Some older cars can just make you smile, by virtue of styling cues from a bygone era, flashy chrome, vibrant colors, endearing quirkiness, or maybe all of those things. Some cars just look happy. This is not such a car. This stripped-down, full-size Ford rolling slowly down a highway on a hot summer afternoon presents an expression of dour seriousness. No fluffy frivolity here; this car has a job to do, and it’s doing it, with as little fuss and fanfare as possible. Both full-size sedans and bare-bones cars have virtually disappeared from the car market in recent decades, which makes this sighting rather unexpected… still not happy, but certainly unexpected.
Stripped-down cars weren’t necessarily cheap cars. A Ford Custom like the one above wasn’t cheap in absolute terms (at $2,350 it cost 18% more than a base model Falcon), but it shined when measured in dollars-per-pound. The Custom was a full-sized car – identical in measurement to a Galaxie 500, but with absolutely no frills. For buyers needing a big vehicle at minimal cost, cars like the Custom were perfect. Or at least they were acceptable.
Ford’s Custom nameplate dated from 1949, but had somewhat of a sporadic history in the company’s 1950s lineup. After a brief hiatus, the Custom re-emerged in 1957, filling the role as Ford’s base trim model – a role it served for three years before another hiatus.
For 1964, Ford again reintroduced the Custom, filling a similar role as the ’57 model – a no-frills car offered as a 2-door or 4-door sedan. 1964 Fords featured a new design, and they were completely redesigned again for ’65, making this single model year instantly identifiable. On a dressed-up Galaxie, this design can seem somewhat busy, but with the Custom’s lack of ornamentation, one can see it’s a rather clean shape.
Ford Custom buyers fell into a few discrete categories. Many were sold to police departments or taxi companies, with Ford offering numerous police configurations in 2-doors, 4-doors and wagons with a 6-cyl. and several V-8 engine options. Taxi packages were offered only as 6-cyl. 4-doors.
Another significant market was that of business fleets. Companies that purchased fleet cars in the 1960s sought conservative, fuss-free, full-size sedans – cars that would imply that a good business decision was made in the vehicle’s purchase. And nothing too showy that would cause customers to wonder just how their money was really being spent.
A third group would also buy these cars: Cheapskates. Such people presumably needed a full-size car, but had no appetite for unnecessary superficialities that came along with buying a Galaxie for $160 more.
It’s unclear just what share of Ford Custom’s output was consumed by each of these three groups, but it is generally thought that police and taxi buyers made the bulk of the base Custom sales, while the slightly less austere Custom 500 (featuring additional chrome trim, upgraded interiors, carpet and armrests for instance) took the bulk of business and cheapskate sales.
Regardless, Ford sold nearly 100,000 base Customs in 1964, and another 90,000 Custom 500s. While that pales to the 591,000 Galaxies produced that year, it still shows that stripped-down full-size cars had quite a following. This yielded enough of a market that Ford offered a bargain “Custom” version of its full-size cars for the next 14 years. After the mid-1960s, however, the concept of a stripped-down full-size sedan began to lose some appeal. Ford’s output of Customs diminished nearly every year from 1966 through 1978 (for the last four years, Custom was only offered to fleet customers).
It’s hard to tell just what this base Custom 2-door’s purpose was early in its life, though my guess is that this was a non-police vehicle (due to the dealer sticker on the trunk lid, which would have been rare for a police car, and the lack of a spotlight). Dual exhausts suggest a V-8 under the hood (4 different V-8s were available, in addition to the standard Six), though the current engine isn’t necessarily what came from the factory.
I spotted this car on Interstate 90 in eastern South Dakota, a stretch of highway whose speed limit is 80 miles per hour. The Ford, however, was traveling about 20 mph slower than most traffic. This difference in speed made it tough to take a full range of photos, but only one picture is necessary to take a mental journey back to the past. After all, stark austerity – the type of austerity as defined by this Ford – is awfully uncommon in modern times.
It’s a bit impressive to see someone keeping the faith of austerity alive. This side profile shows the Custom’s painted (instead of chromed) window frames and the lack of side trim brightwork. This isn’t exactly a happy face, but it gets the job done. And when it comes to stripped-down cars, that’s pretty much the purpose.
Photographed in Hanson County, South Dakota in July, 2018.