UNIQUE CARS Magazine
Thirty years ago when young Normie of 'Newcastle Song' fame and his seven mates were cramming into the sweaty confines of an FJ Holden, wiser and definitely `cooler' groups of yobbos were doing their cruising in the substantial surrounds of a Ford Customline.
The car that symbolised success during the 1950s had by 1975 pretty much outlived its appeal to mainstream motorists. The finned profile and wide, grinning grille still attracted attention but the overhead-valve V8 that revolutionized Ford engine design was seen as a gas-guzzler. And then there was the problem of rust.
Once the tin worm took hold, there wasn't much call for old 'Cussies' - as they became known - and many would end their days down the back of the pack at provincial speedways or supplying power for a clinker hull ski boat. The 4.5-litre V8 was a cinch to marinise and delivered all the torque needed to haul a couple of hefty wake-hoppers off their backsides.
Cars that had been carefully maintained by doting older owners were occasionally hived off to equally doting younger ones and from there to enthusiasts like Jim Pierce, who owns our featured and pristine 1958 model. Mostly though they were bought cheaply by the progenitors of today's street-machine generation who flicked the original engine in favour of a larger and later model V8.
The actions of both groups have combined to unwittingly preserve Customlines in surprising quantity and reap the rewards of increasing enthusiast appeal.
The restyled, and re-engined overhead-valve Customline arrived in 1955 as a replacement for the short-lived side-valve model. The new V8 engine was enlarged by almost half a litre, featured brand new OHV cylinder heads with a higher compression ratio and consequent uplift in power of some 20kW. Despite having 1760kg to shift, early cars with their compulsory three-speed manual transmission would reach 60mph (96km/h) in less than 12 seconds with a top speed close to 160km/h.
Police forces were quick to pounce on the revitalized Ford for pursuit duties, while the Mainline utility provided the basis for hundreds of ambulance and hearse conversions. Minor styling changes defined 1956 and '57 updates, accompanied by engineering advancements including the introduction of 12-volt electrics and three-speed Fordomatic transmission.
So called because of its four-pointed grille decoration, the 'Star' model Customline introduced in late 1958 brought minimal mechanical changes but more than a touch of added glamour. The already complex chrome side stripping was amended to more easily accommodate triple-tone paintwork and the dashboard redesigned around a circular speedometer. Sadly, this led to the demise of the circular-dial radio - replaced by a rectangular unit flanked by a clock and heater/demister controls. By this time, the majority were being supplied with automatic transmission and known simply as Fordomatics, with 'Customline' exclusive to manual versions.
Ford's Canadian operation had stopped building the Australian-shape car in 1957 and by 1959 could no longer supply parts, forcing Ford to replace its popular model with the oversized and ill-handling Fairlane 500.
While Australian buyers were offered only the four-door sedan, locally designed Mainline utility and station wagon, those overseas enjoyed a wider selection that included the elegant Crown Victoria hardtop, two-door Club sedans and the Sunliner convertible.
Jim Pierce can't recall a time during the past 30 years that he hasn't owned a Customline and our featured Star version has been part of his life since the mid 1990s.
"I had them when I was young, learned a lot about them and knew when I found this car that it was something special," was Pierce's explanation of his affection for the big Fords.
"You know a good car by the way it sounds and feels," he said. "The doors should shut easily and there shouldn't be rattles and squeaks everywhere. This one came from Mildura and from what I've been told by people in other States the place to find good Customlines seems to be country Victoria."
ON THE ROAD
Customlines in today's market range from the manifestly original to significantly modified, with several stages in between. It is therefore difficult to assess 'typical' examples from every category, so we'll stick with just two. At one extreme will be the car that retains its original engine/transmission, drum brakes and undersized tyres. These appeal most usually to enthusiast owners who will use them sparingly and accept the limitations of a fifty year-old design.
Those seeking a 'Fifties Cruiser' will most likely be attracted by a later-model V8 and transmission, Falcon or Fairlane front brake discs and power steering and the perceived advantage of smaller diameter, wider wheels.
The first and most unsettling aspect of standard cars is their low-geared steering - both manual and power-assisted - that spoils what might otherwise have been an excellent driver's car. Even while maintaining an outward appearance of authenticity, that problem can be cured by installing a later, more responsive power steer setup.
The standard Ford drums are obviously no match for modern brakes but adequate unless the car is being frequently used in hilly terrain or heavy traffic. Retaining standard-sized tyres will exert fewer stresses on the coil front suspension than wide, low profile rubber.
