Christie’s Auction of Unique Design Prototype and Concept Auto Show Models from the Ford Motor Company Collection
From Black to Blackwood
From Henry Ford’s Model T to today’s Blackwood, GT40 and Black Thunderbird prototype, design at Ford has come a long way. To J Mays, Ford Motor Company Design Vice President, styling and engineering are inseparable aspects of the discipline known as “design.” The concepts offered here are the fruits of design’s evolution, expressed over a period of forty years and emblematic of the 100 years of history which Ford begins to celebrate today.
At the birth of the Ford Motor Company nearly 100 years ago, however, design was not a factor. Henry Ford’s dictum, “Any color they want, as long as it’s Black,” set the tone: simplicity, practicality and functionality in an economical package. In retrospect, Henry Ford’s precepts were the essence of good design at a time when automobiles were exotic extravagances of the very wealthy. The virtues he preached were in fact the attributes that made automobiles financially and emotionally accessible to the world.
In the first Model Ts the engineering side of design was pre-eminent. Styling had no place at the beginning of its twenty year production, but the basic Model T changed considerably during its history as manufacturing techniques, machinery and competition evolved. The last Model T had a far different visage from its 1909 predecessor.
In the 1928 Model A, however, practicality began to yield increasing concessions to style. It would be inaccurate to describe what was happening as “styling,” but elements of style began to soften the strict functionality of the Model T. Style made an even greater impression in the 1932 Model B and it was then that Edsel Ford, the Ford Motor Company’s first “designer”, began to show his stuff.
Edsel Ford had worked with the best coachbuilders to create the body style catalog for Lincoln, acquired by Ford in 1922. He had taste and put it to work, first at Lincoln and then by building Fords for his personal use, cars that demonstrated his perception of proportion and line. At the same time Ford Motor Company realized it was in a serious battle with its competitors, battles which were fought with annual model changes.
The Model T was in production for two decades. Its successor, the Model A, lasted only four years. Thereafter there were no more “Model” designations, just years of manufacture and a constant stream of mechanical and styling revisions.
Henry Ford turned to Edsel to manage styling changes. Edsel Ford in turn looked to E.T. “Bob” Gregorie, to respected freelance designers, the major body contractors, like Briggs and Murray, which already were supplying bodies for Ford chassis and to custom coachbuilders like Brunn and Judkins which were experienced with bespoke coachwork for Lincoln. Gregorie’s design section grew during the Thirties to only about fifty people, but it was responsible for all aspects of Ford design including trucks. Gregorie’s small team produced watershed designs like the Lincoln Zephyr, 1939 Mercury, 1940 Ford and Lincoln Continental, in large part because it had only one boss, Edsel Ford, who had the taste to encourage good designs and the clout to get them built.
Postwar, design became more important to Ford. Like every other manufacturer’s first postwar cars the Fords were updated ‘42s, rushed into production to meet the war years’ pent up demand and four years’ scrappage. Design soon became more corporate, paralleling the turmoil that followed Edsel’s death in 1943 and Henry Ford’s coerced passing of the mantle of leadership to his grandson Henry Ford II in 1945. Gregorie continued as head of Styling with impressive resources, including established names like Gordon Buehrig, Charles Waterhouse and Hermann Brunn. He was left alone but also unguided by Henry II and his “Whiz Kids,” the Army Air Corps efficiency experts headed by Robert McNamara. Fortunately Ernie Breech brought his industry experience to Ford in 1946 and, like Edsel Ford, Breech recognized styling’s importance and had the authority to see it was recognized. Breech brought in independent designer George W. Walker, first as a consultant, then in 1955 as Ford’s Styling Vice President. Walker, in turn, placed his associates Joe Oros and Elwood Engel at Ford to manage the studios, kicking off the first great period of concept design at Ford.
Futuristic concepts were the rage in the Fifties and Ford was a leader. The Continental 195X was one of the first and its styling features such as the low rear deck and round jet-like taillight treatment would influence the first 4-seat Thunderbird in 1961. Others, such as the Lincoln Futura, were attention grabbers at shows. Styling was, however, still organizationally an Engineering function, limiting the influence of its creativity. Even the 1955 Thunderbird was largely crafted by chopping, channeling and sectioning Ford’s 1955 production designs. Nonetheless it was a huge success, selling 16,155 units and establishing a legacy that continues to today. The 1956 Continental Mark II again had the Ford influence, in this case William Clay Ford, Edsel’s younger son, who nurtured the Mark II and succeeded in once again setting the automotive standard for good taste, design and execution, just as his father had in 1941.
