Collectible Classic: 1949-1951 Ford
The American auto industry has run into a ditch, but what many people may not realize is that Ford has been in a similar position before. In 1945, when Henry Ford II finally succeeded in taking control of the company after prying his near-senile grandfather's hands off the wheel, the Ford Motor Company was an atrophied enterprise. As civilian auto production resumed in 1946, Ford found itself in third place behind Chrysler and was fading fast. Young Henry brought in a team of outsiders who immediately embarked on a crash program to create Ford's first new postwar car. That car was the '49 Ford, and it was a huge advance over the previous model.
Although the straight six and the flathead V-8 engines were retained, the '49 was otherwise a major step forward mechanically, with a vastly updated chassis. The car was trimmer outside but roomier inside, and its all-new body left behind the separate-fenders look of the prewar days in favor of a sleek, unified new shape styled by newcomer George Walker together with Dick Caleal (a freelancer who previously worked at Studebaker), Elwood Engel (who would later pen the '61 Lincoln Continental), and Joe Oros (credited with the Mustang). The '49 Ford - which remained virtually unchanged through 1951, although the central grille spinner was gone after '50 - proved to be a major hit and helped return the company to second place, behind General Motors.
Recently, we had an opportunity to drive a 1950 Tudor sedan, a nicely restored example owned by Tom McMullen of Ann Arbor. McMullen has had it for thirty-two years. "One reason I like this car is that it's an absolute plain Jane," he says. It's true. This Ford has the 95-hp (gross) flathead in-line six-cylinder engine, a column-shifted three-speed manual, and no power assist for either the steering or the brakes. Still, the car isn't totally devoid of niceties; there is, after all, a factory radio, an electric clock, and a Magic Air heater.
It's interesting that even though this is a two-door car, rear-seat passengers aren't treated like second-class citizens. The bench seat in back is the same chair-high, three-person-wide perch as that in front, and rear-seat riders enjoy roll-down glass and flip-open vent windows. What's also striking is the solidity of the materials. Lift the massively heavy trunk lid and get a feel for the car's thick sheet steel. Roll down a window and see the thickness of the side glass. Obviously, using the bare minimum of materials was a lesson that wouldn't be learned for years to come.
A dainty little key turns on the ignition, but a separate chrome starter button awakens the engine, which idles contentedly. The pedals are of the through-the-floor variety; we push in the clutch, grab the white plastic ball on the end of the long shifter, and move it easily into first. With its huge, white steering wheel, the Ford is surprisingly easy to maneuver, and we head out onto the two-lane roads that surround McMullen's farmhouse.
In a 1950 Ford, you sit up high as you gaze out through the split windshield and over the hood, its chunky chrome strip at the center pointing the way. It doesn't feel fragile, but you don't want to rush the old Tudor. You just sort of adjust your pace and allow the car to transport you to a slower time.
Charmingly simple compared with the baroque machines that would soon follow, and yet far more modern than its immediate predecessors, the '49-'51 Ford stands at that idyllic crossroads in American history, when the country had fully emerged from the Depression and World War II but had yet to descend into the overblown consumerist culture that would come with rising prosperity. Although the times are much different now, this Ford is also a hopeful reminder that the right car can put its maker back on the road to success.
3.7L flathead I-6, 95 hp
3.9L flathead V-8, 100 hp
3-speed manual with overdrive
3-speed automatic (1951)
Suspension, FRONT: Control arms, coil springs
Suspension, Rear: Live axle, leaf springs
WEIGHT: 2900-3550 lb
3,338,860 (all body styles)
It's a milestone car in Ford history and a perfect embodiment of the American automobile at the dawn of the 1950s. Supply is plentiful (although many cars have been hot-rodded), and parts availability is very good. The car is mechanically simple, yet it's up for the rigors of modern road travel. Convertibles are pricey and wood-bodied station wagons are impossibly expensive, but coupes and sedans are relatively affordable.