Let’s say it’s the late 1950s and you need a car. However, you want a new car, and you only have about $2000 to spend. You shop around and discover, perhaps by watching a Ford TV commercial, that “FORD is the lowest-priced of the low priced three!” Depending on whether the year is 1957 or 1958, let’s see what you got for your money if you wanted “basic transportation”–a full-size, 6-passenger 4-door sedan.
Here’s what actor, singer, and TV cornball Tennessee Ernie Ford has to say (bless his pea pickin’ heart):
“It’s priced lower than the 1957 Custom 300!” Tennessee Ernie conveniently fails to mention that, in the Ford hierarchy of models, the Custom 300 was above the plain Custom in ’57, but is now the lowest-priced model among the ’58s. Confusing, I know. But still, it is a fact that in 1958, the Custom 300 4-door had a base price of $2119, versus $2155 for the comparable Chevrolet Delray, and $2134 for the Plymouth Plaza. So the “lowest price” claim still holds true.
HISTORY OF THE CARS THEMSELVES:
This 1957 Ford Custom is a splendid example owned by Steve Schmidt of Wyckoff, NJ. According to Steve, the car started life in the midwest, but found its way to the used car lot of Gary-Allen Chevrolet in Englewood, NJ a year later.
It was purchased by Mr. & Mrs. Wellington A. Wilkinson of East Rutherford around February of 1959, and was driven until the husband died in 1970.
The car sat in the garage until the widow decided the garage needed a new roof. She offered the roofer the car in exchange for the roof job. The roofer did some restoration on his new “purchase” but then the car sat for a long time. It was sold to someone else, and it really needed help by this time. It was offered for sale again, and when Steve spotted it, he states that “I felt like I needed to save this car.” Steve bought it in December 2017 and finished the restoration, with the goal of “keeping it as original as possible.”
This 1958 Custom 300 was purchased new by Louis Galtieri (1899-1996) at B. J. Werner Ford in Garfield, NJ. Mr. Galtieri owned the BeauCraft Accident-Proof Stair Tread Co., and this was a company car. For reasons that remain unknown, he kept this car for many years, and passed it on to his son Joseph Galtieri (1927-2016). Joseph went to Harvard, and there is a Harvard decal on the rear window.
This car is currently owned by Stephen Pellegrino, who like Steve Schmidt, is committed to keeping the car as original as possible.
Your CC reporter has only driven the ’58, but it is assumed that the driving characteristics of both cars are approximately equal. The engine (started with the aid of a hand choke) gives some roar on acceleration, but is rather quiet at normal cruising speeds. However, the contemporary Chevy 6 cylinder is smoother and quieter than this engine. The Fordomatic transmission normally starts in 2nd, with one upshift to 3rd. Low speed torque is good. “Master Guide” power steering, combined with “new Magic Circle Steering” gives light and easy handling, with almost no lean on fast turns. The combination of easy handling and the mechanical sounding engine give almost a European impression.
The ’57-’58 Fords were considered quite low in profile, but there is still an upright seating position, and you don’t feel as if you are sitting on the floor, unlike the ultra-low slung monsters yet to come. The ride, while not cushiony, gives a satisfying level firmness. Visibility is good, but overhead traffic lights are hard to see because the windshield height is comparatively short. I like the view over the hood, with its power dome and gunsight ornaments on the front fender tops, which actually aid in guiding the car down the road. Overall, this is a really solid, roomy car that is easy to drive and live with day-in and day-out.
As the blue and white ’57 drove out of the parking lot onto the main road, I was struck by how sharp and clean and graceful it looked. The low-priced car buyer of that time still got a solidly built, neat looking car that was full-sized and dignified in every way. In later years, such buyers would be purchasing cynically shrunken, cheesy machines–like the Pinto.
Furthermore, the fact that these two examples survived to the present day is something of a miracle itself. Were it not for the odd set of circumstances that preserved them, these would have been crushed years ago. They were also serious rusters, which did not add to longevity. Ford built 192,775 Customs in 1957 and 340,871 Custom 300s in 1958. If 1% survive, that’s about five thousand cars, and even that seems optimistic. I’m thinking 1/10th of 1%. When was the last time you saw one?
