By Brian Earnest
When Dave Owens went over to mow ol’ Harry Burns' lawn, just like he had done countless times before, he had no idea what he was in for.
It was the summer of 1979, and the 14-year-old Owens figured he’d make a couple of bucks like he always did and then move on to the next lawn. “I mowed a lot of grass when I was a kid," Owens remembers. "You know, with just a push mower. In a small town like Surrey, N.D., sometimes it was about the only thing I could find to do.”
Burns was one of his regular customers. Part of the routine involved the old man moving his beat-up 1958 Ford out of the way for Owens to cut the grass underneath it. Owens was glad to have the job, but figured the jig might be up when Burns told Owns one day that he wanted to see his father. “I was over at his house, mowing his yard and he called me over there and said ‘David, call your dad. I need to talk to him.’ I thought, ‘Shoot, on no, what did I do?' … So I went and got my dad, and he was kind of ornery in those days… and he came over and said, ‘Harry, whatever David did, he doesn’t deserve to be paid.’ Harry said, ‘No, I'm not going to pay David today. Today when he’s done mowing, I want you to put that old mower in the trunk of that old Ford. That’s what he’s getting today.
“I didn’t even have a driver's license then. I thought, wow, I got a car. And it did run, so Dad drove it home.”
Thirty-five years later, Owens still has that yellow-and-black 1958 Ford Custom 300 sedan, and he’s more attached to it than ever. It was his first car, and he’s never had the heart to part with it. There was a 17-year stretch when the car was in mothballs waiting to be restored after serving Owens faithfully as a daily driver during high school and college. Owens loved to tinker with the car when he was a kid, and he eventually went back to tinkering with it, giving it a complete restoration that ended in 2004.
“There was a long time that I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. I thought it might be too rusty to restore, but I never wanted to get rid of it. It was too big a part of my life," he says. "I always kept it indoors that entire time … When I finally had built a house that had a large enough garage, then I could take the car all apart. It takes a lot of space to work on a car. Where do you store all the pieces? We finally built a new house and had a four-stall garage, and that was the trigger for it. I finally had the space to do it.
“But that was a long dream. From when I parked it to when I finally had a chance to work on it, that took a long time.”
Owens was the only kid in his neck of the woods that was still driving a car from the 1950s for daily transportation in the 1980s. He even drove it to work for a short time after college at his first real job in Bismark, N.D. “Then I got an old ’69 Ford pickup from my dad,” he recalled. “At that point, the ’58 was getting really tired. After I got that pickup, I parked [the Custom 300] by an apartment I was living in and one day I got in it to start it and it just wasn’t running right. That was basically the last time I drove it.”
Turns out the Ford’s engine problems were vermin related. “Years later when I tore it apart and went to fix it up, there was a mouse nest in by the exhaust valve,” he laughed. “If I had known that, I probably would have kept driving it.”
By that point, the resilient Custom 300 had probably become used to such indignities. Harry Burns had bought the car new as his daily transportation back in 1958, but the car eventually turned into his “work truck.” The Ford held up OK doing things an aging four-door sedan isn’t usually called upon to do, but getting banged around every day didn’t do much for the car’s appearance.
“Harry didn’t have a pickup, like other guys had. He used the car like his pickup, hauling all his boards and tools and all his stuff around,” Owns noted. “The ’58 Custom, those front fenders were flat — kind of straight across and the rear trunk lid with the fins was also kind of straight across, so he’d lay plywood or sheet rock across the fenders and that was his saw horse. … When I got it, all the fenders were bent and smashed in. And the dash in front was all smashed up. He’d take boards and lay them inside the car and hang them out of the driver's side rear window. In front he’d lay them right on the dash … When I got the car, there was a hole in the front window on the passenger side where a board had pushed through the windshield.”
The good news, Owens says, was that he had no problem finding parts in North Dakota whenever he needed something for the Custom 300. More than 163,000 Custom 300 sedans were built for the 1958 model year, and Owens figures that his corner of the world had more than its share of them.
“Those cars were kind of popular back then. A lot farmsteads around here had them, and a lot of farmers here drove them,” he observed. “I could drive around and find a windshield or find a part when I needed one. I spent a whole summer driving around gathering parts. It was kind of fun.
“When I got my driver's license, it was basically fixed up enough to be a decent car.”
The Custom line was a low-priced fixture of the Ford menu from 1957-'59. More than 1.3 million Customs and Custom 300s were built during that time. They were available as two- or four-door sedans, or as a two-door business coupe with a package shelf in back. Base prices ranged from $2,114 for the business coupe up to $2,256 for the four-door sedan.
