AUTOMOTIVE DESIGN ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
The Reminiscences of Robert McGuffey Thomas
Reminiscence from the 1985 Interview with Robert McGuffey Thomas. Automotive Design Oral History, Accession 1673. Benson Ford Research Center. The Henry Ford.
This is Dave Crippen of the Edsel Ford Design History Center of the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village . This is August 13, 1984 , with one of our series of interviews with automobile stylists and industrial designers. Today we are interviewing Mr. Robert McGuffey Thomas, known to his friends and comrades as Bob Thomas. Mr. Thomas has written a book entitled Confessions of an Automotive Stylist: An Inside Look at What Goes On Behind the Locked Doors of Detroit 's Car Styling Studios. We hope that he will be able to fill in many gaps for us today.
A: I was born in Newcastle , Pennsylvania , in 1917, so I'm 67 years young, because I really feel good and play golf every week, and I'm in good health.
We moved to Sharon , Pennsylvania , where I went to school. I graduated from Sharon High in 1936. I took a scientific prep course for college. When I was at Sharon High School , I had a wonderful teacher, Mr. Newton. He was the teacher of mechanical drawing. He allowed me -because I was a gung-ho student in mechanical drawing -- to go through all his mechanical drawing books and all of his architectural books that he had in the four years that I was with him. So I got about six years of training in drawing that you ordinarily don't get in high school.
I had the good fortune of being born a descendant of the McGuffey who wrote the McGuffey Readers. A gentleman by the name of Charles Newton, who worked for Henry Ford, was a real estate buyer for Henry. He bought the historic buildings that they re-erected in [ Greenfield ] Village. He was in Pennsylvania buying the Stephen Foster cottage. I remember him because he was always perspiring, and he was always running fast, and he drove like a maniac. He had a 1934 Ford V-8 that would just run like a scalded dog, and I always remember being scared to death every time I got in the car with this guy.
Q: Give me that folk expression again.
A: A scalded dog. If you scald a dog, they'll run pretty fast. He was in Sharon , Pennsylvania , and he went to one of our McGuffey reunions. After the reunion, he stayed at our house overnight. The next morning when we were talking, he asked me if I'd like to come to Dearborn and meet Mr. Ford and possibly work in Greenfield Village .
He went back to Pittsburgh , and he picked up the grandson of Stephen Foster -- a fellow by the name of Del Rose -- and brought him to Sharon . We drove then to his place. He had a cottage on Long Lake near Ypsilanti [ Michigan ]. So we went to the cottage and stayed overnight, and the next day we drove on to the World's Fair in Chicago . That was the 1934 World's Fair.
We came back to his cottage, and, when I say cottage, it was a beautiful brick place with a caretaker and cook and the whole bit. The next Monday morning he took Dal Rose in to meet Henry Ford and for Dal to work as a guide in the village. I was left out at the cottage, and I didn't know it, but I was going to keep the company of his girlfriend at the cottage. So the two of us were left alone there, and we found a beautiful little sailboat down in the basement of his place. We got it out, and I remember varnishing the teakwood deck of the thing. So we took it out on the lake and learned how to sail. Since then, I've always been a gung-ho sailor, because I love to sail boats. I've never sailed a big one, but the small boats are appealing to me.
In two weeks he took me in to meet Mr. Ford. Charlie had an office at the front of the Engineering Lab overlooking the ponds out front. He said, "Just sit at my desk, and I'll bring Mr. Ford in." About ten minutes later, Charlie came in with Mr. Ford and about ten other guys that were following him. My first reaction was, gosh, Henry Ford is small. He's not as big as I thought he was. And the reason that he looked that way to me was he's so slim. In his photographs he looked tall. He was a wonderful guy. He was just like the people that you meet down off the farm in Pennsylvania ; a magnificent warm individual. He shook my hand, and he said, "Robert, how are you?" I was 17 at the time, and he says, "Come on. I've got some things to show you." He took me out, and, at that time, in the corner of the lab they had the dance studio. Mr. Lovett had his dance group in there, and they had the oldfashioned dance band under Mr. Perry.
