What what what? there’s no proper long-form CC post about the 1959 Ford? How can that be? I was as surprised as you doubtless are, though this major gap in the CContinuum has been conspicuously acknowledged for a while. The ’59 Ford made fleeting appearances here and there on CC over the years, but it seems not long enough to warrant a full write-up. Well, it couldn’t hide forever.
It couldn’t hide, but it sure did try. This was one of the cars in the storage lot I wrote about yesterday. I took a few shots on my initial visit, but there was a truck boxing the Skyliner in, so my angles options were limited. Fortunately, when I decided to do a second visit, not only were my phone’s lens issues resolved, but the Ford was out in the open, just sprawled on the forecourt for all to gawk at.
I’ll just preface this by saying that I like the 1959 Ford. Well, I like it a lot more than the 1957-58 or the completely different 1960, in any case, though the 1955-56 Fords are much better-looking, in my view. If we’re choosing favourites among the ’59 Ford products, I would be more partial to the Edsel. If we’re looking at 1959 lower-priced cars, the crazy GM Batwing might be my pick. So all in all, I’d give the Ford a solid silver medal.
And that’s pretty much how Ford scored back in 1959. Chevrolet’s controversial styling is commonly cited as the main reason why the Heartbeat of America (I know, that slogan was used in a different era) had a bit of a fibrillation that year, by which I mean that Chevrolet outsold Ford by just over 10,000 units. That’s tantamount to a rounding error, given that we’re talking about 1.5 million vehicles per Big Two (Plymouth were a distant third place with fewer than half a million).
In reality though, it wasn’t so much that the Batwing Chevy didn’t sell, it’s that the ’59 Ford was a relative hit. In 1957, Chevrolet made 1.5 million cars, but Ford eked out a win with 1.6 million. The 1958 recession hit and Chevy still churned out 1.2 million cars, while Ford did not manage one million. However, the ’59 Chevrolet was brand new, as the ’58 had been too. The Ford body, meanwhile, was on its third year, so one imagines that manufacturing costs were cheaper at Dearborn. Of course, this was somewhat offset by the Edsel fiasco…
The full range of Fords for 1959 (the T-Bird is included here, but not the Ranchero pickup) is quite a sight. Such a wealth of variants is a sign of the times: two-door wagons and the Business Sedan were hangers-on from the past, while hardtop everything was a very ‘50s trait. The new Galaxies, which topped the range, had T-Bird-inspired rooflines, which was retractable on the famous Skyliner.
The Skyliner was not the first tin-top convertible ever made, but it was the first one made in America and in high quantities. Everything is relative, of course: for 1959, only 12,915 Skyliners were made. But then this was the most expensive Ford not named Thunderbird… The model was born in 1957 as the Fairlane 500 Skyliner (they added “Galaxie” only for 1959, because this exceptional model obviously needed an extra name) and required a battery of relays, switches, solenoids and electric motors, bound together by 610 feet of electric wires for this ultimate party trick to be realized. The rest of the auto industry looked at the Skyliner and went: “Meh.”
Over three model years, Ford sold just under 50,000 Skyliners – probably not making much profit on each, but the complex contraption at least proved pretty reliable. Ford adapted the mechanism for use on the 1961-67 Lincoln Continental convertible, so perhaps the trial run had been worth it. Still, the day of the coupé-cabriolet had not quite come.
Well, so much for the sizzle. What about the steak, what kind of cut are we talking about? It depends on how much one was willing to pay in extras, I guess. The base 6-cyl. was decent enough, but kind of short on horsepower to motivate a rather heavy car. There were three V8s to choose from, so one could fork out a few extra bucks and get a decent amount of oomph if one so desired.
But again, the Chevy small-block V8 had already made a name for itself as the best engine in the lower-priced field. Transmission-wise, Ford and Chevrolet were about the same – i.e. much less desirable than Plymouth’s TorqueFlite. The Ford chassis was just as middle-of-the-road as anything. No fancy torsion-bar or dodgy optional air springs here, thank you very much.
So why did Ford convince so many folks back in 1959? Well, we haven’t looked at the styling yet. Overall, the car is a bit boxy and looks somewhat old-fashioned compared to Plymouth and Chevrolet (but not quite so much compared to AMC and Studebaker). Fins were naturally part of the design, but they were quite discreet compared to other domestic offerings. The big turbine taillight was to have a long afterburn on the rear of Fords of the next decade – that rear end, to be sure, looked rather good.
The front end is a bit less inspiring, but then Fords of the 1957-59 generation were, in my view, rather ill-equipped in that department. If anything though, the ’59 is the best-looking of the bunch, with that star-pattern grill adding a bit of pizzazz. The front bumpers, however, are needlessly blocky and do nothing for the car’s appearance, which is all the more puzzling when you consider how well-designed the rear bumpers are. Ford couldn’t do faces in those days, for some reason.
Stepping inside, we see a pretty attractive (and a tad conservative) dash – nothing like the Googie nightmares of Mopar cars, which is probably a good thing. But then there is the obverse of the coin: Ford’s column shift linkage, barely visible on this picture, looked like it belonged more in a late ‘40s car than a fancy ’59. But other than that and this car’s rare dash-mounted vacuum cleaner option, there is little worthy of note, frankly. Nicely done.
So what was the secret sauce that made the 1959 Ford a relative hit? It didn’t offend anyone. While Chevy went a bit mad and Plymouth’s reputation was shot, Ford played the part of the conservative no-nonsense option, with a dash of style thrown in thanks to that Galaxie / T-Bird roofline and those big round rear lights.
As far as the Skyliner is concerned, the technical feat was impressive, but it took another 30 years for the concept to be revisited, this time with success. Poor Ford. That was their one party trick, and it wore thin very quickly. I suppose the lack of luggage space and the constant worry that one of the hundred-plus components that made the roof move might fail – just when it starts to rain – were pretty big hurdles to overcome.
CC Jukebox: 1959 Ford Galaxie – On The Street Where You Live, by Joseph Dennis