MCG Car Spotter’s Guide to the 1949 to 1951 Fords

Hooray! It’s time for another thrilling episode of the MCG Car Spotter’s Guide! In this edition, we’re covering the Fords often credited with saving the company, the 1949 to 1951 models. 


Today’s story is a tale of parking lamps. And taillamps and grille details. These are among the time-honored tools of the car spotter. Often, they’re the best way differentiate similar model years—say, in 1949-51 Fords, for example. In the accompanying photos, keep your eye on these subtle features and let’s dive in.


When the all-new ’49 Fords were introduced in June of 1948, the company was desperately in need of fresh product. The previous 1941-48 Fords, with their high-water body designs and buggy suspension, were obsolete the day they were introduced. The automaker rose to the challenge with the freshest styling from the Motor City for ’49.

The first Ford with a pure envelope body, with nary a hint of protruding fender or running board, the ’49 has been nicknamed the Shoebox Ford, a tag that seems unfair today. While a bit slab-sided, the design holds up well for its time. Of course, the signifying feature is the large bullet or spinner in the center of the grille.

Though the ’49s were plagued with development problems, including dust and water leaks, an entire suite of squeaks and rattles, and faulty front suspension geometry, the car was a big hit with the public with one million units sold. It was Ford’s biggest production year since 1930, and the company’s future was now secure under the leadership of 32 year-old Henry Ford II, grandson of the founder.


Here’s a 1949 Custom Tudor Sedan, Model 70B. Note the long rear side glass with opening quarter window. There were two trim levels for ’49, Standard and Custom, and five basic body types: Club Coupe, Tudor Sedan, Fordor Sedan, Convertible, and Station Wagon. Tudor Sedans like the above were by far the most popular, outselling all other body types combined.


For contrast, here’s the other two-door style, the sportier Club Coupe with its long deck and short rear passenger compartment. This body style was also offered in Business Coupe trim (72C) with a cargo platform replacing the rear seat.


The ’49-51 Station Wagon was also an all-new design. Offered only in a two-door version, the wagon featured a one-piece steel roof pressing, while the tailgate lower and external trim were wood (birch and maple). In 1950, wagons gained the name Country Squire.


For 1950, Ford addressed the ’49’s numerous first-year bugs, proclaiming the revised models “50 ways new” and “50 ways finer.” However, the ’49 and ’50 are nearly identical in appearance from middle distance. Here’s how to tell them apart. Above is the ’49 front end. Note the tapered parking lamps at the ends of the center grille bar and F-O-R-D spelled out in block letters over the center grille bullet.


And here is the minor 1950 facelift. The parking lamps are now rectangular and dwell below the grille bar in bright metal housings, while the block lettering on the hood has been replaced by the stylized Ford crest with red, white, and blue cloisonné. The differences are subtle but easy to spot once you’re aware of them.


And here’s a comparison at the rear. Above is the ’49, with modest oval taillamps and a bright metal deck lid handle, which also provides the license plate illumination.


The very similar ’50 Ford rear features a body-color deck handle and lamp assembly with a Ford crest above it to match the one on the hood.


Here’s a 1950 Custom Fordor Sedan in Cambridge Maroon Metallic. Again, note the revised parking lamp scheme for ’50. Though not quite visible here, the door handles were also changed for ’50, from a pull-type wishbone lever to a more modern push-button, another handy tell for car spotters.


Lacking a pillarless hardtop body style to compete with the new Chevrolet Bel Air, in 1950 Ford introduced the Crestliner, a Custom Deluxe Tudor post with special “Color Sweep” chrome trim, two-tone paint, and equally flashy interior in matching two-tone colors. Fender skirts and a padded vinyl top were also standard. Around 17,000 Crestliners were produced, compared to over 76,000 Bel Airs.


Of the three Shoebox Ford years, the ’51 is the easy spot: Instead of a single large spinner in the center of the grille, the ’51 uniquely sports a pair of smaller spinners. Note also the small, round parking lamps. This ’51 Custom convertible is shown climbing the carburetor grade at Ford’s Dearborn Proving Grounds, formerly Ford Airport. The building at upper left is the airport’s old passenger terminal, now long gone.