Q: What corner was that?
A: That was the corner that eventually became the design studio. So he took me in there, and they had a dance class going. As you know, they had a school here at the time. He grabbed one of the girls, and he says, "Robert, this is the way they did the old-fashioned waltz." He went around that floor, and the guy was so graceful, and he loved to dance, and he was dancing around with this girl. Then he came back, and he said, "Come on, let's go down in the village." He took me down into Greenfield Village and showed me around. We had lunch then in the lab.
I remember walking back from lunch through the lab. At that time, it was sort of interesting because there was nothing in the center of the building. It was all empty. It was just this beautiful hardwood floor. As we walked through, Mr. Ford said to me, "Robert, how would you like to work in the village?" My first thought was I was having too good a time out at the lake, but I knew better, and I said, "Yes, Mr. Ford, I'd love to work in Greenfield Village .
So I went to work, and Dal Rose and I then took a room here in
Dearborn and lived together all that summer. It was a terrific experience for me. I was working under Bill Simonds who was head of the museum collection. And Charlie LaCroix was the head of the guides. It was a wonderful experience. I'll never forget we had to wear those Palm Beach suits, ties and shirts, and all the guides looked really nice. It was a real nice setup. Mr. Ford was in the village every day, and whenever he'd see me, he'd come up to me, and he'd say, "Robert, how are you getting along?" It was magnificent. It really was great.
Q: It's quite an experience working for Mr. Ford?
A: Yes. He was so interested in children, and he listened to you, too. I was always too scared to talk to him, but he was great. I worked there that summer, and then I had to go back to school.
The next year we came back. Dal Rose was an artist, and I was an artist, too, and we formed an art department in the village. We did the scheduling for the guides every day. We'd make up these big sheets with the guides' names on. Then we did furniture drawings for Bill Simonds so that when he did his lectures, he had these big pen and ink drawings. We had a little art department there at the train station -- Smith's Creek Station.
Q: It's still there.
A: When I graduated then from high school and came up here in 1936 to stay, they put me in with Roy Schumann who was the millwright for the place and was responsible for setting up the machinery in the museum and also some of the buildings. So, I was his draftsman. They gave me a drafting table, and I would draw up parts that he needed made up for the steam engines and different equipment.
Q: Had you had drafting experience?
A: As I said, I had this wonderful teacher in high school, and I had drawn everything that he had in his books, so I knew how to draw anything. It was a real good experience, not only in mechanical drawing, but also in architecture and perspective drawing.
Roy came to me one day, and he said, "I've got a big job for you. We've gotten this equipment from down South. It's a sorghum plant. We've got this crushing machinery. I've got it out in back of the museum. I want you to go out there and take your tape measure and measure all the equipment, because we put it in the field exactly the way it came out of the plant." So I went out there, and I measured all this stuff and the distance between all the machinery, and I went up into the library. They had a real good library up in the tower of the museum, and I got out some old engineering books, and it told you exactly how to design a plant that was powered by a steam engine. All I did was read all this stuff. So I laid this whole building out with all the pulleys that ran the equipment. They not only told you what power you had to have in this steam engine, but they told you how high you had to build the chimney to get enough draft to run the steam engine. Those books were terrific.
So I designed a building for this equipment. It was a beautiful drawing that I made. It was all field stone and slate roof, and it had a nice round window in the front. I laid this whole thing out, did a nice perspective rendering of it, and Roy Schumann looked at it, and he couldn't believe it. So he went out and got Henry Ford, and he brought Henry Ford in, and he said, "Look at what this kid did!" Henry Ford was so impressed that he took me over and had me work for Irving Bacon, his personal artist. Irving was upstairs in the lab building, and he had a studio up there. I've never met an artist that could draw like this guy. God, he was good.
Q: What kind of a person was he?
