During the 1950s, exotic new body styles were the order of the day at Ford. Among them was the Ranchero, a novel car-pickup that was inspired at least in part by Ford's Australian "Ute."
It was neither the best of times nor the worst. Just the most trivial. Eddie Fisher still crooned. Young men mooned over Kim Novak, and Elvis Presley had the world "All Shook Up." One of the many films imbued with the boy-loves-girl, song-and-dance mood of the times was April Love, starring clean-cut Pat Boone and wholesome Shirley Jones-not to mention a nifty 1957 Ford Ranchero Custom. The movie and its songs are long forgotten, but the 1957-59 Rancheros remain among the best of Fifties collectibles, right up there with boomerang designs, far-out pink and turquoise furniture, and Philco Predicta TV sets. Unlike the Ranchero's companion new Ford body style, the 1957-1959 retractable hardtop-convertible Skyliner, the Ranchero's influence was more far reaching -- both Ford and Chevrolet sedan-pickups were built for another 20 years or more. High-style pickups remain trendy to this day.
In essence, the Ranchero was a two-door Ford Ranch Wagon with the rear section of the roof cut off and a bed liner slipped in over the floor pan. It was at least partly a replay of the old Hudson sedan-pickup -- or 1937-1939 Studebaker Coupe-Express -- an idea which dated back to the 1934 Terraplane, and probably had its beginnings in the earlier farm/ranch tradition of simply sawing off the back section of the roof of the old family Buick or Ford. Even further back, some "horseless carriages" had removable rear tonneaus (or none at all), leaving room in the rear area for small pickup boxes-many early Fords and other makes were so fitted by owners.
The roots of the 1957 Ranchero, however, actually go "Down Under" to the land of eucalyptus trees, koala bears, and kangaroos. Ford of Australia, it could be argued, introduced the first true Ranchero in 1932 -- the Utility. Sheep ranchers, meanwhile, affectionately shortened the name to "Ute." This was a roadster with the body section behind the driver replaced by a fleetside bed, which was flush with the doors and an integral part of the body.
It used separate rear fenders, which weren't eliminated until 1949, as on the passenger cars. Despite the Great Depression, the Ute caught on so fast in the Australian outback that in 1933 a coupe version was added. This model sported small, squat rear-quarter windows that remained a Ute trademark through 1958. From 1932 to 1934 the spare tire was carried in the left front fenderwell, and from 1935-1939 it rode just below the left rear-quarter window, in front of the rear fender. Beginning in 1940, the spare was moved inside behind the front seat.
The roadster was dropped after 1938, though the coupe soldiered on for another 20 years. After that, Utes became American-designed Rancheros with the unique small rear-quarter windows removed. Old Utes are fairly rare in Australia -- most were worked to death -- and are almost non-existent in the U.S. What's so amazing is that Ford never marketed the concept in this country prior to 1957.
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The 1957 Ford Ranchero
To understand the 1957 Ford Ranchero, you need to understand the history of pickups -- which is filled with riddles. During the Thirties, the stylish Hudson and Studebaker sedan-pickups could work all week, and then go to church or the country club. Kaiser-Frazer tried something similar in the late Forties/early Fifties with its dual-purpose Vagabond utility sedans with hatchback-style rear openings. But none of them were terribly successful, so American pickups remained plain Jane commercial vehicles until 1955.
The breakthrough to high-style pickups came with the 1955 Chevrolet Cameo Carrier and its companion, the GMC Suburban. These were colorful two-tone jobs with lots of bright trim and chrome bumpers, plus interiors that were as colorful and fashionable as those in the all-new Chevy Bel Airs. The box was a slabside that came all the way out over the fenders flush with the cab, and was made of fiberglass.
While buyers didn't exactly flock to the showrooms like fans to a Buddy Holly concert, sales were encouraging enough to convince Ford management that there was at least a small market niche for a pickup in a Sunday suit. The most expedient way to answer GM, Ford reasoned, would be to give the Ute U.S. citizenship.