I have always liked the ’57s. A little goofy around the headlights, but otherwise a solid design. Best of all they managed to come up with at least 3 different sets of side trim that all flow well with the body shape.
Then there’s the ’58. Independently I like the grill, tailights, and trim etc, but they look like they were designed for some other car and just stuck on the Ford body like a Mr Potato head.
Maybe I’ll just wait for a ’59 which is the one I like best.
All that said, it is very nice to see clean examples of ordinary cars from that era.
Remember the JC Whitney conversion kit to put dual headlights in place of the singles on the 57? The stock headlight setup was oversized enough that it could conceivably work. Although I never saw a car with them in the metal.
Headlights aside, the Ford that year was the most attractive of the low price cars. Chevrolet was a prime example of not trying hard enough, while the Plymouth came in 4th out of 5 on that year’s Chrysler looks scale (Dodge was definitely homlier).
Pity they were such rust buckets. And built really cheaply compared to the Chevrolet. Which is why the Tri-Fives survived.
I think Plymouth beat the others in styling and even Ford and GM agreed.
Both Ford and Plymouth had good years but the sales increase for Plymouth was more dramatic
Unfortunately that led to poorly built cars for both, which is why the Chevy shines today
JC Whitney ad for 57 Fords and Chevys.
Ah, the memories of the 57 & 58 model years. I’m in 2nd and 3rd grade, dad’s the town Chevrolet dealer, and the son of the Ford dealer was in my grade (but in another classroom). And cars mattered, car sales mattered.
The 57 model year, of course, was the year that Ford outsold Chevrolet, had a better looking car, and (heresy that it sounds like now seeing that the Tri-Fives are God’s Gift to Classic Cars) the 57 Chevrolet was considered a really bad comedown from the 55 and 56’s. Needless to say, John Bingler (the Ford dealer’s son) made my life miserable that year.
And all was redeemed by the 58’s. First off, it was way better looking than the Ford. I still think that Ford had some blind car designers working on that refresh, a point justified by my boss at the bicycle shop fifteen years later – who was a Ford designer back in the mid-Fifties – absolutely hating the 58’s and having nothing nice to say about them.
I’d still much rather own a 58 Chevrolet than a 57, and consider the 57 the most unfairly overrated antique car out there.
And the sales figures showed it. Chevrolet absolutely crushed Ford that year. And never underestimate the viciousness of a child who’s been picked on, once he finds the tables are turned . . . . . .
That was mirrored on the NZ market according to my dad 57 Chevs simply didnt sell the 57 wasnt what people wanted it looked like an over dressed 56 and the new 57 Ford looked like a new car and they sold quite well, they were still around in plentiful numbers in the 70s in my teens 57s and what we called the Gold flash 58 model but Ive never seen a six not one actually in a car Fords were V8s out here if you wanted a six you bought a Ford Zephyr from the UK or a Zodiac.
Like others on here, I’ve always considered the 57 Fords to be one of the most beautifully designed and styled, but poorly built cars of the 50s.
The 58 however, was probably the ugliest car of the year. How Ford could reach such extremes in a two year period I’ll never know.
My father bought a 57 Ranch Wagon, 2dr 6-stick, heater, no radio. One of the bigger problems was overheating in the summer, with no apparent cause. His solution was to pop the rear-opening hood to the first catch and drive it like that. Guess it increased the airflow thru the engine compartment. He replaced it the following year with a 58 Plymouth, similarly equipped. I’ll wait for an article on those and continue the tales of woe!
A year or two later, he bought a used 57 Chevy and never had any problems to speak of.
Terrific time-warp to the Eisenhower administration.
In a perfect world, I’d like a ’57 with a’ 58 front clip. As it is though, I’m very happy to see these two are to remain as original as possible – and not holed up in a museum.
My maternal grandfather bought a base model ’57 Ford in cheap looking solid gray. Two tone paint on the cars above really help the looks.
I remember him talking about having the dealer move the seat tracks aft so that he could fit comfortably. He was very tall.
A good friend of mine owns a ’57 Fairlane 500 4-door HT w/three 2-bbl carbs. Sharp looking ride.
I always liked the styling of the ’57 Ford and can see from adult eyes how it outsold that year’s Chevy. GM had pushed longer-lower-wider for decades and this was the year it came back to bite them…a little.
