The Truth About Cars » edsel ford The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Mon, 14 Jul 2014 16:00:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » edsel ford Henry Ford’s Flying Flivver: The Model T of the Air Tue, 08 Jul 2014 14:53:23 +0000 IMG_0236

Full gallery here

Following the success of the Ford Trimotor, one of the first successful commercial passenger and cargo airplanes, which was introduced in 1925, Henry Ford got the aviation bug and decided to build what he called a “Model T of the air”, a small, affordable single seat airplane. He first proposed the idea to the men running his aircraft division, Trimotor designer William Bushnell Stout and William Benson Mayo but based on Henry’s design brief, neither experienced aeronautical man wanted anything to do with project. By then Henry Ford had bought out all of his investors and partners. All of Ford Motor Company stock was owned by Henry, Clara, and Edsel Ford, with Henry having the greatest share (49/3/48) so the firm was effectively Henry’s private feudal empire. Mr. Ford simply moved the project to a building in the Ford Laboratories complex.

To design the new plane, named the Ford Flivver, after one of the Model T’s nicknames, Ford turned to Otto Koppen. Koppen, a young MIT trained aeronautical engineer. After graduating from college, Koppen enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps where he served for four years under Jimmy Doolittle. After he had a harrowing emergency landing he discovered that his parachute was faulty – had he bailed out he would have fallen to his death. Koppen left the Army and got a job in Dearborn at the Ford owned Stout Metal Airplane Company. His first job there was to design the tail wheel on the Ford Trimotor. Henry Ford had complained that the tail-dragging skid originally fitted to the plane tore up the sod at his airfield, Ford Airport.

After Stout and Mayo turned their boss down, happy with the young engineer’s work on the Trimotor, Henry turned to Otto Koppen. Now some may think that because Ford’s attempt to build an everyman’s airplane ended up not being a successful venture that Koppen didn’t know what he was doing, but after working for Ford the aviation engineer returned to MIT where he had a long and distinguished career as an aeronautical engineering professor. Koppen would go on to develop the world’s first short take off and and landing (STOL) airplane, the Helio Courier. Some of the confusion may be due to the fact that two different versions and five total prototypes of the Flivver were built, with some of the planes being modified as many as three times.

Koppen would later say Ford’s instructions to him were that it had to be a single seat plane that was small enough that it could “fit in his [Ford's] office”. Ford apparently liked the idea of a plane in every garage to go with the Model T that likely was there. The target price was $500.

What Koppen came up with had a fuselage made of welded steel tubing and the wings were made of wood. The surfaces were made of fabric stretched over the frame. Since Ford didn’t like tail-draggers, the Flivver featured a tailwheel mounted to the rudder, making the plane steerable in the ground. That wheel also carried the planes only brake. A custom exhaust manifold connected the cylinders to a stock Model T muffler. Suspension function was achieved by using rubber doughnuts to mount the wheel struts to the wing. At least two different engines were used in Flivvers. The plane was 15 feet long, with a wingspan of 22 feet and it weighed just 350 lbs.

Three additional prototypes were built. Some sources say there were only three Flivvers made, some sources say four and one source says there were two prototypes of the initial design and then three prototypes of a second design, apparently because the first design wasn’t so great. The second design had a bigger wingspan, a sleeker, lower profile and this time the entire plane’s frame was made of steel tubing, covered with coated fabric. Perhaps because the wings were heavier, Flivver 2A had supportive wing struts. As there were plans to use this prototype to set distance records, a 55 gallon fuel tank was installed. Replacing the Anzani triple was a custom horizontally opposed twin made from a FoMoCo design of 143 cubic inches displacement, using Wright Whirlwind internal components, that put out 40 hp. The remaining two prototypes featured this engine. Flying magazine said in 1978 that it was the only Ford designed engine that ever flew.

The first prototype was introduced to the public on Henry Ford’s 63rd birthday, at what was billed as the 1926 Ford National Reliability Air Tour. Crowds flocked to see what some called “Ford’s Flying Car” and celebrities like political humorist Will Rogers posed with the Flivver, though Rogers, a pilot himself, never flew it.


Humorist Will Rogers posing with the Flivver, though he never flew it.

In fact only two people ever flew any of the Flivvers, Lindbergh and Harry J. Brooks, Ford’s chief test pilot for the Trimotor. The young Brooks, who may have also acted as Henry Ford’s personal pilot, became a favorite of the aging industrialist, who let him fly the first Flivver prototype regularly home from work, storing the plane in his garage as Henry planned. Brooks would then commute to work in the morning via air. The pilot used the second prototype to travel between Ford properties and he once raced the plane against Miss America V, piloted by Gar Wood, during the Harmsworth Trophy Races on the Detroit River.

Harry J. Brooks, Ford test pilot, one of two people who flew the Flivver. Brooks died when his prototype Flivver crashed into the ocean due to fuel starvation.

Harry J. Brooks, Ford test pilot, one of two people who flew the Flivver. Brooks died when his prototype Flivver crashed into the ocean due to fuel starvation.

Brooks loved the tiny plane, telling reporters,  “Flying a plane like this is no more difficult than flying a large plane, except in this plane the pilot has to think a little faster.” For the next year and a half, Brooks performed test flights and a some publicity barnstorming with the Flivver, including flying the Flivver into Washington D.C.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The reaction from the press to “Ford’s Flying Car” was ecstatic. If you think the term flying car is inappropriate, that steerable back wheel was intended to allow pilots to drive from their garage to the nearest runway. Popular Science said it was feasible for the “average Joe” to fly, small enough to fit in a garage, with flaps designed for maximum lift for short take offs. A columnist for the New York Evening Sun waxed poetic looking into the future:

I dreamed I was an angel
And with the angels soared
But I was simply touring
The heavens in a Ford

After Charles Lindbergh’s popularity exploded following his transatlantic flight, Henry Ford invited him to visit Ford Airport and fly the Flivver in August of 1927. Lucky Lindy didn’t share Brooks’ enthusiasm for the litte plane, later describing it as ” one of the worst aircraft he ever flew”. I guess that one man’s “think a little faster” is another man’s uncontrollably dangerous.

The long wingspan planes were built to set the long distance record for planes in the 200 to 400 kilogram class. Two attempts were made in early 1928 to fly non-stop from Detroit to Miami, Florida. The first attempt, using the third prototype  ended early when Brooks had to set down in Asheville, North Carolina. A month later, flying the second prototype, Brooks landed 200 miles short in Titusville, bending the propeller but he still managed to set a record of 972 miles non-stop on just 55 gallons of fuel.

While in Titusville for the night, Brooks managed to repair the plane with the propeller from the third prototype that had made the forced landing in North Carolina. To prevent the moist oceanside air from condensing water into the fuel, Brooks stopped up the fuel cap’s vent holes with wooden toothpicks (some versions of the story say matchsticks). On February 25th, Brooks took off for Miami, circled out over the Atlantic ocean off the coast near Melbourne, Florida, where his engine died. The wrecked Flivver washed up on shore but Brooks’ body was never found. When the wreckage was examined, they found the wooden plugs still in the vent holes. In his haste, Brooks had forgotten to remove them before taking off With the gas tank unable to vent, a vacuum was formed, starving the carburetors, killing the engine, and Brooks.

Following the death of his friend and employee, Henry Ford is reported to have been distraught and for a while he stopped further development of light aircraft. Wikipedia says that in 1931 Ford’s Stout division marketed the Stout Sky Car, the first of four one-off light planes that William Stout designed to be as easy to operate and as comfortable as a car, but by 1931 William Stout had left the company he founded, and as mentioned it was a one-off so I don’t know the extent of FoMoCo’s involvement. In 1936, Ford’s Stout division did develop a two-seat flying wing named the Model 15-P. It was powered by a flathead Ford V8 mounted in the back of the plane, driving a tractor propeller through a driveshaft. The fuselage was steel tubing with an aluminum skin, while the wings were covered with fabric. Fully faired landing gear featured large landing lights in the fairings.

