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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.