casey Ellenburg handled the body work and applied the single-stage black paint on the 1957 Ford Custom’s rust-free, southwestern body. Minimal body work was required to make it laser-straight.

Casey Ellenburg handled the body work and applied the single-stage black paint on the 1957 Ford Custom’s rust-free, southwestern body. Minimal body work was required to make it laser-straight.

Based on its sales of the 270-hp 312 Y-block, which sold approximately 1,000 units a month, Ford expected to install a minimum of 5,000 superchargers on passenger cars and Thunderbirds during the 1957 model year, according to the aforementioned executive note. In the same memo, Ford looked beyond 1957 and expected to continue producing supercharged models into 1958, and possibly beyond.

Since it would take five and a half months for McCulloch to create tooling for the production superchargers, Ford’s performance team came up with a plan for 100 hand-made units to be built, which McCulloch could deliver in 10 weeks. The 100 hand-made supercharger units were to be built in time for Ford to employ them at the Feb. 3, 1957, NASCAR Daytona Beach Speed Trials, as 100 cars were required to be built before the race for NASCAR homogomation. The proposed breakdown for hand-made supercharger units included: 15 Thunderbirds, all built at Dearborn, Mich.; 65 Ford Customs, Ford’s least-expensive and lightest passenger car model; and 20 convertible models from the top-of-the-line Fairlane 500 series (likely for NASCAR’s convertible class). All 100 Fords and Thunderbirds fitted with one of the hand-built supercharger units were to be built with the standard manual transmission. These first 100 cars are today considered “Phase 1” supercharged cars.

Since the Custom two-door sedan's interior was considered "Spartan" compared to other models of the day. Note the lack of a radio in the dash panel.

Since the Custom two-door sedan's interior was considered "Spartan" compared to other models of the day. Note the lack of a radio in the dash panel.

Once supercharger production was underway at McCulloch Motors Corp., it would supply 5,000 more units for installation in 1957 Ford passenger cars and Thunderbird models. Cars fitted with these Phase 2 production superchargers have an F at the start of the car’s VIN, and are known as F-code cars.

The performance team’s pitch to management in that executive communication also included what it believed was a slight pricing edge in favor of the supercharger option when compared to Chevrolet’s fuel injection engine option. According to Ford Motor Co. bean counters, the wholesale price for the Ford supercharger option would come in at $340 per unit, while the Chevrolet fuel injection unit would cost General Motors $342. And make no mistake: Ford was aiming at Chevrolet’s fuel injection unit when it was developing the supercharged Y-block 312-cid V-8.

The Custom two-door sedan was the least-expensive and lightest 1957 Ford model. Side trim was limited to the rear quarter panel, whereas other Fords had full-length side trim.

The Custom two-door sedan was the least-expensive and lightest 1957 Ford model. Side trim was limited to the rear quarter panel, whereas other Fords had full-length side trim.

“Since Chevrolet is offering fuel injection and other makes have substantially increased engine power for 1957, Ford Division’s Engineering Office is of the opinion that the 270 and 285 horsepower engines will not be sufficient to maintain the Ford car and Thunderbird racing reputation,” stated the executive communication. “In lieu of these engines, they recommend the installation on the 312 cu. in. 4V carburetor engine of a new design McCulloch supercharger for use on the Ford car and Thunderbird. Mr. MacPherson concurs with this recommended installation which would provide operational characteristics equal to or better than any fuel injection system at present day development.”

By Dec. 29, 1956, Ford formally announced the availability of the McCulloch supercharged 312-cid V-8 in a press release. The supercharger option was to add $447.40 to the price of a new Ford.

Some sources state around 500 supercharged Thunderbirds and other Ford models may have been produced in 1957 — far fewer than the 5,000 expected.

Ford’s supercharger program was well organized and might have been successful on the track, but little did anyone within Ford Motor Co. know that NASCAR had other plans.

Even the no-frills 1957 Ford Custom received a hood ornament. When new, a 1957 Ford Custom two-door sedan with a six-cylinder had a factory price of $1,991. There were 116,963 six- and eight-cylinder Ford Custom two-door sedans with a back seat built in ’57. This Ford has a back seat, but Ford also offered a business coupe without one.

Even the no-frills 1957 Ford Custom received a hood ornament. When new, a 1957 Ford Custom two-door sedan with a six-cylinder had a factory price of $1,991. There were 116,963 six- and eight-cylinder Ford Custom two-door sedans with a back seat built in ’57. This Ford has a back seat, but Ford also offered a business coupe without one.

A Custom gets supercharging

Clarence Haven of Georgia is the owner of a 1957 Ford equipped with one of those superchargers. His example is an award-winning Custom model equipped with a Y-block V-8 engine and the McCulloch supercharger. And it’s not his first ’57 Ford.

In 1961, 17-year-old Haven bought a 1957 Ford Custom 300 while still living at home with his parents in Tennessee. A couple years later, he sold the ’57 Ford Custom 300 and replaced it with a 1955 Ford Thunderbird. Soon after selling the car, seller’s remorse sat in. He told himself, ‘“Someday, I’m going to work for Ford Motor Company, and I’m going to own another one.”

