After years of retrenching, financial crisis and bankruptcies, the world’s automakers are now introducing new concept and production vehicles. The 2012 NAIAS in Detroit was one of the more product-rich big auto shows of the past decade. Just about every exhibitor at the show was revealing all-new vehicles or concepts giving us a look at future production plans. Cadillac’s 3 Series fighter, the ATS, Lincoln’s all new and attractive MKZ, Ford’s Aston-Martin looking Fusion and Chrysler’s Alfa Romeo based Dodge Dart were all significant new introductions by the domestics. Toyota showed concepts that will probably end up as the next Camry and Prius (plus Lexus’ stunning LF-LC concept that will most likely not see production). Mercedes introduced the first all-new SL roadster in a decade. Hyundai showed the highly anticipated Veloster Turbo. I could go down the list of exhibitors with other examples but you get the idea: lots of significant new product. However, over at the far end of Cobo Hall, tucked away upstairs in a corner of the Lincoln exhibit, was probably the most significant car of the entire show. I suppose you could call it a concept car, but it represents a concept that is larger than just the design of one individual car. It’s one of the cars that can be said to have been part of the invention of automotive styling. I think that makes it the most significant car, new or old, at the 2012 NAIAS.
Lincoln used the NAIAS to display the recently restored custom speedster that Bob Gregorie designed and built for Edsel Ford. Edsel, who had taken training as an artist and unquestionably had a fine collector’s eye and appreciation for art and design, hired Gregorie to start a styling studio at Ford. Edsel’s father, Henry Ford, couldn’t be bothered with things like aesthetic design, the Model T was all about practicality, not style. As a matter of fact, when Henry found out Edsel had a restyled Model T prototype built while the senior Ford was out of the country, Henry physically attacked and damaged the prototype.
The Speedster was no mere prototype. It was Edsel’s personal sports car that he drove on public streets and raced around the driveways of his estate on Lake St. Claire, just north of Grosse Pointe (it was no coincidence that Edsel built his and Eleanor’s home way across town from Henry’s estate in Dearborn). Eugene T. “Bob” Gregorie had started out working for Brewster, the New York coachbuilder, and later moved to Detroit, working for Harley Earl’s new GM styling department. Edsel hired him away, using him first at Lincoln, which Edsel’s father had bought as his son’s playtoy, and then Gregorie contributed to the design of the Model A, which was essentially a scaled down Lincoln. Gregorie’s styling of an English Ford was scaled up for the 1933-34 American Fords.
In the early ’30s, after a trip to the continent Edsel asked Gregorie to design him a speedster with European flair. That resulted in the creation of two boattail speedsters. The car on display at the NAIAS is the second of the two Edsel Ford specials. In an oral history recorded in 1985 by the University of Michigan Dearborn, Gregorie reminisced:
A. Earlier, Edsel Ford came to me and wanted a special body built on one of the first ’32 V-8 chassis, and I drew up a little boat tail speedster with cycle fenders. A pretty, little thing. We had it built partically in the Engineering Laboratory and over at the Lincoln plant.
Q: This is Mr. Ford’s personal car?
A: Edsel Ford’s. Yes, yes, that’s right. Beautiful gun-metal gray, gray leather upholstery, and so on. He kept that out at his estate, and I don’t know what ever happened to the little car. It was a pretty, little car. Have you seen pictures of it?
Q: Yes, I have.
Q: Well, we are back in 1932, and you’ve just about…
A: Yeah, we finished up that little two-seater for Edsel Ford at the Lincoln plant.
Q: Right. Was this the boat tail?
A: The little boat tail speedster. That was in the Summer of ’32 we built that and ready for him in the Fall.
Q: And the boat tail resulted from both your’s and Edsel Ford’s love of boats…?
A: He was amused by the fact that I drew up the sections of it like you draw the hull of a boat and developed the paneling for it and so on [note: early automotive designers used techniques borrowed from ship builders, including "lofting", a method of representing three dimensions on paper]. When the car was finished, it wasn’t finished until around the Fall, I know the weather was cold. I drove it back from the Lincoln plant. There was snow. I never saw the car after that. He took it out to his house, and he used to use it out there. But, he made a cute remark at that time. During the Summer of 1932, the Lincoln plant was shut down- period! Just the maintenance crew there, and…
Q: Sales were way down?