Ford 15-P experimental airplane.

Ford 15-P experimental airplane.

After several test flights ended in crashes, however, the 15-P never went into production. Think of it as the Tatra 87 of airplanes, though while the Tatra had a rear mounted V8 and was prone to crashing, it actually made it to production. The Ford Model 15-P was the last airplane designed by Ford Motor Company. The B-24s that Ford build during WWII were made under license from Continental.

Despite his setbacks with small planes, Henry Ford likely never gave up the dream of a flying Flivver in every garage. In 1940, he said,”Mark my words: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.”

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 get a parallax view 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. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Honda’s Not the First Car Company to Make an Airplane: The Ford TriMotor Sun, 06 Jul 2014 14:00:17 +0000 IMG_0209

Full gallery here.

Since this isn’t The Truth About Airplanes or even Planelopnik, we don’t generally cover aviation here at TTAC, either general or commercial (sorry about that pun). However, Honda announced that last week the first production HondaJet took its maiden test flight, near Honda Aircraft’s Greensboro, NC headquarters, and Honda does, after all, make and sell a few cars too. They aren’t the first car company, though, to get into the airplane business. As a matter of fact an earlier automaker had a seminal role in the development of commercial passenger aviation and even took a flier (sorry again, couldn’t resist) at general aviation, though that experiment was less successful. I don’t know if Soichiro Honda’s ever envisioned his motor company making jet airplanes, but since one of Soichiro’s role models, Henry Ford, helped get passenger aviation off the ground (okay, the last time, I promise) it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the thought may have crossed Mr. Honda’s mind.

You may have heard, or even seen Howard Hughes’ famous and enormous World War Two era wooden airplane nicknamed The Spruce Goose. That nickname was taken from “The Tin Goose”, the popular name for the Ford Trimotor airplane (also known as the Tri-Motor), produced by Henry Ford’s company from 1925 to 1933. It wasn’t made of tin, by the way, but rather was one of the first uses of aluminum in airplane construction. Intended for the civil aviation market, most of the 199 Trimotors that were produced carried passengers or cargo, but the plane was used all over the world for a variety of purposes, including by some countries’ militaries. One Trimotor, the one in these photographs, in the collection of the Henry Ford Museum and on display there, was used by Admiral Byrd in his expedition to fly over the South Pole.

The Ford Trimotor most likely came about because of Edsel Ford’s interest in aviation. When Edsel was just 15 years old, a year after the Model T went into production in 1908 he persuaded his father to loan him three Ford workers to help him and a friend build an experimental monoplane powered by a Model T engine. Henry had encouraged Edsel’s mechanical interests, even building him a full machine shop above the carriage house at the family’s mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison district. It should be noted the the Fords built that 10,000 square foot house before the Model T was ever made. The success of the Model N and Model S Fords had already made Henry Ford a wealthy man before the T became a phenomenon that changed the world. Henry alternately doted on his only son and, worried that he would grow to be the soft, effete son of a rich man, humiliated him in front of others to ‘toughen him up’. He gave Edsel great power at the family company, but limited autonomy. The senior Ford, whom I believe was not a particularly good business manager and who was an even worse manager of people, relied heavily in terms of operational management of Ford Motor Company on James Couzens and his son Edsel. Both men chafed at their overbearing employer. Couzens, though, had a choice in the matter.

James Couzens was one of Henry Ford’s earliest employees. He also invested $10,000 in the new Ford Motor Company. Few of Henry’s business associates stayed with him for their entire careers and it was after Couzens and his wife had returned to Detroit from a trip to New York City that Ford’s longtime business manager finally had enough of Henry’s ways. Couzens and his wife had spent a night out on the town in Manhattan, taking in a play and eventually getting a room at a swanky hotel. However, when Couzens got back to Dearborn he was called onto the carpet by Ford, accused of stepping out on his wife. Henry, who had a long and quite possible fecund relationshp with a young Ford employee named Evangeline Dahlinger, had another standard for his employees, and it seems that one of Harry Bennett’s spies didn’t recognize Mrs. Couzens. Irate, and by then a very wealthy man in his own right from dividends on the Ford stock he owned, Couzens quit. Later, after stockholder lawsuits over unpaid dividends and a threat by Henry to start a new car company to compete with Ford Motor Co., Ford paid Couzens something like $29 million dollars in 1919 for that initial investment of $10,000.

Edsel Ford ended up far wealthier than James Couzens but he paid a high price for that wealth and unlike Couzens there was no way that he could leave the family company. Despite their sometimes strained relationship, based upon his behavior one would have to say that Edsel loved his father. Loving a difficult parent can create stress, not to mention the stress from running a large company. The younger Ford developed stomach ulcers. His immediate family is said to have blamed Henry for Edsel’s poor health. In 1942, when undergoing surgery to repair an ulcer, doctors discovered that Edsel had rapidly metastasizing stomach cancer. He also apparently contracted undulant fever from drinking unpasteurized milk produced at the Ford Farms in Greenfield Village. Edsel Ford died in 1943 at age 49.

Two decades earlier, Edsel was one of the early investors in the Stout Metal Airplane Company. In the early 1920s, most airplanes were still relatively small aircraft built with coated fabric laid over wooden or metal frameworks. William Bushnell Stout was an aeronautical engineer who had embraced many of the principles of Hugo Junkers, the German aircraft pioneer. He had had some limited success building airplanes for the American military starting during World War One. He was an early advocate of building aircraft using duraluminum, a copper and magnesium alloy of aluminum that was age-hardenable.  Stout was also a pretty savvy salesman. He sent out mimeographed letters to 100 leading business men, asking them each to invest $1,000 in his new venture. In his letter, he breezily said, “For your one thousand dollars you will get one definite promise: You will never get your money back.” It must have worked because Edsel invested and convinced his father to go in on the Stout company as well. It’s not clear how much money Stout raised. One source says $20,000, while another say it was a bit more substantial, $128,000.

However much the initial investment was, by 1924, the Ford Airport, one of the world’s first modern airports, was operating in Dearborn, in part to serve the growing business aviation needs of FoMoCo in addition to Ford’s interest in manufacturing airplanes. Once the Trimotor was in production, Ford would take out advertisements in national magazines encouraging local municipalities to build airports as a sign of their modernity and forward thinking. In 1925 the Stout company was made a subsidiary of Ford Motor Company. Stout’s original single engine design with the wing mounted above the fuselage and made with a stressed skin of corrugated aluminum over an aluminum frame was modified to take three Curtiss-Wright radial air-cooled engines and named the Stout 3-AT. It’s possible that Stout was a better salesman than an airplane designer because while the prototype flew, it didn’t fly well. A well-timed and fortuitous fire apparently then destroyed the prototype. By then Stout had a team of engineers to work with and subsequently the far more successful 4-AT and 5-AT production models were developed. The production 4-AT Trimotor was 50 feet long with a 76 foot wingspan. It weighed just 6,500 lbs empty and had a top speed of 114 mph.

While the Trimotor was not the first all-metal airplane, it was considered to be one of the most advanced aircraft of its day. Stout used a fuselage and wing design originated by Junkers. Some of those Junkers planes were exported from Germany to the U.S. and Stout was undoubtedly also influenced by their use of corrugated aluminum as a skin. The added stiffness caused by the corrugations was considered worth the increased aerodynamic drag. That Stout borrowed Junkers designs was attested to by the fact that Junkers successfully sued Ford when the American company tried to export the Trimotor to Europe. Ford tried to countersue but a Czech court ruled that the Ford designs indeed infringed on Junkers’ patents.

