Finding the right ’56 Ford

04/05/2014 12:00 AM

04/05/2014 7:19 AM

No one would blame Frank LaForge if he never wanted to see a 1956 Ford again in his life. He was seriously hurt at the age of 12 when a ’56 Ford collided with him and his bicycle.

“I saw that grille about this far from my face,” LaForge recalls of that fateful day. Fortunately he recovered, and he never held a grudge about the car that might have ended his young life. “There was something about that grille,” he said.

He now owns a beautiful 1956 Ford of his own, a Diamond Blue Sunliner convertible, and he couldn’t be more proud of the car. He credits his wife, Sharon, with getting the ball rolling on its eventual purchase.

“She was driving home one day and saw that a guy had a ’56 Ford in his yard for sale and she told me, ‘You need to go look at that car,’ ” LaForge said. “It was a 4-door hardtop, nothing I was interested in, but it opened the door for me. I started looking for a ’56 Ford and I found several with continental kits on them, which I thought was about the most useless thing ever.”

He finally spotted the Sunliner in an advertisement in Hemmings Motor News. It was a California car that was nearing completion of a full frame-off restoration. LaForge bought the car and drove it for several months, but quickly realized the 272 cubic inch Y-block V-8 under the hood wasn’t up to snuff.

“I had a ’57 Ford in high school. It was a rust bucket, but it had the 312 V-8 in it and it was a screamer,” he said. So he went looking for a 312 engine and soon located a good used Thunderbird engine of the right vintage.

“I turned it over to (the late) Tom Yoakum to do the engine swap. He also did the air conditioning, the power steering and brakes and installed the Griffin aluminum radiator. Tom did most of the mechanical work on the car,” LaForge said.

The convertible’s maiden voyage was in 2001, a trip to the big “Cruisin’ the Coast” car event in Mississippi. On that trip LaForge discovered the car did not like running on unleaded gasoline, so he had John Reichenberger overhaul the power plant, which had been equipped with a three 2-barrel carburetor intake setup

“I always wanted three deuces since I was a kid, but it was making 8 miles a gallon. It wouldn’t pass a gas station,” LaForge said. So he had Reichenberger install a more conventional Holley 4-barrel carb on the engine. He also dispensed with the original 3-speed manual transmission in favor of a Mustang T-5 5-speed manual transmission, which provides better highway fuel mileage.

’It will really put the rubber on the ground in first and second,” LaForge said.

A set of custom-built Y-block headers were fabricated and hand-delivered by Jerry Christenson of Minnetonka, Minn. Coupled with a full-length dual exhaust system built by Kevin Kaiser, they give the car a distinctive rumble, which can become downright menacing when the functional lakes pipes are uncapped.

Scott Downey designed the custom dark blue/cream white vinyl tuck-and-roll interior, notching out the heated front bench seat to accommodate the 5-speed floor shifter. Joe’s Seat Cover and Car Wash installed a new dark blue fabric top on the convertible, along with a custom boot cover decorated with embroidered poodle-skirt appliques.

The PPG paint went through numerous permutations, with Dave Hanna at Sterling Autobody getting credit for the finished product.

“A lot of people have touched this car,” said LaForge, who is quick to admit he is not a mechanic. But he did modify the stock Ford dashboard to accept the Vintage Air heating and air conditioning vents and controls. Buzz Nye installed a new Ron Francis wiring harness.

For rolling stock, LaForge chose a set of Boyd Coddington Signature Series “Hot Rod” 15-inch polished aluminum wheels mounting BF Goodrich T/A radial rubber.

A set of 1955 Mercury station wagon tail lights fit the rear end of the Sunliner perfectly, with a “Blue Moon” logo and tasteful pinstriping adding to the cool effect of a vintage 1956 Kansas license tag numbered “56312,” which LaForge found online in Wisconsin.

The LaForges enjoy long-distance cruising and showing of their Sunliner.

“In all of the 18 states I have shown the car … it has been driven `to and through,’” LaForge said. “We love all the thumbs-up we get. Sometimes it takes a long time to get gas because of all the admirers we talk to, but that is what makes our hobby so exciting.”

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