(first posted 9/14/2016) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
For those times, who else offered two wheelbase lengths, four models, and five engines, ranging from a pedestrian six-cylinder to a supercharged V8?
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.
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.
While the sedan delivery was not an offering exclusive to Ford, nobody else’s looked quite as modern.
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.
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.
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.
Found May 2015 in Hannibal, Missouri
The Longest Left Turn In History – JS
1957 Ford Skyliner, With Video – PN
1957 Ford Ranchero – PN
Incredible. The family in the blue & white Ford from 2009 seems worthy of a piece of fiction, like something out of a short story by Flannery O’Connor.
About the ’57 Ford, I have three observations… I never realized before today that they came in two wheelbase lengths. Secondly, that ’57 Courier panel delivery looks mighty fine (love that ad). Lastly, I find the bug-eyed look of these ’57 Fords slightly comical, but not unattractive.
Great find and piece, Shafer.
Same here, regarding the bug-eyed headlamps. I’ve always assumed that was done so the same fender stamping could be used to accommodate quad headlamps in subsequent model years, or even to switch over to quads later in the ’57 model year.
It also could have been driven by a few states that hadn’t legalized quads by the time the ’57s appeared in late ’56, federal approval that occurred after the dies were ordered, or perhaps a concern that suppliers initially wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demand for the new headlamps (or would charge dearly for them).
In any event, I know that quads appeared on a few cars at the start of the ’57 model year: Eldorado Brougham, Nash, and maybe the upper line Chrysler Corporation vehicles come to mind as having true quads for the entire model year; others (such as Mercury) got them mid-model year. Notice I wrote “true” quads, as others faked it with a signal or driving light next to a 7-inch dual lamp (Plymouth and Lincoln come to mind).
Early 1957 Chrysler models had single headlights in nacelles that could hold two; later in that model year they went to doubles.
I did not realize it was due to different state laws.
I don’t believe on the Chryslers and Imperials that it was early versus late models, but that the quad headlamps were an option.
The ’57 Ford bug-eye seems more a styling snafu when you look at how well Chrysler handled fender ends that could accommodate both single and dual headlights. The countersunk look under a brow is quite attractive, and avoids looking like Jackie Gleason (who, was a Buick man, after all).
That is, hands down, the most ridiculous image I’ve seen from the 50’s.
Yes, please… What a scandal! Be 100% hypnotized by legs in pantyhose…
Makes me rather want to get to know the women, not Jackie…
Yes, I wasn’t sure if DeSoto, Chrysler and Imperial had quads the entire year, and I’ve since found an early Imperial brochure where the cars have only two headlamps. So that settles that question for the Chrysler Corporation.
There are a number of citations on the Internet (take that for what it’s worth), stating that eight of the 48 states at that time did not legalize quads until after the start of the 1957 model year – some as late as January 1, 1957. But nowhere can I find a list of which of the states were amount the eight. I’ve seen Nebraska mentioned, but the other seven remain a mystery.
I’m guessing that the Eldorado Brougham and Nash got away with it due to a late start to production, or perhaps low production numbers allowed them to fly under the radar.
Here’s a later 1957 model.
I’m 99.9% sure that’s a 58.
I rem. seeing a few 57s with Quad Headlights.
Some dealers offered an after market kit that used 4″ sealed beams.
To me they were not near as good looking as the standard single 5″ S-beams.
I know the famous Courtesy Motors in Chi. offered and installed them before the 1958 models came out.
Wish someone with the talent Photoshop a pair of dual headlights on that poor 57 Ford, pleeeze.
I have fond memories of a yellow 1957 Courier filled with tools and supplies of an oil burner service company. At the age of 14, I leaned to drive manual shift on its three on a tree (on private property of course). The smell of diesel fuel oil still brings back those memories.
(Also helped schlepping hoses and clearing pipes on the fuel oil delivery truck during snow storms as a way of earning money).
I too (like Joseph) find the two wheel bases of these cars as new information. Bragging about 17 foot long Fords is truly a sign of those excessive times.
