A Rare Car gets an even rarer engine.
The 1957 Mercury-engined 1956 Ford Crown Victoria
Part One –
Back in 1960, when I turned 17, a driver’s license and a set of wheels were every young man’s dream. In early September of that year the first wish was fulfilled, a shiny new Operator’s Permit.. The other side of the coin was much harder. Most kids were in the “Can I borrow the car, Dad?” position, though a few were gifted a set of wheels by their rich parents.
In my case, I had been working since I was 13 and I had diligently saved almost all of my earnings, less a few ice creams and burgers. I counted my stash by fingering through my dog-eared savings booklet: $760 – quite a haul for time.
Now $500 could usually buy you a decent V-8 beater, or a clean grandma car – you know – a 4 door sedan, three on the tree, and many times, no radio! If my dad and mom would pay for my insurance, a deal they had cut to keep me toiling at those part-time jobs for those four years, all I needed to do was a bit of searching. My older brother, recently married, turned over his spouses’ driver to me for free as they were buying a new Corvair for her.
Wow, lucky me! Well maybe not so much. Her well-used 1953 Ford Customline Tudor (2-door) did not even sport the famous “Flathead” V8, but rather the then new “I-Block” overhead valve six. In actuality, the I-6 could be persuaded to make as much HP as the Flathead, and I set about doing just that. An aftermarket camshaft and springs, a modified manifold sporting 2 single-barrel carburetors, and even a home-made split header giving me dual exhaust.
She was perky, but she had a greater problem – the cancer of rust. And when I say rust, I mean rust. Apparently, my brother’s bride didn’t believe in washing cars. In the northeast, winter salt had had its way with the trusty Ford. By November, only bailing wire held the driver’ s door in place, and the passenger side floorboards were lightened considerably.
My parents realized that if this what was apparent, who knows what other gremlins might rear their head. I was a fledgling mechanic, and I was certain that the Trusty I-Block could be safely driven. But after I drove my mother to the grocery one day and she had to elevate her feet to avoid scraping her shoes on the pavement, she pronounced: “You should see if you can buy another car. If you need some help financially, we’ll chip in.”
Glory, glory. By this time my $760 was down to $625, as I had dumped cash into the ’53, so my choices were limited. By chance, I was a player on the Catholic basketball league, coached by young Father Palmeri. The young priest was a car guy, and we got to talking about my loosing battle with rust and the need for a set of wheels.
“Why don’t you buy my car? I’m moving to the Lower Manhattan parish and the car will be too much to deal with.” he said.
I had never seen Father Palmeri’s car, and visions of a grandma’s car reared its head – after all, junior level priests weren’t known to be rolling in dough and after all they lived a pretty ascetic life. I hedged. “Uh, father I’m kinda looking for a Ford 2-door with a V8. Maybe a newer Ford.”
“Perfect! You should buy my Crown Victoria,” he said beaming.
Crown Victoria? Yikes! Crown Victorias were only available in ’55 and ’56, and they were really cool. But my concern was that our trusty priest had delivered the same type of maintenance that my sister in-law had bestowed on the I-Block. I was afraid if it was a wreck, I would insult him if I said no. “It’s in real nice shape”, he confided. “I bought it used two years ago”.
We all know that people’s opinion of “real nice shape” can come in all flavors, so I was torn between begging off and curiosity.
He clapped me on the shoulder. “Come on, it’s around the corner.”
Oh well, here goes nothing. I followed him around the block not to a parking space on the dusty street, but the parish building.
“The rest of the priests don’t have any cars, and I’ve been the chauffeur for these last few years,” he said grudgingly. I could see that to some degree moving to Manhattan would relieve him of a job he’d like to dump.
He swung open the garage door. The light was dim, but I could make out the stainless “crown” running over the roof that gave the model its name. It looked very clean and when he hit the light. Oh my goodness, it was really shiny . . . solid black, not black and white like most Victorias of that year. As I stepped closer, I could see that the paint was almost flawless and glowing.
He gestured for me to open the driver’s door. The interior looked new, with no rips or tears in the upholstery. I could tell it was a Ford-O-Matic 3-speed automatic. “It has power steering” he said over my shoulder, a pause, “city parking” he shrugged. “Here’s the key, start her up.”
I settled behind the driver’s seat and turned the key. The Crown jumped to life with a healthy burble. He reached in and turned on the lights. All the instruments lit up. “It has power windows, but they all work,” he said, almost apologetically.
I was speechless and Father Palmeri took that for indecision. “Why don’t we look under the hood? It has the 312 Thunderbird V8”. If I was choked up before, now I almost swallowed my tongue.
We walked around to front, and he opened the hood. The engine compartment was almost as clean as the interior. “I have a lot of spare time and I like things clean. New battery last year, and tires then too.” It was obvious that he was a proud pappa when he talked about the Crown.
“I, uh, Father, I uh, I don’t think I can afford to buy this, I don’t have much over $550.” I was stammering and inside I was shaking like a leaf. I had to have this car, but how could I afford it?
“I was hoping for $750,” he said.
“My folks can help we out, but I don’t know if they’ll go that far.”
“Do you think they could help you get the $675?” It was like he wanted me to have the car, but he couldn’t sacrifice that much.
“I’ll go home and ask.”
Suffice it to say that with a little negotiation and help from my folks, the Crown came to me for $660. My friend bought the I-Block for $55, and I immediately gave that to my Mom, who handed it right back to me. “Use that to keep her clean” she said.
The Crown was mine! She ran well – no drag racer but real perky, and she was so clean all the kids thought I had a steal.
