Not a Ford or a Mercury, This Unique Blue Oval Custom Has a Distinct Canadian Flavor.
Looking at this car, you’d think it’s your garden variety early 1950s Ford. Well, it was built by the Ford Motor Company and is a 1953 Model, but it’s not a Ford, nor is it a Mercury. Instead, it’s a unique Canadian market offering called the Meteor, a brand conceived purely for customers north of the border and sold through Lincoln-Mercury dealers in Canada from 1949-61.
The Meteor was conceived after World War II to fill a perceived gap in the market between Fords and the larger, better equipped Mercury models, which weren’t as popular in Canada as in the US. At launch, as a 1949 model, the Meteor used the standard Ford body and 114-inch wheelbase chassis, but adopted Mercury’s styling cues, notably in the grille, which incorporated a wide chrome band in the upper part of the assembly. However, at each end of the grille were Ford style parking and turn signal lamps. Other Mercury type features included the hubcaps and rear trunk mounted emblem. “Meteor” was spelled out in large letters on the hood and rear decklid.
Inside, the 1949 Meteor featured a Ford dash and instruments, but with a chrome “star” mounted on the passenger side. The car was offered in four body styles – two and four door sedans, as well as business and club coupes. Trim levels were base, DeLuxe and Custom. Mechanically, Meteor was identical to that year’s Ford, featuring the new independent wishbone front suspension, live rear axle suspended on longitudinally mounted leaf springs, 100hp 239ci Flathead V-8 and standard three-speed manual gearbox.
An interesting feature available on 1949 Meteors was a two-tone paint finish, something not offered on U.S. Fords until the 1950-51 Crestliner, a flashy two-door sedan that attempted to cash in on the emerging hardtop craze.
Although priced around $65 higher than contemporary Fords sold in Canada, the Meteor got off to a good start north of the border, with some 23,000 examples built for 1949 at Ford’s Windsor plant, across the river from Detroit.
As the Korean War was heating up, Ford received few upgrades for its sophomore season, as did the Meteor. Where the latter was concerned, slight trim alterations were the order of the day, namely deletion of the big chrome bar above the grille and revised front fender parking lights. Bigger changes were in the works for 1951, including the availability of an automatic transmission for the first time – the infamous Merc-O-Matic two-speed. Styling was also updated, with a new front grille that incorporated five vertical bars, plus big chrome strips that ran along the front fenders and doors on each side.
Fords were re-bodied for 1952, adopting more angular, modern styling with sharper contours that lent less of a bathtub-like appearance. Most noticeable were forward jutting headlamps and blade type bumpers. As it was based on the regular Ford, the Meteor adopted the same styling changes, but continued to offer unique trim and badging. Model nomenclature now followed the Fords, with cars divided into Mainline, Customline and Crestline trim levels (though a four-door station wagon was not available in the Meteor line). Alongside Ford, Meteor gained a true two-door hardtop, badged as a Custom Deluxe.
Under the skin, both cars got redesigned clutch and brake pedals, and the venerable Flathead received a power hike to 110 hp. However, unlike its Ford counterpart, Meteor offered a larger 255ci Mercury-sourced Flathead V-8 on Customline models. Rated at 120 hp, it was an early postwar example of a factory hot rod – the concept of putting a larger engine in a relatively smaller car. Today, the survivors are highly sought after among early Ford V-8 fans.
By the time Dan Bartley’s 1953 Customline was built, Meteors were still offered as two and four-door sedans, convertibles, hardtops and two-door wagons. The most significant styling changes were the adoption of a new grille with a big chrome V type bar that ran across it, plus unique wind splits on the rear fenders.
End of an Era
Meteor would continue to evolve through the 1950s. Unlike U.S. Fords, these distinct Canadian cars retained flathead power for 1954. Meteors had similar changes to their Ford counterparts through their life span, including new styling for 1955, though they continued to sport unique grilles and trim details.
For 1955, the new Y-block short-stroke V-8 engine was tuned slightly differently. In four-barrel form, the 272ci unit was rated at 175hp in the Meteor, versus 182 at 4400 rpm in the regular Ford, even though both engines sported the same 7.6:1 compression ratio.
Meteors, like their Ford cousins, were re-bodied for 1957 and again for 1960, by which time a ritzy Montcalm model had joined the lineup, the equivalent of the Ford Galaxie 500. However, the popularity of the Meteor as a full-size model was on the wane, and new competition in the shape of compact cars enticed buyers on both sides of the border, especially in the wake of an economic recession begun in 1958.
