Late in 1956
Ford released their new range of vehicles - which were available in three wheelbase lengths, 19 different body styles, and 31 alternative finishes, of which 19 were two-colour combinations.
The new Fairlane 500 was nine inches longer and four inches lower than its predecessor, and was made available with right-hand drive and Fordomatic transmission options.
The beauty of any big American car of the era was its ability to soak up the miles effortlessly,
and at the end of a long trip there were none better able to deliver both driver and passenger free of fatigue and in such great comfort.
American and Canadian cars were fitted with the Thunderbird special V8 engine developing 245 b.h.p, (gross), while most export cars came with the standard 4,458 c.c. V8 which developed 176 b.h.p, gross at 4,400 r.p.m. on a compression ratio of 7.1 to 1.
On the normal left-hand-drive models each bank of cylinders had its own exhaust system - however when the steering was converted to right-hand drive this was not possible, and a pipe ran from the right-hand manifold to join up with that on the left, which in turn took the gases to a single down pipe. Ford quoted the same power figures for both models, although it was obvious that right-hook cars suffered some performance degredation.
The Fairlane 500 could cover the standing-start quarter mile in exacdy 20 seconds, reaching a touch under 70 m.p.h. in doing so. Road tests conducted at the time indicated the speed continued to rise quickly, 80 m.p.h. being reached in 31sec. Thereafter the Fairlane steadied down, and plenty of clear road was required for the maximum to be attained.
The Fordomatic torque converter with a stepped transmission had three ratios giving maximum in Drive range of 38 m.p.h. on Low, and 65 m.p.h. in Second. By placing the selector in Low the maximum speed on this ratio was increased to 44 m.p.h. When the kick-down was not used that is, if the second pressure on the throttle pedal was not taken up the Fairlane pulled away in Second and changed into top at 45 instead of 65 m.p.h., or at a lower speed if the throttle opening was less.
If in Drive the kick-down wis used for extra acceleration as, for example, when overtaking. Low would not engage above 18 m.p.h. and Second would not come in above 62 m.p.h. Commentators at the time praised the transmission for its smooth delivery of torque produced by the V8 engine, and for its wonderfully smooth changes.
If there were an achilles heel, it was in its low speed changes, where many felt it should have allowed the driver to be able to kick-down into Low at speeds in excess of 18 m.p.h: When accelerating from, say, 20 m.p.h., response was a little dissappointing as only Second was engaged - even under full throttle.
The torque multiplication coupled with the sound at low speed of the big V8 engine gave the occupants the impression of a marine launch when the car was moving gently away from rest. There was the characteristic "cooling-water-in-the-exhaust" burbling sound; A very pleasant note that was not too loud. At higher speeds the engine remained quiet, a slight roar being heard only when a lower ratio was engaged under full throttle.
American drivers had been lucky enough to sample the silky smooth delivery of V8 power for some time, but to many around the world, particularly right-hand-drive export markets, the Fairlane 500 was their first taste of what was on offer. For a car of its size the Fairlane was suprisingly not fitted with power assisted steering as standard for export markets, which meant the gearing had to be high. Still, the turning circle of 40ft was quite reasonable for a car more than 17ft long. It was achieved in conjunction with 4 turns of the wheel from lock to lock. But it remained obvious that the Fairlane was not at home in confined spaces, and manouvering remained hard work.
On The Road
Owing to the character of the soft suspension, the degree of steering accuracy was not up to par with the high standards of most European cars. This was to be expected, as the Fairlane had been designed primarily for conditions in which comfort on long, often unsurfaced straights was a major consideration. Little road shock was carried back to the wheel, and the standard of comfort was excellent. The ride remained level, and the seats were soft without being too springy. There was plenty of leg room, and there were armrests on all four doors. The bench front seat had fore-and-aft adjusttment; all seats were upholstered in leathercloth and woven plastic.
Brakes were never a strong point of American cars built during the 1950's, and while the Fairlane brakes did not exhibit any weakness under normal driving conditions if you tried to pull up quickly from high speed, or in the case of an emergency, it was inevitable that you would detect some grab on one side or the other, followed by fade if the procedure were repeated before the brakes had had a chance to cool again. As the drums got little ventilation, the high degree of self-servo action of the shoes, in conjunction with the high operating temperatures, resulted in an increase in pedal travel which could be disturbing.
Quoting the Ford Sales Brochure..."Ford 6 or V-8 - the performance is great. Pick your GO...and love it. This is the Silver Anniversary of Ford's V-8 leadership. And here's even more of the kind of performance that made Ford first. Pick your brand of ginger...get maximum power at lowest cost!" The Fairlane, Fairlane 500 and Wagon models came with a 212hp Thunderbird 292 V8, and could be optioned with the 245hp Thunderbird 312 Special V8...
Many who first looked that the new Fairlane 500 thought the protruding lip of the winddscreen surround would cause unnecessary wind noise, but such detractors would soon learn that the reverse was the case; a belt of high pressure air was maintained against this lip when the car was at speed, which would aid silencing. At highway speeds the engine was quiet, and the wind noise negligible, all this helping minimise driver and passenger fatigue on long runs.
Visibility all round was good, aided in part by the swept-round laminated windscreen. The bases of the sloping pillars protruded into the front-door openings, but the car was of such size that they did not impede entry or exit. The swivelling ventilator windows could be turned around to act as "scoops" in hot weather.
With all the windows shut (in the interests of silence or to exclude road dust), the ventilation system provided a reasonably good supply of cool-air to the interior - much better than was found on 1950's European marques.
Driving the Fairlane 500 would have seemed daunting for those accustomed to smaller 4 cylinder cars, but once inside they would soon realise just how well designed the Fairlane was, all corners of the car seen readily by the driver. The fins at the rear extended almost as far as the bumper extremities, and the hoods over the head lamps protruded similarly at the front. The cleanly curved bonnet was adorned only by an emblem which acted as an aiming mark.
On The Inside
The layout of the instruments and minor controls was very practical. The speedometer was placed under a cowl directly in front of the driver, with gauges at its extremities. The odometer and indicator for the transmission selector were in the middle. Minor controls were placed at either side of the steering column, while the radio was in the middle of the facia. There is a lidded glove to the left. There were no reflections in the screen from the instrument lighting.
The boot was spring loaded, and could swallow a great deal of luggage, even though it had to share the space with a 8.00 x 14in spare wheel and tire. A tool kit was located in a recess beside the spare wheel.
The fuel tank held sufficient petrol for approximately 240 miles of hard driving. The filler was tucked behind the
spring-loaded number plate. American legislation covering the operation of headlamps dictated that their illumination was excellent, while the horns were powerful without being raucous. Underrbonnet accessibility was good. All the filler caps and components requiring regular attention were easy to reach.
All in all the Fairlane was a good car, meeting the demands of the American family at a time when the baby boom was in full swing. It had an up-to-the-minute design, displaying high standards of engineering combined with spacious passenger accommoodation and a more-than-adequate standard of roadworthiness.