A: He was very erect. He was almost military in his appearance and
bearing. He had a beautiful mustache. Everybody was a little bit scared of him. He was a big guy. God, he was wonderful. My main job for him was panagraphing photographs that he'd taken of the buildings in the village. Then he would have me take the panagraph and blow up these 8x10 photographs of the buildings. I would put them on illustration boards and then clean the drawings up for him. Then he would take his pen and ink -- India ink -- and he would scratch away. His drawings were the initial drawings for the guidebooks. He was just a wonderful artist.
Q: What year was this, Bob?
A: This was in 1936.
Q: Did you get a peek at the painting he was working on of "Light's Golden Jubilee?"
A: Oh, yes. I helped him on that, as a matter of fact.
Q: Tell us about that.
A: He had started this painting, and Henry Ford had not allowed any photographs to be taken of the event. So Irving got the seating layout of where the people sat at the various tables. He got all the secretaries in the building to write to these people and have them send front, three-quarter front, side, rear three-quarter, and even rear views of their upper torso. He got all these pictures, and he laid this whole thing out. I went over to the museum, and I did sketching of the architecture -- the scroll work -- of the room that it was in. Then he started this thing. It's a huge painting. I forget how big it was, but it was about five by twelve feet. He started this thing, and that was in '36, and he didn't finish it until 1945.
Q: When do you think the principal painting was done?
A: When I left Irving -- I was with him about nine months -- he had the thing all laid out. He even had some detail work accomplished. He had the candelabra on the tables. The people that were sitting near the candelabra, he had a beautiful yellow candle glow to their faces. You could look at that painting, and you could distinguish everyone of them. All the dignitaries that were there were from all over the world. There was the Sloans, Herbert Hoover and his wife, and, of course, Edison and his wife, Henry Ford and his wife. They even had the Ford grandchildren off in one corner of the painting. You've seen the painting. It's a beautiful thing.
Q: Did you realize that the grandchildren were not there, nor were Mr. & Mrs. Edsel Ford?
A: Yes. I heard that story later. I didn't know it at the time.
Q: Henry [Ford II] was quarantined with the measles or chicken pox. Remember, in those days, they put a big red sign in your door, and you couldn't go in the house. So Edsel Ford was very scrupulous about observing that.
A: I didn't know that.
Irving Bacon, I think, realized that I was not going to be a real fine artist because I was more mechanical oriented in my training. So he took me down in 1937 and introduced me to Bob Gregorie who was head of the styling group. At that time, they had their styling in that same spot where the dance studio was. So he introduced me to Gregorie, and Gregorie looked at the stuff that I'd done for Bacon, and he said, "Do you ever draw cars?" Well, every kid draws cars. He said, "Make me some samples." This was on a Friday, and I went home that weekend, and I made a couple watercolor sketches of cars. I took them in that Monday, and Gregorie looked at them, and he said, "Yes, I could use you in here."
Q: How big was the staff in those days? Was that 1937?
A: About 25 people total. That's with the shop painter and everything.
Q: How many designers did he have?
A: I'll detail them. So he said to me, "I'm going to have to talk to Edsel Ford," because Edsel was running the thing. Actually Gregorie was, more or less, working directly for Edsel. And I thought about it, and I said to Gregorie, "I'm working here now. If I could get a transfer into your place, would it be all right with you?" He looked at me. I can imagine what was going on in his head, "What the hell is this kid talking about, getting a transfer in here."
I went to Mr. Frank Campsall, who was Henry Ford's secretary, and he ran the building. I told him that Gregorie wanted me in the design studio and would he give me a transfer. And he looked at me, and he said, "You don't have any experience in designing cars. I can't do this." I said, "The guys that he's got in there now are people that have had the same training I have in mechanical drawing, art work, and architectural drawing." In fact, one of the guys who worked for him was an architect. Eventually, he agreed, and he transferred me in. So I went from the Edison Institute making five bucks a day to six bucks a day. A big promotion!
I went to work for Gregorie. There were about five or six young fellows in there just like me -- apprentices -- that they had gotten from the Trade School. Guys like Johnny Najjar, Benny Barbera, Frank Francis, Emmett O’Rear, Bud Adams, and a couple other guys I can't think of right now. The designers in there were Bill Wagner....