The Custom and Custom 300 were Ford’s entry-level models and were equipped with a base six-cylinder, overhead-valve, 223-cid engine rated at 144 hp. A three-speed manual was standard with overdrive and Ford-O-Matic on the options list.
For 1958, the Custom model was dropped and the slightly fancier Custom 300 became the entry-level offering. Standard goodies included chrome window moldings, a horn button instead of a horn ring, one sun visor, an armrest on the driver's door only and a single chrome strip on the bodyside. The molding ran from the front fender to the back of the front door, then turned down and joined a horizontal chrome strip that continued to the back of the body. A top-of-the-line “Styletone” trim option duplicated this side trim, except the lower horizontal strip was a double strip with a gold anodized insert. A mid-level “Special” trim option was also available with a small horizontal chrome strip that turned upward just behind the door.
The options list included: power steering, brakes and front windows; Signal-Seeking Radio; air conditioning; two-tone paint; whitewall tires; and wheel covers. For buyers who wanted more gusto under the hood, a 272-cid V-8 rated at 190 hp was available, along with Ford’s 292-cid Thunderbird V-8 or 312-cid V-8 with either 245 or 270 hp. For those who really wanted to go racing, there was also a supercharged Thunderbird Special 312 with 300 hp.
Owens’ car came with the two-tone black and yellow paint, Styletone trim package, the base 223 inline six and an AM radio. It wasn’t exactly a loaded, highly desirable candidate for a challenging restoration, but Owens was too fond of the car to send it to the bone yard.
Bringing the car back meant several years of parts hunting and an equal amount of time taking things apart, fixing them, and putting them back together. Aside from farming out the engine block work, Owens says he did the entire restoration himself, including painting the car.
“The most difficult thing on the car for me was just the extent of the rust,” he said. "It was never ending. I would cut something out, make a panel or buy a panel, and it just wouldn’t end. Every brace and every support, every part of the floor or the trunk — everything needed to be replaced. Whatever you touched needed to be fixed. It was in that bad of shape. Most guys would have thrown this car away, but I was too attached to it.
“I did all the bodywork, I even put the interior in it. We ordered it from ADC and had them do it up just like it was originally, and I put it all in myself. I replaced one bumper, one door and a lot of sheet metal was added. I had to cut out rockers, fenders, patch panels … but basically it’s the same car. It’s even got the same engine in it.”
He can laugh about it now, but Owens’ long-awaited first ride in his born-again Ford back in 2004 didn’t go exactly as planned. The car hadn’t been driven in 17 years, and it had a little trouble getting started in the right direction.
“I remember the date,” he chuckled. “I had it in the driveway and I started it and just ran the RPMs braking in the engine. I told wife, Patty, I was going to take it for a ride, and I was just pumped. I backed it out of the driveway, put it in forward, went about 50 feet and then started going backward. The thing put itself in reverse and wouldn’t go forward. We had to push it to get it around and get it in the garage … We had to take the transmission out and get it fixed. I think what had happened is that it had been a long time since we had done the transmission, and things happen. Something got stuck.”
When he finally did go cruising, though, Owens wasn’t disappointed. “It was nice and quiet,” he joked. “When I was a kid, everything rattled. All the window fuzzes were gone, and I had an old blanket over the seats. This was night and day. It was the same, but it was nice and quiet. I really liked it.
“It drives good. I took it to car show about 100 miles out of town, and it drives nice. I’ve got bias-ply tires on it, so it’s a little bit different, but it doesn’t rattle or anything. It’s got that big, soft ride — you don’t get that kind of ride in a modern car. It has manual steering, but it has a great big steering wheel, so it turns pretty easy. And it’s wide and it’s open, so you have plenty of visibility. That’s what you miss in a modern car — the visibility in newer cars isn’t nearly as good as the older cars.”
The Custom 300 has been joined in Owens’ stable by a 1958 Ford Skyliner retractable, giving him a pair of ’58 beauties. The retractable isn’t quite done, but when it is, Owens will have a pair of conversation pieces to show off at collector car gatherings.
The black-and-yellow sedan is driven gingerly and gets plenty of pampering these days. Owens figures he’s put about 2,000 miles on it in the decade he’s had it back on the road. Restoring a humble, entry-level sedan might not be for everybody, but Owens has no regrets.
“The four-doors, you never see them … I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a Custom 300 at a car show,” he said. “The only place you see them is in the junkyard. You see Fairlanes and retractables, but never the Custom 300s. It’s just something people don’t save.”
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