Is that a 1952 or 1953 Mercury just ahead of the photo subject?
This Ford, as well as the Mercury, were for sale at the time. It’s given me a few pipe dreams of which I would rather have in Jason’s Imaginary Garage. Despite my infatuation with the Mercury nameplate, I’m thinking the Ford would be more me.
A high school buddy had a 1954 Mercury. It made a great V8 burble and had some interesting and complex looking dash switches that slid back and forth on a horizontal surface in front of the speedometer. The biggest difference between the 1954 models and earlier years were the hooded wrap around tail lights.
Not so imaginary if you visit the HAMB, HAMBers do such road trips regularly.
CC effect. I caught up with Momo and Snuffleupagus the other day, and Momo remarked how the headlights on the 57 freaked him out. A gentle soul indeed.
My memory isn’t all that great …anymore, but as a kid I remember 57 Fords slightly outnumbered 57 Chevys in my small hometown and both vastly outnumbered Plymouths.
That same fuzzy memory tells me that the olive green and white of the featured car was probably THE most popular 2 tone combination for these 57 Fords.
Nice find, I have been intrigued for a long time about Ford’s two separate wheelbases in 1957-58.
And isn’t it funny how the sight of people in an old car can burrow so deeply into our memory.
The separate wheelbases got me to thinking about the ever-changing role of Mercury at FMC during this time period (or perhaps just the period from 1939 to 2010).
With Edsel on the horizon, and Mercury still hanging out, I’m trying to reconcile in my mind what advantage there was by having two wheelbases, especially in 1958 after the Edsel arrived. It seems that making the Ford more upscale (with larger size equating to upscale during that time) did this create more market confusion and the expense of Mercury or Edsel? And is that why the two wheelbase thing went away for 1959 (in possible addition to the economy having hiccupped)?
I need to sit down and start looking at dimensions and other factors. It could be the basis for examining Ford’s constant sabotaging of Mercury.
I have wanted to write something on these twin 57-58 Fords, but need to find one first. 🙂
The mystery of the two Ford wheelbases is extremely simple and obvious: The longer 118″ wb Fairlane/500 shared its frame and body with the Edsel Ranger and Pacer, a joint program that was of course all locked up by 1957. The body styles that were going to be needed by the Edsel, including hardtops and convertibles, needed a stronger/strengthened frame, and different body shells. Body engineering and production tooling was very expensive back then, which of course explains why GM had 2 or 3 body shells to be shared by all of its lines.
Ford had a real challenge on its hands: how to justify the huge expense of new body style engineering and tooling for the upcoming Edsel. Keep in mind that some in Ford undoubtedly already had doubts about the E car’s success. the solution was for the higher end Fords to share the Pacer/Ranger frame and bodies, and for Mercury to share the Corsair’s frame and body. No way could Ford afford/justify three completely different body shells , in addition to Lincoln. They were just doing what GM did.
Pontiac used a lengthened A Body at GM, but Ford couldn’t afford two different shell lengths like GM could, so they ended up having to share the longer version between the Fairlane and Edsel.
It was simply cheaper for Ford to use the Edsel 188″ frame and bodies in the Fairlane/500, with its hardtops and convertibles, than to spend the extra money to shorten them. That would have been very expensive.
The Ford 116″ frame/bodies were strictly pillared sedans and the wagon. It really cost little or no more to engineer and tool them, as they would have used a lighter frame anyway. And the only real big difference in the body shells was in the rear door area, which is where the extra 2″ were in the frame. The whole front and rear ends, cowls, windshields, front doors, etc. were all the same anyway.
Note that the Edsel wagon used the 116″ frame body completely shared with Ford.
In essence, the Fords and low-end Edsels all used the same basic frame and body design/engineering, with the exception of a 2″ plug in the frame (and some strengthening) and longer rear doors (and roofs), as well as the other details required to differentiate the corresponding hardtops/convertibles from the low end sedans.
It was a very pragmatic solution to spread development, tooling and production costs, and allowed the Edsels to run down the same production lines as the Fairlanes.
