Before the Continental: Edsel Ford’s Speedster

AFTERMATH AND REQUIEM

Edsel Ford’s 1932 speedster was apparently wrecked at some point after its 1934 sale and by the mid-forties had somehow ended up in a junkyard in Bridgeport, Connecticut. A new owner subsequently rebuilt it and kept it until the mid-eighties. He briefly sold the car, but had second thoughts and later bought it back. After his death, it was purchased by another collector, who took it to Knoxville, Tennessee’s Barillaro Speed Emporium to be restored to its original condition.

1934 Ford Special Speedster front 2011 Edsel Eleanor Ford House
1942 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet nose crop 2011 AlfvanBeem CC0 1.0 PD
Unlike Harley Earl’s GM custom cars, the Special Speedster (top) was not created to preview or showcase future Ford styling features, but in a general way, its 1940 facelift does seem to presage the grille of the 1942 Lincoln (bottom), although they differ substantially in detail. Since the 1942 Lincoln was probably finalized no later than the fall of 1939, it may have been designed first, although we don’t know for sure. (Top: Special Speedster photo copyright and courtesy the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House; Bottom: “Lincoln Continental Cabriolet photo-14” © 2011 AlfvanBeem, dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication; resized and modified (cropped) 2011 by Aaron Severson)

The 1934 Special Speedster was bequeathed to Eleanor Clay Ford after Edsel’s death. It was resold several times in the next few years, acquiring an array of period hop-up equipment. An owner in Los Angeles offered it for sale in the May 1948 issue of Road & Track, apparently without success. The speedster remained in Hollywood until around 1957, at some point acquiring a new coat of lipstick red paint and matching leather upholstery.

In 1958, a young Navy sailor named John Pallasch found the speedster on a Pensacola, Florida, used car lot and persuaded his father to buy it for him for the princely sum of $603. According to Bob Gregorie, the speedster’s Mercury V8 led Pallasch to the erroneous conclusion that the car was an early Mercury prototype; when Pallasch contacted him, Gregorie told him the real story. In the early sixties, Pallasch tried to rebuild the flathead V8, but he left for a tour of duty overseas before finishing it and when he returned the engine would no longer turn over. The speedster was left to languish in storage.

In 1999, Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance founder Bill Warner persuaded Pallasch to sell him the speedster. Warner repaired it, but did not attempt to restore it, although he did show it to Bob Gregorie prior to Gregorie’s death in November 2002. In 2008, the speedster was sold at auction to Houston, Texas, collector John O’Quinn, for a reported $1.76 million, but O’Quinn was killed in a car accident the following year. Edsel’s grandson, Edsel Ford II, bought the car from O’Quinn’s estate and donated it to the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. RM Auto Restoration in Ontario was commissioned to restore the speedster to its 1940 condition, while the much-modified V8 was replaced with an NOS engine from a 1940 Mercury.

1934 Ford Special Speedster red front 3q 2004 Pat McLaughlin-per
The 1934 in its pre-restoration hue, photographed at the 2004 EyesOnDesign Car Show in Detroit. (Photo © 2004 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

The fate of the four-seat Special Sports phaeton is less clear. Bob Gregorie owned it for some years — it was one of several cars Edsel gave him — but eventually sold it to a friend for $500. It was last seen, somewhat modified, in an article in Old Cars Weekly magazine, whose editors hadn’t known what it was. The car’s current whereabouts, if it still exists, are unknown. So too are the fates of the various other one-offs built for Edsel over the years; we would hesitate to guess how many there were, much less what happened to them all.

There’s little doubt that Edsel Ford’s professional life was stressful and often difficult, but it appears that the styling studio became a refuge, one of the few places within Ford where he could express himself freely. Gregorie later recalled that in the cloistered environment of the studio, Edsel — by all accounts a very private man — might even relax enough to indulge in a bit of non-professional small talk, something to which he was not normally inclined.

We don’t talk a lot about hot rods and custom cars on Ate Up With Motor because they tend to be the products of individual tastes rather than broader cultural phenomena. However, the speedsters, the Continental, and Edsel’s other one-off personal cars offer an important perspective on the collaboration of Edsel Ford and Bob Gregorie, the people who set the style for some of America’s most popular cars just as surely as Henry Ford shaped those cars’ mechanical character.