But not in the long run. As used cars, and then as hot rods, the Tri-Fives became icons…a status I find completely deserved.
To me the ’57 Chevrolet is the holy grail of mass-market full size cars – and has been since the age of ten. Their commonness isn’t a turn off in the least. Nice to know if I wreck one I can always build or buy another, with over 1 1/2 million built, not to mention the repop bodies and frames that are now available.
This really, respectfully, wasn’t yet Ford’s time. But another car on the showroom floor – the ’58 Thunderbird – began paving the way for Ford’s move upmarket without abandoning entirely the lower reaches of the market.
>>the ’58 Thunderbird – began paving the way for Ford’s move upmarket without abandoning entirely the lower reaches of the market.<<
that 1958 Fairlane was styled to look like the 1958 Thunderbird – hence the front and rear stying – to make it look like the more expensive car
I was always a fan of the ‘57 Ford, considering it crisp and clean with a nice selection of V-8 power. A rare sales win for a Ford as well, besting the now iconic ‘57 Chevy. The ‘58 Ford wasn’t bad either, although a bit more overwrought. However the drastically restyled, garish ‘58 Chevy was no beauty either, Harley Earl’s swan song disappearing after just one year. 1959 was an interesting year for both makes. The Ford received a mild facelift, and a return of the signature round taillights. Over at GM the Chevy received its second major redesign in two years, growing in size and featuring the dramatic (and controversial) batwing rear. Ford sales rebounded nicely for ‘59, coming within a few thousand of the Chevy.
I was always a fan of the ‘57 Ford, considering it crisp and clean with a nice selection of V-8 power. A rare sales win for a Ford as well, besting the now iconic ‘57 Chevy. The ‘58 Ford wasn’t bad either, although a bit more overwrought. However the drastically restyled, garish ‘58 Chevy was no beauty either, disappearing after just one year. 1959 was an interesting year for both makes. The Ford received a mild facelift, and a return of the signature round taillights. Over at GM the Chevy received its second major redesign in two years, growing in size and featuring the dramatic (and controversial) batwing rear. Ford sales rebounded nicely for ‘59, coming within a few thousand of the Chevy.
I’m wondering about what kind of heater controls the ’57 stripper would have. Don’t see the familiar dual slide heater controls Ford used almost forever, yet there seems to be heater hoses in the engine compartment.
Personally, I prefer both the ’57 & ’58 Plymouth style, but the ’57 Ford did always strike me as a clean design.
at the time the Plymouth was pretty much declared the styling winner by acclaim
but shoddy workmanship driven by sales increases hurt both Plymouth and Ford, making the 3 year old Chevy the”classic” people remember most fondly
I bought a 57 Ford 312 ci automatic in 1964. An 18 year old automotive know nothing I couldn’t figure out why I lost every drag race to 57 Chevy’s. Those Ford 272-312 engines were clearly inferior with many (mine included) having additional oil lines piped into the valve covers. Blew up two of them in one year and ended up with a Sears rebuilt 292 short block. It didn’t last a year. Body rust was prominent as well and this in a non salt using state. Prettier than the Chevy though.
The Y block V8 did have a pretty serious issue with oiling its top end. I know there were some changes made along the way to address that. Guess it didn’t make it to yours. 🙁
Reguarding the blue/white 57, there was in my home burg a retired funeral director who had a blue white 57 ranch wagon he had used as a hearse, while that sedan is very original that wagon had it beat, I remember seeing it in the late 70s at a local garage it had just had its 6 monthly inspection done the odometer had not rolled over 5,000 miles yet it was still a new car the owner just never drove it he had a well beaten Fordson van as his daily runner and the wagon just sat in his shed, I often wonder where that car ended up it was among several very low mileage cars in the area that simply never got used by their retired owners.
There’s one person mid-50s Fords make me think of, and it’s Joe fuckin’ Barbaro.
Interesting comparison. These both sat on the smaller wheelbase that Ford offered for 1957 and 1958. Beginning in 1957, Ford offered its basic vehicle in two sizes. The larger and fancier Fairlanes were designed to counter Buick’s success in poaching customers of the Low-Price Three with the Special. (Some say that the Fairlane 500 was also Robert McNamara’s pre-emptive strike against the upcoming Edsel, a project that he had opposed.)
