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.
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.
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.
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.
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.