The Meteor name transferred to the full-size “true” Mercury for 1961 and the division’s intermediate cars for the 1962-63 model years. The Meteor name would appear again for 1964 as a trim level on the full-size Mercury in Canada, and it would last all the way through 1981 in this form, but these cars were far less special and distinctive than the 1948-60 models. Although approximately 620,000 Meteors of all types were built during the car’s 32 year production run, there are few left, which makes Dan Bartley’s custom example all the more intriguing, especially from a U.S. perspective.
Dan, who’s been into 1950s pop culture since he was a kid, says “My parents were teenagers back then and I guess it just kind of rubbed off.” He wasn’t initially looking for something as rare and unique as his 1953 Meteor Customline, but he thought he knew a good deal when he saw one. “About 11 years ago I belonged to this car club called the Coasters. I was looking for a car to replace my ’59 Chrysler Saratoga four-door hardtop and [this one] seemed a little different. The Meteor had already been mildly customized, but it was going for cheap, so I had a look.”
Belonging to fellow Coasters member Ron Hackney, the car still sported its original 255ci Mercury flathead and Merc O-Matic transmission, but Dan soon discovered why it was going cheap. “It basically needed a lot of work. The car ran, but the rear end gears had been replaced, plus the Flathead was smoking pretty badly. I bought the car for $3500 and drove it from Midland [Ontario], back to my home in Acton [Ontario], but it was a close call. Because of the ultra steep gears, the thing was screaming along at around 3500 rpm at 60 mph, and I had to stop frequently, just to get out and have some fresh air.”
When he got the car home, Dan found out the cause of the smoke. “The main bearings were shot, so I thought about either replacing or rebuilding the Flathead,” he explains.
However, circumstances soon helped him make a decision. “I’d bought the car with the intention of driving it, so when a late model 302 Ford V-8 and AOD automatic trans came up for sale, I didn’t hesitate. They came out of an ’84 Lincoln Continental parts car, and I was able to get them for just $150.” Dan then had Doug Lipps at Competition Automotive in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto, pull the motor apart and warm it up with a hotter cam, Edelbrock high riser intake and four-barrel Performer carburetor, as well as an MSD distributor and 6AL control box to improve spark performance. A custom-made 2-½-inch dual exhaust was installed on the car to help expel the spent gasses more effectively.
With the 302 back home, fellow members of the Coasters helped Dan put the new engine and transmission into the Meteor. “What a difference it made,” he says. “Instead of having to nurse the car along, I had to be careful not to give it too much throttle – it was like going from a driving a tractor to piloting a rocket ship.” In fact it was almost too scary at times. “The extra power and torque quickly highlighted weaknesses with the rest of the car, especially the steering and suspension,” relates Bartley. “It was actually quite scary – it would go but it just wouldn’t handle or stop.” After what he describes as “one too many close calls,” Dan decided it was time to fix the problem. “Being on a budget meant I had to carefully choose my options,” he says. But a solution soon manifested itself in the shape of friend Aaron Roberts and his dad Roger, who had the perfect addition to Dan’s Meteor – a front frame and suspension assembly from a 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass.
“I know there are purists out there who wonder why I would do that, but with short-long arm coil suspension, plus the GM power front disc brakes and steering, it really proved the way to go.” Over the course of a winter, the engine and transmission were removed once again and the new front clip grafted on.
I’ve Been Everywhere, Man
The Meteor was painted a shade of sea foam green primer when he bought it, but Dan added the satin black, while the flames were applied in a single afternoon. “It was a group effort,” says Bartley, “but I have to thank Brent Middleton, as he was the one who applied the finishing touches.” Since the car has been back together, Dan has essentially just driven it, performing regular maintenance when necessary. And by driving it, we mean more than just your gentle Sunday cruise. “Now that I’m a member of the Lead Kings Car Club, it’s been all over the place – I’ve driven to Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Indianapolis and Montreal,” just to name a few spots. “With the Olds front clip and the 302 and AOD, it’s just a really nice cruising car, and it’s never let me down. I’m in a Rockabilly band called the Royal Crowns and we play all over Southern Ontario and Western New York, so having a car that’s as unique as the Meteor, but also reliable, is just the perfect way to travel to these venues. To me, the music and these old ’50s cars just go together like cookies and cream.”
Dan sings lead vocals and also plays guitar, using a 1959 Gretsch, just like Eddie Cochrane used to strum. “It has a real distinctive sound,” says Bartley. “The pickups, they’re unique, and you just don’t find that any more. It’s a lot like my Meteor really, it’s an artifact of a bygone time, but one that continues to attract interest, even from younger people who by rights should have scarce if any interest in ’50s nostalgia.”
The music may be one thing, but when Dan takes the Meteor out for a drive, whether it’s just into town to get supplies or cross-country, he often gets inundated with inquiries, and he’s surprised at how many youngsters know what the car is, or at least what it’s based on.
