1952-59 Ford Customline: Blue-Collar American becomes an Upper-Crust Aussie
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1952-59 Ford Customline: Blue-Collar American becomes an Upper-Crust Aussie

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By JoeKenwright - 18 October 2013
This Australian 1954 Ford Customline might have been a year behind the US car with its early dash, side-valve engine and king-pin front suspension but to get an annual upgrade as fresh as this onto the local market while catering for high local content requirements, Australia’s poor fuel and volatile rural economy was a huge achievement.

As the 1959 version of One Ford changed the face of Ford Australia, neither the unwieldy US Fairlane nor fragile US Falcon could meet the needs of private and government buyers who had embraced the Aussie Customline as a tough and desirable step-up from a Holden. 

Within two years, Ford’s Australian arm was fighting for its survival and had to return to building unique models for Australia. 

Because owners of local Customlines built between 1952 and 1959 would have to wait until 1967 for an Australian  ZA Fairlane replacement, each Customline still on Australian roads seemed to defy the obsolescence Detroit had intended.  Each example generated new and loyal followings with successive owners.  This extended period of relevance which crossed Australian generations places a genuine local RHD Customline of any year in elite company. 

The Customline shares an unlikely but special place in Australian motoring history with the FJ Holden and the big Austin-Healey as one of the few everyday cars from this period which had unique appeal and relevance that crossed generations.  Used values which have remained firm for decades reflect this timelessness and the fact that they were exceptional cars for their time.

This 1952 Ford press shot highlights how the first local Customline walked a fine line between cutting-edge US design, a remote rural market, hard currency restrictions and local aspirations defined by British and European tastes as well as American.  Local leather and painted wood finish inside helped but aligning the three local sections in each bumper was not always so easy!

 

The Aussie Customline and its North American Relatives

It is now widely known that Ford’s proposal for an all-Australian car based on reworked versions of its 1930s Ford V8 models was rejected against the far more modern General Motors plan that delivered the Holden. Even if the Holden’s unitary body and more efficient overhead valve inline six was the way of the future, Ford’s cruder proposal was no less relevant in the 1940s to those Aussies for whom nothing much had changed since World War II broke out in 1939. 

Jack Murray’s famous victory in the 1954 Redex Trial with his earlier beam axle, full chassis Ford that was seven years old, highlighted the ongoing relevance of a full-chassis Ford V8 to a wide cross-section of Australians. Although the independent front suspension introduced on the 1949 Ford Custom V8 was not as durable as the beam axle it replaced, the easy-going, long distance capabilities of these later models with their extra space and hauling capacity over a Holden became more desirable than ever.

Because the British Zephyr could not offer clear advantages over a Holden to justify its extra cost until at least 1955, Ford had no choice but to keep building a local version of its mainstream US V8 model to satisfy a niche for which there was no direct competition at the price. 

This 1953 “Anniversary” Customline did not require major tooling changes over the 1952 model but clever restyling at the front gave it a much fresher, more stable look compared to the 1952 model next to it. The trick was to make the grille aperture look more horizontal with a cleaner, slimmer grille and a new painted section between bonnet and the top of the grille. (photo from customlineclub.org.au)

To meet tough local content requirements and hard currency restrictions, it had to reach at least 80 per cent local content with the rest sourced out of Canada so it could be paid for within the British Commonwealth.

Although it is often suggested that local Ford V8 models from 1949 mirrored the Canadian Ford range, this is far too simplistic.

The starting point was always what was offered in the US under the Ford badge. After 1948, Ford Australia stopped offering a Mercury version as soon as that range ceased as a badge-engineered version of the Ford V8. The US Mercury range from 1949 featured panels different to current Ford models which positioned them as close to a Lincoln as a Ford. Under tiny Australian volumes, it made no sense to keep building parallel Ford and Mercury V8 ranges with separate body tooling that had to be updated for annual model changes. 

The same thinking applied in Canada except the Canadian market was big enough to absorb two separate ranges based on the same model. As a result, the current US Ford range was supplemented by a badge-engineered version of the latest Ford V8 sold under the Meteor name for the Canadian Mercury network. The Meteor was unique to Canada as it carried on the abandoned Mercury tradition of a badge-engineered upmarket  Ford.