The 4-AT Ford Trimotor carried a crew of three, a pilot, co-pilot and a stewardess, along with as many as nine passengers. The seats were simple and could be removed for cargo runs. The entire body of the plane, including the control surfaces was made of the ruffled aluminum. Many other aircraft continued to use fabric covered rudders, elevators and ailerons into the World War Two era. The controls surfaces were activated by cables that ran to lever arms located outside the plane near the cockpit. Interestingly, the engine instrumentation was also outside the cockpit, mounted directly on the engines but so the pilot could see them through the cockpit windshield.

A total of 86 4-AT Trimotors were produced. Specifications and performance of the slightly larger and significantly faster 5-AT Trimotor were as follows:

Crew: three (one Flight attendant)
Capacity: 10 passengers
Cost: $42,000 in 1933
Length: 50 ft 3 in (15.32 m)
Wingspan: 77 ft 10 in (23.72 m)
Height: 12 ft 8 in (3.86 m)
Wing area: 835 ft² (77.6 m²)
Empty weight: 7,840 lb (3,560 kg)
Loaded weight: 10,130 lb (4,590 kg)
Max. takeoff weight: 13,500 lb (6,120 kg)
Powerplant: 3 × Pratt & Whitney Wasp C 9-cylinder radial engines, 420 hp (313 kW) each
Maximum speed: 150 mph (241 km/h, 130 kts)
Cruise speed: 90 mph (145 km/h, 78 kts)
Stall speed: 64 mph (103 km/h, 56 kts)
Range: 550 mi (885 km, 478 nm)
Service ceiling: 18,500 ft (5,640 m)
Rate of climb: 1050 ft/min (5.334 m/s)
Wing loading: 16.17 lb/ft² (78.87 kg/m²)
Power/mass: 10.71 lb/hp (6.52 kg/kW)

Henry and Edsel Ford and a Ford Trimotor, 1930. Photo likely taken at Ford Airport, Dearborn.

Henry and Edsel Ford and a Ford Trimotor, 1930. Photo likely taken at Ford Airport, Dearborn.

Though he likely had very little role in its design, the Ford Trimotor expressed many of Henry Ford’s core ideas that could be seen in the Model T and in the Fordson tractors. It was well-designed, reliable, and relatively inexpensive to build and to buy. In 1928, a Ford Trimotor cost $42,000, the equivalent of 84 Model A Tudors that year. The rigid metal structure and simple control systems gave the Trimotor a reputation for being able to take some abuse and like the Model T, it could be serviced and repaired almost anywhere that a pilot might land it. For bush and marine pilots, the Trimotor could have skis or pontoon floats fitted.


Though there were passenger planes before the Ford Trimotor, it made a significant impact on the then young commercial aviation industry. When introduced it was considered a major advance over other early passenger airliners. It was reliable so the planes arrived on schedule and it was comfortable enough so that when they arrived, passenger felt it was worth the fare. Well over 100 airlines around the world eventually used the Trimotor. Soon after the Trimotor’s introduction, an airline, Transcontinental Air Transport was founded specifically to used the Trimotor to provide coast-to-coast service, though passengers had to rely on rail connections for parts of the trip. A year later, Transcontinental would merge with another young airline, Western Air Service to create TWA. Pan American Airways, later PanAm, started flights from Key West to Havana, eventually adding service to Central and South America by the early 1930s. Many of the 80 small carriers that merged to form what was to become American Airlines also operated Ford Trimotors.


By the late 1920s, what by then was called the Ford Aircraft Division was considered to be the largest commercial airplane manufacturer in the world. Henry Ford even looked into producing a single seat “commuter” plane, a Model T of the air, if you will, called the Ford Flivver, a plane that would contribute to Ford withdrawing from the airplane business. I hope to cover the Flivver in a subsequent post, but for now I’ll just say that only two pilots flew the plane. Charles Lindbergh, a personal friend of Henry Ford, said it was the worst plane he ever flew. The other pilot was Henry Ford’s personal pilot, Harry Brooks, who was killed when his Flivver crashed into the ocean on a test flight, his body never recovered. Brooks death contributed to Henry Ford losing interest in aviation.


Ford published advertisements encouraging the development of modern airports.

By the early 1930s, much more modern airliners than the Trimotor were being designed and produced, starting with the Douglas DC-2. In another bit of automobile-airplane trivia, it was E.L.Cord who was one of the driving forces behind the development of the plane that took what the Ford Trimotor did for passenger aircraft and made it a far more practical way of travel, the DC-3. It’s not coincidental that in the Henry Ford Museum’s aviation section, the wings of the museum’s Ford Trimotor and Douglas DC-3 overlap each other. Those two planes pretty much created passenger air travel in the United States.

Another factor in Henry Ford leaving the aviation industry was that by 1933, the world was in the throes of the Great Depression and Ford Motor Company needed to focus on its core enterprise, building and selling cars. Speaking of which, in the early 1930s, Henry was sort of preoccupied with the development of the flathead Ford V8 engine, and meanwhile Edsel was getting on with his part of the invention of automotive styling, supervising what would become an all-time classic, the 1932 Ford. Trimotor production ended in 1933 after just fewer than 200 were built after eight years of production. It would be another eight years before Ford Motor Company would produce an  airplane again, though by the time Ford Motor Company was finished with production of that particular plane, at a rate of one plane per hour, Ford could build 200 B-24 Liberators in less than two weeks at the Willow Run plant.


That’s a Douglas DC-3 in the background. Full gallery here.

As the Douglas planes supplanted the Trimotors for passenger service, the Trimotors were sold off to smaller airlines and cargo firms, some of them staying in service until the 1960s. During World War Two, Trimotors were converted for military use. Of the 199 Trimotors built, 18 of them still exist. A small number of Trimotors are even in service to this day, 80 year old airplanes that are still airworthy and providing excursion flights to vintage flight enthusiasts (here, here and here). Stout and his team indeed built a reliable and durable aircraft.

As with many of Henry Ford’s associates, William Stout and the automaker eventually parted ways. At first Ford moved him aside from technical responsibilities, instead using the designer as a company spokesman and sending him on a publicity campaign. In 1930, Stout left the company he founded, operating the Stout Engineering Laboratory, producing a variety of aircraft as well as the Stout Scarab, an early, limited production, aerodynamic automobile powered by a rear-mounted flathead Ford V8 that is considered to have been very influential in automotive design history. Stout had many admirers in the Detroit automotive design community and while he and Henry Ford parted ways, he’s still honored. Right in the middle of Ford country in Dearborn, on Oakwood Blvd adjacent to the Ford test track and just down the street from Ford’s Product Development Center is William Stout Elementary School.


External levers controlled by the pilot actuated the plane’s control surfaces via cables. Full gallery here.

Though Ford Motor Company stopped making Trimotors in 1933 and though Henry Ford personally lost interest in aviation, commercial aviation was dramatically affected by Ford’s involvement in the Trimotor project. Many of Henry’s personal projects, like the electric car he tried to develop using his former boss and later close friend Thomas Edison’s nickel-iron batteries or Ford’s Village Industries project never made money. However, after Ford had bought out all of his partners and investors by 1919, to paraphrase Bob Dylan’s Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, “he did whatever he wanted”. The same was true of the Ford Trimotor. Ford likely never turned a profit on the venture. However, he had a lasting impact on passenger air travel. To begin with, at the time he was America’s most celebrated industrialist. His reputation gave credibility to both the aircraft and airline businesses and through the Trimotor he helped create much of what we know today as commercial aviation: paved runways, passenger terminals, hangers, airmail and radio navigation. The Ford Trimotor also helped make “airmail” a reality.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The Ford Trimotor pictured here was the first airplane to fly over the South Pole. On November 28, 1929, Admiral Richard Byrd, along with pilot Bernt Balchen, radioman/co-pilot Harold June and photographer Ashley McKinley, flew in this Ford Trimotor from their base camp on Antartica to the South Pole and back. According to the Ford museum, Byrd’s Trimotor was “souped up”, with a 520 hp center engine flanked by two 220 hp units. The flight took them almost 19 hours and they almost didn’t make it. In order to be able to gain sufficient altitude so as not to crash into the Polar Plateau, they had to drop not only their empty auxiliary fuel tanks but also all of their emergency supplies. Had they had to emergency land the plane, they likely would have starved to death. The flight, though, was a success and Byrd’s expedition is now in the history books. In case you’re wondering why the plane has “Floyd Bennett” painted on the side, the admiral named the plane in memory of his pilot on earlier expeditions who died from pneumonia contracted while recovering from a crash.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Note: In the narration of this video, I erroneously said that the Ford Flivver was the first airplane that Henry Ford produced. Ford in fact decided to make the “Model T of the Air” in 1926 after the initial success of the TriMotor.