Mystery solved? 🙂
I get that part. But the mystery is why did they go with the “shortie” at all? No hardtops and no convertible, so was this supposed to be the hedging of bets if the bigger Fairlanes didn’t take off? The shortie was similar in layout to the tri5 Chevy and to earlier Fords. Or was this originally to be the new Ford with the decision for the bigger Fairlanes dictated by cost sharing to have a body ready for Edsel as you say? That all of the wagons were on the short body would seem to fit this theory. The Fairlanes turned out to get all the love and the shortie was gone after 58.
I think there was more at play than a simple stretch. The greenhouses were completely different as were the much thicker door uppers on the short sedans. A Fairlane sedan used modern thin door uppers, so there was little commonality there. The six window sedan greenhouse was different too. But why go to this effort for the small body at all? It is like Ford went GM (with its A B and C bodies) one better with a 116 inch Ford body, the Fairlane/Edsel body, the Edsel/Mercury body and the Lincoln. I am struck by just how invisible these were to many like readers here, who should have seen them but never noticed. Buyers too, apparently. 🙂
I think you’re missing my point. it’s all about rationalization. The Custom sedans and the wagons (including Edsel) used the same rear door lowers, and the basic design of the rear lower quarter panel, because the longer, more flamboyant rear end of the Fairlane and junior Edsels would have been both too long (and expensive) for the low end of the market. Not hedging bets, as there was no doubt that many buyers would go for the better trimmed and nicer-looking Fairlanes.
Essentially, Fairlane buyers got a bonus, because of the Edsel.
Since the Edsel had already been committed, it really did make sense to share the longer and stronger 118″ frame with the Fairlane. If there had been no Edsel, Ford would have needed to engineer a stronger frame to support the more flexible hardtops and convertible anyway. So why not just engineer/tool for one frame, and for one new upper body tooling, rather than two?
Let’s put it this way: the significantly longer Fairlane/junior Edsel body would have been too expensive and looked too flamboyant for the cheap Customs. And vice-versa, the Custom body (even with a strengthened frame) would have been too short and cheap looking for the junior Edsel. And they still would have needed to engineer/tool the different Fairlane upper body, which was oriented to hardtops. I’ll bet you a Fairlane logo that the Fairlane 4 door sedan used the exact same frame and most of the upper body as the 4 door hardtop. Meaning, there was almost certainly only one 118″ frame for the whole bunch, possibly with some additional strengthening added for the convertible.
I’m sorry, but the whole thing strikes me as eminently rational, from a marketing, tooling, and production POV. And undoubtedly, the very rational Mr. McNamara had a hand in it.
Of course that all changed with the ’59, because everything else changed. The whole Ford-Edsel-Mercury alignment changed, with the Edsel going down to just one body shell, one undoubtedly that was very much the same as the ’59 Ford, except for the rear wheels being set 2″ further back, but still in the same body shell (unlike the ’58s)
It was an attempt to further rationalize things.
And why did the 116″ wheelbase go away in ’59? Because of the ’57 Plymouth, which had an 118″ wb and of course greatly influenced both GM and Ford. Longer was the new watchword. And it only rationalized production further, meaning ALL the ’59 Fords and Edsels now used the very same body shell.
The short version: it was cheaper for the Fairlane to share the Edsel’s frame and body shell than to tool up new ones based on the Custom sedan body.
And going to 118″ wb and 208″ length across the board obviously seemed like too big (and expensive) for the cheaper Ford sedans (and wagon), as the world looked in 1955 or so when these were planned.
As I understand it, the problem is, then once they had the fancier/more expensive Fairlane 500, McNamara couldn’t see why they needed the Edsel at all.
Without that support from the top, whatever chance the Edsel had of succeeding pretty much disappeared.
Dan, did the Edsel ever have any chance of succeeding? Not that I knew of. But it was the buyers that made that decision.
We only got the basic fordor model all V8s and Ranchwagons also V8s local assembly didnt do any other body styles, interestingly Australia didnt get 57s at all Ford AU kept the 56 in production till 59 updating it with the Meteor grille creating the Star model Ford.
