Admit it. There are times when you’d love to own a vintage car as a daily driver, like a driver-quality 1965-66 First Gen Mustang. But you’re not sure if you could actually live with it, without modern conveniences like air conditioning and cruise control and the reliability and fuel economy of a modern-day car.
And what if you wanted something a little more “vintage,” like a car that you remember from a now-distant childhood, a 1954-59 full-size Ford, for instance. That crossed the mind of Southern Californian Gary Richards, who during the last 15 years, has built seven such hybrids, including this ’56 Ford Crown Victoria coupe.
Richards grew up in the Midwest—the St. Louis area to be exact—and still has ties to the area. After serving a stint in the Army from 1963 to 1965, he entered the workforce as a mechanic for a number of Ford dealers in Missouri before moving to the Golden State in 1975. In California, he worked for Peterbuilt and a succession of Ford dealers that included Corwin Ford in Orange and Citrus Motors in Ontario. In 1996, he started working on his passion for vintage cars, focusing his attention on 1954-59 full-size Fords and Mercurys, replacing tired drivetrains with modern Ford OHV SOHC and DOHC V-8 and four-speed overdrive automatic transmissions.
The very first was a ’55 Ford Customline (see sidebar, pg. 80), which was his daily driver for many years before he sold it to a ’50s Ford enthusiast back in Missouri. This first in a series, which now includes seven completed builds since 1998, served as his proof of concept.
When Richards first embarked on this modernization program, he concentrated locating his donor cars from insurance auctions. While Ford Crown Victorias are more plentiful, Richards believes that Mercurys, and especially Lincoln Continental Mark VIIs, make the best donor cars. “I look for the kinds of cars that have been in rear and side-impact crashes,” says Richards. “Then I look at interior condition, which gives a good indication on how well the previous owner took care of the car. While mileage can be important, the ‘grandma car’ factor really is so much more important.”
Richards noted that when he started doing these conversions back in the late ’90s, these donor cars were plentiful at auctions, not so today. “I’ve turned to venues like Craigslist,” says Richards. “Lincoln hasn’t built a Mark Seven since nineteen ninety-two, and the Mark Sevens are among my favorites as a choice for a donor vehicle. The Mark Sevens are equipped with their own version of the Mustang’s five point zero HO motor and can be installed in any nineteen fifty-four to nineteen fifty-nine Ford with far less difficulty than the modular motors that followed. And if the climate control or the air suspension systems give out, often they are sent to the boneyard prematurely.”
Since the Customline, Richards has built the following cars. All are equipped with Ford’s four-speed automatic overdrive transmissions and a variety of aftermarket air conditioning systems. Most were also equipped with power steering and cruise control. Some have braking systems updated with front disc brakes.
When asked to bullet point what he looks for in a donor car, Richards listed these qualities.
Surprisingly, overall mileage doesn’t often factor into his purchase decisions, since there are many cars available with fewer than 100,000 miles on the clock. He would rather have a high-mileage car that has been well maintained than a low-mileage car that shows signs of abuse.
From the list of cars Richards has built, many Ford products are suitable, including the more sophisticated 4.6L modular motor cars, but he’s found that the 5L HO-motor-equipped Lincoln Mark VIIs usually make the best donor cars. The later modular motors are wider and are best suited to the 1957-59 cars, which have a wider engine compartment than the pre-1957 cars.
Once the donor car was selected, attention turned to the subject car, in this case, the ’56 Crown Victoria displayed on these pages. The first step was to disassemble the car, stripping it down to its frame. The sheet metal components were sent out to be sandblasted, repaired, primered and painted by Steel Smith in Wildomar, California. While the body was at Steel Smith, Richards addressed the chassis, making required repairs to the steering gear, along with any necessary suspension and brake component upgrades (which are powder-coated where needed) before painting the chassis at his shop attached to his house.
After the selected engine and transmission were installed, the body was reassembled. The last body panel to be installed was the passenger-side fender because it makes it much easier to install the air conditioning plumbing. Richards noted that when installing even the 5.0 engines, he relocates the radiator forward to the position it would occupy on original six-cylinder cars so that he has the space to install the accessory drives found on modern engines. The newer 302 engines have rear sump oil pans and require a front sump oil pan pickup from late-’60s, early-’70s small-block Fords. Redrilling the timing cover is also required for the installation of a dipstick. With this much experience, Richards has developed a motor mount kit to adapt the 302 engine to the early Ford cross members.
The interior retains a mostly stock look. Upholstery kits are available from Larry’s T-Birds and ABC Upholstery. While he could have opted for a modern A/C kit from a number of suppliers, for his cars he uses Mark IV under-dash kits similar to those used in First Gen Mustangs, keeping things simple.
Although his first project has long since been sold, it’s formed the template for the cars that followed. Richards bought this ’55 Ford Customline two-door sedan in 1986, and built it over a six-month period back in 1998. The Customline was a 41,000-mile six-cylinder car, equipped with a three-speed Ford-O-Matic automatic transmission.
The mechanical donor car was an ’88 Mercury Grand Marquis equipped with a standard-output 302. From the Grand Marquis Richards was able to salvage its non-HO V-8 and AOD four-speed transmission. Like the others in the series, it was equipped with power steering, air conditioning and cruise control.
It made two round trips from California to St. Louis, delivering more than 25 mpg overall, before it was sold to a collector in the Gateway City. The new owner drove it once and then sold it, saying it was too nice to drive. This is sad, because Richards’ intends for the cars he builds to be driven.
The back seat not only had plenty of legroom, it also featured a factory fold-down center armrest.
VEHICLE: 1956 Ford Crown Victoria
CURRENT OWNER: Anonymous collector in MO
ORIGINAL OWNER: Gary Richards, Sun City, CA
BUILDER: Gary Richards, Sun City, CA
FRAME: Stock Ford ladder frame
SUSPENSION: Front: Stock upper and lower control arms with ball; rear: stock leaf springs
BRAKES: Front: 11 x 2.25- inch drum; rear: 11 x 2-inch drum
WHEELS: Stock Ford 15- inch steel wheels
TIRES: Coker radials, 6.70 x 15 metric equivalent
ENGINE: 1988 Lincoln Mark VII 5L, 302-ci, 225- horsepower; all engine components stock/rebuilt; Ford pushrod V-8, 302 ci with fuel injection; stock exhaust manifold headers; take-off stainless steel mufflers from 1990 Mustang GT HO
TRANSMISSION: Automatic Ford four-speed automatic overdrive, scratchbuilt driveshaft length for application
PAINT: PPG single-stage Turquoise and White, painted by Steele Smith, Wildomar, CA
INTERIOR: Standard vinyl and cloth interior from Larry’s Thunderbird and Mustang Parts, Corona, CA
AUDIO: Stock radio with XM satellite upgrade interface