Before the Continental: Edsel Ford’s Speedster

Recently, we were invited to an event at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles introducing the newly restored 1934 Ford Model 40 Special Speedster, an aluminum-bodied one-off originally designed by stylist E.T. (Bob) Gregorie for Edsel Ford’s personal use. This week, we explore the history of the 1934 Edsel Ford speedster and its lesser-known predecessor and take a look at Edsel Ford and Bob Gregorie’s role in Ford Motor Company styling.

1934 Ford Special Speedster red tease 2004 Pat McLaughlin per
(Photo © 2004 Pat McLaughlin; used with permission)

EDSEL BRYANT FORD

As Henry Ford’s only son, it’s little surprise that Edsel Bryant Ford developed strong feelings about automobiles from an early age. Edsel received his first car on his 10th birthday in November 1903 and at the age of 16, an early exercise in hot-rodding cost him part of a finger. As a teenager, Edsel collected press clippings and photographs of interesting cars, supplemented with his own automotive sketches. By the time he was an adult, his interests had expanded to include boating, painting, and photography; after his marriage in 1916 to Eleanor Lowthian Clay, he became an art connoisseur of some note. Nonetheless, cars would remain one of Edsel’s great passions throughout his life.

Although Edsel was the nominal president of the Ford Motor Company from December 30, 1918, until his death in 1943, his actual power was more limited than the title would imply. Edsel generally had authority over sales, marketing, and administrative functions such as purchasing, but engineering and production remained the domain of his father and senior managers like Ed Martin and Charlie Sorensen. Edsel’s influence was not negligible, but his ventures into those areas appear to have been politically fraught. Bob Gregorie, later to become Ford’s first design director, thought some company officials saw Edsel as a figure to be placated more than obeyed. Furthermore, Edsel could not necessarily count on his father to back him up; Henry Ford would sometimes contradict or even criticize Edsel in front of their employees, something the elder Ford later told Harry Bennett was intended to prod his reserved, soft-spoken son into becoming tougher and more assertive.

Edsel Ford portrait 84845 Ford Motor Company
Edsel Ford in the early thirties. (Photo: Ford Motor Company)

An area where Edsel could exercise far greater control was Lincoln, which Ford had acquired in 1922. Bob Gregorie later speculated that part of Henry Ford’s motivation in buying Lincoln was to keep Edsel occupied. Edsel, in turn, used Lincoln to develop ideas he hoped to persuade his father to eventually introduce on the Ford line. Lincoln also became an early outlet for Edsel’s continuing interest in styling. He selected the coachbuilders who provided Lincoln bodies and offered considerable input on their designs.

With the exception of a few high-end coachbuilt cars, early automobiles tended to be decorated more than actually styled and even color choices were usually sharply limited. However, as the automotive market matured, appearance became increasingly crucial and that importance gave Edsel Ford a new role. His influence over Ford design was visible in the final 1926-1927 Model T and became more pronounced with the introduction of the Model A in 1928, which incorporated not only Lincoln-esque styling, but also some Lincoln technologies, such as a conventional three-speed gearbox. Styling was not a subject in which Henry Ford usually took much interest, but he soon came to respect his son’s judgment in that area. By the early thirties, Edsel was effectively responsible for overseeing Ford design.

ENTER BOB GREGORIE

Today, we tend to think of automotive design chiefs as stylists who’ve moved up the ranks to managerial positions, but before World War II, it was not uncommon for styling directors to be administrators with little or no formal training or design experience. Even those who had a design background, like GM’s Harley Earl, often had little hands-on involvement after assuming a managerial role. As Bob Gregorie later noted, one doesn’t have to be an artist to offer valid criticism and direction.

It was in the latter capacity that Edsel Ford proved his mettle. While he offered feedback and suggestion on automotive designs, he left their execution to others. Even so, Ford’s products of the thirties and early forties reflected Edsel’s aesthetic sensibility. His tastes reflected his personality: neat, understated, fundamentally conservative, but always very refined. According to Gregorie, Edsel preferred sharp forms to blunt ones, delicacy to bulk, and a restrained use of trim; Edsel had little appetite for the chrome frosting favored by contemporary GM designers.

1932 Ford Model Y Junior Tudor front 3q © 2007 Lars Goran Lindgren Sweden (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
The first Ford production car designed by Bob Gregorie was the tiny Model Y saloon for Ford of England. With a base price under £100, the Model Y became a great hit in the U.K. and the engine’s modest 8 HP rating made it cheap to run and insure. (Actual developed output of its 57 cu. in. (933 cc) engine was about 23 hp/17 kW.) The Model Y also found some success in France, Germany, and other markets, but it was never offered in the U.S. (Photo: “1932 Ford Model Y Junior Tudor Saloon JNZ533” © 2007 Lars-Göran Lindgren Sweden; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

While it would be fair to say that Edsel had design authority at Ford by the early thirties, the company did not yet have a true styling department. Exterior design was either handled by the body engineers and draftsmen or by outside consultants like the Briggs Manufacturing Co., which developed the 1935 and 1936 Fords. Even Lincoln did not have its first real in-house stylist until chief body engineer Harry Crecelius hired E.T. Gregorie in January 1931.

Eugene Turrenne (Bob) Gregorie was then only 22 years old, although he had already worked at Brewster & Co. and (briefly) GM’s Art & Colour Section. Gregorie’s formal training was actually in boat design; he had been a draftsman at Elco Works, a New Jersey motor boat company, and after his stint at GM had designed yachts for Motor Products Co. However, like Edsel Ford, Gregorie had acquired an early interest in automobiles from his father, who had owned a variety of expensive European cars.

Gregorie’s initial duties naturally focused on Lincoln, but he was shortly assigned to design a new small sedan for Ford’s English subsidiary. Gregorie’s rendering was a good deal more attractive than the rather homely version that had previously been developed and was soon approved for production, going on sale in the spring of 1932. The Model Y, as it was called in Britain, was a great success and Edsel and Henry Ford were so pleased with it that they decided to adapt the design for the 1933-1934 North American Fords.

1934 Ford Model 40 DeLuxe Fordor sedan © 2005 Matthew Brown aka Morven CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
The 1933 North American Ford and its very similar 1934 counterpart were based on Bob Gregorie’s 1932 Model Y. Since the North American cars were substantially larger than the Model Y, Ford draftsman Clare Kramer had to adapt the design for their larger dimensions; we don’t know how involved (if at all) Gregorie was with that process. A 1934 Model 40 DeLuxe Fordor sedan, like this one, stretched 175.9 inches (4,468 mm) overall, on a 112-inch (2,845mm) wheelbase. It was almost as tall as it was wide, standing 66.5 inches (1,689 mm) high, and had a curb weight of around 2,800 lb (1,270 kg). The four-cylinder Model B was still available through the spring of 1934, but most 1934 Fords had the 221 cu. in. (3,622 cc) flathead V8, which boasted 85 hp (63 kW) and 150 lb-ft (203 N-m) of torque. (Photo: “1934 Ford Fordor Deluxe” © 2005 Matthew Brown aka Morven; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Edsel and Gregorie quickly found that they had much in common. While Edsel was about 15 years Gregorie’s senior, both came from well-to-do families, both had a prep school education (although neither had gone to college), and both shared a love of boats and cars that went beyond prosaic business necessity. In Bob Gregorie, Edsel Ford had, for perhaps the first time, someone to whom he could fully express his ideas about automotive styling. Moreover, Gregorie could do what Edsel could not: transform those concepts into workable production designs.

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)

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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