Fifty-Seven Ford Fantasies - 1957 Ford Supercharged Skyliner, Thunderbird from Hemmings Muscle MachinesApril, 2006 - Eric English
By 1956, Ford and Chevy were locked in a dogfight with stock car racing dominance at stake. Neither company had been a factor in this competitive realm during the first part of the 1950s, when Hudson, Olds and eventually Chrysler were the major players. This began to change in 1955, when Chevy shocked the racing world by winning the biggest event of the NASCAR season--the Southern 500 at Darlington. In 1956, it would be Ford's turn at the Southern 500, with Curtis Turner at the wheel of his Schwam Motors-sponsored ride. Hardly a flash in the pan, Ford went on to 14 Grand National wins in '56, no doubt a factor of growing experience, the right drivers, and the debut of the 312-cu.in. version of the Y-block V-8. On the flip side, 1956 was a comparative disappointment for Chevy, which had treaded water with its 265-cu.in. engine and garnered just three Grand National victories. The following year would be different story. With two years of development under its belt, 1957 was the year in which the small-block Chevy really came into its own. Enlarged to 283-cu.in. and offering both dual quads (270hp) and fuel injection (250hp and 283hp), it didn't take long for Ford to realize it had to do something to fend off the attack--and fast. Ford boss Robert McNamara distinctly articulated the looming Chevrolet threat in an executive communication in late November 1956, and outlined a counteroffensive in the form of a supercharged 312. Time was of the essence, and McNamara wanted 100 units completed in time for NASCAR's Daytona Speed Trials in early February, thus meeting the sanctioning body's homologation requirements. In little more than two months, the necessary number of cars were built. In a letter dated November 26, 1956, McNamara said, "Because a performance program is deemed essential to the maintenance of a Ford car and Thunderbird performance reputation, plans were formulated for its continuation. As you know, two high-performance engines (a 312-cu.in. 8V carburetor engine developing 270 horsepower, and 285 horsepower with a special camshaft) were approved for installation in the Ford car and Thunderbird." McNamara went on to say that it was the opinion of Ford Engineering that these engines were not powerful enough to compete with Chevrolet's fuelies and other makes and that engineering recommended installing the McCulloch superchargers, bringing the horsepower rating to 300. Both of Frank and Cathy Stubbs' 1957 Fords are the direct result of efforts by the blue oval to gain a competitive edge in stock car racing. You could say the 1957 NASCAR season panned out in Ford's favor, as it won 27 Grand National races and 26 convertible class wins, compared to Chevrolet's count of 19 and 12. On the other hand, Chevy men emerged with the respective driver's titles due in large part to a system, which awarded more points for bigger races. Regardless, both manufacturers built more exciting cars as a result of their on-track rivalries, and we have two near-perfect specimens featured here.
1957 Phase 1 Thunderbird
We had trouble deciding whether to use one of the most misused words in all of automotivedom, rare, as a way to describe the Stubbs' 1957 Thunderbird. In the end, we succumbed to the temptation as this car is truly a rare bird in every respect. Many automotive enthusiasts are aware of the handful of 1957 Thunderbirds that wore a McCulloch supercharger on the 312-cu.in. four-barrel V-8s because they are, quite frankly, the pinnacle of the 1955-1957 two-seaters. Generally recognized as "F-Birds" by virtue of the "F" engine identifier in the VIN, just 196 were built, all in the latter part of 1957 production--June 10 and later, to be specific. It's certainly fair to say these cars qualify as rare; however, the Stubbs' supercharged T-Bird isn't actually an F-Bird at all--it actually carries the D-code, the more