In discussing the 1957 Ranchero, it must be treated as an integral part of the Ford station wagon lineup. Included were three two-door models: Courier Sedan Delivery, Ranch Wagon, and the more deluxe Del Rio. Four-door offerings comprised six-and nine-passenger Country Sedans and the woody-look Country Squire. The two-door-based Rancheros were marketed through the Ford Truck Division, which had been selling Couriers all along. The wagons, and therefore the Ranchero, were built on Ford's shorter 116-inch wheelbase shared by Custom and Custom 300 models, while the more upmarket Fairlanes and Fairlane 500s rode a 118-inch stretch.
The reasoning behind the wide choice of wagons and utility vehicles was this. Beginning with the 1952 models, Ford set out to own the U.S. wagon market (like it had prewar), even though it was three years later than the competition with all-steel bodies, and hadn't offered a four-door from 1949-1951. Still, the division quickly overtook both Plymouth and Chevrolet, and by 1954 Ford was clearly America's wagon master. Production that year shot up to over 141,000 wagons, 112,000 more than in 1951 when only the two-door Country Squire woody was offered -- and two and a half times Chevrolet's wagon output.
Close to 60 percent of Ford's 1954 wagon production consisted of the low-end Ranch Wagons, and to that could be added the modest figure for the Courier. In any case, the bottom line looked attractive enough to spur Ford to add the Ranchero derivative to the lineup in the fall of 1956 as a '57 model.
Being a 1957 Ford, the Ranchero was part of the most changed Ford passenger car/wagon lineup in the company's history, with the possible exception of the Model A and the 1949 models. "The 1957 Ford does not look like much now," recalls veteran Ford stylist Bill Boyer, but "it was a highly advanced car at the time. It set a lot of new themes. It was not influenced by the Edsel. The Edsel, instead, was derived from both the Ford and Mercury, which was a mistake." While Boyer didn't style the 1957 Fords, he did work on the design of the Mystere show car-a dream car that predicted so many 1956-1957 Ford styling themes that its intended 1955 showing was delayed for a year.
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Building the 1957, 1958, 1959 Ford Ranchero
Building the 1957, 1958, and 1959 Ford Ranchero meant drawing on the overall Ford look of the time and adding new twists. The 1957 Ford Fairlane/Fairlane 500 was the first of the long, low Fords, boasting the first deeply sculptured steel body panels and a major increase in passenger room. It was far more advanced than the 1957 Chevrolet, which is a collector's darling today -- but a three-year-old body design then.
The Ford was low, wide, and aerodynamic for its time, and the entire frontal design was functional, although the rather restrained rear fins were purely for effect. The huge round taillights, originally done by Boyer for the 1952 Ford, were enlarged for 1955 and again for 1957, becoming a Fifties/Sixties Ford hallmark.
The initial styling work on the 1957 Ford was done by Frank Hershey and Damon Woods, but Hershey was fired by corporate styling czar George Walker, and Woods was killed in an automobile crash. The late Bob Maguire then took over the project, heading up a team made up of Chuck Mashigan, A.J. Middlestead, and L. David Ash.
The frames of both the 116- and 118-inch-wheelbase models were identical except for length. Like the rest of the car, the frame was a radical departure from anything the Ford Division had done in the past. Its cowbelly design, inspired to a degree by the 1954 Oldsmobile and the 1956 Continental Mark II, was nearly a third stronger than the 1956 unit and boasted heavier siderails flared way out to skirt the passenger compartment. Rear wheel kickup started a full foot further back than in 1956 so that deep footwells could be pressed into the floorpan to increase legroom.
Semi-elliptic rear springs were mounted mostly outboard of the frame side rails and were lengthened two inches. A number of other suspension improvements provided a variable-rate effect and stiffer action, and the wagons, Rancheros, and Couriers received five spring leaves instead of four. The ball-joint front suspension first introduced on the 1954 Fords was redesigned for the first time, with upper and lower arms now a single unit and hinged with live rubber bushings. Meanwhile, the arms were swept back in a trailing-arm manner for smoother wheel motion over bumps. The new chassis and suspension design, along with 14-inch wheels, resulted in a four-inch lower silhouette than in 1956 with far greater interior room. This longer, lower look, however, required a change in driveshaft and axle design.
The 1957-1959 Fords had their hoods hinged from the front. This was a production advantage-not necessarily a design improvement. In some accidents, the hood could come right through the windshield rather than flying over the top of the vehicle. On the other hand, the wind tended to push the hood down in the event it became unlatched.