1934 Ford Special Speedster side 2011 Edsel Eleanor Ford House
The restored 1934 Special Speedster in profile, circa August 2011. (Photo copyright and courtesy the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House)

In a sense, almost all the Ford vehicles developed between 1935 and 1943 were designed for Edsel, but the customs were the purest expression of Gregorie’s skills and Edsel’s sensibilities, undiluted by marketing pressure or the compromises of mass production. Gregorie was justifiably proud of these projects and it’s clear that Edsel took considerable satisfaction not only from the cars themselves, but also the process of their creation, which afforded him a brief respite from the weight of his various responsibilities. They were personal cars in the truest sense and a unique part of their creators’ collective legacy.

# # #

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Special thanks to Pat McLaughlin, Dave Miller, Jim Barillaro of the Barillaro Speed Emporium, and Leslie Armbruster of the Ford Archives for their help in obtaining photos for this article; Peter Holman and Rashid Lilaoowala for their kind invitation to see the newly restored car at the Petersen Automotive Museum on 14 September 2011; and Ann Fitzpatrick of the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House for providing the press kit on the restoration of the Special Speedster. (All photos marked “courtesy the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House” are from that electronic press kit.) In the interests of full disclosure, the author did a brief spate of temp work for the Petersen back in 2008, but has no other business relationship with the museum other than being a frequent visitor and occasionally being invited to events like this one. For the record, the author passed on the reception’s complimentary hors d’oeuvre and cocktails, but did avail himself of a Diet Coke, a dozen or so grapes, a piece of cheese, and possibly a cracker.


NOTES ON SOURCES

Information on the standard Fords of the 1930s came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Arch Brown, “1932 Model B Ford: Son of Model A,” Special Interest Autos #130, July-August 1992, reprinted in Terry Ehrich, ed., The Hemmings Book of Prewar Fords: Drive Reports from Special Interest Autos Magazine (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 30-35, and “Dominant Rivalries: Chevrolet or Ford: Which was the better car of 1934?” Special Interest Autos #174, November-December 1999, reprinted in ibid, pp. 52-67; Ken Gross, “1940 Ford — The Deliverer,” Special Interest Autos #33, March-April 1976, reprinted in ibid, pp. 100-103; John Katz, “Fabulous Flathead,” Special Interest Autos #178, July-August 2000, reprinted in ibid, pp. 86-91; Michael Lamm, “Two Look-Alikes: Ford & Citroën,” Special Interest Autos #9, January-March 1972, reprinted in ibid, pp. 44-51; “The Life Cycle of the Ford Flathead V8: 1932-1953” (May 2002, Flathead Ford V-8, www.35pickup. com/ mulligan/fhtime.htm, accessed 26 September 2011); and Josiah Work, “1935 Ford Model 48: The Sleeper Among Flatheads,” Special Interest Autos #114, November-December 1989, reprinted in Terry Ehrich, ed., The Hemmings Book of Prewar Fords: Drive Reports from Special Interest Autos Magazine (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 68-75.

Other information on Bob Gregorie, Edsel Ford, and the design process at Ford came from Gregorie’s interview with C. Edson Armi in Armi’s The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988); Arch Brown, “1941 Lincoln Continental: Edsel Ford’s Legacy,” Special Interest Autos #122, March-April 1991, reprinted in Terry Ehrich, ed., The Hemmings Book of Lincolns (Hemmings Motor News Collector-Car Books) (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 28-35; David R. Crippen, “Reminiscences of Eugene T. Gregorie,” 4 February 1985, Automotive Design Oral History Project, The Benson Ford Research Center, www.autolife.umd.umich. edu/ Design/ Gregorie_interview.htm (transcript), last accessed 26 September 2011; “Edsel Ford’s Hot Rods” (no byline, but likely written by Michael Lamm), Special Interest Autos #2, November-December 1970, pp. 36-38; “Eugene T. Gregorie, 94, Designer of Lincoln Continental for Ford,” New York Times, 3 December 2002; Kit Foster, “Edsel’s Third Special” (26 March 2008, Kit Foster’s CarPort, www.kitfoster. com/ carport/ 2008/03/ edsels-third-special/, accessed 30 September 2011); Nick Georgano and Nicky Wright, Art of the American Automobile: The Greatest Stylists and Their Work (New York: SMITHMARK Publishers, 1995); Michael Lamm and Dave Holls, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Stockton, CA: Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc., 1997); Michael Lamm and David L. Lewis, “The First Mercury & How It Came to Be,” Special Interest Autos #23, July-August 1974, reprinted in Richard A. Lentinello, ed., The Hemmings Book of Mercurys: Drive Reports from Special Interest Autos Magazine (Hemmings Motor News Collector-Car Books) (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 4-11; Ron Osborn and Harry Bradley, “Edsel B. Ford” (1989, www.edsel. com/ pages/edslford.htm, accessed 22 September 2011); “The Missing Speedster (UPDATE II Special Sports)” (10 March 2008, Prewar Car, www.prewarcar. com, accessed 22 September 2011); Dan Scanlan, “Pioneer auto designer Gregorie, 94, dies in St. Augustine; He won praise for his work at Ford,” Jacksonville Times-Union, 3 December 2002; and comments by users Chris Casny, Rik Hoving, and “Bad Bob” on The H.A.M.B. (27 January 2007, Jalopy Journal, www.jalopyjournal. com/ forum/showthread.php?p=1751354, accessed 22 September 2011).