Great Story, Jason… I really like yours (and Joseph Dennis’) writing style… You can picture the scene perfectly, like when reading a Robert Ludlum novel.
Great writing, Jason!
Young PRNDL approves! 🙂
I don’t care that the 1957 Chevys are far more popular – and I love them, but one has to look at the beauty of the 1957 Ford that is too often overlooked.
These were very attractive cars that maybe lacked some of the flash of GM’s offerings, but to me they stand the test of time.
To my eye, these look equally good in two-door form as a hardtop or pillared sedan.
Interesting encounter with the modern-day Joad family! Whenever I see a ’57 Ford, I always think of a memorable childhood trip to the local swimmin’ hole with a family friend who drove a ’57 hardtop with a very,very droopy headliner. I was six or seven years old, I found it hilarious that the ceiling was falling down. It made me think of Chicken Little.
I’ve been wondering if the Customs were re-using the 52-56 body while the Fairlanes had a new inner body. Hard to tell from pictures. The proportions and dimensions seem to agree, but there are also quite a few changes.
Ford had used a similar trick in the late ’30s, with the Standard model continuing last year’s body while the Deluxe was new.
No. They all had completely new wider bodies which all sat on a completely new “cowbelly” frame that splayed out between the wheels leaving space for foot wells in the back seat.
Jason: another well written reflection of a car which many looked past in pursuit of Fairlane 500s and Bel-Airs of the day. In case you and interested CC’rs haven’t seen it, there’s a fascinating YouTube series depicting the restoration of a Custom 300 by a most dedicated and steadfast craftsman in Finland, of all places. It’s up to Episode 16 and he’s continuing to purge the rust weevils out of the beast…
I’m not surprised at all, I work for a Finnish company, been to Helsinki a couple of times and they have a lot of old car guys who are nuts about North American cars.
Finns also have an advantage of getting 40 paid vacation days per year, which gives them a lot of time to work on their old cars…
I just can’t get past the “bug eye” headlights on these. It just seems wrong to me. They are lovely cars otherwise.
Seeing any 50’s car on the road is rare these days, between the bug eyed Ford and its cargo, I’m sure it was quite the sight!
Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for including the sedan delivery! Advertising/literature at the time that I’ve seen never seems to be able to decide whether that body style should be part of the cars lineup or the trucks lineup.
Another classy piece Jason.
That Ford is intriguing, to my innocent European eyes, as the restrained rear end styling works well, but was not what I was expecting. Nice looking car!
Now – write that story like Ernest Hemingway and save us all about 10 minutes of reading time. There is a reason no one hired Henry James to write car reviews, right?
“The automotive conveyance which had carried Mr. Theordore Bundalien-Moxey appeared to me on the spot as a creature so charming as to make it a great fortune to have to do with it’s two-tone pixillated flanks. The Fairlane 500 was the most beautiful automotive sedan I had ever seen.”
“While, conversely, the Chevrolet – no; it was a big, ugly, antique, but convenient chassis, embodying a few features of a proven iron-monger’s skill, yet still older, half replaced and half utilized, in which, due to it’s flaccid steering, I had the fancy of our being almost as lost as a handful of passengers in a great drifting ship. Yet, I was, strangely, at the helm!”
“Suddenly, in these circumstances, I became aware that, on the other side of the finned Plymouth, we had an interested spectator… My heart had stood still for an instant with the wonder and terror of the question whether those virgins too would see; and I held my breath while I waited for what a cry from them, what some sudden innocent sign either of interest or of alarm, would tell me. I waited, but nothing came but the rust of it’s fenders, and the breakage of it’s support mechanisms.”
I am pretty sure the World Book Encyclopedia used an image of the hide-away hardtop in their automotive article on cars.
I found this styling a bit odd, but several hundred thousand customers felt otherwise.
The aggressive front end did not mix with the bland rear treatment. The instrument panel looks functional but not attractive.
An excellent read! Thanks!