Curbside Classic: 1957 Ford Custom 300 – A Migration To Parts Unknown

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It was a surreal glimpse into an event that would have been far less noteworthy forty years earlier, but this vision was as certain as the heat and humidity of that July 2009 day.

For a flashing instant it seemed like I had peered into another dimension, this inescapable sight parading by as I gazed in astonished admiration through the windshield of my silver, temperature controlled Impala.  Vaguely reminiscent of what might be described in a Steinbeck novel (despite this being prime Mark Twain territory), these bedraggled looking people were very much in the here and now, despite the age of the conveyance one of the thin, young men within was navigating.  Perhaps their 1957 Ford Custom sedan was a mechanical representation of their plight, mindset, and ambition.

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Approaching the intersection of US 54 and Route 79, at the very edge of the Champ Clark Bridge in the sleepy little Mississippi River town of Louisiana – long and unenviably associated as being the home of Mo-Mo The Monster – this not atypical scene from two score ago played out in slow motion, prompting my speculation this family was trying to escape from something unsavory to seek out something, anything, that was worthwhile.

It all leads to one (basic yet likely complex) question: What was the family seeking or from what was it trying to escape?  Presumably any escape wasn’t from Mo-Mo.

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Who they were or where they were from was impossible to determine; with license plates coated in dust and deleterious debris, all insight was blocked as we met in their westward push, consistently playing into the vibes of seeking better things in the western frontier.  All I knew was it was 2009 and their base model 1957 Ford Custom was looking weary yet determined, carrying an alarming number of diversely aged bodies and copious personal belongings to destinations unknown.

There was no doubt the old blue and white Ford would have been happier lounging dormant under the shade of a mature hardwood tree, but this Ford Custom was doing as Hank The Deuce had intended.  From the sounds of her as she passed, her heart was in better condition than her highly patinated and enviously rust-free body.

These souls, even the handful of children aboard who appeared to be old before their time, have forever infiltrated themselves into my ever more spotty memory.

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Encountering this adventurous, and perhaps guardedly optimistic, group of individuals heading west in a 1957 Ford seems, after some consideration, to be the remarkable confluence of good fortune and simple timing.  Ford appeared rather sanguine for 1957, a sanguinity that appeared quite justified, so spotting this similarly trimmed, yet better physically and door deprived, Custom 300 a few years later was another good fortune involving a 1957 Ford.

It makes one ponder if their venture might have transpired differently had this band of traveling persons been in one of Ford’s competitors from the Low-Priced Three.  For 1957, the Low-Priced Three certainly plowed different sections of the same entry-priced field.

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It took little to recognize Chevrolet was offering a car those uncharitable sorts could contemplate as being 1955, Part 3.  While admittedly an overly harsh descriptor, Chevrolet for 1957 was in the last year of their triennial styling cycle.  As a gas burning testament to the rapidly evolving tastes of the market, Chevrolet was delayed in responding to the crescendo of “longer, lower, and wider”.

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Over in Highland Park, Plymouth leapt from 1956 to 1960, skipping those crucial, formative years in between.  Not heeding the old adage of haste making waste, Chrysler’s speed in development caused their build quality to hit a stout vacuum, an error from which recovery would be arduous.  Perhaps a more apt, yet highly related, euphemism would be “more haste, less speed”, as fewer people were speeding into Mopar showrooms with the same urgency after the tangible deficiencies of the 1957 models became apparent.

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So instead of aiming for points in the next decade or being grounded in the ancient past, Ford aimed for 1957.  From a sales perspective, Ford hit its target with the same accuracy as sharpshooter Annie Oakley, outselling their eternally contentious rival Chevrolet by 200,000 cars for the model year.

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Yet Ford for 1957 should never be perceived as being all sunshine and roses.  While Chevrolet appeared to be playing its theme of “Third verse, nearly the same as the first”, it likely had the best year of the Low-Priced Three from a long-term perspective as their cars were screwed together quite well.  Conversely, Ford had just enough workmanship in common with Plymouth for 1957, a commonality with traits as enviable as halitosis and kidney stones.  That beef touted in advertisements rang true; many customers who where exposed to roofs and other body panels that dissolved with alarming speed certainly developed a beef with Ford.

Sometimes it takes a while to conclude who truly has their mojo in check.  It’s also evidence a new and hopeful face isn’t necessarily a sign of a cheery disposition during an extended engagement.

But when looking at this scenario from a perspective removed by a period of nearly sixty years, Ford certainly had the most vibrant and diverse lineup of cars available for the entry level market.

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For those times, who else offered two wheelbase lengths, four models, and five engines, ranging from a pedestrian six-cylinder to a supercharged V8?

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Nobody else at any native North American automaker offered the novelty of a retractable hardtop.  While never a huge seller, it no doubt helped lure many a Dad into the showroom to begrudgingly settle for that base model Ranch Wagon.

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Nor did anyone else in North America offer a small pickup based upon a car – the new for 1957 Ranchero was built in a style which had been navigating Australia for two decades.

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While the sedan delivery was not an offering exclusive to Ford, nobody else’s looked quite as modern.

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Yet this foray into the dynamic of Ford vs The Other Two has continued to ignore the basic premise – what was this group of persons piled into a two-toned Ford seeking or from what were they escaping?  It takes a hearty and adventurous soul to pack a multitude of people and belongings in a fifty-odd year old car and journey into the wild blue yonder.

Something, in addition to their Ford Custom, was driving them.

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Sadly, my narrow-minded focus on the destination of the moment won the battle against my burning curiosity.  Any such curiosity was likely an exercise in futility anyway; they were focused and had just vetoed any desire to stop for a rest at the last convenience store in town.  It was fifteen miles before any such services again presented themselves and most likely the same keep-the-wheels-turning scenario would have repeated.  Aside from the periodic need to answer the call of Mother Nature or fill a fuel tank, these people likely weren’t of the inclination to stop solely to acquire a super-mega cherry-vanilla diet Pepsi at the quickie mart.

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This leaves us only to contemplate the fate of our band of dreary travelers.  Regardless of their plight, the usage of a 1957 Ford Custom is my biggest draw into their unknown story of relocation.  Seeing that blue and white Ford, a breathtaking contrast to all the silver, taupe, and gray passenger cars and pickups littering the area, is a vivid mental memento of what appeared to be one family’s determination to claw their way into a better situation.

That this tenacious family was doing so in a 1957 Ford simply serves as testimony that while some of the apples in the Ford barrel were rotten, others were of a remarkably high, and durable, quality.

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Found May 2015 in Hannibal, Missouri

Related reading:

The Longest Left Turn In History – JS

1957 Ford Skyliner, With Video – PN

1957 Ford Ranchero – PN

1957 Ford Country Sedan – PN