Quaint Ford Australia booklet used 1953 Customline to highlight the advances made by Ford in its first 50 years. Note the female driver with children in the 1953 car, a message that Ford plugged relentlessly in Customline advertising and press photography as it was such an easy car to drive. The publication didn’t mention that the side-valve V8 engine was barely one generation ahead of the Model T but that would change within a year or two.

This gave Ford Australia three sources of parts and packaging for all Aussie Ford V8 models after 1949: Ford US, Ford Canada and Meteor Canada. A fourth influence was the British component industry that supported the wide choice of British cars made in Australia at the time. 

To maintain local content, Ford Australia had no choice but to source components for its US models from these British companies hence the many obscure parts changes that make no sense outside this context. 

By 1952, when Ford was ramping up local content to the required 85 per cent on the arrival of the first Customline, Ford Australia was offering a US model that had a local flavor all of its own. 

Only the local Chrysler trio badged as a Dodge, De Soto and Plymouth, all based on a Plymouth from the same era, could match it in terms of local content except unlike the local Ford, they soon fell way behind US updates. 

Local Chevrolet offerings built from CKD kits by Holden were kept aligned with annual US model changes although their RHD dashes were usually carryover from earlier models. Even if they were usually more basic and offered with six cylinder engines only, these local Chevrolets did keep Ford honest!

This 1952 Aussie Customline cabin highlights the mix of the traditional and coming US glamour. Door trims and steering wheels would vary slightly before this design was replaced in 1955. (shot supplied by freeway64)

 

The Side-Valve Customlines

For the US market, Ford changed its model names from Deluxe, Custom and Crestliner in 1951 to Mainline, Customline and Crestline for its new 1952 model range. This allowed Ford Australia to seamlessly progress from the Custom twin-spinner to the Customline triple-spinner. The new Mainline badge which covered a range of basic sedans and wagons in the US, was applied to Ford Australia’s unique coupe utility versions.

The Australian 1952 Customline  body reflected the latest US and Canadian models with its extra wheelbase boosted from 114 to 115inches (exactly midway between an HQ Statesman and ZF Fairlane) along with extra width and length.  The styling was a neat development of Ford’s ground-breaking three-box design (three boot, roof and bonnet boxes with bonnet and boot height almost matching the tops of the integrated guards) first seen in 1949. 

As soon as Ford’s radical 1949 “shoebox” design was embraced as the next new look, Ford moved quickly to give it a “forward” look  by flattening some of its surfaces, moving the headlights over the bumper and raking the rear in a forward direction with a matching pressing around the rear wheel arches. 

A heavily curved rear screen and one-piece windscreen reflected new advances in glass technology. Ford’s trademark circular tail lights that would define the rear of local Falcons until 1969 (as well as various Fairlanes and Galaxies until 1964) first appeared on the 1952 Customline. 

It might have been a year behind the US dash in 1954 but how could you not be swept up with the romance of the road and the local 1954 Customline’s club-like atmosphere portrayed in this shot! (shot supplied by freeway64)

The dash was equally adventurous and clean with its half-circle instrument panel and switch panel that emphasized the clear view though the one-piece windscreen. Pendant pedals replaced the floor-mounted type.

Against a backdrop of 1940s-styled British cars and the first Holden, the 1952 Customline was radical. Ford Australia sensibly passed on some of the wild new interior treatments on offer but stayed with the previous pleated leather in a wider range of colours including two new two-tone options. 

The headlining was changed from the fairly oppressive local woollen material that attracted moths and was easily stained to a new washable leatherette material in ivory. The new metal dash panel and doors were finished in a carryover wood paint finish that applied to all interior colours. This muted presentation was compatible with local tastes defined by Europe, Britain and the US in equal measure.

After Ford Australia commenced local assembly of the 239cu in/3.9-litre side valve V8 for the 1951 range, the locally-manufactured Australian version was readied for the 1952 range and upgraded from 100bhp to 110bhp. 

This 1954 Australian Ford Customline is about as close to showroom original as you would find with its painted headlight rims. The local ribbed wheeltrims were a popular addition for all local Ford V8 models with 15 inch wheels as one-piece US wheelcovers tended to fly off on rough Australian roads. Black was also common when the Customline was prestigious enough for a wide range of limousine and civic duties. (photo from customlineclub.org.au)

Although Holden’s six developed 60bhp on a lower compression ratio, the big Customline’s performance was not that far ahead because of the weight and size difference. Holden weight was tied to the old ton or about the same as a British four cylinder family car while the Customline was a ton and a half (1000kg versus 1500kg in round figures).  It’s why they made compelling competition rivals from day one!

