When you watched Rebel Without a Cause, it was a Ford coupe that James Dean drove in the deadly game of chicken. When you built your first lead sled, chances are it was a Mercury or Ford from the early fifties. If you went new car shopping in 1949, 1953 or 1954, you likely bought a Ford. These cars not only saved the company, they brought Ford into the modern age. To top it off, they were stylish, tough and sporty for the era. Today they feature prominently in the retro hot rod build ups, classic restorations and rat rod creations. Read on as we give you the inside dope on choosing a solid Dearborn flyer from the also rans.
Year by Year Identification: The 1949 model shared nothing with the 1948 and earlier generation Fords in styling. The grille was large, chrome plated and featured a central bullet with either '8' or '6' in the center for engine size. The turn signal lamps were at the end of each grille spear. The body panels were slab sided with large windows compared to the 1948 model. These cars were available in sedan, station wagon and convertible bodies. Nameplates were limited to Standard and Custom series. For 1950, the grille changed slightly, using square turn signal lamps on the fenders below the headlamps. Nameplates were Deluxe and Custom series. 1951 models had a new grille with two smaller bullet motifs sharing a prominent chrome spear. A new hardtop called the Victoria joined the series and became a big seller. For 1952, the car had a major restyle. The grille had a split spear with bullet at each end. Large quarter panel chrome vents were added. If it was a Crestline, it also had a rear fender chrome spear. Model names grew to three with Mainline at the bottom, Customline in the middle and Crestline at the top. Tail lights changed to the circular rocket booster style. The 1953 model had a new grille with a return to the central bullet idea with four vertical bars on each side sandwiched between a huge chrome bar. Tail lamps were the same as 1952. Side trim was ornate on the Crestline and Custom models with vertical jet spears on the wheel housings. For 1954, Ford boasted a new Y-block V8 engine, new ball joint suspension instead of king pins and a new green plexiglass roof on the Skyliner model. The grille was revised with a replay of the 1952 center bar and bullet but with fancier wrap around turn signal pods. Side trim was simplified and full length now.
The 1950 Ford has square turn signals and a central bullet.
The 1951 hardtop was new that year.
1952 Ford Customline with bumper guards.
1953 Ford convertible in red was height of luxury.
Engine Power trains & Popular Options: From 1949 to 1953, the V8 offering was a Flathead displacing 239 cubic inches. A straight six with 226 cubic inches was standard until 1952 when it was replaced by the 215 cid unit. In 1954, it was replaced by a 223 cid unit while the all new Y-block overhead valve V8 debuted with 239 cid and 130 horsepower. You would think the Y-block would be the strongest preference for engine choices, but the Flathead was very reliable by 1952 and a huge backlog of parts made it easy to keep up and modify for power. Today, we see two groups of enthusiasts in play. Those who admire the Flathead for its "retro charm" and growing list of new fabricated performance goodies will go after the early '49-'53 bodies. Those who love the Y-block will pursue the 1954 models. In Canada, it should be noted that the Flathead was used in 1954 models. Transmission use was primarily a three-speed, manual column shift with optional overdrive. The automatic transmission was available in 1951 offering a two speed drive with Low Gear range and was called Fordomatic.
Flathead power was dominant until 1954.
When it comes to options, the V8 is highly preferred by most living in or near cities for ease of operation in traffic. The Custom series especially in convertible or Country Squire station wagon bodies are prime picks for collectability. Some 1949 models came with optional four spoke steering wheels in white. A black version appeared in the Crestliner as well. The businessman's coupe is a two door variant with shortened rear windows offering cleaner lines and a sporty appearance. Low production makes them hard to find today. In 1950, a sub model called the Crestliner offered two tone side coves and a vinyl roof in an effort to copy Chevrolet's Bel Air hardtop. It is desirable yet not so rare as to be impossible to find. The convertible's very collectable in spite of its high production, and it is hard to find one at a reasonable price.
Radios are scarce in every model year and it is always good to have a car with this option. Power steering is also rare and shows up more often in the 1953-54 models. Other goodies to find include a dash clock, heater and in 1954 you might find a Victoria with power windows. You must remember that features we take for granted were either unavailable or very costly back then. A car with power steering, radio, tinted glass and some fancy chrome trim was considered pretty loaded. A car with power windows and seats was hot stuff and usually found on a Victoria, Sunliner or Skyliner model.
A radio with heater was well equipped for 1951.
Power steering and brakes were available in 1953.
You're doing well if you have a radio, V8 overdrive with mid or premium level trim. Some may wish to go the other way and pick up a business man's coupe with heater, radio deletes and either stuff a big bore Y-block in there or modify the Flathead for performance. Enough of these cars were made to satisfy most buyer's wishes. The most desirable models are going to be Skyliners, Sunliners, V8 two doors, Country Squire station wagons and V8 business coupes. With the old school and rat rod trend catching on, even the basic two door sedans are popular to work with.
The 1950 convertible has it all including skirts, bumper guards and appletons.