As I said at the outset, TTAC is an automotive publication but if you’ve read this far you probably have an interest in airplanes as well. If so, the Henry Ford Museum is probably worth a visit for you (it should go without saying that the museum’s Driving America and Racing In America exhibits are a “must see” for any car enthusiast). The Ford Trimotor and Douglas DC-3 aren’t the only airplanes on display at the museum. There are two replicas of the 1903 Wright Flyer, one constructed to honor the 75th anniversary of the Kitty Hawk flight and the other built at the Wright Flyer’s centennial. In the adjacent Greenfield Village is the Wright brothers’ Dayton, Ohio bicycle shop where they honed their design using a 6 foot wind tunnel and then constructed the first Wright Flyer. Like many of the other historical buildings in the Village, the Wrights’ actual building was relocated there by Henry Ford. Other fixed-wing and rotor aircraft on permanent display in the museum include the 1909 Bleriot XI, 1931 Pitcairn Autogiro, 1939 Sikorsky VS300A Helicopter, 1920 Dayton Wright RB-1, 1927 Stinson Detroiter, 1927 Ryan “Spirit of St. Louis” Replica, 1929 Lockheed Vega, 1926 Ford Flivver, 1927 Boeing 40-B, 1915 Laird Biplane, 1917 Curtiss Biplane, and a 1926 Fokker Trimotor (used in Byrd and Bennett’s earlier attempt to fly over the North Pole).

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 get a parallax view 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. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Another Post About Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” Murals, Thanks to DetNews Writer Rob Stanczak Sun, 08 Dec 2013 21:12:43 +0000 IMG_0154

Detroit Institute of Arts, Rivera Court, South Wall, “Detroit Industry” – Diego Rivera 1933

Last week we ran a post of mine about “Detroit Industry”, the murals that Diego Rivera painted for Edsel Ford in the main court of the Detroit Institute of Arts. More accurately, the post was about how a couple of artists, the Perre twins, commissioned to paint a mural in a new Detroit building, a commission inspired by Rivera’s work, claimed to know much about the artist and Detroit, but haven’t ever bothered to actually see Rivera’s Detroit masterpiece with their own eyes. That post was inspired by an article at the Detroit News by Rob Stanczak, from whence artist David Perre’s quote, “We have not seen it in person” jumped out at me. In our post, I linked to Rob Stanczak‘s article and, because I couldn’t find any photos of the Perres’ new mural that weren’t rights reserved, I used the DetNews’ video accompanying Rob Stanczak‘s article to illustrate my own. While not a formal citation per Modern Language Association guidelines, the link and DetNews video still gave our readers a couple of ways that they could access Rob Stanczak‘s work.

As writers, it’s almost always a great pleasure when we get contacted by a person or writer who has inspired our work. Rob Stanczak graciously took his time to, point by point, explain the shortcomings in my post and also “thank” me by name for “parroting” his article without “direct attribution”. We always appreciate feedback, though one wonders how if my article so slavishly parroted Rob Stanczak‘s original story, why Rob Stanczak felt the post needed “clarification”?


Detroit Institute of Arts, Rivera Court, North Wall, “Detroit Industry” – Diego Rivera 1933

I realize now that I did owe Rob Stanczak of the Detroit News more direct attribution and attention in my original post. Rather than just use his article as a source for quotes, I should also have mentioned that while Rob Stanczak quoted Davide Perre about not actually seeing the actual Rivera murals, Rob Stanczak‘s vision is so seemingly blinded by the pretensions of today’s fine art world, he failed to explore the pretentiousness  of the Perres. They are visual artists, internationally known muralists who bragged about having visited “most parts” of Detroit, knowing the city “very well”, who feel artistically and politically simpatico with “Diego”, without having seen Detroit’s great murals, which Rivera considered his best work. That central point of my post was one that Rob Stanczak didn’t make in Rob Stanczak‘s DetNews article that Rob Stanczak now says that I parroted. I hope that’s sufficient direct attribution for Rob Stanczak.


Detroit Institute of Arts, Rivera Court, West Wall, “Detroit Industry” – Diego Rivera 1933

After I posted the story about the Perres, it occurred to me that I hadn’t personally seen the Rivera murals in some time and that it would take me less time to drive to Detroit’s cultural center and see them than it would have taken Davide Perre and his brother to walk up Woodward to the DIA, so last Sunday afternoon I drove down to the art museum to see and photograph Rivera’s 27 murals. While I was able to enjoy Rivera’s work, it was late in the afternoon on a grey, early December day, the murals are primarily naturally lit through the large skylight above, and flash photography is not allowed in the DIA so photography was pointless. I came back later in the week when I noticed the sun peaking through the clouds as it approached its apogee in the sky at the noon hour.


Detroit Institute of Arts, Rivera Court, East Wall, “Detroit Industry” – Diego Rivera 1933

I shoot all my photography and video in 3D and if I need a mono image, I’ll just use a left or right photo. Still, taking photographs of paintings usually isn’t the best application for 3D photography. Sculpture, of course, but paintings not so much. However, I realized that the Rivera court at the DIA is a perfect application for stereo photography because of the large scope of the work and the space wherein it was painted. Along with depth and shape, stereo vision gives us a sense of space. Often when you see photographs of Detroit Industry, the images are cropped closely to the individual panels’ edges, and you can’t really see how massive they are and how they visually fit into the large room where they are located. Actually, the two main paintings on the north and south walls of the court are so large, 22′ x 72′,  that without a wide angle lens it’s difficult to get them completely framed in a photograph, there’s just not enough room to step far enough back.

One of the mural's portraits, their patron, Edsel Ford, second from right.

One of the murals’ portraits, their patron, Edsel Ford, second from right.

You could spend hours, days, maybe years studying all of the details in Detroit Industry, but two things stood out to me in my most recent visits. The panel on the south wall depicts the assembly of Ford cars at the Rouge complex circa 1932-33. That’s when Ford introduced their legendary flathead V8 engine, and right in the center of the painting, like the focus of some religious artwork, is a completed Ford V8.

At the center of the south wall's fresco is a flathead Ford V8

At the center of the south wall’s fresco is a flathead Ford V8

The other thing that I noticed is the contrast between the people in the painting with no distinguishing characteristics, almost like they came from molds, automatons, and those people in the painting that are clearly portraits, like those of Edsel Ford and Albert Kahn.

Archietct, Albert Kahn, who designed the Rouge complex portrayed in Detroit Industry

Archietct Albert Kahn, who designed the Rouge complex portrayed in Detroit Industry

Oh, and couple more small details. David Perre talked about how Rivera had to suppress his politics in this work. Oddly, the word “communist” never passed Perre’s lips and while it’s true that Detroit Industry is less explicitly political than Rivera’s censored Rockefeller Center work, having no portraits of Lenin, one of the panels flanking the doorway on the court’s west wall depicts a burly worker right at eye level. He has a small sledge hammer in his right hand, and the gauntlet of his right glove features a red star. I didn’t notice one, but perhaps somewhere in that panel there’s also a sickle.

Is the hammer and red star a political statement?

Is the hammer and red star a political statement?

Also, while the work is titled “Detroit Industry” and while you see all sorts of automobile components depicted, it’s hard to find an image of a complete car, except for a tiny red Ford coupe driving in the far background of the final assembly line depicted on the south wall.