Although the 1952 car would generate the tooling and mechanical base for two relatively easy and cheap annual facelifts, there was a fundamental difference that would age the 1952 model before its time. To maintain continuity between the 1951 Custom Twin-Spinner and the 1952 Customline Triple-Spinner, not only was the grille more ornate with its extra spinner but the upper grille aperture was defined by a deep chrome hoop similar to the 1951 range. It gave the 1952 model a more upright look that said early 1950s.

For 1954, Ford deleted the chrome strips from the tops of the doors as fitted to 1952-53 models, added the current US steering wheel design and changed the door trims for the third time to provide some differentiation over the carryover dash design.

As a result, the 1953 upgrade which followed the US range looked much sleeker despite surprisingly simple changes. Better known as the Anniversary model, after much was made of Ford’s 50th year, it had quite an impact arriving just before Holden’s new FJ. 

The big styling change which set the agenda for all Customlines to follow was not just the cleaner grille, although it too played its part. Ditching the spinner theme, Ford gave the new grille a slim centre dome flanked by simple strips that gave the 1953 model a more horizontal look. 

The side valve engines in the local 1952-54 Customline/Mainline ranges were manufactured almost entirely in Australia towards the end to achieve 85 per cent local content. Under low octane Aussie fuel, it was not yet such a big handicap. (photo from australianvintageclassiccaravan.yuku.com)

The clever part was adding a painted section between bonnet and grille which made the whole car look lower and more stable.  An extra chrome strip above the rear wheel arches and smaller centre sections in the tail lights were more than enough to generate renewed attention in a market where annual changes were still rare.

Even if there were few changes in the 1953 cabin, it was still barely a year old. At 1425 pounds or $2850, the Customline was still astonishing value against the Holden Special at just under $2100, although both cars were still out of reach of most Australians with long waiting lists for the Holden and limited availability for the Ford. 

The 1954 Customline was the landmark upgrade in the US but not in Australia. A new grille maintained the 1953’s more horizontal and slender look while returning to the spinner theme and some of the detail of the 1952 model. Tail lights received extra detailing in the inner and outer sections.  Side trim was simplified to a full length side strip which made the 1954 model look slimmer and sleeker from the side as well as the front.

Most of these details were translated to the Australian model except for the hubcaps which had black centres, not red as in US models, the main visual difference.

Ford’s pioneering local Coupe Utilities were extensively repackaged under the new Mainline badge from 1952. A new rear section with Customline-style rear guards featured Ford’s early elliptical tail lights set vertically at each corner. A convertible-type cross-braced chassis and larger 16 inch wheels made it as rugged as any F-series with extra cabin comfort and style. This is the 1954 version.

The big news in the US was an all-new dash with back-lit half-circle speedo, fewer gauges and new steering wheel design. 

Under the bonnet, Americans were offered the first of the new Y-block overhead valve V8 engines (so-called because the block extended below the crank centre-line) but with 130bhp from the same 239 cu in/3.9-litres. The overhead valve six which had been on offer since 1952 could now be boosted to deliver 115bhp or five more than the old side-valve V8. To match the new performance from both engines, the 1954 US model introduced a new ball-joint front suspension that replaced the old king pin design. 

Because none of these advances including the dash were offered on the Australian 1954 model, there has been no shortage of speculation why, not always correct. It is widely assumed that the Australian cars followed the Canadian specification which is not strictly what happened. 

Both the Canadian and Australian Ford Customlines did continue with the side valve V8 until 1955 except the Canadian 1954 Customline featured the new LHD US dash. The Canadian Meteor Rideau however continued with a version of the 1952 dash hence the confusion but it was filled with rectangular instruments including speedo that left it looking nothing like the Australian version.

This photo of a 30,000mile 1955 Customline taken when purchased by a mate in the 1980s freezes the local habitat and look of this model when new. The plain presentation of the local version was an essential bridge between conservative past models and wild new US models. One of the few local cars available with metallic paint, this one’s big visor, aftermarket mirror and indicators and radio were typical of the era. Rear venetian blinds were also popular with Aussie heat.