Ford outsold Chevrolet for 1957, although naysayers might note that it took two versions of the Ford to outsell the one version of the Chevrolet.
A big complaint with the 1957 Ford had been a somewhat willowy body (undoubtedly more common with the longer Fairlane hardtops). Even by the standards of that era, the 1957 Ford was not viewed as solid. That description was applied to that year’s Chevrolet, and, increasingly, to that pesky upstart, Rambler.
That is why the 1958 model sports a hood scoop, a grooved roof and a depressed section in the deck lid. Those were designed to make the body panels stiffer.
Great to see these two, with the tales of previous ownership—**these** should be appearing in today’s “period” movies, rather than minty hardtops/convertibles everywhere.
The 1957: Not that I’m in the market, but any idea of asking price?
The 1958: Ford did that big “drove it around the world” campaign, and I believe they did take 4-door sedan—for rigidity, I’ll guess.
Super-complete 1958 brochure here, with round-the-world highlights, air suspension option, and so on: http://www.xr793.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/1958-Ford-Fairlane.pdf
Another factor in 1958 sales, of course, is the launch of the Edsel.
Excellent post, Poindexter!
Young PRNDL approves! 🙂
The ’57 definitely was the better-looking of the two, though as noted at bit odd in the headlight treatment but not terrible. On the other hand, even as kids, we thought the ’58 Ford looked like a tin-plate toy version of the ’58 Thunderbird. All the same general features, just flat, amateurish, a pale effort to suggest the association to that upmarket wonder.
Rust? In spades for both in western New York! Our small town used car dealer had a few as four-to-six year old inventory that were loaded with bondo and still the headlights fell out of the ends of the fenders right on the lot. It was common to see Fords with rags of carpet visible under the area where the rockers had been. Open a door and it dropped, to see whatever pieces of sheet metal, boards whatever to cover the rust holes in the foot wells. Handsome but junky cars, that did run well if one could hold them together.
In the family, Earl and Marion, great uncle and aunt had a tan and white ’57 Custom tudor, six cylinder, stick shift. As both were well long in years, it served them into the late 1960’s. Being a garaged car with relatively light use, it survived better than most.
“Rust? In spades for both in western New York! Our small town used car dealer had a few as four-to-six year old inventory that were loaded with bondo and still the headlights fell out of the ends of the fenders right on the lot.”
My biggest recollection of ’57 Fords in the mid west in the mid ’60’s was seeing them on the road with no headlights. Just jagged rusty holes where they were.
My Dad bought and refurbished a ’57 Sunliner convertible. Our next door neighbor had a ’57 Ranch Wagon. Both cars weren’t around long and were sold in pretty good shape, headlights intact and all.
Another thing I remember is the smell of the interior was very unique. I can’t describe it but if you blindfolded me and had me sit inside of various cars including one of these Fords I would guess the Fords right away.
I owned a well used ’57 Ford in High School and loved the car. It was rust prone, but all cars were then. The Chevys had what we used to call “the circle of death” about 6″ above the rear wheel arch.
What made the Tri-Five Chevys better was the new V-8. Ford knew that lesson, but forgot it in the 1950s.
The ’30s-’40s Fords were made by the Flathead V-8. The replacement Ford Y-Block was a heavy engine, with no provision for hydraulic lifters. The upper oiling problems were magnified by the motor oil of the times and poor maintenance. A dead end design.
The ’57 Ford was a pretty car, better looking than the ’57 Chevy, not as ‘over the top’ as the ’57 Plymouth. I don’t think the Y-block was as good as either the Chevy Small Block or Plymouth poly-head V-8’s, but with proper maintenance it wasn’t too bad.
Great write-up and nice finds. I love the history on each of these old Fords and that you got to experience the ’58 from behind the wheel. It really is amazing that these two plain Jane cars survived all those years. On the ’57 and ’58 Fords in general, the ’57 was a good looking car but the ’58 has always been unattractive in my eyes. Ford botched the design trying to incorporate the trendy styling of the day. The public in ’58 seemed to agree as Chevrolet handily beat Ford that year. The ’59 Ford was a reprieve and was an attractive car in my eyes.
