1954 Ford Sunliner
Sometimes we make this whole custom car thing more complicated than it needs to be. Chopped tops, sculpted panels, adjustable-height suspensions, intricate paint—it can all get to be a little too elaborate, ornate, fussy.
Then along comes a clean, down-to-earth cruiser like Skip Smith's 1954 Ford Sunliner to remind us how beautiful a simple mild custom can be.
Skip has had a number of customs through the years, including a chopped '50 Merc convertible and a chopped shoebox Ford. When the Forsyth, Georgia, resident set out to find a '54 Ford convertible a few years ago, however, he had a milder custom in mind. His motivation was pretty simple, too: envy. "A friend in New Jersey has a red '54 convertible," Skip says. "I really like his car and had to have one. Thanks, Gerry Brophy!"
Another friend alerted Skip to an ad in Hemmings for an unfinished '54 Ford convertible project in Virginia. So Skip called up yet another friend—Cochise Cummings—to go take a look. "He called me back a couple of days later and said he had bought the car for me and it was at his house. It takes a good friend to lay out $7,000 to make sure the car didn't get away."
Fortunately, the car was as solid as Skip had hoped, which allowed him to focus more on custom modifications than major rust removal or other significant repairs. Skip commissioned David Buff and his crew at David's Paint and Body to begin the custom transformation by shaving the Ford's badges, emblems, and handles. That was followed with frenched headlights and a set of '55 Olds taillight lenses recessed into the rear flanks. Frenched dual antennas added additional flair to the rear quarters. Skip discovered that a '53 Dodge grille floated perfectly in the original Ford grille cavity, and then deleted the vertical grille bars for an even cleaner look.
Color selection was a little less subtle than the sheetmetal mods. The Viper Red hue—ably sprayed by the crew at David's Paint and Body—certainly commands attention, requiring no further embellishments beyond the Ford's original stainless and chrome trim (brought back to its luster by Best Metal Polishing). When combined with single-bar hubcaps and Coker wide whitewall radials, the overall effect echoes the classic mid-'50s custom aesthetic.
Skip elected to make more modern changes under the Ford's skin, but even those alterations were relatively straightforward. There are no air springs or coilovers, just a stock front suspension updated with Granada spindles (which also lowered the car slightly), disc brakes from Jamco, and a Fatman Fabrications rack-and-pinion kit. Out back, a Maverick 8-inch rearend was suspended from Jamco leaf springs. The drivetrain is all Ford, consisting of a carbureted '94 302 V-8 (rebuilt by Chastain Engines in Jonesboro, Georgia) and an AOD transmission to better enable comfortable long hauls.
Perhaps the most radical sheetmetal mod on the car is inside, where a '55 Olds dash was reshaped to fit behind the Ford windshield. It was fitted with Haneline instruments, Vintage Air A/C, and an ididit steering column topped by a Colorado Custom wheel. Fred Hale stitched the red and white vinyl over Thunderbird bucket seats (plus the stock rear seat and custom side panels) in a manner that blends classic design with modern style and refinement. The balance of interior features includes a custom center console, Kenwood tunes, and red cabin lights that create a surreal atmosphere at night.
The cumulative effect of these multiple and (mostly) minor modifications is a clean custom that has plenty of impact without being loud, garish, or trendy. It's also a car that's easy to drive and enjoy, which Skip does regularly. "The car had barely 300 miles on it when I headed for the Road Rocket Rumble in Indy," Skip says. "It made the 1,800-mile trip flawlessly. I then headed to Salina, Kansas, for the KKOA Spectacular. Another 2,000 miles with no problems." For Skip, cruising down the road with the top down is the best payoff possible—a simple reward for executing a tasteful, classy custom.