Sunday, September 2, 2012

Prodigal Roadster

Photo courtesy RM Auctions.
In 1932, Ford introduced their Model B, the two-door coupe version of which would be nicknamed Deuce Coupe, for the year it was born. It sold for $490 in 1932, which would be about $7800 today. It was a favorite of hot rodders, likely because it was so easily modified.

Photo courtesy Oregon CCCA.

The Lincoln Model K was introduced in 1931. In 1932 it was split into two lines, the KA and the KB. The 1932 Lincoln Model KA V8 Victoria shown here was clearly fancier, more powerful, and more luxuriously detailed than a Ford. It sold for a little over $4400 in '32, almost $70,000 by today's standards. Despite the outrageous price difference, it's not all that significantly different in style.

In 1932, Edsel Ford went on a trip to Europe. Who knows if his primary goal was to get a look at the European cars, but there probably can be not the slightest question that someone as intimately involved with the automobile industry would have his eye on every new car he saw. What's more, if a man like Edsel Ford were visiting Europe, I can't imagine he wasn't eating most of his dinners at the homes of people like Aston Martin founder Lionel Martin and Bindo Maserati. I don't know exactly where he went or what he saw there, but I'd like to try to piece it back together using some possibilities.

Photo courtesy Steve Sexton.
In all likelihood, his ocean liner would have dropped him in the UK. He almost certainly saw the SS 1 by Swallow Sidecar and Coachbuilding, the company that would be renamed "Jaguar" after WWII because of the negative connotations of the initials "SS." He probably wasn't as impressed by its overall boxiness as he was by the relative seamlessness of its contours (note that the door is slightly ajar) and that it was much lower to the ground than the current offerings by Ford or Lincoln. He may very well have appreciated what Aston Martin were doing, also. I doubt he'd have been very interested in Triumph's styling, although he may have appreciated their sporty proportions. There's a small possibility he spotted a Vale Special, built with Triumph components. But if the scarcity of images of it to be found today is any indication, and especially considering that it was handmade, the Vale couldn't have been particularly numerous at the time, either.

I can't be convinced that Ford went to Germany at all. Porsche was only a consulting firm at the time, anyway. There is some possibility that he saw the BMW Wartburg DA3, but it was kind of such a frumpy little thing that I can't imagine he would have been very impressed by it, not to mention that it almost looks taller than it does long. I also find it hard to believe that he could have seen the Mercedes-Benz SSK Trossi (named for its first owner, racecar driver Count Carlo Felice Trossi). First of all, very few of them were ever made, so it's not as if he were likely to have stumbled onto one on the road or even in a showroom. Plus, its design by Ferninand Porsche would have been so shockingly futuristic and--if I had to guess--astonishingly beautiful to Ford that its influence would have been far more apparent in what he ultimately created. I mean, for crying out loud, the thing looks like a freaking Batmobile. Although it does have the tapered tail, that could be found on plenty of race cars at the time. Mercedes' regular-production cars tended to be high and regal like the Rollses and Bentleys...and the concurrent Lincolns.

Traveling through France, there wasn't much to see. The Renaults and Citroëns were higher and boxier than the Fords, and neither Citroën nor Peugeot would introduce streamlined models until well into 1933 or 1934. There's really no way he couldn't have noticed the gorgeous Bugatti Type 50T, but I suspect it was a bit too voluptuous for him and not exactly what he was looking for. Avions Voisin, although decidedly interesting and even distinctive, rested somewhere between clunky and relatively bizarre.

Photo courtesy David van Mill.
In Italy, however, Ford very likely saw the Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Spider Corsa designed by Ugo Zagato.

Public domain.


Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the car that appears to have impressed Ford the most was a Maserati. It was the 8C 3000, designed by the eldest Maserati brother, Alfieri, who passed away before he could see it finished. It has the correctly raked front end (a tiny hint of the streamlining to come) and the tapered rear end, in addition to the comparatively low profile of all the others.

Photo courtesy Gerry Swetsky.

When Ford returned home, he began talking to his company's head designer, E. T. "Bob" Gregorie, asking him to design a new car based on what he'd seen and liked in Europe. The first design was actually taller than Ford wanted, so Gregorie went back to the drawing board and finally created something much more streamlined. The normal Ford roadster chassis was modified and lowered by slinging it under the axle.

The tail extends further out in the back, making it appear longer and lower than a typical Ford. The new car was built by the Ford Aircraft Division using the same tubular aluminum construction methods, making the body extremely lightweight and strong. Along with its exhaust pipes, its headlights and taillights were sunk into the body itself, an innovation of Ford's for which I could find no European precedent, but which clearly made the overall design more streamlined still.

The final result of all of this was Edsel Ford's 1934 Model 40 Special Speedster.

Restoration and vintage photos courtesy Ford Hous

But this is not exactly what showed up at the 2012 Auto Show. Its engine had a tendency to overheat, so sometime before 1940, Gregorie redesigned the front end to allow better air cooling and in the process, make it more streamlined again. A winter freeze had cracked the Model 40 engine, so it was replaced with a 09A Mercury V8, the most powerful Ford V8 engine at the time.

I find the redesign a bit odd because it looks to me like the original grille was larger in area than the 1940 version. However, the overheating may very well have been as much about the location and direction of the incoming air as the amount or speed of it.

Aerodynamics had been discussed by Aristotle, da Vinci, Newton, and plenty other thinkers over the centuries. It remains a mystery why it was not considered by manufacturers of ground transportation vehicles--outside of racing--until the mid-1930s. Perhaps the Depression was sufficient impetus for car owners to consider the fuel economy even in vehicles that didn't necessarily travel very fast. I'd like to point out, though, that Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion car didn't appear until 1933, the Chrysler Airflow and Union Pacific Railroad's M-10000 not until 1934. But as early as perhaps 1931, Edsel Ford was already on board with this upsurge of interest in the subject, enough so that during his European trip, he knew exactly what to look for. I think it proves him to have been a remarkably forward-thinking individual.

After the 1940 redesign, sadly, Edsel Ford got to enjoy his Speedster for only another three years before passing away in 1943. Strangely, the car was estimated to be worth only $200. This is considerably less than even a regular-production, bottom-line Ford, which probably would have sold for about $750 if most all manufacturing hadn't been focused on the war effort.

The Speedster kind of bounced around the country for a long time, from owner to owner. It went to Atlanta and then to Los Angeles, where someone replaced its engine and possibly painted it red with new leather upholstery to match. In 1957, it showed up back in Georgia and then went down to Florida, where it ended up with a man named John Pallasch. He had intended to fix it up but never finished. There it remained, stored in Pallasch's garage, abandoned and forgotten for almost forty years. It was sold twice more before Edsel Ford II arranged for it to be purchased for the museum at the Ford House. I don't know about that sale, but the previous owner had paid a justifiable $1.76 million for it at auction.

It was then handed over to RM Restorations in Canada. RM took the entire thing apart piece by piece and meticulously restored it to its 1939-40 iteration.

The newly restored Speedster was unveiled in 2011, but traveled with Lincoln for their auto show appearances.

That was how I first saw it in this glorious condition.

Presumably, once it's finished touring, it will go on permanent display at Ford House.

©2012, Ryan Witte