The only complete automobile in the entire work, a little red '32 Ford coupe way in the background

The only complete automobile in the entire work, a little red ’32 Ford coupe way in the background of the final assembly line.

TTAC would like to thank the Detroit Institute of Arts for allowing us to use a tripod in the museum and giving us access to the second floor balcony so you can enjoy these photos, and, of course, great thanks goes to Rob Stanczak without whom my last couple of features here on TTAC just wouldn’t have been possible.

Stereo pics available at Cars In Depth.

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 get a parallax view 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. Thanks for reading – RJS

IMG_0002 IMG_0004 IMG_0012 IMG_0132 IMG_0135 IMG_0136 IMG_0138 IMG_0140 IMG_0141 IMG_0142 IMG_0226 IMG_0143 IMG_0144 IMG_0145 IMG_0146 IMG_0147 IMG_0148 IMG_0149 IMG_0150 IMG_0150a IMG_0151 IMG_0151a IMG_0152 IMG_0153 IMG_0154 IMG_0155 IMG_0157 IMG_0158 IMG_0158a IMG_0158as IMG_0159 IMG_0160 IMG_0162a IMG_0163 IMG_0164 IMG_0165 IMG_0166 IMG_0167 IMG_0171 IMG_0171a IMG_0172 IMG_0173 IMG_0174 IMG_0175 IMG_0176 IMG_0177 IMG_0179 IMG_0180 IMG_0181 IMG_0182 IMG_0183 IMG_0184 IMG_0184a IMG_0184ab IMG_0185 IMG_0187 IMG_0188 IMG_0189 IMG_0190 IMG_0190a IMG_0191 IMG_0192 IMG_0193 IMG_0193a IMG_0194 IMG_0194a IMG_0195 IMG_0198 IMG_0199 IMG_0199a IMG_0199b IMG_0200 IMG_0200a IMG_0200b IMG_0201 IMG_0201a IMG_0202 IMG_0203 IMG_0203a IMG_0204 IMG_0204a IMG_0205 IMG_0206a IMG_0206aa IMG_0207 IMG_0208 IMG_0210 IMG_0211 IMG_0211a IMG_0212 IMG_0213 IMG_0214 IMG_0214a IMG_0214aa IMG_0215 IMG_0216 IMG_0217 IMG_0217a IMG_0217aa IMG_0217aaa IMG_0218 IMG_0218a IMG_0219 IMG_0219a IMG_0220 IMG_0221 IMG_0222 IMG_0223 IMG_0224 IMG_0225 At the center of the south wall's fresco is a flathead Ford V8


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Alternate History: What If Henry Ford, and Not Edsel, Had Died Young? Wed, 12 Jun 2013 22:16:48 +0000 edsel-b-ford-1932

Diego Rivera mural, Detroit Institute of Arts

I was at the Eleanor and Edsel Ford estate today for the media preview for the Eyes On Design car show coming up on Father’s Day this Sunday. The grounds of the Ford home are where the show is held every year – in honor of Edsel’s seminal role in the history of automotive styling. Eyes On Design is a unique car show. The cars are concours level (many Eyes On Design cars get shown at the Concours of America (formerly Meadow Brook)) but they’re not judged on build quality or meticulous authenticity. The show is pretty much run by car designers and the cars are judged on their design, not whether or not the air cleaner is factory or aftermarket. After the press event I walked around the 87 acre site, checking out the outside of the home and the other buildings, which were (no surprise here) Albert Kahn designs. Henry Ford’s greatest asset was his sheer indomitable nature. His second greatest talent was surrounding himself with talented people like Kahn.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Ford surrounded himself with people who not only had great talent but had the ability to get Henry to agree with them – most likely by getting him to think it was his idea in the first place. James Couzens, Horace Rackham, Charlie Sorensen, Peter Martin, Eugene Farkas, Joe Galamb and Walter Flanders were arguably as instrumental in the success of FoMoCo as Henry was. Henry was also lucky with his son. Edsel was a very capable business manager as well as a pretty refined person – certainly compared to his farmboy father.

Clara and Edsel Ford c. 1997

Clara and Edsel Ford c. 1997

There is one of those Detroit stories, thought by some to be apocryphal, but documented in Richard Bak’s Henry and Edsel, about a prototype Model T that was built at Edsel’s direction fairly late in the T’s production run, in 1924. The Dodge brothers had decided to start selling their own cars in 1914 rather than continue supplying Ford with components and rolling chassis because they were good engineers and wanted to build modern cars. If technology and style had outstripped the Model T by 1914, imagine how obsolete it was a decade later.

CYOE_Image (6)

Edsel was a good businessman and knew how much market share Ford Motor Co. had lost to Chevrolet and Dodge. Henry, rich as Croesus, didn’t care, he thought the Model T was the perfect car, forever.

Click here to view the embedded video.

While Henry was in Europe, Edsel had a revised Model T prototype built to try out his ideas. The prototype was sitting in a Ford garage at the Highland Park plant when Henry happened upon it after his return from the continent. It was less boxy than a standard Model T and it was painted bright red. Though the Model T was available in different colors early on, by 1924, “any color you want as long as it’s black” was part of Ford’s productivity model so I’m sure the red car was a shock to Henry.


Henry and Edsel in a Ford Model F, 1905

According to the account of George Brown, the FoMoCo purchasing agent who had worked on the project for Edsel, Ford asked him, “What’s over there?”

“Well, Mr. Ford, that’s the new car.”

“Ford car?”

“Yes, sir.”

“He walked around the car three or four times, looking at it very closely. Finally, he got to the left side of the car, and he gets hold of the door, and BANG! One jerk, and he had it off the hinges! He ripped the door right off! God, how the man done it, I don’t know! He jumped in, and BANG! goes the other door! BANG! goes the windshield! He jumped over the back sat and started pounding on the top. He wrecked the car as much as he could.”

CYOE_Image (8)

A 13 year old Edsel Ford takes some friends sledding in a Ford Model N

In time, Edsel would bring Bob Gregorie to Ford to start a styling department at the Dearborn automaker. Unlike his father, Edsel had an art patron’s eye and understood how fashions and tastes change.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Edsel and Eleanor’s home shows that they had great taste. It’s a magnificent property and Eleanor lived there until her death in 1976. When Edsel died in 1943, he had been running the company. Henry was, of course, in charge, but he wasn’t involved on a day to day basis, that was Edsel’s job.

Henry and Clara Ford leaving Edsel Ford's funeral, 1943

Henry and Clara Ford leaving Edsel Ford’s funeral, 1943

When Edsel died, Henry reasserted operational control of FoMoCo, by then one of the major suppliers to the U.S. and British war efforts in WWII. There were rumors that Henry wanted to put the Model T back into production. The U.S. government could not afford for the company making Jeeps and B-24s to be run by a man who was always a bit of a crackpot but now was also senile.

Edsel had some training as an artist. Here's a charcoal sketch he did as a teenager.

Edsel had some training as an artist. Here’s a charcoal sketch he did as a teenager.

Henry was a megalomaniac who had lost control of the Henry Ford Company in 1902 to his financial backers (that brought in Henry Leland who then talked them into using the assets to start Cadillac). He hated the idea of partners and once he could afford it after the huge success of the Model T, he paid investors like Rackham and the Dodges (who had taken stock in lieu of payment in the early days) $12.5 million for every $5,000 they had invested in FoMoCo. Couzens, who was FoMoCo’s business manager and a very early investor, got over $29 million for a $2,500 investment.

CYOE_Image (4)

Those prices were paid after Henry first tried depressing the value of their Ford stock by publicly announcing that he was going to start a new car company that would compete with Ford Motor Company. Once he controlled 100% of Ford stock, Henry kept 49% for himself, gave Edsel a minority stake at 48%, and gave Clara, Mrs. Henry Ford, the remaining 3% of the stock.

