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1956 Ford offered power and safety, sold on affordability

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1956 Ford offered power and safety, sold on affordability

The 1949 Ford had been a big step, coming as it did on the heels of a 1948 Ford that actually was a subtly changed pre-World War II car. Returning 1942 models to production with token modifications after the war’s interruption had been the smoothest way to make civilian vehicles available when peace arrived, so every American automaker did just that while planning future products.

In Ford’s case, the 1949 model really was new, as Special Interest American Cars cites its longitudinal leafs replacing transverse springs and abandonment of the torquetube drive. Although the same flathead six-cylinder and V-8 engines were under the hood, that hood and the entire body were flatter and cleaner, adding up to a car miles from the 1948 model.

A New 1952 Ford Followed by a New Ford V-8

It became known as the shoebox Ford and was successful enough to run for three model years almost unchanged, but when the 1952 Ford was released, it was another clean break. In most ways even less rounded than its predecessor, it retained a suggestion of the separate rear fender via a stamping in the quarter panel. A big factor in its new look was the curved one-piece windshield, according to the Standard Catalog; it blended remarkably well with the Victoria two-door hardtop despite the fact that the rest of the Victoria’s greenhouse was visually almost identical to the 1951 version.

While the lightly changed 1953 Ford marked the company’s 50th anniversary, the 1954 Ford was at least as significant as it marked the end of the flathead Ford V-8 and the unveiling of its overhead-valve replacement. Ford had made the same change in sixes in 1952, according to Chilton’s Manual, going from a 226-cubic-inch flathead of 95 horsepower to a 101-horsepower OHV 215. The new six was modern, a good match to the six in the 1952 Chevy.

The improvement in the six was obvious and when it came to the new Ford V-8, the numbers were no less dramatic as each engine displaced 239 cubic inches, but Motor’s Manual places the flathead at 110 horsepower and the OHV at 130. Best of all from Ford’s perspective was the fact that it was still the only car in the low-priced three to offer a V-8 and that V-8 was now brand new.

1955 Ford Faces Tough Competition

The 1955 Chevy and 1955 Plymouth would follow with the Small Block V-8 and Hy-Fire V-8, respectively, in totally new bodies, but the 1955 Ford was ready for them. It hadn’t been standing still since its OHV engines had appeared and the V-8, according to Motor’s Handbook, was now a 162-horsepower 272 while the six had reached 120 horsepower and 223 cubic inches.

It was the early phase of the Horsepower Race and thus a good time for enthusiasts, so looks were a bonus. Ford and its two main competitors were each completely – and successfully – restyled for 1955, with the Ford having the curious advantage of being able to emulate its new sports car, the 1955 Thunderbird. The two-seater aimed squarely at the Chevrolet Corvette was introduced on October 22, 1954, according to the Standard Catalog, but there was no reason that its general lines couldn’t be applied to the full-size car.

The new Ford’s taillights were round for the fourth year – but according to Special Interest American Cars were larger – and fins were starting to appear above them. The previous body’s curved windshield had now evolved into a true wraparound while the combination of side-trim, hooded headlights and revised stampings combined to provide a leaning-forward look, but even with its larger size and higher beltline, the 1955 Ford was obviously meant to look like the 1955 Thunderbird.

$56 + ’56 Ford = 56 in 56

Management was smart enough to restrain itself when it came to creating the 1956 Ford. Since the 1955 model had been a new design, it would naturally serve for at least another year and according to the Standard Catalog, it did so with larger taillights at rear and a switch from round to oval parking lights at front. A simpler grille with broader mesh filled the same opening and with revised hood trim gave the car an appearance sufficiently new to distinguish it from the previous model.

The Crown Victoria returned for a final year in its original form and according to American Cars of the 1950s, a Victoria Fordor – Ford’s first four-door hardtop – was added, but there was more. Anyone who had doubted the reality of a horsepower race had only to look under nearly any new car’s hood. In Ford’s case, according to Chilton’s Manual, doing so might have revealed an optional 312 V-8 with as much as 225 horsepower in Thunderbird form. It was a good way to keep up with the 1956 Chevy, where engines ran to a 205-horsepower 265 – that could go to 225 horsepower as the optional Corvette engine – but Plymouth’s 240-horsepower 303 available in the Fury was another matter.

There was a strange incongruity, though, in that such a performance-oriented time saw the 1956 Ford’s initial promotion based on safety features such as a padded dashboard, seat belts and a recessed-hub steering wheel. It didn’t work, according to Iacocca, which explains that future Ford President Lee Iacocca devised a plan where a customer could make a 20-percent down payment on a new 1956 Ford and then reduce the financed remainder at $56 per month for three years.

He called it “56 in 56” and it succeeded well enough that the Philadelphia sales district where Iacocca was assistant sales manager went from last place in Ford sales to first in just three months. Iacocca’s theme was picked up at the national level and he wrote that it was later estimated to have accounted for 75,000 of the more than 1.3 million Ford sales that year.

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