pedestrian single four-barrel 312. Say what? Recall that McNamara communiqué was written in late November 1956, with an urging that 100 supercharged cars be completed by early 1957, in time for the Daytona Beach events. As mentioned earlier, 100 supercharged Fords of various models were completed by this date, but none were identified by the later F engine code. Rather than calling these F-cars, the hobby has embraced the term "Phase 1" or "D/F" as a way of distinguishing the early supercharged cars, of which only 15 were Thunderbirds. That's right, just 15 Phase 1 supercharged 1957 Birds were built and our feature car is one of only eight known to survive. The Stubbs have owned their white Phase 1 Thunderbird since 1991, when they bought it as a basket case in Reno, Nevada. Frank Stubb became aware of the car through a friend who was storing it for a client. Being the main man behind Frank's Restorations, the stated condition did not deter Frank, since he clearly grasped the significance of the car and soon made a bid that took some two years to be accepted. From the outset, Frank and Cathy decided the car would be built to enjoy; as such, this Thunderbird's odometer accumulates about 2,000 miles every year. With a direction set, Frank launched into the restoration of this 1957 model with the mindset that he'd do a presentable job, enjoy frequent drives for five or six years and then do a complete body-off. The latter hasn't happened as the Stubbs simply have too much fun driving the T-Bird. While the Stubbs may feel the current condition of their T-Bird is well short of one of Frank's prime restorations, we couldn't spot anything less than fantastic driver quality anywhere we looked. With years of collecting and dealing early T-Bird parts, the only real challenge when dealing with the missing parts on this project had to do with the tough-to-find supercharger components--specifically the Phase 1 supercharger pieces, which are obviously scarcer than an F-code setup. Stubbs put out the word and lucked into a good share of the Phase I items from an Alabama man. A trip to Carlisle turned up the remaining missing pieces. If you've never been in a 1955-1957 Thunderbird, you'll be surprised at how difficult it is to enter the cockpit. A distinctly legs-first entry is helpful due to the steering column's low angle. Stubbs bought his first Thunderbird in 1971, and has years of practice perfecting his entry technique--both he and his wife say it's just second nature to them now. Once inside, the quarters are cozy and while the bench seat at least suggests the idea of a three-person capacity, it'd be a mighty tight squeeze. Seat belts? Forget about it. We had the pleasure of driving the supercharged Thunderbird and have to say this one is really dialed in--running perfectly in both cruise and repeated full-throttle modes. In most respects, it feels very much like a small mid-size pony car, no doubt in part to the setup which Stubbs finds to his liking. This means good-size B.F.Goodrich radials, aftermarket front and rear anti-roll bars, gas-charged shocks and a '60s vintage Toploader four-speed in place of the original three-speed. Likewise, power feels very much on par to a modified small-block Mustang of similar displacement. The engine is stock save for a mild Clay Smith camshaft, and while the supercharger certainly brings a strong power rush at the top end, the 312's smallish 3.80-inch bore means the cylinder head is distinctly limited in terms of valve sizing. In the end, this was much of the Y-block's downfall in contrast to the small-block Chevy. Horsepower for a blown 312 came in at an even 300, and 270hp was the rating of the next highest option on the T-Bird list--the dual four-barrel 312-cu.in. V-8. On paper, the horsepower rating compared favorably to the fuel-injected Chevrolet and in fact was wholesale priced at virtually the same $340 premium as the small-block fuelie. Obviously, Ford was taking the Chevy challenge straight on.