Gene Bordinat, Jr. succeeded Walker in 1961, and promptly renamed his studios the Ford Design Office, suggesting at least in principal a wider appreciation of its function than simply “styling.” J Mays points out that the Sixties were a time of rebelliousness and the designs reflected that cultural mindset, an attitude of power and audacity that saw the largest possible engines stuffed into mid-sized vehicles. It was also that attitude that made them memorable, different and uniquely American.
Bordinat was supported by a rebellious group of managers within Ford whose influence was felt immediately with one of several breakthroughs which have over the years come from Ford, the 1964½ Mustang. The Mustang name first appeared in 1962 on a mid-engined 2-seater, a pure concept that tested the waters for a low-priced sports car. It didn’t make it into production but the niche was coming into focus at Ford. Designed in the pre-production studio managed by Charles Phaneuf and executed full-size in clay in only eleven (!) days, the Mustang was so right for its time that it overcame Ford’s institutional reticence in the wake of the Edsel debacle. The clay model was selected on August 16, 1962. The production Mustang was introduced in a publicity blitz on April 16, 1964, just twenty months later. It established the 4-seat “pony car” as a separate segment and sold 418,812 units in its first model year.
In the 1970s Ford Europe, based in Dagenham, England and Cologne, Germany, became an important contributor of both ideas and profits and Carrozzeria Ghia, acquired in 1973 by Ford after several years as a minority investor, became an integral part of the Ford design system.
Ghia was established in 1918 by Giacinto Ghia and quickly established a reputation, and commercial success, constructing luxurious and stylish coachwork for the deluxe chassis of the day. Following Giacinto Ghia’s death during WWII Giorgio Alberti and Felice Mario Boano took control of Ghia (at that time nothing more than a bomb crater, some skilled workers and a reputation), later bringing Luigi Segre on board from SIATA. Boano wisely saw the European market for Ghia’s skills was limited and looked to America for commissions, establishing a successful long-term relationship with Chrysler which utilized, and expanded, the ability of Ghia craftsmen to build high quality one-off bodies on existing chassis. Over the next twenty years Ghia would build most of Chrysler’s show cars while still making an important contribution to Italian marques including the Lancia Aurelia B20 coupé and Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint. In 1953 Segre bought out his partners, becoming Ghia’s sole owner.
The Fifties and early Sixties were tremendously productive at Ghia under Segre’s leadership. A steady stream of one-offs on Italian chassis from Ferrari, Alfa, Maserati and Fiat widened Ghia’s recognition. Record-setters like the Nibbio II that exceeded 103 mph with a 350cc Moto Guzzi motorcycle engine reinforced Ghia’s expertise in aerodynamics. Even the Greyhound Scenicruiser bus was first realized at Ghia. Not to be overlooked are parade cars for the Pope and President Tito, hunting cars for the King of Saudi Arabia, the Fiat Jollys, the Ghia Crown Imperial, the Rat Pack’s ride of choice Dual Ghia and of course the VW Karmann-Ghia.
Ghia’s skilled artisans came from a northern Italian tradition, trained in an art that is today arcane. Their craft developed over hundreds of years and flowered with the advent of the automobile, creating individual metal-paneled bodies over wooden frames. When bodies became all metal self-supporting structures, the Torinese built “hammer-forms,” wooden mockups of the body design, to which hand-shaped metal panels were fit, then welded together over a lightweight tubing framework to create the actual body. It was an invaluable facility to designers seeking to realize their concepts full-size as well as the wealthy sportsmen for whom Ghia and its competitors built one-off bodies on Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Maserati chassis.
This skill became Ghia’s stock in trade for its clientele of major manufacturers and it was in 1955 that Ford first approached Ghia to construct a concept car, the Lincoln Futura. Further commissions followed but it was Alejandro de Tomaso’s acquisition of Ghia in 1966 that began Ghia’s integration with Ford. In 1965 Giorgio Giugiaro had become head of Ghia’s design studio, shortly thereafter creating the Ford V8-powered de Tomaso Mangusta and the Maserati Ghibli. In 1969 Ghia bought Carrozzeria Vignale to use its Grugliasco factory to go into series production of the first important commercial cooperation between Ford and Ghia, the Tom Tjaarda-designed Pantera. In 1970 Ford bought controlling interest in Ghia, completing the acquisition in 1973.
Filippo Sapino, who had worked under Segre prior to de Tomaso’s acquisition of Ghia, then at Pininfarina before taking charge of Ford’s Turin design center, integrated the Turin center with Ghia, then integrated Ghia itself with Ford’s worldwide design organization. Ghia created its own designs as well as executing prototypes to designs created in other Ford studios. Others were based on verbal concepts. Ghia attracted Italian designers who then fanned out through Ford’s Design organization. Its most important product, however, may be a generation of designers from Ford’s worldwide organization who would spend a year or two working with Ghia’s Torinese artisans learning the hands-on skills and developing the eyes of intuitive coachbuilders.