A: Robinson–Robbie, we used to call him–he was the manager of the plant. Robbie and I and two or three of the maintenance men there did most of the work on the car. When the car was finished, Mr. Ford made the comment that it cost $25 to drive a nail there in the plant at that time. He said, “You should see the bill I got for this car.” He said, “You wouldn’t believe it.” Of course, it was all Ford money. It didn’t make any difference, you know, they had the people there. It came out as part of the overhead of the plant, see. Some of those things were interesting when you stop to think of the amount of money that was available to spend, and the way it was spent. I think he felt good about keeping a few people busy, really.
Q: So the 1933-34 Ford is a success, and you’ve established your rapport with Mr. Edsel Ford by not only that, but by working on a personal boat tail speedster that he liked.
A: Yes. Then, in 1934, the Summer of 1934, he had given me the use of the Ford aircraft plant for any experimental work that we wanted to do.
Q: Which was now vacant?
A: Yes. They had a skeleton crew there of sheet metal workers and eight or ten top mechanics and whatnot. The reason they were kept on there was to provide service parts for the old Ford Tri-Motor planes of which there quite a number still in service–manifolds and landing gear parts, and things of that nature. It provided a place for me to do some experimental work without interfering with regular Ford activities. That summer discussions about a Ford sports car came up again. Some sort of–this incidentally is really the beginning of the Continental. For all intents and purposes it could be classified that way. I developed a sports car chassis based on the 1934 Ford.
Q: Which was one of your more beautiful designs, as I recall?
A: Yes, but it–all that we used from the ’34 Ford was the chassis- the chassis frame and the power unit and so on. I developed a special front-end suspension which enabled us to lower the car down five or six inches and also extend the wheelbase about 10 inches. It involved an entirely different front-end suspension, and also we lowered the rear end of it by cutting the rear end of the standard Ford frame off just ahead of the kickup and turning it upside down, welding it together which allowed the frame to go under the axle. It was underslung rear suspension. I built up a chassis based on that concept which I road tested for a couple of months in the surrounding area–with no body work on it. But later, the two front fenders were made from Ford Tri-Motor fenders. The aluminum stampings, which covered the wheels on the Ford Tri-Motor landing gear, we cut them off and pieced them out and made some very nice, extended fenders for the car. So, we finished the car up with some improvisations, and I sent it over to the Lincoln plant, had some nice trim put on it, and had it painted–Mr. Ford’s favorite gun metal gray. Along in January and February, I guess it was, it had to be February, 1935, we talked about the possibility of putting it into production through one of the custom body builders. Well, we’d furnish the chassis, and the custom body builder would provide the body work and finish it up, and it would be sponsored by Ford. I suggested to Mr. Ford that we drive it down to New York and show it to Johnny Inskip.
The Edsel Ford Speedster had two iterations. The original 1934 design had a very elegant front end design that featured headlamps integrated into the sheetmetal. At the time, most cars used traditional free standing headlamps (with the notable exception of Pierce Arrow). Unfortunately, the car’s flathead Ford V8 engine overheated, necessitating a 1940 redesign with more open grille space.
The result isn’t quite as elegant as the original, and though in photographs it looks a bit awkward, in person (or in 3D) you can see how Gregorie smoothly integrated the new sheet-metal with the rest of the body. It’s still an impressive design that foreshadows the look of the ’41 and ’42 Fords.
After Edsel’s death in 1943 the Speedster was eventually sold and its whereabouts were not known for four decades until the car resurfaced in 1999. In 2010, the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House (Edsel’s lakeside estate which is owned by a non-profit organization that also now owns Fairlane, Henry and Clara Ford’s Dearborn estate) acquired the Edsel Ford Speedster. It had previously sold at auction in 2008 for $1.76 million. The catalog description from that auction with a more complete history of the car is reproduced below. After the acquisition, the Ford House commissioned the restoration division of RM Auctions to do a full restoration of the car to the condition it was in 1940, after Gregorie’s restyling. The Speedster wasn’t in bad shape, having been mechanically restored, but it was painted bright red, apparently for a movie it had appeared in, not Edsel’s favorite Pearl Essence Gunmetal Dark Grey. A more complete gallery of photos of the newly restored Edsel Ford Speedster can be seen here. The restored Speedster had its coming out party at the Pebble Beach concourse last year and after being displayed at events like the NAIAS this year, it will eventually go on permanent display at the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options.