Another sketch of Edsel Ford's, this one presages his role in automotive styling

Another sketch of Edsel Ford’s, this one presages his role in automotive styling

After Edsel died, the U.S. Army discharged Henry Ford II from officer’s training school so he could return to Dearborn and run the company. Henry balked until Eleanor and Clara explained that they owned 51% of Ford Motor Company stock and that if he didn’t turn over operational control of the company to his grandson, they would sell their shares. Clara, who had tolerated Henry taking Evangeline Dahlinger as a mistress, had her limits.

One of a series of custom roadsters Edsel had built for his personal use. C. 1911

One of a series of custom roadsters Edsel had built for his personal use. C. 1911

I couldn’t help but wonder, in an alternate history sense, how different things would have been if it was Henry who died in middle age instead of Edsel. Edsel was 49 when he died of stomach cancer – the family felt it was brought on by the ulcers he got from his father’s regular humiliations (Henry didn’t want Edsel to be the soft son of a rich man, so he’d berate him in front of others).

Edsel and Eleanor Ford. Edsel liked fast boats as well as fast cars. He'd sometimes commute to Dearborn via the Detroit River.

Edsel and Eleanor Ford. Edsel liked fast boats as well as fast cars. He’d sometimes commute to Dearborn via the Detroit River.

Henry Ford would have been 49 in 1912. He was already a very rich man as the Model T was a huge success (actually, he was already rich before the Model T, since unlike his first two automotive ventures, Ford Motor Company had thrived). What would Ford Motor Company and automotive history had been like if Edsel had taken over in 1912?

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 get a parallax view 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. Thanks for reading – RJS

AE_HenryFord_8_tx800 Henry and Clara Ford leaving Edsel Ford's funeral, 1943 Clara and Edsel Ford c. 1997 One of a series of custom roadsters Edsel had built for his personal use. C. 1911 CYOE_Image (8) CYOE_Image (6) Edsel and Eleanor Ford. Edsel liked fast boats as well as fast cars. He'd sometimes commute to Dearborn via the Detroit River. CYOE_Image (4) Another sketch of Edsel Ford's, this one presages his role in automotive styling Edsel had some training as an artist. Here's a charcoal sketch he did as a teenager. edsel-b-ford-1932 2ROFG00Z HenryFord-EdselFord_01 1003dp_02+ford_motor_company+henry_and_edsel_ford henry and carla ford 1929 ]]> 23
Note to Lincoln: If Your Heritage Really Means Something, Then Restore Henry Leland’s Grave Mon, 07 Jan 2013 13:00:33 +0000

2010 photo courtesy of Cars In Depth

Henry Leland is a man without an automotive country though he started both surviving American luxury automobile brands. He founded Cadillac from the economic ruins of Henry Ford’s second failed car company (the third time was a charm for Ford), having been brought in by Ford’s financiers to appraise the company’s assets for a planned liquidation. Leland ran Leland & Faulkner, Detroit’s premier machine shop. Instead of liquidating Ford’s assets he convinced them to build cars using an engine of his own design that he originally had planned on selling to Ransom Olds. That new car became the basis of Cadillac, later acquired by General Motors.

Leland, the leading precision machinist in Detroit, established engineering standards for Cadillac, like using “Jo Blocks” to calibrate tools, that truly made the marque “the standard of the world”. Later, after a dispute during WWI with Billy Durant, who ran General Motors and was a pacifist, Leland started Lincoln to build Liberty engines for the war effort. After the war he went into the luxury car business, which was his original intent, but by 1922 the company was insolvent (some sources say the cause was Lincoln getting stiffed on government contracts that were canceled after the war). Ford, who never forgave Leland for his role in Ford’s losing control of the Henry Ford Company, bought Lincoln out of receivership and in humiliating fashion he had an elderly Leland walked out of the Lincoln headquarters and factory Leland had built. Since Leland founded Lincoln, Cadillac doesn’t give him much honor and since Henry Ford resented Leland, the Lincoln company hasn’t bragged much on its founder as well. That’s a shame because Henry Leland was unquestionably one of the men who made the domestic auto industry what it became and he deserves to be honored.

Henry Martyn Leland, founder of Cadillac and Lincoln

While Leland’s heirs donated a statue of Abraham Lincoln to the city of Detroit, there are no statues of Leland himself. In fact, other than a street named for him on Detroit’s east side, there’s little in the way of physical memorials to Leland. Henry Leland is buried in Detroit’s Woodmere cemetery (David Buick’s final resting place is there as well). Unlike the Dodge brothers’ massive Egyptian tomb (replete with sphinxes), or even Henry Ford’s stone sarcophagus, Leland’s grave is marked with a simple brass memorial plaque embedded flush to the ground. A 2001 photo shows that one of the marker’s numerals was damaged at that time. When I visited Leland’s grave in late 2010, another number was starting to break up, as was the H in Henry. For a man whose reputation was based on precisely machined metal, the deterioration of Leland’s brass marker is sad indeed.

2001 photo courtesy of Find A Grave. In the decade since then, the marker has further deteriorated.

FoMoCo is currently trying to reinvent the Lincoln brand. They’ve renamed it the Lincoln Motor Company and trotted out a bunch of classic Lincoln cars at the recent Los Angeles Auto Show and in a new ad campaign, so it’s clear that “heritage” is going to be part of Lincoln’s marketing plan going forward. If that’s the case, Lincoln sponsoring the restoration of Henry Leland’s grave marker seems to me to be a no-brainer. The cost of fixing the brass monument would be minimal, certainly less than Lincoln spends on a single network commercial. It would be a classy act on the part of the Ford family, letting bygones be bygones, and it would be the right thing to do. Edsel Ford indeed helped to create what we know as automotive styling after taking control of Lincoln but his father’s revenge and his father wanting to keep him occupied with a plaything were not the only reasons why the Ford family (the bid to the court was made by Henry, Clara and Edsel Ford, not Ford Motor Company) bought Leland’s company. A contemporary account of the 1922 takeover in Automotive Industries repeatedly used the word “quality” when referring to Lincoln products and described the Lincoln factory as “considered the finest of its kind in the world”. Lincoln was a prestigious brand. Ford may have resented Leland but he also had grudging respect. Also, he wasn’t likely to devalue a company he’d just purchased by badmouthing its founder. Henry Ford’s publicity men made sure that Automotive Industries trumpeted one Henry’s esteem for the other. When asked to comment after submitting his bid for Lincoln, Ford said, “It would be a stain against the motor car industry and against Detroit to permit outsiders to secure control of the Lincoln plant just because the Lelands have been caught in a financial pinch. Henry M. Leland is one of the great motor car men of America.”

Click here to view the embedded video.

I urge Bill Ford, chairman of Ford Motor Company, to act on his great grandfather’s praise of Henry Leland and lead a project by Lincoln to restore Leland’s grave site. To be honest, it would be nicely ecumenical were Lincoln to extend a hand to Cadillac to participate, though that wouldn’t exactly fit into a promotional campaign for Ford’s luxury brand. Still, Henry Leland was truly one of the great motor car men and it’s a stain against the two great car companies he founded that his grave is neglected and deteriorating.

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 and get a parallax view 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. Thanks for reading – RJS

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Look At What I Found! The Most Significant Car at the 2012 NAIAS: Edsel Ford’s 1934 Model 40 Special Speedster Sun, 22 Jan 2012 15:38:57 +0000

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.

Edsel Ford's '32 boat tail speedster.

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 second Edsel Ford Speedster with the original front end styling. The brick wall leads me to think that the photo was taken near Greenfield Village or someplace else on the Ford Dearborn campus.

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.

Bob Gregorie's scale model of the 1940 restyling. The note is from Edsel Ford to Gregorie, approving of the design but also suggesting a different grille. Edsel wasn't a designer but, like Harley Earl, he had a keen eye and an aesthetic way of giving designers direction.