Information on the history and restoration of the Model 40 Special Speedster came from “1934 Ford Model 40 Special Speedster” (no byline, but possibly written by Ken Gross), Automobiles of Amelia Island, 8 March 2008, RM Auctions, www.rmauctions. com, accessed 22 September 2011; “Edsel Ford’s 1934 Model 40 Speedster” (31 August 2011, 53 Deluxe, www.53deluxe. com, accessed 21 September 2011); Ken Gross, “Edsel Ford’s 1934 Model 40 Special Speedster Review and Buyer’s Guide,” Sports Car Market, June 2008, old.sportscarmarket. com, accessed 22 September 2011; Daniel Strohl, “Edsel Ford’s hot rod – of course there’s no pre-auction estimate,” Hemmings Blog, 21 February 2008, blog.hemmings. com, accessed 21 September 2011; David W. Temple “History of Automotive Design: Buick Landau: GM Motoram Masterpiece and Courtesy Car,” Hemmings Classic Car #72, September 2010, pp. 54-59; and four press releases from the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House, dated 19 August 2011 and provided to the author as part of a press kit at an event at the Petersen Automotive Museum on 14 September 2011: “Edsel Bryant Ford’s 1934 Model 40 Special Speedster Restored,” “History: The Life and Owners of the 1934 Model 40 Special Speedster,” “Edsel Ford’s Style and Design Blended Elegance with Engineering,” and “Restoration of the 1934 Model 40 Special Speedster Confirms Custom Design and Engineering: Design helped shape the styling of future Ford vehicles.”

Additional background came from “1936 Jensen A” (no date, Autofiles.org, accessed 26 September 2011); “1936 Jensen-Ford Tourer” (27 June 2008, RM Auctions, www.rmauctions. com, accessed 29 September 2011); David Donald, The Complete Encyclopedia of World Aircraft (New York: Orbis Publishing/Aero Publishing/Barnes and Noble Books, 1997); John C. Dillon, “Ford Tri-Motor N414H History” (October 2007, ValleAirport.com, www.valleairport. com/ fordtrimotor/ N414H%20history.htm, accessed 28 September 2011); Ford Motor Company, “Fact Sheet: Ford Motor Company History Intertwined with Aviation” [press release], 2 April 2003; Timothy Gerber, “Built for Speed: The Checkered Career of Race Car Designer Harry A. Miller,” Wisconsin Magazine of History, Spring 2002, pp. 32-41; “Henry Ford, Ford Motor Company Founder and Aviation Pioneer” (17 December 2002, EAA’s Countdown to Kitty Hawk, Experimental Aircraft Association, Inc., www.countdowntokittyhawk. com, accessed 21 September 2011), based in turn on information from the National Aviation Hall of Fame; “Jensen Motors Ltd: Two Brothers with Vision” (no date, The Jensen FF Museum & Archive, www.thejensenff. com/ ffstory.htm, accessed 22 September 2011); “Jensen 1936” (no date, Classic Car Catalogue, classiccarcatalogue. com, accessed 22 September 2011); “Jensen S-type” (8 July 2011, MyCarBlog, mycarblog. org/ 2011/07/08/jensen-s-type/, accessed 26 September 2011); comments on the 1936 Jensen-Ford by user “50Fraud” on THE H.A.M.B. (18 January 2010, Jalopy Journal, www.jalopyjournal. com/ forum/showthread.php?t=437752, accessed 26 September 2011); Richard Calver’s Jensen website, www.richardcalver.com, accessed 26 September 2011; and the Wikipedia® entries for the Ford Trimotor (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Trimotor, accessed 21 September 2011) and Model Y (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Model_Y, accessed 29 September 2011).


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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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