The 1950s were a period of great prosperity for the US automotive market. The post war boom introduced many new innovations and production techniques that helped catapult auto manufacturing into the country’s largest industry segment.
Ford took advantage of this newfound demand for the automobile, and released a whole slew of models, with varying results. Some were less successful than others, with the Edsel and early Continental standing out as particularly woeful sellers.
One of Ford’s success stories came with the introduction of the Fairlane in 1955. The name was derived from Henry Ford’s Dearborn estate and it was a replacement for the top-end Crestline range. It was introduced with a range of ‘full size’ body styles and new engines. These were the more family oriented models compared to Ford’s other runaway success story, the sporty two-seater Thunderbirds.
While the ‘55 to ‘57 two-seater Thunderbirds are the more popular Fords from this era, many of the mechanicals and styling cues are shared by the four-seater Fairlanes and these luxurious cars remain a desirable ‘50s motoring icon.
Which one to buy?
In true American fashion, there were a huge variety of body styles, engines and trim options to choose from. Some of the initial body styles were a Fordor Town sedan, hardtop Tudor Victoria, Crown Victoria and Crown Victoria Skyliner, Tudor Club Sedan, and a Skyliner convertible coupe. Add to this a range of six and eight cylinder engines and constant specification changes year-on-year, and you have a myriad of potential specifications across the range.
To simplify the decision making process we will focus on the most notable changes and more popular derivatives. There were three main Fairlane models between 1955 and 1961, the changes to body styles and trim options were most drastic in these changes over years. Some of the more interesting and desirable optional extras of the time were safety belts, power brakes, power steering, power windows and air conditioning.
The Skyliners have complex folding metal tops that require professional attention if they do go wrong. The hydraulic system can suffer from humidity and lack of use. The massive electrical wiring loom can also cause intermittent problems but is generally reliable. Sunliners, introduced in 1958 offer a far less complex soft top and with more than twice the number built are generally lower priced too.
To keep potential customers interested, each year introduced updates and changes to the basic cars. 1956 saw the introduction of the ‘Life guard’ safety features which comprised of a deep-dish steering wheel, dashboard padding and optional seatbelts amongst other changes. 1956 also saw the introduction of a 12 volt electrical system which makes these the more sought after models as opposed to the original 1955 cars.
Engine options were a 120bhp 3.7l straight six, 162bhp 4.5l V8 and 193bhp 4.8l V8 with a more powerful 300bhp 5.1l V8 supercharged engine becoming available as an option in 1957. These were the days of the horsepower wars and power outputs and engine capacities were constantly growing.
Performance and specs
1956 Ford Fairlane Victoria
Engine 3642cc 12valve OHV I6
Power 137bhp @ 4000 rpm
Torque 202lb ft
Top speed 91mph
0-60mph 12 seconds (est)
Fuel consumption 20mpg
Gearbox Three-speed manual/Three-speed automatic
Dimensions and weight
• Mechanical components and running gear is all available from numerous suppliers. Whether you are looking for new, refurbished or used parts there is a specialist who can assist, but the vast majority are based in the US.
• Interior and exterior trim, as well as dashboard switches, can be a lot harder to source and may require some digging to find.
• Cars left to sit for long periods can develop rear main seal leaks, check underneath for any tell-tale signs of oil seeping past the gaskets as well.
• Rust is a big issue on the ‘58 models in particular but all versions are prone to corrosion. Despite thick gauge metal body panels, the age of these cars means that all the usual rust prone areas should be thoroughly checked over. This includes, but should not be limited to, the rocker panels, lower quarter panels, underneath headlamps and in the Skyliners and Victorias the floorpan should also be checked over.
• The majority of Fairlanes will have been restored at least once during their lifetime so check the history of the car thoroughly as some less scrupulous types may try to palm off cars as something that they are not.
• Since most of Fairlanes were built before the mandatory VIN number era, the best way to check the car’s originality is to inspect the District Sales Code on the driver’s side A-pillar. The engine, paint code and axle type can be gleaned from this number.
1955: Ford Fairlane introduced replacing Crestline as the top line model. Engine options were a 3.7-litre straight-six, 4.5-litre V8 and 4.8-litre V8. A range of body styles were offered, including a two-door Crown Victoria Skyliner with transparent glass roof, two-door Fairlane Victoria and a Skyliner convertible - featuring an elaborate folding hard top. Seatbelts were optional extra for the first time
1956: 12-volt electrical system adopted across range, exterior changes to grille treatment and Lifeguard safety features introduced – featuring numerous changes to increase passenger safety. Air-conditioning became an optional extra as well as a slight increase in power output for all engines.
1957: Second generation of Ford Fairlane launched. Major changes in the form of new body frame, longer tailfins and new range of trim lines. Fairlane 500 becomes top trim spec. Engine power increased across the range with 300bhp 5.1 supercharged V8 topping the list.
1958: Quad headlights introduced and a grille matching the sporty Thunderbird
1959: Ford Galaxie becomes top trim level. Two and four door sedan body styles offered
1960: Third generation Fairlane introduced. Fairlane range now base model followed by Fairlane 500, Galaxie and Starliner packages. Major visual changes to Fairlane range including more angular body panels.
1961: 6.4-litre V8 engine, introduced as option for top line models. Last year of manufacture for third generation Fairlane
Owners clubs, forums and websites
• www.skyliner.org - Fairlane Convertible enthusiast site
• www.fairlaneclubofamerica.com - Great source for Fairlane info and cars
• www.fairlaneforums.easyphpbb.com - Forum for Fairlane owners
Summary and prices
Pricing is closely linked to the rarity, spec level and originality of these cars. The transparent top Victorias and convertible Skyliners command the highest prices with some listed for £75,000 and more. The other desirable models such as the Fordor Victoria and Tudors range between £15,000 and £25,000. V8 engined models command a premium over the six-cylinder variants and if you are up to the task, rusty projects can be had from as little as £5000.
The vast majority of Fairlanes are based in the US, however there are a number of UK dealers specialising in these sorts of cars and as long as you are not too set on a specific model there are always a handful of high quality cars to choose from.
Words: John Tallodi