1957 F-code Skyliner
Ford clearly rolled the dice with the introduction of the first retractable hardtop on a mass-produced vehicle. The novel idea all but eliminated the negatives associated with a fabric top, but in the same breath, pretty well eliminated the normally vast trunk space. Surely, it would take a certain kind of buyer to purchase a Skyliner--one such customer was George Chaltin of Bellwood, Illinois. Chaltin had been present for the action at the 1957 Daytona races and left impressed by the performance of the new supercharged Fords. Before going home, he tried to score a blown fixed-roof Fairlane 500 from a Daytona-area Ford dealer, but didn't make the deal. The failed impulse buy turned out to be a good thing, however, as Chaltin subsequently attended the Chicago Auto Show, where the new retractable Ford was front and center. Watching the top go up and down all day long convinced him that the ultimate combination would be a supercharged Skyliner, which he ordered from Courtesy Motor Sales. As it turned out, Chaltin was one of just a handful of customers nationwide to order an F-code Skyliner, and was perhaps the only one to order it specifically for drag racing. On the surface, one would think the heavier Skyliner would be at a disadvantage in straight-line time trials, but the extra heft actually slid the Ford one class lower into D/Stock, where Chaltin did very well against a variety of mostly GM competition. By 1961, Chaltin was a highly competitive racer and won the D/Stock title at the 1961 NHRA Nationals at Indianapolis--an event that drew the likes of a big-name stock class racers Arnie Beswick, Hayden Profitt and Dyno Don Nicholson. Chaltin's victorious 14.54 seconds at 95.14 mph may seem slower than you'd think, but mid-14s for a 2-ton Ford with limited modifications was impressive in the day. At the time, the Skyliner sported a column-shifted three-speed manual, which Chaltin later swapped for a Ford-O-Matic when the racing days were over. The latter came from a Fairlane Chaltin owned at the same time, so the conversion is complete down to the power brake pedal, which subsequent owners left in place. Stubbs seems inclined to live with the status quo for now as, while the lazy-shifting automatic leaves much to be desired, three-on-the-tree isn't exactly the cat's meow either. Such was the state of the 1957 Fords. Chaltin owned his Skyliner until August 1980, when he sold it to Dennis Pruitt. Later, the car went to a Thunderbird dealer and collector Amos Minter, who stripped and resprayed the car in its original two-tone paint scheme. The Stubbs bought the Skyliner in 2002 from Larry Evenson. Beyond the Thunderbird and Skyliner seen here, the Stubbs's own a 1957 F-code Country sedan station wagon, an F-code Custom 300 and three F-code T-Birds. Stubbs talked to Chaltin who told him that half of the 54,000 miles were rolled up on a tow bar, traveling to races throughout the upper Midwest. Chaltin said the Skyliner sat in a garage and was waxed regularly and, from the looks of the mostly original interior and engine components, it's easy to see this car was his pride and joy. We took a ride in the retractable and, not surprisingly, found it an altogether different experience than the similarly powered Thunderbird. Unlike the smattering of modifications found on the Thunderbird, the Skyliner is stock except for the transmission, so the experience was very much a blast from the past. First, there's no trouble easing behind the wheel and there's surely enough room for a bunch of friends, but the engine falls victim to the increased heft, archaic transmission and a somewhat poorer state of tune than the hard-charging Thunderbird. While the Ford-O-Matic has three forward gears, it primarily operates in just two, giving marginal gear spacing for an engine that enjoys the upper end of its powerband. A hiccup at roughly 3,000 rpm doesn't help the acceleration experience. No matter, the Skyliner isn't about straight-line performance anymore, and once up to speed we encounter the 1950s marshmallow ride typical of the day. Stubbs navigated through heavy highway traffic with comfortable ease, but we were glad he was at the wheel in this environment--the lack of firmness being a bit unnerving. Even though the supercharged 312 was a one-year wonder, no doubt helped by NASCAR's April 1957 ban on fuel injection, superchargers and multiple carburetors, Ford's retractable hardtop continued through 1959. We never fail to marvel how that exotic roof operated, which can still be considered true engineering even today. The retractable includes more than 600 feet of wire, three drive motors and a plethora of switches and solenoids, all of which proved relatively reliable. While today's new retractable hardtops benefit from far more advanced technology, designing such a piece is still no easy feat. Ford's budget for the project back in 1957 was reported to be more than $2 million, though with nearly 50,000 units sold throughout the three years the car was built, we suppose the effort was deemed a reasonable success. As opposed to today's automotive offerings, when high-performance engines rarely cross over from one model to another, it was a different story for much of the '50s and '60s. Ford's 1957 supercharged 312 is a perfect example, offered throughout the company's varied lineup from Skyliner to Sunliner, Ranchero and Ranch Wagon. As we found with other cars in the Stubbs' collection, such cars often had different characters and purpose, yet find common ground in a race-inspired powerplant unlike anything of its era. While racing success was short-lived due to sanctioning body edicts, the Stubbs are helping assure that these 1957 Fords are preserved and remembered for the long haul. Better yet, they're enjoying the cars as intended--by driving them.