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.

The second Edsel Ford Speedster with the original front end styling, most likely photographed at Edsel & Eleanor's estate. Edsel Ford's '32 boat tail speedster. Edsel Ford's '32 boat tail speedster. Bob Gregorie's scale model of the 1940 restyling. The note is from Edsel Ford to Gregorie, approving of the design but also suggesting a different grille. Edsel wasn't a designer but, like Harley Earl, he had a keen eye and an aesthetic way of giving designers direction. Photo Copyright 2012 Cars In Depth. Used with permission. Photo Copyright 2012 Cars In Depth. Used with permission. Photo Copyright 2012 Cars In Depth. Used with permission. Photo Copyright 2012 Cars In Depth. Used with permission. ]]> 17
Curbside Classic: 1946 Lincoln Continental – The Most Imitated American Car Ever Tue, 07 Dec 2010 16:54:05 +0000

This car is a jaw-dropper, a true classic, and a lucky find that rivals the CC logomobile, but it’s misnamed. By all rights, it should be the Edsel American. It was Edsel Ford’s fine taste and encouragement that made the original version of this trend-setting car happen, and in the process created a car that set the template that every American personal luxury coupe/convertible has been trying to measure up to ever since. An aggressive face on a very long hood, a close-coupled body, a short rear deck, and dripping with the aura of exclusivity and sex: a timeless formula. All too few of the endless imitators got the ingredients right, or even close, as our recent Cougar CC so painfully showed. But that didn’t stopped them from trying, just like I never stopped looking for this Continental after I first saw it almost two years ago. It was well worth the effort.

Since the original Continental has a lot of history attached to it, we’re going to step back a bit and put in into context. A more comprehensive background can be found in my Lincoln History Up to 1961, but here’s the semi-condensed version: Unlike his father, Edsel Ford had a very artistic side and was a lover of fine cars. Travel to Europe exposed him to the latest styling trends, and his oversight of Lincoln during the classic era resulted in superbly designed cars.

The Depression essentially ended the era of these expensive toys and also ushered in the aerodynamic era. This resulted in a radical re-thinking of the automotive configuration, with pushed-forward passenger compartments, small pointy hoods and long tapering bodies, sometimes with rear engines. Lincoln adopted John Tjaarda’s radical rear-engined concept, but toned it down and adapted it to use main-stream Ford mechanicals. The resulting 1936 Zephyr (above) was quite successful, because unlike the similarly advanced Chrysler Airflow, it kept at least some semblance of a traditional pointed hood, even if shorter in proportion to the rest of the car than its predecessors.

For sedans, this re-arranging of the automotive real estate was eminently logical for the roomier interiors that resulted. But it really wasn’t so suitable for coupes and convertibles. As handsome as this ’37 Zephyr coupe is, it lacks the raw visceral appeal that the long-hood classic-era cars exuded so powerfully.

Now there were perks along with the endless pains of being Henry Ford’s (only) son. Edsel had commissioned a number of one-off “Specials” and customs since he was sixteen, including three sporty cars that represented his vision of sophistication and latest European trends. All three of them were thus dubbed “Continental”. He came up with the basic concept and certain details of these cars, and handed them over to Bob Gregoire to make the renderings that resulted in the hand-made final results.

In late 1938, Gregoire drafted the latest of the series (he claimed in thirty-five minutes) with input from Edsel, and the resulting car was shipped the following March to its happy new owner in Florida, where the Fords spent much of the winter.  The 1939 Continental was built on the Zephyr chassis, but the passenger compartment was now well set back (again) resulting in that long hood, and the whole body was lowered and the side-boards completely eliminated (sectioned and channeled). It was a superb reconciliation of the traditional with the streamlined trends, and an instant classic. And the exposed spare on the rear quickly became known as the Continental Spare, an affectation that still haunts us today.

Ironically, our featured car lacks the eponymous spare, and its owner may even go so far as to customize the rear end to eliminate any lingering clues to its disappearance. Now that’s a gutsy move, and one I can respect. A Lincoln American indeed, if not an Edsel.

Edsel was bombarded with open check books as he drove his new toy around Palm Beach (one per mile, he claimed), so he called back to Dearborn and ordered the Continental to go into production. As it was essentially a hand built car, only some four hundred were produced in 1940. The first one was given to Mickey Rooney, which quickly had the rest of Hollywood fighting to be seen in one. Like most successful halo cars, its impact was way beyond the sheer revenue numbers.

After a brief two-year run, the Continental hibernated through the war, and re-emerged in 1946 with a drastically re-styled front end. I will admit to generally preferring the original’s more delicate prow, but ironically perhaps, the ’46-’48 Continental’s much heavier and bolder front end actually completes the enduring formula that would be copied so prolifically.

The restyle is also the equivalent of a sex change operation: the original is a delicate, graceful and feminine car, none of which comes to mind when confronted with this butch bomb. So strictly speaking, the Continental was aptly named for its first edition, but what reappeared after the war was utterly all-American. Understandably so, since the swagger in America’s psyche after WWII was all-too obvious.

Perhaps that also helps explain why the ’46 Conti has been the object of endless replication; it so utterly embodies the self-confidence and all-time high national testosterone levels that winning the biggest war ever induced. No wonder there was such a huge Baby Boom. And no wonder older guys were the primary target for its off-shoots. And (again) no wonder that the peak years for the personal luxury coupe market was during the seventies and eighties. Our war heroes were hitting middle age, and Viagra hadn’t been invented yet. But instead of buying a Mark IV, they should have gone out an hunted up the real thing instead, because this car is guaranteed to get your sperm count up.

I say this from experience (no, not my own). In 1973, I had an evil landlord in Iowa City. Henry Black was his name, and he would trade rent for slave labor from his starving student tenants during the summer to build additions and whole houses to his ramshackle slum called Black’s Gaslight Village. He was a big, heavy-set ornery old cuss, and walked with a cane (which he also treated as a weapon), and must have been well into his seventies. And he kept a quite young and attractive wife under virtual-house arrest in his big old Victorian. We only ever got peeps of her through the front door when we paid the rent; he never let her go anywhere, especially in his only car, a mean black ’46-’48 Continental coupe just like this one. Maybe he was worried about all the young male students. It was all like some Gothic novel.

I worked for him one summer building a cottage for future student tenants out of old railroad ties, creosote smell and all (this was before students financed their lifestyle, spring breaks in Mexico and summers in Africa with endless student loans). It was also before building permits were mandatory. Anyway, I vividly remember  riding with him in his musty old Continental to the hardware store, where he’d wait outside. Being twenty at the time, it was a bit hard to imagine, but old Henry Black was still fathering little kids with his locked away bride (unless students were sneaking in). The kids actually got to come out once in a while.

If I’ve digressed inappropriately (again), sorry; but the memories of hearing the flathead V12 in Henry’s car cough to life and his ivory-handled cane sliding against me in the curves are irrepressible after being exposed to this beast today. But if you’re wondering why there’s no engine shots, it’s because the troublesome Zephyr V12 is long gone; a healthy sounding Chevy small block does the burbling instead. And it may well not be the first transplanted engine either; the twelve had such a bad rep folks were tearing them out back in the late forties already and replacing it with the flathead Lincoln V8 that succeeded it.

The Zephyr was not an expensive car, so Ford had his engineers cobble up a budget twelve that was not much more than the Ford V8 and a half. But undersized water passages exacerbated the flathead’s intrinsic thermal issues, and as a result bores warped, rings wore out, oil burned and didn’t get properly circulated for other reasons as well. It only made some 120 hp from its 292 cubes, so performance was none too impressive in the 4,000 lb Continental, even when it ran properly. Admittedly, the post war engines had many of their ailments fixed, but the bad rep stuck.