In 1965, Haven moved to Fayetteville, Ga., and went to work for Ford Motor Co. at its Atlanta assembly plant. He’d realized one of his childhood dreams by going to work for the car company he loved.

Starting with a commercial 292-cid V-8, Jerry Ponder stroked the engine to 312 cubic inches and added the McCulloch supercharger. The setup is similar to the 100 hand-built “Phase I” units installed for NASCAR racing in 1957.

Starting with a commercial 292-cid V-8, Jerry Ponder stroked the engine to 312 cubic inches and added the McCulloch supercharger. The setup is similar to the 100 hand-built “Phase I” units installed for NASCAR racing in 1957.

His career spanned 30 years and ended when he retired in 1995. During the later part of his career, he worked in the quality control department. It’s where he learned about quality systems and acquired an eye for detail.

Upon meeting Haven and discussing Ford Motor Co., it quickly becomes clear that he has a passion for all things Ford, and pride for his many years working for the company. His loyalty to the brand is exceptional, and his appreciation for the company is great. Ford impacted Haven’s life to such a degree that he was devastated when the Ford Atlanta Assembly Plant closed in 2006.

Before retiring, Haven was already into vintage Fords. He met well-known Ford restorer Donald Allen in 1974 through a friend named Charles Barrett.

“Donald Allen installed the rocker panel chrome on my 1956 Ford Crown Victoria, and we’ve been friends since,” Haven said. Today, Allen is known as “Mr. Galaxie” due to his exceptional, world-class Ford Galaxie restorations. His knowledge and contacts within the community of vintage Ford enthusiasts is second to none. Old Cars readers might recall Allen and his connections to the Phil Bonner 1964 Ford “Thunderbolt” barn find discovery and its subsequent restoration featured in 2015 issues of the publication.

Upon his retirement, Haven reached out to Allen with a request to keep his eye out for a 1957 Ford Custom 300 or Custom. In 2004, Allen called Haven with news that he’d located a rust-free Custom in Arizona. Haven agreed to buy it.

After taking ownership of the car, Haven struggled with what engine to put in the car, which was originally an A-code six-cylinder model. He first considered a 427-cid V-8 before deciding to go with a date-coded,commercial 292-cid V-8 engine. Expert Y-block engine builder Jerry Ponder recommended sticking with a Y-block 292-cid V-8 engine as could have been originally installed in the car. As luck would have it, he also knew the whereabouts of an original McColloch VR57 supercharger. Haven said, “If you can make it happen, let’s do it.”

Back in 1957, Ford offered the supercharger option to dealers, and Ponder agreed to handle the task of locating everything needed to build a supercharged 292-cid V-8 engine. Once he found the 292 engine, it was bored to 312 cubic inches and hand-built to NASCAR specifications, much like the engines Ford built for stock car racing back in the day.

With his firsthand knowledge and expertise, Ponder approached the engine rebuild in Haven’s ’57 Ford much like Ford did for the 100 hand-built racing engines it built back in late 1956 and early 1957. A manual three-speed column-shift T-85 transmission with overdrive handles engine horsepower and complements the drivetrain.

Once the engine build was completed, Haven reached out to longtime friend Ricky Knight for help with the installation of the engine and drivetrain. Knight had restored a 1957 Ford Custom 300 of his own, and was a professional mechanic who worked on classic automobiles daily. He and Haven had been friends for years, and they helped each other with restoration projects many times over the years of their friendship.

The interior work was done by Charles Alexander, who meticulously restored the original interior components to factory-correct standards. The finished product is outstanding and looks factory-new.

Lastly, the body and paint work were done by Casey Ellenberg of Clarkesville, Ga. It helped that Ellenberg started with a rust-free Arizona car, but he then worked his magic to make the body laser straight upon which he applied a flawless black, single-stage paint finish to the body.

The 1957 Ford Custom took about two years to complete. With the help of Allen, Ponder, Alexander, Knight and others, Haven and this team have created the ultimate example of a 1957 Ford Custom. It has gone through the AACA judging process and earned its Grand National award.

The supercharger’s short life

In April 1957, NASCAR outlawed superchargers and fuel injection from racing. Ford altogether shelved the McColloch supercharger program and it did not return for 1958, as planned.

The VR57 McCulloch supercharger-equipped Fords dominated motorsports during early 1957, and if it wasn’t for the NASCAR ban on the use of superchargers (and fuel injection) from racing in April 1957, the engine would probably have continued dominating for the rest of the season.

The VR57 McCulloch supercharger-equipped Fords dominated motorsports during early 1957, and if it wasn’t for the NASCAR ban on the use of superchargers (and fuel injection) from racing in April 1957, the engine would probably have continued dominating for the rest of the season.

The VR57 McCulloch supercharger-equipped Fords dominated motorsports during early 1957, and if it wasn’t for the NASCAR ban on the use of superchargers (and fuel injection) from racing in April 1957, the engine would probably have continued dominating for the rest of the season. A supercharged Ford even held the NHRA national title for three years. As it happened, Ford was the only company out of the “Big Three” that honored the AMA ban on high performance in 1957, as General Motors and Chrysler Corp. continued offering multiple carburetor setups and even fuel injection on passenger cars. Ford also didn’t offer a supercharger on 1958 passenger cars, so the engine was a one-year-only option.

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