Though several firms had built car-based pickups before World War II, Hudson and Crosley were the only makers to do so postwar. But they were gone before the Ranchero made its December 8, 1956, debut at the New York Auto Show. It was successful enough to goad Chevy into responding with the 1959 El Camino.
About the only major components left over from 1956 were the engines. Even these, however, had higher horsepower achieved through improved manifolding and valve design and redesigned higher-lift camshafts. The 272-cid V-8, optional on the Ranchero, was upped to 190 bhp, while the 292, optional on the Custom, jumped to 212. The standard powerplant for all Rancheros was the 223-cid overhead-valve six, which got a mere seven bhp increase to 144. Any engine could be ordered with stick overdrive or the dependable but unexciting Fordomatic.
The Heavyweight Book of American Light Trucks 1939-1966 also notes that "Actual Ranchero patent plates reveal 312s, including dual-quad and supercharged versions, were supplied." The basic 312 churned out 245 bhp, up 30 from 1956, while the supercharged unit soared with 300 horses.
Intermediate ratings were 270 and 285. These engines, which were not listed in the brochures, apparently came along later in the year and were special order units-and are now very rare.
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Creating the 1957, 1958, 1959 Ford Ranchero
Carburetors boasted Ford's new low-silhouette design, necessary to clear the lower hood, while the oil bath filter finally gave way to a more modern cartridge filter. A new two-barrel carburetor designed to give better performance in the low- and mid-speed ranges was standard for the 272 and 292. Surprisingly, it had more venturi area than the 1956 four-barrel unit. The 312 retained a four-barrel setup. V-8 distributors were improved and the crossover pipe on all V-8s with a single exhaust system was replaced with a more efficient Y-system. Dual exhausts came standard on the 312, optional with the 272/292. And finally, Fordomatics were water-cooled.
If anybody should get the credit for the Ranchero concept, it is the late Gordon Buehrig. Frankly, Buehrig has been given more credit for Ford designs than he deserved, but the Ranchero came out of his original 1952 station wagon designs. Buehrig did not design the 1950 Crestliner or the 1951 Victoria hardtop. He was only the body engineer of the 1956 Continental Mark II. He was the father of the all-steel Ford station wagon. When Buehrig joined Ford in 1949 his first assignment was to come up with something better than the 1949 Ford woody. This pleased him greatly because he despised the wagon that the surfers loved. Going from a 1952 sedan clay, he designed two wagons, a two-door Ranch Wagon and a four-door Country Sedan. According to Buehrig, the wagon he did was a two-door on one side and a four-door on the other.
The former then became the basis for the Courier as well as the Ranch Wagon. In addition, it became the Utility, but only marketed in Australia with the characteristic two tiny windows added at the rear. His four-door became both the Country Sedan and Country Squire. Buehrig's original 1952 lineup served as the basis for all wagon marketing throughout the decade, and evidence suggests Buehrig did the 1957 Ranchero later by adapting his original 1952 concept to 1957 Ford wagon styling.
The Ranchero came out two months after the introduction of the 1957 Ford line. It was formally introduced at the National Automobile Show, which opened at the New York Colosseum on December 8, and made its debut to the world in the musical motion picture April Love. Pat Boone sang the title song to Shirley Jones as they drove a blue and white Ranchero Custom through the Kentucky blue grass country. Actually, the Ranchero played a major role in the film, which had a host of 1956-1957 Fords in supporting roles.
Evidently, GM and Chrysler were caught off guard when the Ranchero came out. Dodge hastily cobbled the entire rear section of its two-door six-passenger station wagon onto the back of its standard pickup truck to create the finny Dodge Sweptside. Chevrolet and GMC merely continued with their Cameo and Suburban models, then Chevrolet caught up in 1959 with the El Camino, which was based on the same concept as the Ranchero.
The Ranchero was a beautiful camouflage of the Ranch Wagon, and with full parts interchangeability. A metal bed liner covered up the wagon's subfloor; it simply screwed in and could be easily removed. Many owners hinged the rear section of the liner so they could stow the spare tire in the wheelwell where it was kept in the wagons. On factory-equipped Rancheros, the spare stowed behind the seat, right where it had been on the Aussie Utes since 1940.