There was no point tooling up for a new RHD dash in Australia as the 1952 dash had barely been on sale for two years. Compared to the FJ Holden dash which had changed little in six years, there was simply no need as Ford could sell every 1954 model it could build.

Because the side valve V8 had only been in full local production since 1952, it made no sense to scrap its tooling and castings so soon for a 20bhp/15kW increase. Although fuel efficiency was always an issue, no one was complaining about a lack of power. If Ford had rushed the new engine into production and reduced the compression ratio of the 1954 239cu in/3.9-litre version of the Y-block to run on poor local fuel, the power output of the new engine would have been reduced to side-valve levels anyway.

Instead, Ford Australia was on a mission in 1954 to achieve partial local content for the new Y-block engine and sensibly waited for the 1955 US upgrade to 272 cu in/4.5-litres before releasing it. The ball joint suspension was part of the switch to the Y-block engine and it could also wait for local componentry as local content was still the deciding factor in Customline pricing.

For better or for worse, there was no other 1954 Customline in the world like the Australian one. Its 1952 dash had two more gauges than the US 1954 dash anyway, something that remote Australian owners valued.

In fact, it was still the car for its time with its trans-Atlantic pleated leather and mock wood-painted cabin and a proven engine that chugged along on miserable local fuel. 

 

The First Local Overhead-Valve Customline

The Aussie 1955 Customline was seen as a game-changer with its boost in wheelbase (115 to 115.5 inches), all new Y-block overhead valve engine, new body, ball joint front suspension, new dash and the latest vinyl trim.

In the US, the 1955 model was seen by more objective commentators as a clever re-style that hid a range of cost-cutting measures including a cheaper grille, less detailed panels and a low cost revamp of the plain 1954 dash with its carryover fuel and temperature gauges moved from under the speedo to inside it. 

New 1955 dash with backlit speedo was already in its last year in US Customlines but stayed in local cars until the end of the 1957 series. From 1956, the deep-dish safety steering wheel was fitted. New vinyl trim was seen as more practical than the leather it replaced. All local Customlines had a rubber front mat.

This cheap no-frills base enabled Ford US to deliver unbelievable value at entry level even if the finish and fit were notoriously rough and ready, the wipers were poor and the 6 volt electrics old hat. Despite the curved windscreen and tail fins, which housed ribbed blank plates and not the new-fangled reversing lights and indicators as standard, it was a clever but cynical rehash of the 1954 car. 

Model levels were now Mainline, Customline and a new Fairlane level. The clever part was that very little of the expensive tooling items changed as a buyer shopped-up the range. Ford simply added extra chrome and multi-colour paint schemes. 

This shift to easily-changed add-on trim and different colour combinations suited Ford Australia perfectly. But the 1955 model was a one-off nightmare for the Australians as so many new bits had to deliver a return for at least three years, preferably four. This ground work had to be done for an August 1955 release, as Ford knew that Holden’s first new body since 1948, due in 1956, would be a big step forward. 

Thus the1955 Customline dictated new tooling for the body, bumpers and dash, new engine ancillaries and castings and brand new glass technology. It was a huge commitment given the vagaries of the Australian market (see Footnote) but the 1955 restyle and mechanicals gave the new model a huge boost to help cover the big jump in price to 1694 pounds/$3388.

This 1955 Meteor chassis shot highlights the new Y-block V8 in 1955 Australian Customlines. Note factory exhaust routed across the front of the engine for extra underbonnet heat and a receptive market for exhaust improvements offered by high-profile Customline owner/driver Len Lukey. Ball joint front end also seen here was a ground-breaking advance in Australia where front end shimmy and tyre wear from tired king pins were a real issue.

Performance was just short of the hallowed ton at 95.8mph/154km/h and the standing quarter mile just over 19 seconds. Anything that topped 90 mph or covered a standing quarter with a number starting with a 1 was quick in 1955. Fuel economy was a big improvement averaging an acceptable 20mpg/14 L/100km for such a big and strong car. 

When the FJ Holden was still running 6 volt electrics and vacuum wipers, split windscreen and single centre tail light, the 1955 Customline could be forgiven for its austere cabin with its vinyl trim and rubber front mat and similar shortfalls in its lights and wipers. The number of blanks on the dash highlighted what Australians were missing but for the target market, it was a simpler, more durable car.