November closed in and bad weather sat her in the garage. I figured the Crown would hibernate until March, but a strange thing happened that changed both me and the Crown. During the previous month, we’d moved to the Suburbs of NYC on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. Our new house was more modern and sported a large 2 ½ garage. The Crown got little exercise due to weather. And as I was only a Junior in High School, so driving to school was not permitted.
But a funny thing happened. My dad and I had “invented” he kind of wheel chocks you see that if all 4 wheels are inserted in each, you can roll a vehicle around a garage with little effort. I can say that we were not the first to devise this, but my dad, being an engineer developed them from crude to very slick. On urging of his friends, he managed to “sell” the design to a major auto equipment manufacturer for a sum of $5,000 – a healthy piece of change in that day. Since he and I had worked on it, he said he’d put $2,000 aside for my college fund and give me $1,000 “for whatever” he said, glancing at the Crown Vic.
At first, I thought of taking that change and the Crown and trading it in on a new Ford, but being underage and seeing that the Ford I wanted (a 360 HP high performance unit), was well over $3000, that idea was quickly quashed.
What to do? The hot rodder in me surfaced and I decided to make some “changes” to the ’56. It was a great cruiser, and perky but it was no speed demon – especially with all the new “muscle” cruising in my neighborhood. So the first order of business was to go from automatic to stick. The second would be to add some go-fast goodies to the 312.
In those days, “Junkyard Jaunts” was what every car person did when they were considering upgrades or replacements for a used car. I was able to locate a 1956 Ford sedan delivery with a 3-speed that could get me the transmission, driveshaft, rear gears, and clutch pedal assembly. It also donated a more performance oriented 3.89:1 rear gear. Once delivered, it took all of November and early December to install the pieces, but the improvement in performance was noticeable.
The new rear gears really showed the limitations of the camshaft and the carburetor on the 312. It would quickly run out of steam after about 4,000 RPM. My good buddy told me that in the same junkyard where I found by sedan delivery, there was a Mercury that the owner told him had multiple carbs. Well, whether true or not, time to investigate.
Consider a bitterly cold, partially snowy Saturday, overcast and threatening to do more badness on the countryside – that’s the day we chose to check out the Mercury. After trudging over and through a bunch of cars, the only Mercury we could find was a 1957 Monterey 2-door coupe bent in an L. Those Mercurys had an inner hood release, and after a struggle we were able to crawl into the car, surprised to see it was stick, and tugged on the release. Nothing.
After a bit shrugging, my buddy found an appropriate piece of metal, wedged it under the cowl, and with me yanking on the release and him levering, the hood popped open. The image at left is what we saw. The aluminum valve covers and the two 4-barrel Holley carburetors was enough to convince me that we would buy that intake.
But with more investigation we became puzzled. As you may know, Y-Block Fords have a unique intake system, with the intake ports over and under each other rather than side by side. This engine had them side by side.
Disappointed, and assuming it was the big 430 CID offered in those years, we left the car and went home. But after mentioning it to my Dad, he said “Sounds like it’s a Lincoln”. He’d had a ’53 and a ’57. Had someone hot-rodded that ’57 Mercury? A little magazine research informed me that the Lincoln block was an option on all ’57 Mercurys, but the two 4-barrels?
Pouring through old Hot Rod Magazines took me to an article about ’57 Mercurys with the 368 CID Lincolns prepped for NASCAR by Bill Stroppe and a picture of the engine was shown. The “M-335” on valve covers sealed it for me. It was a “hot rod Lincoln”. I wanted that engine!
I mentioned it to my father, and he suggested we take as much of the running gear as we could as it was likely more heavy duty than the current pieces in the Crown. Installing the larger engine in a car that was not designed for it didn’t even phase me – naivete at its teenage height.
So back to the junkyard we went with my buddy’s parent’s pickup. After some haggling, I was able to purchase the entire running gear for $250 – and we didn’t even question whether the engine ran! When we returned home and mounted it on a stand, it turned over easily. The intake and oil pan were removed, and no signs of damage were seen.
Youth is impetuous. I decided t see if we could fit the motor in the Crown and worry about it later. My reasoning was that it was likely we could find a running 368 and just swap the pieces if we needed to. Small problems were encountered, and 60 years after, I can’t recount any that were difficult. Motor mount alterations and moving the radiator to the I-6 location were the ones I remember, but all in all, she slipped in.
The ’57 Mercury’s 3-speed transmission mated to the 368’s clutch so we used that, later to find out it was a much sturdier piece. The Crown’s driveshaft did need a yoke modification but that was about all. I rebuilt the Holley carburetors, and put 2 sets of new points in the distributor and changed the spark plugs. On December 23, 1960, a Friday night, she was ready to fire up. We spun the engine with the coil and fuel pump disconnected to get solid oil pressure and then hooked up everything.
The Crown cranked for about 10 seconds until fuel was up and then she fired up. We hadn’t connected the Lincoln exhaust headers to the Ford pipes as this would require some welding and extensions, so the noise in the garage was deafening. Fortunately, my parents were at a Christmas Party, or I might have been killed on the spot. Holding a screwdriver to my ear, a trick my dad had taught me, I listened to the engine from a few points on the block. Only normal engine sounds were heard – she was awesome and solid! Oil pressure at 40 lbs. warm, temperature normal at 195, all was well in M-335 land.
“You know, you could take her out for a jaunt”, my buddy said mischievously. But with open headers and no hood, I was just asking for trouble. I shut her down.
Tune in our next issue for the next chapter: The Crown’s thorns – to others anyway.