How I met my Skyliner

Part I

Denny and the Fairlane in his shop almost 20 years ago.

“I hear you work on old cars,” said Tony.

It was 2005 and my dad was near the end of another day working first shift at Whirlpool Corporation in Amana, Iowa.  He was ready to go home after making refrigerator door panels since early that morning, but the fork truck driver from second shift had caught him before he got out the factory door.  Always eager to talk about old cars, Dad asked, “What do you have?”

“It’s a 1957 Ford Skyliner,” he replied. “Would you be interested in getting it back on the road for me?”

As the conversation went on, Dad learned that Tony had acquired the car in 1964 when he was only fourteen years old.  He managed to buy it cheap because its 292 Y-block was blown.  A previous owner had also installed a manual transmission, which wasn’t correct for the car.  Tony’s solution to these problems was a trip to the local Hawkeye Downs Speedway in Cedar Rapids, Ia.  It was there that he found the 312 engine and automatic transmission that the car still has turning its wheels today.

Tony drove and tinkered with the Skyliner throughout his teenage years until he joined the Navy in 1968.  It was stored inside a garage until he got back in 1972.  At this point in his life, Tony split his driving time three ways between the car, a truck, and his newly acquired Harley Davidson. 

He says, “The top worked reasonably well in those years, but I would have to give it the occasional helpful slap or jiggle to get it to finish its cycle.”  He also said rust from gas tank and the “teakettle carburetor” were always giving him problems.  “I always kept a couple filters installed in the gas line at the same time.” 

Eventually, the old car’s idiosyncrasies caught up with it (and Tony) and it ended up back in long-term storage.  By the time Tony met my dad, the Fairlane had been sitting for over a decade and he felt that he needed assistance getting it roadworthy this time around.  Dad, a former full-time mechanic in the 1970’s, was happy to help.  The two of them worked out a deal and a short time later, I found myself helping my dad haul the car to his home on a borrowed trailer.

Years of storage had not been kind to the car.  To put it mildly, it was ugly. 

A decade of dust had accumulated on the all-white body except for some cat prints going across the wind shield.  The grill and bumpers had plenty of surface rust and the rear bumper sported some interesting dents.  I hypothesized they were made by another vehicle’s front bumper, probably while giving the Fairlane a “helpful nudge” at some point in the distant past.  The rocker panels and the bottoms of the rear quarters were rusted out and had black primer sprayed all over what was left of them. The areas around the front headlights were also rusty and had the same black primer treatment

“The first order of business,” said Dad, as he pulled on the hood release, “is to get it running.” 

I was thirty-five in 2005 and had lots of experience “holding the flashlight” for Dad over the years as he worked his magic bringing dead vehicles back to life– both his and mine.  There was his fully restored 1955 Ford 2-door, which we pulled from a field when I was in High School.  There was my daily driver, a 1951 Ford pickup.  (We had to cut a tree that was growing through one of its running boards before we brought that one home.)  And there were my 1963 Impalas, a number of other vintage pickups, and countless other projects he worked on for other people

Yeah, the ’57 wasn’t much of a challenge for Dad.  After hooking up his home-made temporary fuel tank (a modified tin coffee can), he had it running in less than an hour.     

Too bad it needed a lot more work than that.  The gas tank was shot and the radiator leaked.  We pulled them out and took them to a nearby shop to be cleaned and repaired.  While we waited for those to come back, Dad continued down his trusty list of old-car reanimation tricks. 

That included the requisite carburetor rebuild, replacing the spark plugs, plug wires, distributor cap, and, of course, changing the oil. The brakes were sticky, so off came the wheels and brake drums.  (FYI:  In addition to holding the flashlight, I’m pretty good at pumping the brake pedal while bleeding brake lines.)

Dad did some cosmetic work to the Fairlane too.  Tony had some brand-new red and white door panels and seat covers stashed in the back of the car since probably the 1970’s or 80’s.  I remember helping Dad one weekend “hog ring” those onto the car’s freshly cleaned up seat frames.  There also was a new pair of rocker panels.  A true jack of all trades, Dad was good with sheet metal work too.  He had those installed in no time, giving the car another enhancing color to its beauty repertoire– primer gray. 

I lived nearby and kept track of Dad’s progress, helping him when I could on weekends.  Over the course of a few months, the car was up and running and ready to go back to its owner.   

Tony was thrilled with the improvements.  He said, “The drive home will be the longest trip I’ve taken in the car in over ten years.”

As Dad and I watched the Skyliner pull out of the driveway, I mentioned to him that it looked pretty decent all cleaned up.  “You know, I could see myself in a car like that.”

Dad shook his head and I could tell he was ready for a different project.  “Don’t get any ideas,” he said, “because it still needs a lot of work.  The rear main seal on the engine leaks and so does the transmission.  Trust me, you don’t want to be the one crawling around underneath that oily Ford trying to fix it.”

I shot him a grin, “Yeah, but I hear you work on old cars.”