The dramatic boost in cornering speeds, neutral handling with understeer or oversteer on demand and firmer suspension settings set new benchmarks locally and in the US. It is clear that Ford was now far more confident about feeding extra forces into the suspension and chassis with the extra strength of the ball-joint suspension. This placed the Customline a full 10 years ahead of Holden.

 

The Y-Block Missing Power Mystery 

Ford faced another problem. Local oil companies would soon be forced to lift their game with higher octane fuel in 1956 to match Holden’s engine upgrade in the new FE series but not soon enough for the new Y-block V8. 

This 1956 press shot of the Aussie 1956 Customline highlights why it was one of the pin-up cars of the era, again with no body changes but clever styling tweaks. New grille and parkers returned the wide, horizontal look of the 1953-54 models after the 1955 Customline’s huge round parking lights returned the taller 1952 look. Note Ford’s unique local numberplate frames that appeared around 1955-56.

Because the local 1955 Y-block engines had to be assembled from a mixture of local and imported parts before it went into local production for later models, de-compression plates were inserted between the heads and block to reduce the compression ratio to 6.8:1.

Despite the big increase in capacity and the latest overhead valve design, this cut local 1955 power output back to just 145bhp. Most sources quote an unchanged 160bhp for the entire 1955-59 local Customline series but this makes no sense as performance between these models varied considerably.

After Wheels had been supplied with a test car that had its de-compression plates removed for its December 1955 test, the magazine noted that the claimed 162bhp could not be compared to other local power figures and suggested that 141bhp was closer to the mark.

Local fuel quality ultimately generated three different 272 cu in engines in local Customlines with three different power outputs. There were also different combustion chambers and carburettors spread over the three engines.

The 1955 and 1956 engines featured the same early Ford Holley/Stromberg 94 carburettor except for 1956, the de-compression plates were removed and the timing and valve lift tweaked to match the new compression ratio of 7.6:1.  The switch to 12 volt electrics allowed a fatter spark which made the engine more flexible and responsive beyond its new 165bhp output. 

Aussie market was ready for extra glitter and the 1956 model delivered with the fancier side strips and new Styletone paint option that repeated the lower colour on the roof. The normal two tone option used the side strips to divide the upper and lower colours in two sections, not three. The chrome headlight rims shown here were not standard until 1957. (photo from australianvintageclassiccaravan.yuku.com)

This was enough in 1956 to shave 1.5 seconds from the standing quarter and pushed top speed close enough to the magic ton, or just short of 160km/h.

For 1957, compression ratio was wound back to 7.1:1 but a new Holley 320cfm carburettor was specified along with a new distributor design and head tweaks to deliver 164bhp. The engine continued in this specification until the last Customline of 1959.

The Australian 1957 Customline is regarded by many as the ultimate local Customline after its exterior was based on the Fairlane version of the US 1956 model except the 1955 dash was still there. Local additions included V8 grille badge, 1955 Meteor bonnet mascot and chrome headlight rims. This one has the Styletone option. The Fordomatic Styletone option had an extra chrome side strip through the rear section that framed a third colour. (photo from australianvintageclassiccaravan.yuku.com)

Although only the 272/4.5-litre Y-block was offered to private buyers, persistent rumours suggest that some special purpose vehicles may have been fitted with the larger 292/4.8 and 312 cu in/5.1-litre versions available in the US. The Customline was popular as a police pursuit and accident investigation vehicle, ambulance, government tow vehicle and wedding car as well as civic limousine duties and funeral parlour fleets including hearses and mourning cars. 

Special unmarked examples were built for VIP transport. During those early cold war days, it is conceivable that these special 1955-59 Customlines, sometimes trimmed in the pleated leather of the earlier models, may also have featured bigger engines under the bonnet for escape purposes. Records of these cars have yet to be revealed but anomalies in specifications from new suggest there was some flexibility for government and other essential services if local content was not a concern.

 

The 1956-57 Aussie Customlines

The Canadians produced special parallel Meteor Rideau versions of the 1955-56 Ford Customlines with more elaborate grilles featuring a V and a star in the centre.  They also featured more ornate side trim different from the US Customlines and different bonnet mascots. These two models would later prove critical to the local car’s extended model life.

For 1956, the US Customline addressed most of the criticisms of the 1955 model by adding 12 volt electrics combined with a clever but simple re-style that restored the horizontal aspect of the 1953-54 models with its wide, low profile front parking lights. Tail lights were more prominent and the Customline side flash was more elaborate than the straight side strip of the 1955 model. Safety was given priority with better door locks, optional seat belts and dished steering wheel. 