Changes in materials (from metal to composites) and methods (from full size drawings and “hammer-forms” to computer aided design) evolved also at Ghia. Filippo Sapino notes today that “We were very good a reproducing a high tech concept without investing in laboratories – ‘practically-made’ concepts done as a real study project…. In the [early ‘80s] A.C. Ghia period we were making perhaps a couple dozen a year, most of them made in metal or a mix…. This was unique and we were giving a very appreciated service to Ford. Later the work became super-super specialized, with different shops doing parts of the job. We made less and less really running cars.”
Taurus and Beyond
Don Kopka, who had succeeded Gene Bordinat in late 1980, re-directed Ford Design. His first challenge, perhaps the largest challenge ever to face a design manager in any industrial organization, was to create a new line of Ford sedans. Kopka had a manager’s appreciation of the interaction between design and engineering and the contribution design – in J Mays’ “integration of styling and engineering” terms – could make to solving engineering and marketing issues. His approach was holistic but at its base recognized the contribution which sound aerodynamic principals could make to the important fuel economy goals of the time. Ghia’s empirical aerodynamic experience, stretching back to the Fifties’ Nibbio II record-setter and before, complemented Don Kopka’s approach and together with other Ford studios which had developed streamlined sedans with Ghia’s assistance went to work on the concept that became the 1986 Ford Taurus. Its realization was another Ford design breakthrough on a par with the Continentals, Zephyr, Thunderbird and Mustang.
The manager of Ford’s North American car design during Taurus’s gestation was Jack Telnack, a Detroit native who had done the Ford Design world tour. Telnack watched the Probe series of aerodynamic concepts evolve under Kopka’s leadership, then led the Taurus to a stunning success in the market that was recognized by Ford’s competition with the sincerest form of flattery, emulation. Jack Telnack succeeded Don Kopka in 1987.
Under Jack Telnack, Ford’s seven design studios (Cologne, Ghia, Dunton (England), Hiroshima (and through it Melbourne), Dearborn and California) were integrated into a single cooperating yet competing organization. Computer aided design systems capable of capturing designers’ strokes in artistic renderings, integrating views into three dimensional representations and linking time zones on high speed digital connections telescoped development time. Ideas, concepts and creations flowed – but now from a global organization that shared ideas in nanoseconds – as it had in Walker’s and Bordinat’s centralized Dearborn studios in the Fifties.
Trucks and SUVs were new challenges. The “New” Thunderbird bubbled up out of designers’ enthusiasm, nurtured by Jack Telnack and realized by his successor J Mays who was appointed Ford’s vice president of Design in October 1997.
Acquisitions have doubled the responsibilities of Ford Design, adding Jaguar, Aston Martin, Volvo and Land Rover, all with design histories and legacies of their own. The role of design, which J Mays describes as creating “a communication tool for brand values at every point of contact with the customer” also has changed. That makes design management a function of, “designing the organization, not the automobiles,” and assembling “the best design team and [the best design] directors in the business [which] will have immense payoffs for the company over the next decade.”
From Black to Blackwood
The market for automobiles has come a long way from Henry Ford’s “any color they want, as long as it’s Black” Model T to 1999’s prototype Blackwood sport utility truck. Incomes are higher and buyers’ expectations have grown apace, if not faster.
The Model T was, in fact, an all purpose vehicle that took families’ produce to market on Saturday and families to church on Sunday, not in essence dissimilar from today’s F-150 extended cab pickup, Explorer SUV or the emerging “crossover” segment pioneered by concepts like (my)Mercury, Ghia’s Saguaro and Blackwood.
Designers today strive to meet buyers’ heightened expectations for utility, functionality and style. Interdisciplinary “design” is integral to determining how Ford meets them. Extravagant, fanciful or simply commercial, the history of automotive design is represented in the vignettes which Ford offers here.
Ford Motor Company’s offering of this collection of Ford and Ghia concepts is unique. It is a unique decision to entrust its heritage, which others crush into cubes and throw onto scrap piles, to collectors. Each element of today’s offering is a unique one-of-a-kind concept which reflects a moment in the last forty years’ history of the automobile and a milestone in the 100-year history of Ford Motor Company.
They are comparable with the greatest designs of Jean Bugatti, Joseph Figoni and Franco Scaglione: sometimes fanciful, sometimes inspired, sometimes practical – but never, ever, pedestrian.
Rick Carey, May 2002
Sources: Interviews; “A Century of Automotive Style” by Michael Lamm and Dave Holls, Lamm-Morada Publishing Company, Inc., Stockton, CA 1996; “Ghia” by David Burgess-Wise, Osprey Publishing Limited, London 1985; “Ford Design Department” by Jim and Cheryl Farrell, Jim & Cheryl Farrell, Roseburg, OR 1999.
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