Curbside Classic:1956 Ford Customline – A New and Safer Flavor In A Familiar Wrapper

Everyone has heard repeatedly the old admonition that one should not judge a book by its cover.  Judging from the exterior styling of the 1956 Ford models, one could conclude that everyone at Ford had taken a year-long sabbatical before gearing up for the entirely new 1957s.

Au contraire.

On the outside, this Customline still looks quite 1955, with exterior changes limited mostly to oval instead of round turn signals, a revised grille and bigger taillights.  Yet cars are like women, in a sense; the outside grabs your attention, but what’s inside sets the hook–and inside, a 1956 Ford was utterly different from a ’55 model.

For starters, all 1956 Fords now featured 12-volt electrical systems–something quite useful for handling the ever-increasing electrical burdens that radios, power windows and seats, and brighter lighting were placing on contemporary cars.

Another distinction of the ’56 Fords could be called revolutionary, visionary–or perhaps even inevitable.  It just couldn’t be called popular.

Except for one year, U.S. traffic fatalities had increased annually during the period from 1944 to 1955. What’s more, there had been 36,688 deaths due to vehicle crashes in 1955, vs. 37,965 in 1956.

To put that into perspective, 37,965 persons is very nearly the population of Jefferson City, Missouri, in the United States; Wanganui, in New Zealand; the County of Rutland, in England; Nevers, in France; or Altenburg, in Germany.  Hopefully, that figure now seems a bit less abstract.

In the 1950s, traffic deaths were like the proverbial elephant in the living room; everybody knew it was there, and nobody wanted to talk about it–with the notable exception of Robert McNamara.

Say what you will about Robert McNamara, who was one of the original “Whiz Kids” hired by Henry Ford II at the end of World War II.  At Ford, he was a prime motivator behind the development of both the Falcon and the downsized 1961 Lincoln Continental. McNamara would go on to become the U.S. Secretary of Defense in the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

In 1955, both Ford Motor Company and Cornell University had conducted extensive crash-testing of vehicles.  The results played to a relatively small audience of followers, but among them was one Robert McNamara.

Perhaps inspired by the results of the studies, Ford made a deep-center steering wheel and “double grip” door latches standard on all its 1956 models.

Ford buyers could go a step further by adding a “Lifeguard” package, which included seat belts, dashboard and sunvisor padding and a “safety” rear view mirror designed to minimize the shattering of glass.  Because  (Ford’s) sudden demand for seat belts apparently overextended their supplier, only 20% of 1956 Ford cars wound up being equipped with them.

At the time, many people considered car-safety features a novelty. Even Henry Ford II (who certainly wasn’t on board with the program) observed that “McNamara is selling safety, but Chevrolet is selling cars.”  Clearly, old Hank did not realize the degree to which safety would drive automotive design in the future.

The number of traffic deaths declined in both 1957 and 1958. We can only guess at to what degree Ford contributed to the reduction in fatalities.

I recently found this particular ’56 Customline while making the four-hour trek to visit family.  It appeared to be mostly original shape, with the original dogdish hubcaps, patina galore, and worn interior.  Best of all, it was for sale.

This car is equipped a lot like I’d have equipped it had I been checking off the option sheet. Radio (a $100 option)?  Check.  Heater?  It’s there, an $85 option.  Air-conditioning?  Can’t miss it.  The optional three-speed with overdrive, for $110?  Yes, indeed, although the overdrive switch is nearly blocked by the air conditioning unit in this picture.  Lastly, and of utmost importance to me, is the V8 emblem on the front fenders – there are many steep hills where I live, so I want to minimize downshifting!

This Ford was the mid-range Customline.  The basic Ford was the Mainline, and the top trim level was the Fairlane.  Available engines were the 137 hp, 223 cu in (3.7-liter) straight-six, and V8s of 173 hp/272 cu in (4.5-liters); 200 hp/292 cu in (4.8-liters); and 215 hp/312 cu in (5.1 liters), rated at gross horsepower. Buyers could choose either a standard three-speed manual transmission, optional three-speed manual with overdrive, or Ford-o-Matic automatic.

This is one of the 170,695 Customline four-door sedans Ford built for 1956–their third-most popular model that year. After giving it some thought, I had a strong suspicion about the 1956 Ford.

I’ve read many accounts of how popular the Chevrolet Chevelle was in the 1960s because it was the same size as the 1955 Chevrolet. I suspected there might just be a parallel here to our Customline.  Let’s think about it…

This 1956 model Ford had a wheelbase of 115.5″ and an overall length of 198.5″. The 1963 Ford Galaxie parked beside it has a 119″ wheelbase and an overall length of 209.9″.

Just for giggles, I reviewed the 1963 Ford Fairlane.  The ’63 Fairlane rides a wheelbase of 115.5″ and measures 197.6″ in overall length.  My hunch was right; the Chevrolet was not unique.  Apparently, both Ford and Chevrolet introduced a mid-size that only seven years earlier was considered full-size. Only in Detroit…

Incidentally, full-size Fords would once again have a wheelbase (here, 114.3″) close to that of the ’56 Ford.

After two hours of driving and fantasizing about this ’56 Ford, I arrived with my family at the home of my 91- year-old paternal grandmother.  Although not naturally talkative, she was that day.  In the course of our conversation she mentioned a car that she and my grandfather purchased in 1960.  It was a 1956 Ford.

How ironic to have found this ’56 Customline just a few hours earlier.

Ford has always held a respectable share of the fleet-sales market.  The 1956 Ford my grandparents purchased had been a fleet vehicle used by the Tennessee Valley Authority. It was equipped with the straight-six, the three speed manual, and little else. It had been fitted with a governor that limited top speed to 60 miles per hour.  My father, who was 16 years old in 1960, has said that his many attempts at going down a steep hill at wide-open throttle never topped about 62 miles per hour.

They drove it until 1966, when the engine seized subsequent to a monumentally overdue oil change.  It was dragged down into the woods, where it remained until just a few years ago.

One true testament to a car is how well it endures its ownership.  My grandparents’ 1956 Ford (a fleet car, and thus likely a Mainline) had endured four years of fleet service before taking on another six years of family transport, pulling dead vehicles, hauling lumber and hogs, and minimal maintenance.

For them, as well as countless other owners, the ’56 Ford was a highly durable and rugged machine that provided a modicum of safety not found in any other automobile at the time.

Each of us has our own bucket list of cars to own at some point.  Seeing this one reminded me unmistakably that a ’56 Ford is on mine.  A little rubbing compound and touch-up paint would work wonders on this particular ’56!