From RM Auctions:
120bhp, 239 cu. in. Mercury flathead V8 engine, fitted with twin Stromberg carburetors, three-speed manual transmission, I-beam front axle with semi-elliptic leaf spring, solid rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf spring, four-wheel mechanical brakes. Wheelbase (est.): 122″
Edsel Bryant Ford, President of Ford Motor Company from 1925 until his untimely death from cancer and undulant fever in 1943, had a considerable influence on Ford styling, first with Lincoln, then with the 1928 Model A, and soon afterward, with the 1932 Ford and many Ford models that followed. Edsel oversaw the design of the first Mercury cars and he initiated the concept that became the prototype Lincoln Continental. A true car enthusiast with impeccable taste, Edsel owned a series of interesting automobiles, ranging from Model T speedsters to a Stutz, a Bugatti and a Hispano-Suiza.
An accomplished artist who took art lessons all his life, Edsel had a particular interest in the design and styling of Ford Motor Company cars, an issue that didn’t much interest his puritanical father. In his book, Ford Design Department Concept & Show Cars, 1932-1961, former Ford stylist Jim Farrell wrote: “At a time when others did not recognize it as such, Edsel Ford saw the automobile as an art form. In reality, he was a far better designer than most who claimed the title. He knew design history and theory; he was Ford’s design director in the same sense that Harley Earl was design director at GM.”
Before Edsel’s involvement, Ford’s no-frills styling emanated from the company’s ultra-conservative engineering department. Edsel established Ford’s first styling group and chose E.T. “Bob” Gregorie, to head a small team. Gregorie, who had worked briefly at Harley Earl’s General Motors Art and Colour studio, was an accomplished sketch artist who was adept at translating Edsel’s visions into reality.
“Although Ford had only one-tenth the number of designers employed at GM,” Jim Farrell explained, “the cars designed at Ford during the Edsel Ford years consistently displayed an understated elegance and the sculptured simplicity he insisted on. They have aged well because of him.”
Edsel and Bob Gregorie began their collaboration in 1932. Gregorie had been a draftsman at Lincoln the previous year. Ford design folklore insists that Gregorie made certain that Edsel saw his talented sketches of yachts and speedboats. The two men soon found they worked very well together. Gregorie became adept at visualizing Edsel’s ideas through sketches; he quickly and skillfully translated concepts from two-dimensions-to-three. After Edsel returned from a 1932 European trip, he asked Gregorie to design and supervise the construction of a “sports car” similar to those he’d seen “…on the continent.”
The result, a custom boat tail speedster on a ’32 Ford chassis, was a smart-looking runabout with styling cues that foretold the 1933 Ford production cars, but Edsel soon wanted something more dramatic. Early in 1934, he and Gregorie planned a second, more contemporary speedster with a unique shape that would be much more streamlined. After sketching several alternatives, Gregorie built a 1/25th scale model, which he then tested in a wind tunnel in Ford Aviation’s Air Frame Building.
To achieve this new speedster’s dramatically low silhouette, Gregorie reversed the stock ’34 Ford frame’s rear kick-up and welded it back upside down for a six inch drop, so the frame rails now passed under the rear axle. A combination of existing and newly fabricated, specially-designed suspension parts were used to lower and extend the car’s front end as well. The front axle was moved forward ten inches in order to achieve the extended, elegant proportions Edsel desired.
Next, Gregorie and his Air Frame team fabricated a topless, two-passenger, taper-tailed aluminum body with a sharply vee-ed grille and cut-down doors, mounted on a tubular framework. Modified Ford Tri-motor aircraft “wheel pants” were adapted to serve as cycle fenders. The front fenders turned with the wheels. The speedster’s stock Ford wire wheels were covered by custom wheel discs. Painted Pearl Essence Gunmetal Dark (a gray shade Edsel favored), with a handsome, gray leather interior and an engine-turned instrument panel, the 2,400-pound Speedster was powered by a stock 75 brake horsepower, Ford Model 40 V8 engine, with straight exhausts that ran through a section of the frame, and exited at the rear. Custom bucket seats and a three-spoke steering wheel rounded out the specification.
The design was remarkably well integrated. The canted louvers were stamped to match the precise angle of the grille and the rakish windscreens. A valence panel tapered from front to rear, attached to the alloy body with discreet and perfectly-spaced rivets – another vestige of this car’s aircraft construction.
More custom touches included twin Brooklands racing-style windscreens, a louvered, elegantly shaped alligator hood, low-mounted, faired-in headlights, a fully enclosed radiator with no radiator cap or ornamentation, almost no distracting brightwork and no running boards. These were all styling features that would not appear on production Fords for several years.
According to Jim Farrell, “Mr. Ford took title to the car personally, liked the way it handled and was generally pleased with its design.”
