Curbside Classic: 1956 Ford Fairlane – Beautiful, But Still The Bridesmaid

(first posted 8/25/2011)     During my adolescent years, virtually all of my firsthand experience with cars from the 1950s came from plastic model kits.  It seemed from my vantage point that if a car from the ’50s was important, there would be a model kit on the shelf at my nearby drugstore.  The fact that a kit for the 1956 Ford Fairlane was on the shelf at seemingly every hobby store and pharmacy led me to conclude that it must have been one of the most iconic cars of the era.   Now, all these years later, I still believe that to be true.

It is funny how car styling sometimes works.  Much of the time, the designers’ original vision is the best and purest expression of a car.  Subsequent facelifts of that car are not always so successful, like the 1958 Ford Fairlane or the 1955 Studebaker.

But I consider the 1956 Ford to be the best looking of the entire run of attractive cars which shared this body shell.  The 1952-54 Fords had been good looking cars which were made even prettier by the heavy restyling they received for 1955.  Because all-new cars were coming for 1957, the ’56 received only minor changes.  A little tweak to the side trim, a change to the shape of the front parking lights and voila – the result was near onto perfection.  Never have such small changes taken a very good looking car and made it timeless.  The improvements continued inside with the new attractive dashboard with multiple sports car-like circular instruments.  I ask you – is there a bad or awkward line anywhere on the ’56 Ford, either inside or out?

It is almost impossible to consider the ’56 Ford without comparing it to the contemporary Chevy (1955 Chevy CC here).  For the previous 20 years, Ford had been the choice for the performance minded.  Ford buyers had always been willing to trade away a little polish and style for that V8 power.  The 1955 Chevrolet was a game changer, however, with its modern styling and its new V8 engine.  While Ford had introduced a new V8 in 1954, the Y block design lacked the performance sparkle of Ed Cole’s Chevy unit and Ford fans everywhere had to get used to losing to Chevrolets at stoplight drags.  Although the cars were theoretically equal in horsepower (225 bhp for the top engines in 1956) it took Ford 312 cubic inches to do what Chevy did with 265.  Still, “Thunderbird 312” sounded pretty impressive to a 12 year old kid.

Another problem would eventually surface with the Y block.  The Ford engine developed a reputation for lubrication failure which certainly took a lot of these cars off the roads as they aged.  Although they were tough, durable engines when owners were scrupulous with frequent oil changes, they did not suffer neglect gracefully, particularly in the era of non-detergent motor oil.

If we can get past the engine differences, there are few times in history when the contemporary Ford and Chevy were so evenly matched.  Both were attractive, well-built cars that gave their owners nothing to be embarrassed about.

The ’56 Ford has a couple of other distinctions.  One was that this was the first production car that tried to make sales points from safety features.  This was the car on which Ford Lifeguard Design had its debut.  Before air bags became ubiquitous, the deep dish steering wheel was used everywhere.  This is the first car to have one.  The padded dash, safety belts, safety door latches – all of these things would become run of the mill a decade in the future, but here they were on the ’56 Ford line.  But while the features stayed, the advertising did not.  Because sales of the ’56 were off from 1955’s blockbuster year, conventional wisdom decreed that “safety doesn’t sell”, and it would be a generation or more before an auto company touted its safety features in a meaningful way.   The fact that most other manufacturers’ 1956 sales dropped off too must not have mattered.

Another interesting point is that the 1956 Ford line figured significantly in the early career of a young engineer-turned-assistant field sales manager named Lee Iacocca.  Iacocca, while working out of Ford’s Philadelphia field sales offices, thought up a sales promotion after sales got off to a slow start:  Get a ’56 for $56 – that is buy a new 1956 Ford for $56 per month.  When sales perked up in Iacocca’s territory (reportedly going from last place to first among the districts), Ford’s president Robert McNamara noticed.  He took the campaign nationwide and brought Iacocca to Ford HQ in Dearborn.  Whether it was Lifeguard Design or the $56 promotion, Ford’s 1956 sales dropped by only about 40 thousand units in a down year (compared to a nearly 140 thousand unit drop at Chevrolet).

I found this car quite by accident.  My family and I drove downtown to a restaurant one evening earlier this summer.  We parked the car a few blocks away and headed for our destination, which required walking under a railroad overpass.  There, parked at a meter, was this ’56 Fairlane Tudor Club Sedan.  I did what I could on photos with the sub-optimal lighting.  My teenage children were chiding their father to get the heck out of the street, but I assured them that this was important work and that they needed to watch for traffic while I snapped some pictures.  I am happy to report that no cars, motorists or pedestrians were harmed in the taking of these photos.  With a regular license plate and a trailer hitch, it looks like this old Fairlane still earns its keep.

If you took a survey in 1972 and asked people to name the first 1950s car to pop to mind, I suspect that there would have been 3 cars at the top of the list:  the 1957 Chevrolet, the 1957 Thunderbird and the 1956 Ford Fairlane.   Would the ’56 Fairlane make the list today?  I am not sure that it would.  The 1955-57 Chevrolet has become more of an icon the older it gets, but the contemporary Ford seems to have receded a bit in our collective memories.

I built at least two of the AMT 1/25th scale model kits in the early 70s and recall studying the lines and the details as I painted the body and trim.  it remains one of my favorite cars of the ’50s.

Styling is subjective, of course, but I have always found the ’56 Fairlane to be a more attractive car than any of the ’55-57 Chevrolets.  (Duck and cover).  This is particularly true when comparing the ’56 Ford and the ’56 Chevy straight up.

The proportions, the sculpting and the restrained trim on the Fairlane seal the deal for me.  Truthfully, I have always found the Chevy to be just a trace tall and stubby looking, particularly the sedans.  The ’56 Bel Air’s trim details were also a little less clean, more change for the sake of change than honest, well executed design.

To me, the 1956 Fairlane was a nearly perfect design in 1956 that has aged very well.

But a car’s long term success is built on more than just its looks, and it was on those points that Ford faltered a bit.  Compared with the contemporary Chevrolet, the 1956 Ford was a bit more rust prone, a bit less quiet, a bit less solid feeling, and at a definite engine disadvantage (in both performance and durability).  In short, while the 1956 Fairlane was in the abstract one of the most beautiful and iconic cars of the 1950s, the actual car proved to be not a great car, but merely a good one that disappeared from daily use a lot faster than did the Chevies.  Get a few years down the road, and the good has a way of getting separated from the great.  Still, had I been around at the time, I would have been very tempted to lay down my 56 bucks and drive home in the prettier car.  I think I’ll take the turquoise and white hardtop with a 312 and overdrive.