Twin V8 exhaust outlets in the rear bumper corners were a gimmick that made little sense for Australia.

A new US dash restored the class missing in the 1955 cabin.  It offered optional padding and four round dials. In reality, Ford had only re-packaged the clock and warning lights in separate dials in the instrument cluster. The volt meter and oil pressure gauge of the Aussie 1952-54 models were gone for good.

Another time warp example, this one is a 1957 Mainline Coupe Utility as auctioned by Shannons. Note US 1956 Fairlane Victoria bonnet and mascot not shared with sedan. These later Mainlines had carryover 1952 Mainline rear section but with round tail lights. A Fordomatic option was offered in 1958 in the “star model” Mainline which also had an extra triangular light section above each tail light.

Ford Australia picked up most of these changes except the 1955 dash continued, as it was only a year old. It was combined with the latest dished steering wheel but there were no seat belts or dash pad.  

Yet the 1955 model suddenly seemed old. A new Styletone colour option matched the roof to the lower body with a different colour in between. The normal two-tone option only split the colour above and below the side-strips. In colour variations alone, it gave local buyers their first chance of generating an individual Customline. 

A Fordomatic option was added later in the 1956 series with badges to match. It was a popular option. Incorrectly described as a two-speed, it would take off in second gear but by the time it reached Australia in 1956 it had been re-engineered to pick up first automatically under hard acceleration. It was a tough transmission shared across a number of US light commercials and Checker cabs.

The US 1955 to 1956 appearance changes pre-empted what Holden would do with the FE to FC transition which would later keep this Customline series younger than its 1955 origins suggested. Holden wouldn’t match its wraparound windscreen and finned looks until 1960.

The 1958 Australian Customline combined most of the Canadian 1956 Meteor Rideau exterior with a 1955 Meteor grille and an Australian version of the 1956 US dash. The manual Customline had more basic exterior side trim and different seats compared to the Fordomatic. This Styletone example could not be optioned with a third colour with its simpler side trim.

For 1957, Ford Australia elected not to follow the new US 1957 Ford Custom 300/Fairlane 500 models with their long 118inch wheelbase and extra length. Huge new tooling costs and the extra bulk would have generated extra cost and lower local content with no real benefit to Australian buyers.

Instead, the 1956 model continued into 1957 but with the elaborate side trim of the US 1956 Fairlane models combined with chrome headlight surrounds, a large centre V8 badge in the grille and unique Fairlane boot badge with Customline script.  

An extra side strip was added below the Fairlane side trim for the Styletone tri-colour option allowing buyers to move further away from the 1956 model. Power brakes and power steering options in conjunction with the Fordomatic option delivered conquest sales to a rapidly growing number of isolated rural women drivers when there were so few alternatives. Ford promoted this aspect heavily in its sales and pressmaterial. 

The 1958 Australian Fordomatic “star model”was badged exclusively as the Fordomatic, not with Customline and Fordomatic badges as for previous models. This example has the full Styletone tri-colour option but the more elaborate side trim stayed even with single colours. Note the 1956 Meteor Rideau bonnet mascot over the 1955 grille which for many Australians was a three year step back in time. (photo from customlineclub.org.au)

The 1955 dash remained and was now looking plain and dated compared to all the extra glitter outside. Intriguingly, the local 1957 sedan featured a 1955 Meteor bonnet mascot and bonnet while the Mainline ute version picked-up the 1956 Fairlane Victoria bonnet and mascot. 

 

The 1958-59 Aussie Customline

The local recycling process continued into 1958 with another variation of the 1955 body known locally as the “star model”, for a second model out of synch with US body changes.

This time Ford Australia combined the 1955 Meteor grille with 1956 Meteor Rideau body detailing. 1955-56 Meteor side trim mimicked the US 1955-56 Mercury models which had a raised pressing around the rear wheel arches hence the dip in the Canadian side trim was shaped around where this pressing was on a US Mercury.  It was very different to the Customline side trim as a result.

The new rear boot badge with its star theme was lifted from the 1956 Meteor as was the bonnet and its new mascot. All that was missing was the 1956 Meteor grille.