“I get questions from these kids, they ask if it came with a Flathead and what mods I’ve done to it – I often get surprised by how knowledgeable they are. To me it’s very encouraging, that the hobby is still alive, that younger people are still interested in these old cars like that. As someone with a passion for ’50s pop culture, I think it’s great that the spirit of this golden age in our history continues to be enjoyed, now and for many years to come.”
For more information on Dan’s band, the Royal Crowns, and upcoming gigs, visit www.myspace.com/theroyalcrowns.
1953 Meteor Customline 2 Door Sedan
Owner Dan Bartley
Engine 302ci Ford small-block V-8 with four-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust
Transmission Ford four-speed Automatic Overdrive
Rear end Ford solid axle with 3.31 rear gears
Suspension 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass subframe with unequal length A-arms, coil springs, shocks and stabilizer bar (front) Solid axle with leaf springs and tube shocks (rear)
Steering GM recirculating ball with power assist
Brakes Front disc, rear drum, with GM hydraulic power assist
Wheels/tires 15 x 6-inch pressed steel with Moon full wheel covers 6.70 x 15 whitewall tires
Body Modifications Nosed, decked and shaved, custom billet front grille, custom hood vents, dual A-pillar spotlights, period sun visor, satin black exterior paint, custom yellow/orange flames applied by Brent Middleton
Interior Modifications Custom tuck ‘n’ roll door panels; Sun Super Tach II tachometer; Auto Gage oil, voltmeter and water temperature gauges
Time to Completion 11 years (still a work in progress)
Club Affiliation Lead Kings, Ontario Canada
Stock 1953 Meteor
Specifications Number built– 36,422 units Construction– Body-on-frame Engine– 239ci flathead V-8, 255ci flathead V-8 Power– 110 horsepower (239ci V-8), 125 horsepower (255ci V-8) Transmission– Three-speed manual, three-speed manual with overdrive, three-speed Merc-O-Matic automatic Suspension front– Independent suspension with unequal control arms, coil springs, ball joints, and stabilizer bar Suspension rear– Semi-elliptic leaf springs Steering– Worm and triple tooth roller Brakes– Four-wheel drum brakes (10-inch on coupe and sedan, 11-inch on hardtop and convertible) Length/width/height– 197.8/74.4/62.3 inches Wheelbase– 115 inches Weight– 3,210 lbs. shipping weight 0-60mph/quarter mile– 18.6 seconds/20.1 seconds (no mph provided), (Motor Trend, October 1953, testing a 1953 Mercury with the 255ci V-8) Top speed– 93.75 mph (Motor Trend, October 1953) MPG– 21.1 mpg at steady 30 mph, 15.9 mpg at steady 60 mph
Fuel For Thought First year for “Ford”-based Mercury models
No six-cylinder engine available
Mainline model featured Ford’s 239ci V-8 and a Ford dashboard, while the Customline and Crestline models featured Mercury’s 255ci V-8 and a Mercury dashboard
What To Pay 1953 Meteor Customline Low – $3,250 Average – $10,500 High – $22,500 *Due to the scarcity of information on Meteors in the United States, prices are estimated.
Insurance cost Insurance cost is $169/year for a stock 1953 Meteor valued at $10,500. For a modified vehicle, insurance cost is $250/year. This is based on 3,000 miles per year of pleasure driving
.*Based on a quote from Heacock Classic Car Insurance, www.heacockclassic.com
Alternatives 1953 Pontiac Chieftain Deluxe Two-Door Sedan Number built – 418,619 0-60/quarter mile– 18.8 seconds/20.2 seconds (no mph provided, Motor Trend, May 1953) Top speed– 97.8 mph Price– MSRP – $2,136; Today – $6,875 - $16,000
1953 Dodge Coronet Four-Door Sedan Number built– 17,334 (Coronet hardtop) 0-60/quarter mile– 16.1 seconds/19.3 seconds (no mph provided, Motor Trend, January 1954) Top speed– 101.5 mph Price– MSRP – $2,245; Today – $4,550 - $8,950
Parts Prices Left front floor pan - $59.95 Engine overhaul gasket kit - $78.95 Body wire harness - $124.95 Brake drum - $104.95 Intake manifold - $149.95 Windshield wiper motor - $269.95 *Based on information from Mac’s Antique Auto Parts, www.macsautoparts.com
Books Ford and Canada: 100 Years Together by James C. Mays How to Build Shoebox Fords And Mercurys: 1948-1954 by Richard Johnson Ford Full Size/Lincoln/Mercury Parts Locating Guide(Spiral-bound) by David Gimbel 55 Years of Mercury: The Complete History of the Big "M"(Paperback) byJohn Gunnell Mercury Gold Porfolio 1947-1966by R. M. Clark