The real news for ’51 was the introduction of a pillarless hardtop. For the new body style, Ford revived the Victoria name, last used in 1934 on the automaker’s sporty close-coupled sedan. The Victoria, Crestliner, and Convertible were offered only with the 239 CID flathead V8, while the rest of the line could be had with the V8 or a 226 CID inline six.


The considerable body engineering required on the Victoria hardtop was directed by Gordon Buehrig, who was the designer of the famed Cord 810/812 15 years earlier. Note the Victoria’s three-piece rear glass and banded C-pillar treatment.


The zooty Crestliner Tudor was also continued for 1951 with revised side trim. This catalog art shows the matching interior configuration. Only around 8,000 ’51 Crestliners were produced, making them relatively rare today.


This view of a ’51 Tudor spotlights the changes to the rear for 1951. The taillamp fairings   (“windsplits” in Ford styling lingo) are redone in bright metal, housing larger, more elaborate lenses. The deck handle is body color with bright trim, and the bright side moldings wrap around the body at the bottom of the deck lid. Cars equipped with the Ford-O-Matic automatic transmission (originally developed by Borg-Warner and new for ’51) wear a Ford-O-Matic badge over the deck lid handle.

Below are a few more ’49-’51 Fords. Can you name the years, car spotters?


Ford Victoria 


Ford Custom Fordor Sedan and Country Squire Wagon 


Ford Custom Club Coupe 


Ford Custom Tudor Sedan 


Have you joined Motor City Garage on Facebook yet? It’s big fun with rare photos, car lore, trivia, and great discussions! Click here to go the page and like MCG! 

32 thoughts on “MCG Car Spotter’s Guide to the 1949 to 1951 Fords

  1. My first car back in 1956 was a 51 Ford Convertible, sportsman green with a matching interior trimmed in black plus a black top. I had a lot of fun and experiences with this car such as dropping the main bearing center cap during a drag race and driving it this way for some time this way untill I saved the 125 bucks to buy a Sears rebuilt V8. Installing a new grill myself, including both bullets, center grill and hood pieces only to get in a fender bender the next day wiping out my new grill. After that I had it repainted the same color, nosed and decked, put 56 Merc spinners on it plus a new top. I also found a pair of Victoria chrome inside windshield frames I installed. Car looked perfect. The front seat as I recall had lots of action in it. I’am glad it couldn’t talk. A few more triva things about the shoe box Fords were 1950 was the last year for glass tail lights and the wagon in 51 had a metal tailgate as oposed to being trimmed in wood like the sides. In 1950 the gas cap was put behind a filler door and the 51’s also had a completely new dashboard.

      • Another difference in the 3 model years we haven’t mentioned was the hood orniments. The 50 had a more sweepback version of the 49’s and the 51 had a winged version with a plastic sort of center fin for sake of a better description.

  2. I love the illustration style. It reminds me of Norman Rockwell or the old Dick and Jane readers.

  3. IMO, Ford’s designs were way away of the Chevy of that era. I prefer the 49-50 to some of the later styles. It’s the bullet that gets me. My first experience working on cars was the 1954 wagon layed up in the high grass on the side of the house. It was the early Seventies by then and it had been setting there for at least five years. Never did get it running for more than a minute or so.

    Despite the love for the Tri-Chevies, there isn’t one that I outright prefer to the Ford of that vintage. They both had Plymouth & Dodge beat six ways to Tuesday.

  4. The door handles on the ’49 were also different than the ’50 and ’51. The ’49 had lever handles you pulled while the ’50 & ’51 were push button.

    • T-Bone got the other major difference between the ’49 and later Fords. It is what I look for first when trying to distinguish a customized 49 or 50 Ford. Good for you T-Bone, you got that answer first.

      By the way, ’49 was when I showed up in the u.s.a.

      • You’ll find the door handles referenced at photo #10, the maroon ’50 Fordor. Jim Marshall mentioned another useful tell, the fuel filler. (See photos #8 and #11.) Car spotting is big fun. When we were kids it was a regular pastime.

  5. Not only were these great looking cars for the period in stock form, they provided the perfect canvas for customizers of the day. To me, the high watermark is the Ron Dunn Ford, executed by Valley Custom Shop.

    • The Ron Dunn Ford is one of my all-time favorite customs. With its great sectioning job it has an athletic Euro look, in total contrast to the heavy, bulbous look of the Mercs of the era. I really like the Polynesian by Valley Custom, too.

  6. Here in Oz we got 4 door sedans and 4 door sedans. Single and twin spinners up to 1955. and they were all V8. I feel there may be some slight differences to the US models as ours were sourced from Canada and assembled here,, I believe with some local content such as trim, glass etc. to me they are a bit ‘homely’ but did have a cult following. Still a few around but most rusted out 50 years ago.

  7. A friend of mine restored 2 Crestliners in the past 10 years, a 1951 sportsmans green and black combo and another 51 in sort of a brown 2 tone combo with a rare option, Fordomatic transmission. Both cars were top show quality restorations. Great looking cars for their day.

  8. Here’s another interesting comparison of these cars. Even thought the 51 model had an all new dash the station wagon or Country Squire used the original 49 and 50 dash. I’ve ofter wondered why or I might be confusing it with one of the 3 Crestliner models. I’ll research it.

  9. I,m a bit surprised nobody has mentioned the Canadian Meteor versions of these cars so far as each year had its own Meteor as well.

    On US models the bumper overriders differ on all 3 years.
    And from 1950 so called safety locks were fitted on the doors

    And i found a very small detail to tell a 49 speedometer from one from 1950
    The 49ers have a metal needle which was replaced by a plastic one the following year .

    • Didn’t the 49 speedometer needle have a circle on the end that highlighted the current speed? My Dads 49 was an early one and maybe I’am thinking it was in that car. Another early 49 issue was the radio speaker was chrome and driving into the sun would blind the driver. Ford changed it to match the rest of the dash during the model run.

    • Thanks, I guess I’ve always been a car nut and the fact my Dad had a 49 and a 50 and my first car was a 51 contributes to it.

  10. Hey, no one mentioned that the external trunk lid hinges on the 49 and 50 were made internal on 51s.

  11. Thanks, J.B. there’s another one to add to the list. Another point I might add referring to the 49’s versis the 50’s was all the bugs found in the 49’s were for the most part corrected. My Dad had numerous issues with his 49 but Ford must have cut him a deal to get him to buy a 50. The 50 was virtually trouble free. Jim.

  12. Anyone know if all these models sat on the same Chassis? they all have the same wheel base but is the wagon chassis the same as the Tudors with the exception of leaf spring mods?

  13. Does anyone know why my 51 has the tail lights of a 50? Curious if it pertained to a certain trim package. Its a tudor post sedan

  14. `My first car was a beat up white 1951 Ford Convertible Flathead V-8 that I paid 50 bucks for in 1959. I was 16 years old. It had terrible tires and no chrome anywhere and had only second and reverse gears. But it had a brand new white top that worked. I was in hog heaven. One year later I sold it for 90 bucks to a guy that painted it black with a sponge.

  15. Have not seen anyone mention the interior knob style differences…..definitely a change.

  16. I didn’t see it mentioned that on the 51 model the trunk hinges were hidden. in the 49 and 50 model they were exposed and chromed.

  17. The slab sides were so futuristic to a kid but the favorite was the Merc. It had length and some elegance, not nearly as boxy as it’s cousin the Fordl

  18. On the station wagon dashes, yes the 51 Country Squire maintained the 49-50 look but it was a unique dash for the woodies. It was much shorter than the other cars because the wood made for much thicker doors. The wagon dash was not changed much for 51 like the other cars because it was unique to the wagon and the cost for a very limited dash was not worth it.

Comments are closed.