Finding a car that's acquired a 1970s 5.0 or 5.8-litre 'small' block motor or was modified decades back to accommodate an ex-Fairlane 332 (5.4-litre) or even a 6.5-litre '390' should satisfy almost any need for additional speed. Where a standard three-speed Customline would run the standing 400 metres in a touch over 18 seconds, a stock `351' automatic should shave at least two seconds off that time.
Fuel consumption is dependent on various factors but the 15.6L/100km averaged by Motor Manual when testing a 'Star' model Fordomatic in October 1958 is still realistic for small block engines.
Interior and boot space are both exceptional, the standard vinyl covered seats are comfortable and visibility brilliant. These cars were not equipped from new with seat belts and modifying one to accept belts can be expensive.
Plenty of Customlines remain squirreled away in backyard sheds and on country properties, awaiting what should be straightforward restoration. At the opposite extreme are cars like Jim Pierce's pristine beauty - extremely scarce and likely be double the price of a typical restored car but with significant investment potential.
"Buying the best car you can afford will save money in the long run," Pierce advised. "Well kept cars with the original engines and brakes maybe aren't as usable as the modified ones but they are the ones that have gained most in value because they are scarce."
Solid but neglected cars can cost $5000 and buyers don't seem to discriminate much between early and later models. Those that have acquired non-standard mechanicals and were superficially restored 10-15 years ago are likely to reach $12,000, while very good originals can realize double that figure. Mainline utes are marginally cheaper than sedans and a very good Crown Victoria two-door can exceed $40,000.
BUYER CHECK POINTS:
Why the Customline and its derivatives survive in such numbers is the massive chassis, but rust still attacks and can be hard to eliminate. Most obvious signs will be bubbling of the sills, behind the front mudguards and headlamp surrounds. Cars that seem to have escaped problems in these areas still need to have their floors and rear suspension mounting points carefully inspected. Missing or damaged chrome work - especially side 'spears' and Star grilles - is difficult to replace. A car that feels 'loose' with clunks and rattles on rough surfaces probably needs replacement body mounts - a specialized and costly job.
ENGINE & TRANSMISSION
The 'Y' block engine is durable and easily reconditioned, as is the old-style automatic transmission. Mechanical parts can be obtained locally or from a myriad of US-based suppliers. Oil leaking from the rear main bearing is common. When inspecting an original Y block engine after it's been started, do not touch the pipe running crossways at the front of the motor - it is an exhaust pipe and invariably hot. Fitting dual exhausts removes the danger and remanufactured headers for this purpose are available.
SUSPENSION & BRAKES
The coil front/semi-elliptic rear suspension used by Customlines is durable and easily maintained. Check the rear spring shackles and u-bolts for looseness and wear. Cars that have seen infrequent use over several years will likely require a new kit of suspension rubbers - a cost of around $500. Those that have been modified to accept later model disc brakes need expert inspection to ensure the safety of the alterations. A worn or leaking steering box can be reconditioned or replaced by any number of later units, while a manufacturer in the USA offers a rack and pinion conversion priced from US$1300.
INTERIOR & ELECTRICAL
Post 1955 cars with 12-volt electrics are preferable and, unless you are a stickler for authenticity, find one with electric windscreen wipers replacing the vacuum-operated originals. Fuel gauges often give false readings. New trim materials are impossible to find says Jim Pierce, so ensure the vinyl is sound or be prepared to sacrifice authenticity. Cars that have acquired bucket seats in place of the original bench were usually converted well before such work required certification. Look closely at seat mounts and runners to ensure they are firmly attached and the adjusters work properly.
PRODUCTION: 1955-59 18,000 (est) - sedan only
BODY: steel body on separate steel chassis, four-door sedan, two-door utility (Mainline)
ENGINE: 4.5litre V8 with overhead valves and dual throat downdraft carburettor
TRANSMISSION: three speed manual or three speed Fordomatic
POWER & TORQUE: 122kW @ 4400rpm, TORQUE 338Nm @ 2300rpm
PERFORMANCE: 0-80km/h 11.6 seconds, 0-400 metres 19.8 seconds (Fordomatic)
SUSPENSION: Front: independent with coil springs, upper and lower control arms and telescopic shock absorbers. Rear: live axle with leaf springs and telescopic shock absorbers
BRAKES: drum/drum, power assistance optional
WHEELS & TYRES: steel 15 x 5, 6.70 x 15 crossply or 185/R15 radial
PRICE RANGE: $5000-35,000 (sedan)
CLUB: 1949-59 Ford Customline Club (VIC), various 1950s Ford V8 clubs in other states