People keep bringing up the comparison to the Chevrolet for ’57. While Ford beat Chevrolet in 1957 model year sales, it wasn’t like it wiped the floor with Chevy. The race was close and Ford sold 1,655,068 cars versus Chevrolet’s 1,515,177, So Ford outsold Chevrolet by 139,891 cars, when comparing model year production. Chevrolet guys love to quote calendar year production because the numbers are a fair bit closer, due to the better selling ’58 Chevrolet and the slower seller ’58 Ford being included for the year end.
I can see why the ’57 Ford was more popular than the Chevrolet at the time. The styling was definitely more “trendy” to the times, while the Chevrolet styling was more of the same. The Chevrolet was clearly taller (despite trying to lower it with 14″ wheels) and more boxy. It looked like the proportions of a ’55 car, because it was under that revised sheet metal. Ford was lower longer and more “modern” looking overall. That said, IMO, the styling on the Chevrolet is far better than the Ford. The Ford is not nearly as clean, has the odd front lights, and just isn’t as organic as the Chevrolet. To me, although the Chevrolet was dated for 1957, it’s styling was more timeless, and better overall, despite its extra gingerbread over a ’55. That said, I also much prefer the ’55 to ’56 Ford over the ’57 Ford. These older Fords definitely styled in the similar shoe box style of the Tr-Five Chevrolets. Today, I think the better styling of the Chevrolet is a big reason why the collector market and most people think of it as one of the favourite 1950’s cars.
I love both of them. The 58 is uniformly derided as ugly – but I am a natural contrarian. The 58 front is not beautiful, but neither is the 57. The 58 back is fine, it just lacks the big round trademark Ford taillights. The two short wheelbase sedans are pretty tomayto-tomahto for me. It is the long wheelbase Fairlane 500 with the garish side trim where the 58 gets ugly.
Actually this Custom 300 is my favorite version of the 58 Ford. The side trim is the most attractive of any of the models.
I have been wanting to find one of these to write up. The 2 year short wheelbase car is fascinating to me. Ford won the sales race in 1957 by offering an answer to both the smaller, older Chevrolet and the larger, new Plymouth. The 57-58 Custom series could almost be thought of as Ford’s attempt to do a new and improved Tri-5 Chevy. But this “regular” Ford quickly disappeared as the “big” Ford Fairlanes took over to match the Plymouth and Chevy.
A really interesting question – would Americans have kept buying Fords, Chevies and Plymouths had they kept selling cars in the 115-116 inch wheelbase range instead of abandoning that size altogether by 1959?
I guess so, that’s explain why Ford bring a mid-size Fairlane for 1962 who have 115 inch wb and Chevrolet replied 2 years later with the Chevelle who was for some fans, the “Tri-Five” re-invented for the 1960s. Plymouth was less lucky with its plucked chicken Fury/Belvedere.
I guess due to a tigher budget, Ford Australia kept the old 1955-56 body for 1957 and 1958 Down Under.
Was there very many “entry level” 6 cylinder Fords equipped with power steering for these two model years?
Seeing cars from the 50’s was becoming uncommon when I grew up in the mid ‘70’s. A ‘50’s car I did see was a light blue 4dr 1958 Ford that was driven by a young guy in his early 20’s, it was likely inherited from his grandfather. I never cared for that Ford – I nicknamed it the “crumb-mobile”. Maybe familiarity bred contempt, as that car drove by too many times.
I like the ‘57 & ‘59 Fords, but in my opinion the ‘58 Ford doesn’t look good. I understand the roof groves provided structural support that the ‘57’s lacked, but they looked over styled. I think my least favorite design element on the ‘58 Ford are the taillights. I like that print ad campaign, which had ‘58 Fords driving to different places across the globe.
I believe a 115” or 116” Ford Chevy & Plymouth companion model would of sold well enough to justify tooling from 1959 to 1963.
Chrysler was wise not to copy GM’s panoramic windshields with their new 1957 models, as it took longer to become dated although it did by the time the ‘64 Dodge Custom 880 and ‘66 Imperial roll off the line, but at least people weren’t bumping their knees.
I just wanted to add this–interesting commercial for the ’57 Ford Custom: