Before the Continental: Edsel Ford’s Speedster

THE EDSEL FORD SPEEDSTER

Among the privileges of Edsel Ford’s position was a long succession of customized and one-off cars for his own use, often built by Ford personnel. Some of these one-offs were formal cars, mostly (though not always) Lincoln-based, but others were based on mundane Ford running gear. Considering Bob Gregorie’s talents and his obvious sympathy with Edsel — not to mention his status as one of the few Ford employees of the time with a real design background — it was inevitable that he be enlisted to develop Edsel’s personal cars as well. (We don’t know if Gregorie did similar work for other Ford executives, although he reportedly designed a yacht for Harry Bennett several years later.)

1932 Ford Edsel Speedster front 3q 2010 Barillaro Speed Shop-per
Edsel Ford’s 1932 boattail speedster, undergoing restoration in 2010. Although its chassis and running gear are from a 1932 Model 18 V8 Ford, the grille was borrowed from a four-cylinder Model B, modified to create a prow-like peak. Note the lack of bumpers and running boards — the original car had neither. (Photo © 2010 Jim Barillaro; used with the permission of Barillaro Speed Emporium Inc.)

The first of Gregorie’s designs for Edsel was a boattail speedster, completed in the fall of 1932. (Gregorie later recalled that he designed the speedster before the Model Y, but based on the time the Model Y debuted, the speedster’s design was probably completed no later than the end of 1931.) Occasionally described as the Continental Series I, the speedster was based on the chassis of the 1932 Model 18 Ford, using a standard V8 engine and running gear, but had a unique aluminum body, designed more like boat than a car. According to Gregorie, most of the speedster’s body was built by the Ford Engineering Laboratory, the rest by Lincoln, which was also responsible for its trim and paint.

1932 Ford Edsel Speedster rear 3q 2010 Barillaro Speed Shop-per
Although the 1932 Speedster is still unpainted in these photographs, it was originally gunmetal gray, Edsel Ford’s favorite color. The fenders are recreations; the car was wrecked at some point in the late thirties or early forties and a subsequent owner substituted the fenders of a 1935 Chevrolet. Based on the photos and illustrations we’ve seen, the restorers have closely replicated the shape of the speedster’s original aluminum fenders. (Photo © 2010 Jim Barillaro; used with the permission of Barillaro Speed Emporium Inc.)

Edsel drove the ’32 speedster for about a year and a half before selling it in 1934. That summer, he and Gregorie started discussing a new, more radically streamlined version, along the lines of contemporary European sport racers. (Writer Michael Lamm thought that its front-end styling might also have been inspired by the FWD Miller race cars of the late twenties, discussed in our article on the Packard Twelve; in 1935, Edsel would underwrite a series of Miller/Ford cars for the Indianapolis 500.)

One of Gregorie’s goals for the new car was to make it considerably lower than its predecessor, something that required extensive changes to both chassis and suspension. While the front suspension retained the familiar transverse leaf spring, alterations to the radius rods and steering linkage allowed a substantially lower ride height. The rear frame, meanwhile, was modified so that the spring would ride below the frame rails rather than above them. Together, suspension changes allowed the chassis to sit nearly 6 inches (152 mm) lower than a stock Ford. Relocating the cockpit closer to the rear axle made the car look substantially longer as well. (Interestingly, Gregorie apparently developed most of these modifications himself, testing them on back roads in a bodiless chassis mule.)

1934 Ford Special Speedster front 3q historic 1934-FordMotorCo
The 1934 Edsel Ford speedster in its original form. Some sources refer to this car as the Continental Series II, but information provided by the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House describes it as the Model 40 Special Speedster, which we presume is how it was registered. As originally built, it had a split grille, not easy to see at this angle. The grille’s symmetrical openings were fairly large, but their shape effectively shrouded the lower portion of the radiator, contributing to persistent cooling problems. Note the low, faired-in headlights, a radical touch for 1934. (Photo © 1934 Ford Motor Company; courtesy of the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House)

The new speedster once again had aluminum body panels over a tubular aluminum structure; its cycle fenders were also aluminum, as was the dashboard. The cruciform frame was more or less bespoke, but the drivetrain was stock, including a three-speed gearbox and unmodified 221 cu. in. (3,622 cc) Ford V8. Although it had no more power than a stock Model 40 sedan, the speedster was at least 500 lb (227 kg) lighter, making it more than adequately quick; Gregorie said it was capable of 90 mph (145 km/h). In true sport racer fashion, it had neither side curtains nor a top, making it strictly a fair-weather toy.

Up to that point, a major obstacle in developing these custom cars had been finding a way to build them without disrupting the regular production lines, something of which Henry Ford and Charlie Sorensen took a dim view. By the time the new speedster was designed, there was another option: the Aircraft Division plant, which had previously built the pioneering Ford Tri-Motor. Tri-Motor production had ended the previous year and with no immediate replacement, the Aircraft plant’s remaining engineers had little to do but provide spares and service for existing aircraft. In 1934, Edsel enlisted them to construct one-offs and experimental cars, taking advantage of the staff’s experience with aluminum construction and probably helping to justify keeping them on the payroll in the midst of the Depression. The speedster was one of the first such projects; Edsel registered the finished product in September 1934.

1929 Ford Trimotor 5-AT-C in flight © 2007 Dave Miller (used with permission)
Before being enlisted to build personal cars for Edsel Ford, the Aircraft Division built Ford’s immortal Tin Goose. It remains one of the most distinctive aircraft ever built, with corrugated aluminum skin, asymmetrical wing tips, and three Pratt & Whitney Wasp nine-cylinder radials (here rated at a combined 1,350 hp/1,007 kW). Only 199 Ford Tri-Motors were built between 1926 and 1933, but each had a long and eventful history. This 1929 4-AT-C, N414H, was originally used by Ford as a demonstration aircraft and later flown by Pan Am and smaller carriers in Mexico and Guatemala. Now operated by Grand Canyon Airlines in Arizona, it’s one of about half a dozen flyable Tri-Motor survivors. (Photo: “Ford Tri-Motor 5-AT-74” © 2007 Dave Miller (Armchair Aviator); used with permission)

FORD SPECIAL SPORTS AND JENSEN-FORD

Although its complete lack of weather protection and luggage space made the Special Speedster thoroughly impractical, both Edsel Ford and Bob Gregorie liked the idea of offering a Ford-branded sports car in at least limited production.

After the speedster, Gregorie developed another sporty model: a low-slung, four-seat phaeton, later dubbed the Ford Special Sports. Again built by the Aircraft Division, it had a stretched wheelbase and the same chassis modifications as the speedster. (It’s not clear if the modified chassis was first conceived for the speedster and then applied to the phaeton or vice versa; Gregorie’s account is ambiguous on that point.) We were unable to obtain a photograph of the phaeton for this article, but it had right-hand drive, apparently using components sourced through Ford of Canada, and combined some features of the 1934 Ford Model 40 with a 1935 Model 48 grille and front bumper, along with elongated front fenders that Gregorie said were created from Tri-Motor wheel spats. The running boards were again deleted and the doors were cut away in a fashion that suggested Howard Darrin’s famous “Darrin dip.”

Since building the Special Sports would have disrupted the regular Ford lines and Ford of England wasn’t interested in it, Edsel hoped to commission an outside coachbuilder to put it into limited series production. In early 1935, Gregorie and a friend drove the prototype — which had a top, but no heater or side curtains — to New York to show it to John Inskip of Brewster & Co. Inskip was interested, but, according to Gregorie, expected Ford to underwrite not only the production, but also an entirely new Brewster plant. Edsel declined and the plan soon fell apart. (Some sources indicate that Henry Ford objected to the project, although if that’s true, we don’t know if he took exception to the sports car idea in general, the idea of building it on Ford production lines, or just the deal Inskip was proposing, on which Edsel was none too keen himself.)

That might have been the end of it, but a few months later, Edsel arranged to license the phaeton’s chassis design to England’s Jensen Motors Ltd., which had started offered custom-bodied cars on Ford chassis the previous year. After the 1934 model year, changes to the standard Ford chassis made the rear suspension modifications unnecessary, but Gregorie built a second prototype, this time incorporating only the altered front suspension. Jensen adopted this version starting in late 1936 with components made by England’s M.B.K. Motors. Jensen eventually made about 50 such cars, known today (apparently retroactively) as the Jensen S-Type.

1936 Jensen-Ford tourer front 3q 2011 Steve Sexton-per
Jensen Motors built approximately 80 cars on V8 Ford chassis between 1934 and 1941 in several body styles. Many, like this 1936 Tourer, had the 221 cu. in. (3,622 cc) V8, but some later S-Types had the smaller 136 cu. in. (2,227 cc) Ford V8-60, introduced in 1937. The S-Type, introduced in late 1936, adopted Bob Gregorie’s modified front suspension design, although Gregorie had no involvement with the bodywork or exterior design. (Photo: “1936 Jensen-Ford Tourer” © 2011 Steve Sexton; used with permission)

Edsel eventually gave Gregorie the first Special Sports prototype, but before that, he was to receive a much greater token of Edsel’s appreciation: Not long after Gregorie’s visit to Brewster in January 1935, Edsel called him long distance from Florida and asked if he wanted to become Ford’s first official in-house design chief.

THE FORD DESIGN STUDIO

By the end of 1935, Bob Gregorie had established a fledgling internal design studio made up mostly of other Ford draftsmen or modelers; only one of his early staff was hired from outside the company. The design team reported to Gregorie and Gregorie reported directly to Edsel Ford.

Gregorie’s new role did not mean the end of his work on Edsel’s personal cars. Around 1938, at his own initiative, Gregorie developed a modified Ford Tudor sedan for Edsel, giving it blind rear quarters and a landau-style leather top, completed and trimmed in the Lincoln plant. That fall, Gregorie and Edsel started talking about a new sporty model, based this time on the Lincoln Zephyr. That concept emerged the following March as the original Lincoln Continental, one of the most famous, and certainly the most acclaimed, of their stylistic collaborations.

1934 Ford Special Speedster scale model 1940 Ford Motor Co
A wooden scale model of the Special Speedster’s new front end, photographed in March 1940. The handwritten note is from Edsel Ford to Bob Gregorie suggesting the unification of the split grille, an idea that was not adopted. (Photo © 1940 Ford Motor Company; courtesy of the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House)

Unlike the 1932 boattail, Edsel held onto the 1934 speedster, driving it mainly on private roads around his Gaukler Point estate. Its original engine did not survive the decade, apparently suffering a cracked block in late 1939. Since the car would need a new engine, Edsel asked Gregorie to give the speedster a facelift, including a new grille that would provide better airflow to the radiator. The cosmetic work was finished by the spring of 1940, around which time the original V8 was replace with a 239 cu. in. (3,923 cc) Mercury engine with 95 hp (71 kW) and 170 lb-ft (230 N-m) of torque. Edsel would keep the revised Special Speedster until his death.

1934 Ford Special Speedster front 3q 2011 Edsel Eleanor Ford House
The Special Speedster, photographed following its 2010–2011 restoration. We don’t know if Gregorie designed the revised nose himself or if it was the work of stylist Bruno Kolt, who was responsible for the grilles of most production Fords of this period. In any case, the facelift was apparently executed by Ford Aircraft Division, which also built the original car. One striking feature, mostly invisible at this scale, is that the aluminum exterior panels are affixed with flush rivets, much like an aircraft. (Photo copyright and courtesy the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House)

1934 Ford Special Speedster interior 2011 Edsel Eleanor Ford House
When the Special Speedster was facelifted in 1940, it also received a new aluminum dash with a new set of Stewart-Warner instruments. The restored car’s paint, known as Gunmetal Deep Ground, is a computer match of the original Pearl Essence Gunmetal Dark, which was used for many of Edsel’s personal cars. (Photo copyright and courtesy the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House)

Gregorie’s design team gradually expanded, reaching a peak of 75 employees by 1941, but after Pearl Harbor, the staff was cut back to perhaps 25 people. Gregorie’s staff was assigned to work primarily on military projects, but Edsel asked him to continue developing civilian designs on the side, with an eye toward the war’s eventual end.

By that time, Edsel was already quite ill; he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. Gregorie’s last conversation with him was in early 1943. Edsel had been away for months, trying to build up his strength, but he still looked decidedly unwell. He passed away on May 26 at the age of 49.

Lacking a patron, Gregorie was fired four months later, but Henry Ford II, Edsel’s eldest son, persuaded Gregorie to return in the spring of 1944. Unfortunately, Gregorie never built the kind of rapport with the younger Henry that he had had with Edsel and the arrival of former GM executive Ernest R. Breech as the company’s new executive vice president made the design chief increasingly uncomfortable. Gregorie resigned in December 1946, leaving Dearborn for St. Augustine, Florida, where he resumed his earlier career as a yacht designer. In an odd piece of symmetry, he was about the same age Edsel Ford had been when they first met back in 1932.

1934 Ford Special Speedster rear 2011 Edsel Eleanor Ford House
The shape of the Special Speedster’s tail echoes that of its 1932 predecessor, although it rides much lower, thanks to the underslung rear suspension. Luggage space — admittedly an academic point in a car like this — is basically nonexistent; most of the tail’s usable volume is occupied by the spare tire. Note the flattened exhaust tips, a stylish touch that probably also buys a few valuable millimeters of ground clearance. (Photo copyright and courtesy the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House)

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  1. Great write up The Jensen Ford appears to have a postwar Ford Pilot grille and the whole front is very Pilot like, or is it that the Jensen is a rebodied 30s English V8 Ford

    1. I assume that most of the Jensen-Fords were based on English Ford components, although the 1936 car shown here was a special case, since it was ordered by an American buyer with LHD.

      The grille does look remarkably like a postwar Pilot, but the Pilot also looks like an amalgam of mid-thirties V8 Fords. My guess, without doing more investigation of that particular car, is that it has the chrome grille from a 1936 Ford, possibly cut down to fit or otherwise modified (a simple enough exercise for a coachbuilder).