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Design of the 1957, 1958, 1959 Ford Ranchero
The 1957 Ranchero had 32.4 square feet of cargo space, considered sufficient in 1957, but no more than most of today's compact longbed pickups. The tailgate was the lower section of the 1957 wagon tailgate. The only addition was the chrome steer's head below the Ford logo, which identified the Ranchero -- as if it needed it.
The Rancheros came in two series, standard and Custom. The first was as spartan as a parson's Plymouth and was available in a limited selection of colors and interior schemes. It was priced at $2098. For a mere $51 additional, a buyer could move up to Pat Boone's Custom model with all the trimmings. These included chrome sidespear, dual sun visors, horn ring, and full custom door panels and seat (basically Del Rio wagon trappings). The Custom also sported bright metal trim that framed the rear window and then swept down and around the top edges of the bed. Contrary to popular belief, the gold anodized side trim (as seen on the Custom 300 cars) was not standard on the Custom Ranchero -- this was a dealer item in 1957. Taking a cue from the Australians, aftermarket suppliers offered tonneau covers and chrome guard rails.
Ranchero Custom interiors gave buyers a choice of white bolsters with tan/brown, white/blue, red, or green vinyl facings, all in much more attractive patterns than the standard model. The most distinguishing feature of the 1957 Ranchero Custom was the choice of two-tones, 10 in all. The upper portion of the body and roof pillars were always Colonial White. The lower bodysides and roof itself carried the second color, which was frequently Flame Red, Starmist Blue, or Raven Black. The two-tone jobs were optional, as were the dressier full-disc hubcaps and whitewalls.
Ford's approach to advertising its new car/pickup centered around its double-duty nature: "LOOK ... a handsome caller. LOOK again ... a husky hauler." Billed as "an entirely new kind of vehicle," Ford asserted that "there's the big bonus that only the Ranchero gives you-profits plus pleasure. After the day's work is done, Ranchero's ready for the evening's fun. It's the only pickup truck that rides, handles and feels exactly like a car!" Among the other selling points were the availability of virtually all of the luxury and convenience options available on Ford cars (power steering, brakes, windows, and seat, for example), plus the fact that the Ranchero had more load capacity than many standard pickups, a six-foot-long pickup bed, a lower loading height than any pickup, and a "sizeable space" behind the driver's seat for small packages (the spare tire resided on the passenger's side).
For a specialty model, first year sales could be considered a success: 6429 standard Rancheros and 15,277 Customs, this in addition to total 1957 Ford passenger car production of 1,676,449 units. With or without the Ranchero, however, Ford clearly outsold Chevrolet in 1957 for the first time since the Thirties.
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The 1958 Ford Ranchero
Less memorable than the 1957 Ranchero was the 1958 facelift. That year, Ford tried unsuccessfully to copy the 1958 Thunderbird. The Ford's grille/bumper, for example, aped the T-Bird's, but it was just different enough that the styling failed to come off. One reason was that to hold down the cost the unit was a two-piece affair instead of one. The quad headlamps were strange looking and the hood air scoop phony. The roof was fluted to add body strength and the rear attempted to copy the Thunderbird with a deep crease in the decklid and quad taillamps. The Ranchero deviated from 1958 Ford styling by retaining the large round 1957 taillights (as did the Courier), probably because the inner pair of the quad lights would have been located on the tailgate and therefore easily vulnerable to damage.
Chassis changes included a three-piece stabilizer bar, plus improved shock absorbers and front suspension. Horsepower was up a meager one on the six, and the 292 was down to 205. The 272 was dropped in favor of a 352 cranking out 300 bhp. And apparently a few 312s and 240- or 265-bhp 332s were installed, though they weren't officially listed. The best news for 1958 was Cruise-O-Matic, Ford's optional new three-speed automatic transmission, which was available at first only on Fairlanes, Rancheros, and wagons. It had two "Drive" positions, D1 and D2. In the latter all starts were made in second gear (usually for better traction), but in D1 a low-gear start provided quicker acceleration.