This is the Canadian 1956 Ford Meteor Rideau which is how the Australian 1958 model should have looked. Was this grille too wild for Australia in 1958 or could it have been used for a late 1959 facelift to bypass the poor-selling US 1959 “tank” Fairlane which Australia was stuck with until 1961? (photo from vacm.qc.ca)

For such simple changes, Ford moved this final series considerably upmarket only to have it reversed by the more upright-looking 1955 front with its large round parking lights. The elaborate 1956 Meteor front might have been a better choice if it allowed Ford to keep building the popular  Customline for another six months until it could be replaced by the US 1960 model. 

The 1960 US Fairlane was a bigger step ahead of the Customline in looks and the perfect match for the new 1960 Falcon than the 1959 US model sold locally. The recycled 1959 Canadian Meteor version of the1959 US “tank” Fairlane that kept this model alive on the local market until 1962 left Ford Australia seriously exposed after the Falcon fell over. 

It is assumed that the 1958 “star model” picked up the 1956 Meteor dash but the dashes in the Canadian 1955-56 Customlines and Meteors followed the US models. The 1958 dash was totally unique to Australia with a different layout and what appeared to be only a speedo and two gauges. In fact, the local Smiths gauges offered no less information than the 1956 US dash; they were just packaged differently including a slick centre-dash clock option. 

The green LHD dash from a Canadian 1956 Meteor Rideau followed the US and Canadian 1956 Ford upgrades. The pink RHD dash from an Australian 1958 Customline (all Australian Fordomatic versions had their selectors on the right of the steering column so this dash must belong to a manual) highlights the many differences in layout and content in this unique Aussie dash. (photo from customlineclub.org.au)

A proper fan-boosted fresh-air heater was also optional with a unique slide control panel on the dash, also supplied by Smiths. 

The range was split into manual Customline and automatic Fordomatic levels without a trace of Customline badging on the latter. Both models featured very different trim and stitch patterns. 

The Fordomatic side strip had an extra parallel strip specified regardless of the Styletone tri-colour option. This meant that the manual Customline could only be ordered in single tone, two-tone or Styletone in two colours only. The Fordomatic  Styletoning added a third colour fill to the parallel side strips for standout effect even in 1958. 

Power steering and power brake options continued with the long list of 1958 appearance options.  As Geelong production was wound down ready for the new Campbellfield line to come on stream, the Customline ended on a high note even if Ford’s own improved Zephyr Mark II had eroded some of its buyer base.

The US 1960 Ford Fairlane was a generation ahead of the 1959 Fairlane and a more deserving replacement for the much loved local Customlines. It would also have provided a better context for the first Falcon which was surrounded by dated local Fords on its Australian arrival. Even if it continued unchanged until the 1962 “compact” Fairlane arrived, this US 1960 Fairlane would have still looked fresher against the latest Chevrolet and Dodge Phoenix.

Footnote: A rare interview with ex-Ford Australia President Sir Brian Inglis some years back provided vital insights into local Customline history from his early days managing the Geelong production line.  Because a large proportion of Customline sales were dictated by the size of the Aussie wool clip or wheat harvest and the British capacity to pay for them, budgeting on projected production numbers to pay for new tooling was impossible. 

Because a Holden had a much broader application and was less of a discretionary purchase than a Ford V8, sales highs and lows were less pronounced hence Ford’s rush to join this market with the Falcon. Sir Brian explained there just wasn’t enough certainty of a return to pay for annual tooling that could sit idle during a drought year.  Ford’s solution was to break up as many automated manufacturing tasks into manual tasks while sourcing recycled overseas items. As sales varied, the work force could be boosted or reduced. 

This meant that most panels were cut out with band saws. Sir Brian recalled the extra finishing of the rough edges this required and still shuddered at the potential for injuries generated by shattering blades. Yet it was the only way. The three-piece local bumpers with joins hidden by the overriders were another example where assembling three smaller parts was cheaper than tooling for one big part.  

Even in the field, this was desirable as one damaged section could be replaced or repaired but only as long as labour was cheap enough to dismantle it and re-assemble it. One of the reasons that so many worn-out Ford V8s remained on properties is that so many parts remained interchangeable and could keep the next one alive. 

In this context, a new Australian Customline with discernible changes every year was an amazing manufacturing achievement under such tough and volatile market conditions.

Thanks to Customline expert Bill Noach (aka Cusso Bill).

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