Farrell further notes that Edsel Ford and Bob Gregorie “… spent many of their spare moments discussing the car’s design, and for the first time, both felt they had a car that could be built, somewhat modified, as a new, limited-production, sporty Ford.”
As he had done with his first Speedster, when it was not in use, Edsel stored the trim two-seater in an unheated shed on his Fair Lane estate (rather than incur the wrath of his stern father, who As he had done with his first Speedster, when it was not in use, Edsel stored the trim two-seater in an unheated shed on his Fair Lane estate (rather than incur the wrath of his stern father, who thought that sort of sporty job to be “frivolous”). Unfortunately, a sudden freeze in the winter of 1939-1940 cracked the engine block, so a new 1940 Mercury V8 was installed.
More recently, the Mercury engine was removed and replaced with a new old stock 1940 Ford flathead with a dual carb set up and dual exhausts. This engine was stored in its original packing crate for over 59 years and is in as-new, 1940 condition. The Mercury V8 remains with the Speedster, and will be offered along with the car, although it is in need of a rebuild. A sudden freeze in the winter of 1939-1940 cracked the engine block, so a new 1940 Mercury V8 was installed.
In actual operation, the enclosed sheet metal below the radiator partially blocked the flow of air to the radiator, and the Speedster had a tendency to overheat. To improve its cooling, Gregorie built a 1/10th-sized model that showed the discreet modifications he felt would cure the problem. After Edsel approved the design changes, Gregorie shortened the upper grille on the car, and fabricated a new horizontal lower grille with matching bars, flanked by large headlights.
No top was ever designed for the Speedster, so its stunningly low silhouette remained undisturbed and very seductive. One can only imagine the effect this ‘ahead-of-its-time’ car had on startled onlookers when the adventurous Mr. Ford took it for an occasional spin.
After Edsel Ford died in 1943, the second Model 40 Speedster, one of six cars in his estate, was driven first to Miami, Florida, then to Atlanta, Georgia, where it was sold for $1,000. In 1947, the owner shipped the Speedster to Los Angeles and put it in storage, but it would not remain there for long. In the May 1948 issue of Road & Track, an ad appeared that read: Especially constructed Ford chassis. Aluminum body built for Edsel Ford. Now powered with special Mercury Engine. Priced reasonably at $2,500. COACHCRAFT, LTD, 86 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, California.
Apparently, the Speedster did not sell. $2,500.00 was a lot of money in 1948. In 1952, the Edsel Speedster appeared in an issue of Auto Sport Review, photographed in Hollywood, along with an aspiring actress named Lynn Bari.
Into storage again it went, emerging in 1957 when it was driven back to Georgia. In January 1958, registered as a 1940 “Ford custom-built speedster,” it was offered for sale on the Garrard Import used car lot in Pensacola, Florida. Not long afterward, the Speedster was purchased by John Pallasch, a US Navy sailor on leave, for the sum of $603.00. Pallasch then drove the car to his home in Deland, Florida.
By now, the much-traveled Speedster was painted red and its upholstery had been modified to matching red leather. Pallasch claimed he could “bury the speedometer at 120 mph.” He reportedly drove the car for a few years before disassembling it in 1960 for an engine rebuild. Several accounts indicate that John’s father, Earl Pallasch, bought the car for his son, and the senior Pallasch reportedly took credit for the purchase, but the present owner confirms John to be the original buyer. John Pallasch shipped out for Vietnam on an extended tour, leaving the Speedster’s engine apart. Upon his return in the late 1960s, it had seized. The car remained apart and in storage for nearly 40 years until a fortuitous event occurred that brought it into the public eye.
In 1999, Bill Warner, founder of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, was searching for the Edsel Speedster for a special display. Warner had read an article in Special Interest Autos magazine written by its editor Mike Lamm, which told the story of all three of Edsel’s unique roadsters, saying that each of the cars had dropped out of sight. The SIA article listed the last owner of the 1934 Edsel Speedster as Earl Pallasch, located in Deland, Florida. After failed attempts to locate an Earl Pallasch, Warner called Mike Lamm, who provided him with the contact information of Earl’s son John, who had inherited the Speedster from his father. Invited to bring the car to Amelia Island, Pallasch replied that it hadn’t run for years, and that he really wanted to sell it.
Recognizing he had stumbled upon a unique opportunity, Bill Warner hitched up a trailer and immediately drove to nearby Deland to investigate. Sitting in the Pallasch garage, dusty and forlorn, covered with junk and tin cans, the long-lost Edsel Ford Speedster was virtually complete except for its custom wheel discs. Incredibly, the car’s odometer read just 19,000 miles.