I first ran into this car on the street a year and a half ago, and almost had an accident (in my pants). It’s not like I was expecting to find an original Continental at all, but then this comes burbling down the street. I caught up to the driver at a light, but he was in too much of a hurry to stop for photos. And I’ve been lusting for it ever since. Well, good things sometimes happens to those that lust hard enough, and I finally caught up with it again on a rare sunny December day here. Drew, its owner, bought it a couple of years back, and is still mulling over its future. A chopped top maybe?

Or maybe not; Drew is tall like me, and the Conti is none too roomy already. This is definitely a “personal” coupe, and not nearly as big, at least on the inside, as one might expect. But whatever direction he takes it, I’m sure it will serve him well, even into old age, should he feel the desire or need to keep it that long.

Over two hundred other Curbside Classics are just a click away

]]> 39 Curbside Classics Lincoln Fest: Doors To All Nine Parts Open Here Wed, 10 Feb 2010 02:30:51 +0000

The suicide doors of perception to Curbside Classic’s Lincoln week-long love/hate fest open here:

Part 1: A Brief History of Lincoln up to 1961

Part 2: 1965 Lincoln Continental

Part 3: 1968 Lincoln Continental

Part 4: 1970 Lincoln Continental Coupe

Part 5: 1977 Lincoln Town Car

Part 6: 1985 Lincoln Town Car

Part 7: 1973 Continental Mark IV

Part 8: 1989 Lincoln Mark VII

Part 9: 1977 Lincoln Versailles

Part 8: 1986 Continental

Part 9: Mark VIII and Finale

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Lincoln: A Brief History Up To 1961 Mon, 08 Feb 2010 19:43:25 +0000

In honor of our greatest president’s birthday this Friday, it’s going to be Lincoln Week at Curbside Classic. We’ll start with a brief history of the brand to set us up for the sixties, when our featured cars begin.

Cadillac and Lincoln shared an almost identical early biography. Both were founded by “Master of Precision” Henry Leland. And both were eventually sold off to their current corporate owners. Caddy was first, having been founded in 1902, and quickly establishing itself as the “Standard of the World”, which actually reflected Leland’s obsession with standardized precision parts that could be interchanged rather than some inflated PR claim. Caddy went to GM in 1909, and after WW I, Leland started Lincoln.

By 1922, Lincoln was in trouble and this time Ford came to the rescue. It particularly gave son Edsel Ford an opportunity to engage himself in something slightly out of Henry’s control-freak influence over the Model T and A. The Lincoln Models KB and KA were highly regarded during the classic era, with superb engineering, large V12 and V8 engines, and the finest custom coachwork. Except for a visual example here, we’re going to skip over the classic era because it was a dead end, and is largely irrelevant to the continuity of the brand, post WWII. That’s not in any way a reflection on these exquisite cars, but we can’t do them justice here.

The car we’ll start with is the Lincoln Zephyr of 1936. The Depression was killing the classic big cars, which created an opportunity for fresh thinking on a smaller and more affordable scale. The Zephyr was Lincoln’s counterpart to Chrysler’s Airflow; both of them arising out of the new obsession with streamlining everything from trains to toasters. The Zephyr had its origins in a series of radical rear-engine designs by John Tjaarda, using airplane-type stress analysis to prove the advantages of unit construction. The prototype that led to the Zephyr is below.

Tjaarda did his work in conjunction with Briggs, one of the major pressed-steel body builders of the day. Eager to find a client for their efforts, they ended up at Lincoln. But the radical rear-engine construction, which was remarkably similar to the Tatra 77/87 of the same vintage, was highly ambitious. Since the Tatra was a favorite of my childhood, it’s no wonder I transferred that to the Zephyr after our move to the USA, as there were still some around on the streets of Iowa in the early sixties. Interestingly, Briggs built almost the complete Zephyr for Ford at its own plant, leaving Lincoln to install the drive train and mechanicals. It was a foreshadowing of outsourcing to come.

The final production Zephyr was only radical in its semi-unit construction. The streamlined styling was toned down enough to make it palatable to conservative buyers, unlike the doomed Airflow. And under the skin, the Zephyr was anything but radical, using the same transverse leaf spring suspension as the Model T, and its engine was essentially a 12 cylinder version of the Ford flathead V8, but suffered even more severely of that design’s inherent thermal deficiencies. The small V12 developed a bad rep, and many were later swapped out. But it didn’t keep the Zephyr from being a commercial success, at a critical time as the big Lincolns fell out of favor.

Now we get to the real beginning of the Lincoln Continental DNA. Edsel Ford commissioned a special one-off convertible for him to use during his winter vacation in Florida in the winter of ’38-’39. Edsel laid out the basic shape and design, and it was executed by Bob Gregoire. With the idea of capturing a decidedly European flavor, the “Special Lincoln-Zephyr”  became known as the Continental. And everyone who saw it wanted one. So in 1940, the Continental cabriolet was put in production. As is readily apparent, its design cues have been rehashed by Lincoln ever since, most notoriously again right now, with the baleen-mouthed new Lincolns aping the original Continental grille, in a highly exaggerated and garish way.

The handsome (if not exactly brilliant) Continental survived for ten years, right through 1948, but not without losing its delicate face to a heavier and somewhat overpowering mug for the bulk of its ten year run. I had a notorious slumlord in Iowa City in the early seventies, Henry Black, who’s only car was exactly like one of the later ones as shown below. I have vivid memories of riding in it with him to the hardware store (I was briefly an indentured servant of his). It suited his personality perfectly, and he undoubtedly drove it until he couldn’t drive anymore, although I doubt legalities had anything to do with that.

I rather prefer the more delicate original, but isn’t this 1948 Continental Mark I a perfect foreshadowing of Marks to come? Moving right along, we’re going to have to skip the plebian Lincolns of the fifties, which had some interesting moments, but for the most part lived deep in the shadows of Cadillac’s exuberant fins for the whole decade. Even the Imperials from 1955 on were much more interesting. Here’s a quick glimpse of what we’re missing.

Instead, lets give the remarkable Continental of 1956 some time. Technically, Continentals from 1956 through 1958 weren’t actually Lincolns at all, because the Continental division was given brief autonomy in Ford’s ambitious but disastrous attempt to go mano-a-mano with GM, by having five separate divisions: Ford, Mercury, Edsel, Lincoln, and Continental. Well, that sure didn’t work out so well, and not only did Edsel and Continental bite the dust, but even Lincoln was almost killed. More on that later.

The Mark II was a very ambitious attempt to recreate the Continental mystique and compete with the most expensive European luxury brands. Priced at $10k ($80k adjusted), its then very lofty price was more than twice what a Coupe DeVille went for. Extreme quality measures and small-scale production meant that each Mark II was built at a hefty loss.

Stylistically, it’s a mixed bag. If it didn’t have the fake grafted-on “continental” rear spare tire cover stamped into its trunk lid, it’s just remotely possible that we might have been spared decades of that over-worn cliche. That alone spoils it for me. But it certainly manages to convey an air of exclusivity, in an authentic way that its legions of Mark successors never could.

Meanwhile, the big Lincoln introduced in 1958 was another ambitious and expensive bust. The ’58-’60 Lincolns were far bigger than anything Americans had ever laid their eyes on, since the Depression, in any case. A vast and rather bizarre land-yacht, it also had by far the biggest engine (430 cubic inches) of the times. It did feature unibody construction, although that didn’t keep them from weighing less than some 5,000 lbs. Arriving right in time for the nasty recession of 1958 doomed them, and they only widened the gap to the far distant best selling Cadillac. As a child, I found these Lincolns to be awe inspiring on some primeval level that included fear of such an utterly incomprehensible and alien device, which was reinforced by their scarcity on the streets.

So that takes us to the dawn of the sixties, with Lincoln in danger of being axed altogether. As is so often the case in actual life as with our automotive expressions of it, near-death has the remarkable ability to draw out new levels of risk-taking and creativity. That was certainly the case with Lincoln, as we’ll see in our next Curbside Classic.

More new Curbside Classics here

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