As in 1957, the Ranchero was available in standard and Custom versions. This year, however, the latter was called Custom 300 (though Ford itself often referred to it simply as the Custom) because it received the gold anodized side trim inserts as on the Custom 300 cars. The Custom's upholstery came in light and medium blue, light and medium brown, light and medium green, and red and white. Again buyers could opt for Colonial White with a bevy of other colors for sporty two-toning.
The standard Ranchero, which now sported a dash of bodyside brightwork as on the Custom sedans, was pegged at $2,170, while the Custom 300 listed at $2,236. The Mileage Maker Six with a three-speed manual remained the base power package. Alas, 1958 Ranchero output skidded to 1471 standard models and 8479 Customs -- a reflection of both the Eisenhower recession and the lack of public acceptance for the 1958 products from Dearborn (T-Bird excepted).
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The 1959 Ford Ranchero
The 1959 Ranchero stood as a major design improvement to most eyes, yet it isn't nearly as popular today as the 1957. The 1959 Ford line can perhaps best be described as the McNamara Ford -- like Ford's president at the time, it was the "square American." On the other hand, George Walker picked the 1959, along with the 1949, as his two best designs. Actually, Walker didn't personally design either model, but he did head up the styling department. Under him, Joe Oros penned the 1959 Ford. In its day, the 1959 was considered by many to be the most beautiful Ford ever built, and it was in fact awarded the Gold Medal for Exceptional Styling at the Brussels World Fair.
So heavily facelifted as to look all-new, the 1959 was highlighted by a 20-percent larger compound-curve "Safety-Vision" windshield, a star-studded grille, plus huge round taillamps set into even huger aluminum reflective saucers. The last were topped by the backup lights, which were the end point for jet tubes and tiny fins that started just aft of the doors. Ford offered only one chassis for 1959, the larger 118-inch unit. At mid-year, the Galaxie took over as the top-line series, boasting a special interior plus a Thunderbird-style flat rear window and roofline.
On the engineering front, frames were wider, heavier, and stronger for 1959, with side rails bowed out almost to the outer limit to allow for more passenger room. There were also a number of suspension improvements, all directed to a softer ride. The Fordomatic transmission was completely redesigned to be lighter and simplified with 105 fewer parts. It sold for less than the older version, but had only two speeds forward. Cruise-O-Matic was only slightly modified, and both automatics now placed the selector quadrant on the steering column rather than in the instrument panel. That panel, incidentally, was also completely redesigned. The parking brake was finally foot-engaged, though it had to be released by hand.
Some 1959 engines were detuned to run on regular gas. Horsepower for the 292 saw a modest reduction from 205 to 200, while the 332 was rated at 225 bhp. The six held steady at 145 bhp, the 352 at 300.
The Ranchero was touted this year as "America's first work or play truck" -- an obvious dig at the upstart El Camino. As in 1958, the Ranchero adopted most 1959 Ford changes, but the base model was discontinued, leaving only the Custom. A Country Sedan wagon interior and base exterior car trim marked the 1959 model, whose price had crept up to $2,313. For that money, the longer wheelbase allowed for seven more inches of load space, a nominal seven feet that "means bigger load space for your cargo, be it pails or sails, or hay by the bales." Once again, Colonial White was offered with a variety of other colors, or one could choose from 10 monotones.
Befitting an improved economy and more tasteful styling, Ranchero production rebounded to 14,169 units for 1959, in spite of the El Camino. The year was also significant because it would be the last year of the full-size Ranchero. In Australia, the 1956 models were continued through 1958, and the 1959 Fords, which were marketed there for three years, didn't prove at all popular. For 1960, the Ranchero was downsized and absorbed into the Falcon line. It was an immediate hit -- both in the U.S. and in Australia, where it was slightly changed and still called the Utility. The Ranchero remained a Falcon, Fairlane, or Torino for the rest of its life. But after more than 20 years of production, the Ranchero finally fell victim to the increasing popularity of small import and domestic trucks with fancy trim -- not to mention Ford's switch to front -- drive car platforms. The 1957 Rancheros are good collectibles today, but they're not hot items. The 1958s and 1959s are a bit iffy, yet worth buying for their combination of utility value and good Fifties design.
The Aussies had a winning idea all along.
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