      1. It’s also worth mentioning that a lot of the details of Jensen’s prewar cars are a bit hazy at this point. Luftwaffe raids destroyed most of the early records, so most of the information available appears to be based on the cars that have survived and period advertising, rather than factory data, and it’s hard to know definitively what they did and didn’t do. (And with semi-custom work, it’s also always possible that they built something anomalous, either at client request or because they had some leftover pieces.)

  2. Yet another interesting article Aaron!

    It seems it was a common usage for the big cats in Detroit (Harley Earl and others) to have custom, one-off cars manufactured by the company. Sometimes it was a concept car or a prototype they would take as a personal car.
    I read the very first Continental was a private order from Edsel Ford after a visit he did in Europe. It proved a good investment since it became a must among his acquaintances and eventually a marque.

    Yet my question is, as a rule of thumb, who paid for those hand-built specials? The guy who ordered them or the company?

    Nick

    1. An excellent question to which I’ve never gotten a definitive answer. My best guess (as a generic answer) is that the company paid for the car and then sold it to the executive, presumably for a good deal less than the actual production costs. Automotive employees and executives are typically able to buy the company’s cars at substantial discounts, so there’s some precedent there. I also know of cases where certain special cars used for evaluation purposes were subsequently sold to employees, rather than scrapped. (One example was the small number of Jaguar XJ-S 3.6 cars brought to the U.S. in the eighties, while Jaguar considered whether or not to import the early six-cylinder model. They ultimately decided not to, but the cars had already been federalized, so Jaguar NA sold them to its U.S. employees.) And I assume that if a car was originally created as a drivable styling prototype or show car, the company is permitted to sell it once the car has completed its official functions — so long as it is or can be made street legal (obviously an easier process prior to safety and emissions standards) — just as businesses can sell off their surplus equipment or fixtures.

      If the car was one that the executive already owned and had customized by the staff, rather than being built from a bare chassis or body in white, the company probably charged them some fee for the work, although I suspect it would still have included some steep discounts on the actual material and labor costs. Doing it for free would pose some legal and fiscal problems (with the costs being treated as income, etc.), but there usually aren’t a lot of restrictions on a company offering its employees discounts on its products and services as a perk.

  3. I know of top executives, whether in privately owned companies like Ford at that time or public ones, who don’t make a clear distinction between their own expenses and that of their company. What’s a benefit in kind as opposed to expenses needed of the job when it comes to traveling, eating at fancy restaurants, using the company car (and refueling it on the house).
    It was extremely common in France that corporations had their own repair shop (sometimes with a gas pump). Big cats had their car costs completely paid of. That practice was gradually eliminated with the IRS considering it as a salary and taxing it. So it stopped being economical for both parties.
    It was also common (and it still is although it became more difficult) that bosses manage to have lots of their personal expenses (house, yacht, and so on) paid for.
    Henry Ford was known for not being very ‘fiscally responsible’ either. Edsel’s fancy cars must cost fortunes. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was on the house.
    I always wonder when I see Harley Earl’s one-off vehicles as well. Just a curiosity.

    Nick

    1. With Edsel’s personal cars, it appears that at least some of them were titled in his name (and the ones he still owned at the time of his death were considered part of his estate), which implies that he did actually purchase them from the company, rather than just having them as company property that he happened to drive around. What the purchase price may have been — and whether it at all reflected the actual production costs — is an open question.

      (In most U.S. states, transferring an automobile title requires at least a token payment, except between certain blood relatives. Motor vehicles departments get testy if they think the purchase price is suspiciously low, in part because license and registration fees are based on that price.)

      One interesting point is the customized landau sedan Gregorie said he had built for Edsel around 1938. Assuming that Gregorie’s recollections were correct (his interview with Dave Crippen was, after all, nearly 50 years on), he had that done on his own initiative, not at Edsel’s orders. Now, Gregorie indicated that his own salary at the time was not impressive, so it seems unlikely that he could have paid for that kind of work (which he indicated was rather expensive) purely at his own expense. Even if Edsel were otherwise in the habit of paying for the construction of his personal cars directly, one imagines he would be annoyed to be presented with a substantial bill for work he hadn’t asked for. That leads me to assume that Gregorie had the work done on his authority as styling director, drawing on whatever budget he had for styling prototypes. If Edsel hadn’t liked it or hadn’t wanted it, I presume it would have ended up scrapped or in storage, like other used prototypes. Since Edsel apparently did like it, he could have then arranged to purchase it, on whatever terms his accountants deemed appropriate. I wouldn’t be surprised if his other cars were done on a similar basis, but again, I’m speculating.

  4. It’ll remain unanswered, even though I have a strong suspicion about it. ;-)

    Nick

  5. The Toronto Globe & Mail has just run an article about the Model 40 Special Speedster:

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