Things to Look Out for: These cars were solid and well engineered. There are a few caveats to consider when buying. You might encounter an early production '49 that feels loose with squeaks, rattles and groans from the body. Most of these cars have been restored or revamped at least once so replacement bushings usually take care of this issue. Manual steering cars may have a slight shimmy at low speed, indicating a need for a new idler arm or at worst, a steering box rebuild. One item you may encounter on unrestored '49s is the troublesome front suspension which is known for not holding an alignment. By 1950 the front suspension was changed and improved. The Fordomatic transmissions are good units when rebuilt and using modern oil. If you have a barn find car or survivor with old A type oil in it, you'll want to check for slipping gears as varnish is a problem with old style fluids. Once redone with Dexron 2, they are good for 100,000 miles. Many owners found the 6-volt wiring a pain and have done conversions. You might want to get an upgraded kit to install if your system looks liked it was patched together and spliced up. None of these are deal killers, but they are valid negotiating points.
When it comes to engines, the Flathead is reliable but quite old fashioned. Rebuilding a worn out engine can get expensive due to specialty parts such as main bearings, pistons, connecting rods and crankshaft. It shouldn't be much of an issue if you plan to just get it on the road to drive since you can use many different pieces from different cars. The Y-block 239 V8 had hot rod pieces available right from the start and a few are being made today. One problem you might encounter is a noisy valve train due to blocked oil return holes in the cylinder heads. Regular maintenance would prevent this being an issue. The noisy tappets however are just due to loose tolerances. A new set should be an improvement. The original Y-blocks used a cross over pipe connecting the exhaust manifolds up front. This caused lots of burned arms for mechanics and it's common to see dual exhaust manifolds to avoid the entire cumbersome arrangement. Early carbs were prone to leakage and it's common to see later era carbs on the cars.
60,000 miles barn find flathead in a 1952 Ford.
Nowadays it'll be hard finding a car with the correct engine in it. It was very common to swap out a 239 for 292 or a T bird 312. Since it is externally the same block, you have no easy clues to identify the displacement. Ford didn't stamp VIN numbers on the engines back then so a date code check is your best way to verify authenticity. Many owners considered a big bore increase an upgrade and figure it's worth a premium. The only sure way to tell a 292 from a 312 is to pull off the oil pan and check the main bearing cap stamps. Those were engine specific. Most buyers looking for a street machine are content with a period correct Y-block with appropriate 312 carb, intake and dress up items. With the hot rod and retro street machine fans, these engines are used as a starting point for custom build ups and correct items aren't as important.
When it comes to bodies, these Fords were pretty stout. Rust problems do occur and there are a few trouble spots that can be costly to fix. The sills on the 1950-51 era cars have lots of rectangular holes hidden by the sill plates. If unprotected and the car was driven during harsh weather, trapped water can rot the rockers inside out. You might not even see the damage until you start your restoration tear down. Always check under the sill plates and inspect the holes with a bendable spotlight. The lower firewalls are prone to rusting as well. These can be easily inspected underneath. Check the area around the foot pedals especially on the '49-51 models as the covers around the pedals can let in moisture. Externally the main areas for rust tend to be wherever bright trim was attached to the body. Speaking of trim, many cars built from late 1951 to late 1952 had very thin chrome plating and wore prematurely due to Korean War materiel restrictions. One more area of concern is the metal below the hood hinges on the 49-51 models which had a metal shelf. Trapped leaves and water can rot out the upper cowl and connecting hood hinge supports. Rickety, uneven hood action is a good sign something is amiss.
Check under sill plates for rust and debris inside channels.
Floor pedal area is known for rust on early models.
The hood hinge metal support can rust away due to a metal shelf holding leaves and water.
The 1949-50 woodie station wagons were made using laminated elm wood blocks with maple veneers applied over the steel bodies. The practice was suppose to be dropped by 1951 and replaced with steel panels covered with a Di-Noc wood film transfer framed by real Maple blocks. This was Fords's attempt to give customers that woodie look without the headache of maintenance. Then the Korean War started and materiel restrictions applied by the government made Ford drop the wood transfer film over steel idea. Steel was declared a war resource material and wood paneled 1951 and 1952 wagons were made. The amount of wood used varied according to monthly allowances made by the government. Real wood vanished from Ford station wagons by mid 1953. This only demonstrates there were no steadfast ultimatums on manufacturing during that turbulent era.
Verification & Documentation: These cars were produced before VIN numbers were in use. Serial plates and casting numbers with date codes are as close as you'll get to determining original issue status. For Y-block heads, you're looking for a 6090 casting number followed by a three letter code cast between the exhaust ports above the spark plugs. A Y-engine block has a 6015 casting number and the application code is either found above the oil filter or near distributor and above the generator. Date codes are often next to a freeze plug on the block side. As mentioned before if the engine is installed in car, the only way to verify for sure will be during teardown due to the generator blocking the casting.
Serial numbers are located on dash panel under the hood or the upper right hand side of cowl under the hood from 1949-1951. In 1952 they are the right front body pillar. From 1953 to 1954 they are on the left front body pillar. The first digit is the engine size, the second digit is the year, the third & fourth digits are the assembly plant codes. The serial number and trim codes appear on the patent plate. If you are seeking a particular model or trim level, consult some reliable guides or club members familiar with your car. Sometimes the cars are built for special markets like taxi, airport or rental fleets and special paint and trim codes were used. Some like the 1953 Indy Pace Car are well known, with their SS Paint and Trim code indicating Pearl White Paint and Gold and White leather interior. Following this guide should help you find a fun, reliable Blue Oval machine.