Warner wrote Pallasch a check on the spot and hauled his miraculous discovery away. “I decided to show the Speedster to Bob Gregorie (who was then 91 and living in Saint Augustine) on the way home,” Bill Warner says, “So I called Mr. Gregorie and asked if I could drop by. I said had something I wanted to show him.”
Bob Gregorie’s response was one of pleasant surprise. “Mr. Gregorie came out of his house, smiled, and ran his hands over the surface of the car.” “I haven’t seen it since 1940,” he said. “The old girl still looks pretty good for her age.”
Bill Warner initially considered doing a ground-up restoration to the Speedster’s first iteration, complete with narrowed V-grille and Pearl Essence Gunmetal finish, but upon consideration, he decided to preserve the car’s remarkable patina. “It was prettier with the front end that was designed in 1934,” Warner said, “but the 1940 grille was original. It would have been a travesty to completely restore it.”
Warner and his team carefully rebuilt the Speedster’s Mercury V8, meticulously touched up the body paint, repainted the fenders, and Al LaMarr replicated the aluminum wheel discs. Bill Warner’s restoration crew removed a set of finned Edelbrock high-compression heads that were on the engine, because they rubbed on the insides of the hood, lending credence to the theory that the Mercury engine was modified (with those heads, twin carburetors, and a racing camshaft) when the car was in Hollywood, not in Dearborn.
Bill Warner believes the car’s red paint was hastily applied when the car was used in a movie. He’s been searching for a copy of that film for years. “They didn’t paint under the hood,” he notes, “and the masking was poorly done, so there’s a little overspray. You can still see the original gray color coming through in some places.”
That said, the well-preserved Speedster remains a time warp, and a truly remarkable find. A few years ago, at the Meadow Brook Hall Concours d’Elegance, Bill Warner kindly allowed this author to drive the Speedster. Respecting the remarkable discovery’s rarity, its well-preserved condition and substantial value, I was reluctant to really get on it, but I was surprised at the car’s peppy acceleration, and enjoyed the visceral rap of the twin, un-muffled exhausts. The gearshift is a three-speed, floor-mounted setup with a handle that extends out from under the dash. The driver’s bucket seat is quite comfortable.
Once inside, one sits low in the narrow cockpit, where the front tires and fenders and can actually be seen as they respond to the changing road surface. The steering is a tad lazy, in a characteristic early Ford V8 way. There’s virtually no cowl shake, and the overall ride, cushioned by the car’s extended wheelbase, is pleasantly firm. The Speedster sits much lower than a typical ’34 Ford roadster, and its long, stylish hood stretches majestically forward like a prestigious, thirties-era classic. Even with its “push and pray” mechanical brakes, Edsel Ford’s custom-built Speedster remains a stylish performance car, just as its patron and creator intended.
Unseen for 40 years, sympathetically cleaned and preserved, and benefiting from a careful mechanical restoration, Edsel Ford’s Continental Series II Speedster, essentially a hand-built and operational concept car from the 1930s, conceived and designed by a pair of acknowledged automotive legends, remains of the most famous and well-documented special Ford cars in existence.
The opportunity to purchase this legendary automobile is unprecedented and unlikely to occur again in our lifetimes.
Edsel Ford’s first 1932 Speedster was sold to a man named Elmer Benzin who kept the car for a time, then resold it to a young designer at General Motors, who subsequently had an accident. The car was badly wrecked, and thought to have been junked and forever lost. In actuality, the damaged Speedster found its way to a body shop in Connecticut. The shop owner, not realizing what he had, customized the boat-tailed speedster and fitted it with modified fenders from a 1935 Chevrolet. Purchased from the bodyman’s widow a few years ago, after having been lost and out of sight for decades, Edsel Ford’s first Continental Speedster is undergoing restoration in North Carolina.
Interestingly, in order to test the new longer chassis, Bob Gregorie and Edsel Ford built a third prototype Continental Special Speedster, with a makeshift open four-seater body. In the winter of February, 1935, with just a flimsy convertible top and no heater fitted, Bob Gregorie bravely drove this one-off car to New York City, but he was unable to secure a production agreement with John Iskip at Brewster & Co. Edsel Ford decided not to try any further to put a Speedster concept into production. He gave the car to Gregorie who kept it for a time, then sold it. The third Speedster passed through subsequent hands, and it was last seen in California in 1952.