Q: Willys P.?
A: Willys P., yes. It was interesting because Gregorie had this set up where each of his stylists or designers had a certain part of the car. I remember wondering about that type of thing because it seems confining to me. Wagner, for instance, had bumpers -- bumper guards -- and trim. There was a guy by the name of Bruno Kolt that had the front ends. He did the grilles. Then there was another guy by the name of Walter Kruke who had interiors. He picked out the fabrics and did the seats. Then there was another fellow by the name of Johnny Walters who did the instrument panels. Then Gregorie, of course, being the chief stylist, he sort of looked after the full-size clay models.
Q: This is Eugene T. Gregorie?
A: Yes, right. They called him Bob Gregorie. Then he had a wonderful German who was his sculptor and did the clay modeling -- Dick Beneike. Dick was a character. God, he was funny. Dick was the chief modeler, and he had about three or four other modelers. They had Jimmy Mearns and another Scotsman that were in the wood shop -- just two guys. They made templates and things. They had Jimmy Lynch, who was in the metal shop. He made all the metal parts. Then they had a guy by the name of Mel Evans who was the painter. Then, later on, they got the layout man/ designer, Martin Rigitko. He had a couple of guys working for him. So, all told, there were about 25 guys in the studio, and that was it. As I said before, each of the designers had a certain responsibility. I thought it was a pretty confining way to do it.
But Gregorie was an excellent designer. I tell in my book about how he would know exactly how to draw a knifeline on a clay model, a perfect place for a slot opening or a molding. Dick Beneike didn't get that much credit for the cars in that era in the 'Thirties and 'Forties, but he did an awful lot of the designing -- just the forms of the cars.
Up until that time, the cars were designed at Briggs Body. Beneike had worked at Briggs.
Q: Was this a conscious effort by Edsel Ford and Bob Gregorie to move the styling business from Briggs to Ford?
A: Oh, definitely. Briggs had designed the Lincoln-Zephyr.
Q: Was that John Tjaarda?
A: Yes, Tjaarda. I forget who else worked over there, but they had a nice staff at Briggs. Good designers. The story that I understand is that Briggs did the original Zephyr, and Edsel wasn't quite satisfied with the front end of it, so Bob Gregorie actually did the front end of that Zephyr. Then he did the '38 facelift, which was even better. God, that was beautiful. I remember those two little grilles down in front and the smooth shapes in that front end. That was gorgeous -- really nice.
One of the biggest jobs that we did -- the most interesting job that we did -- was the original Continental. That was really funny, because here we were in the studio designing all these nice-looking fastbacks. We'd gotten rid of the spare tire, we'd gotten rid of the ugly trunk on the back, and here comes this buck into the studio for the armature. They had the Zephyr hood on the thing, but it was elongated. They added an extra foot to the damned length of that hood. They moved the windshield way back. They had this wood armature on the back all squared off. I know the young guys thought, "God, this is terrible. What are they doing here?" We thought they were going backwards with this design.
Gregorie had made a tenth-scale drawing on an overlay of the Zephyr, and he had lowered the car, and he had lengthened out the hood and added on to the fenders. The tenth scale model looked terrific. It really looked good. Bud Adams, one of the young guys, actually modeled the thing tenth scale. Then they started full size. I did a little work on the instrument panel, because they had to cobble the thig. They had cut the thing down in size so much, and so I cobbled the instruments into it and modeled around the things. That's the only work I did on the Continental.
Q: Did you get any hint from Gregorie as to what he was asking you all to do and why on the Continental?
A: No. He made the drawings, that was it. Bud Adams made the model, and then from that they went into the full size.
Q: But did he give any hint as to what Mr. Edsel Ford wanted and how he might have instructed him to come up with this model?
A: No, he didn't talk to us that much.
Q: What kind of guy was Gregorie? Can you characterize him a few sentences?
A: He was unusual. He was dapper. He had a beautiful mustache, and he wore beautiful clothes. A: lot of times, especially on Monday morning, he'd come in with his yachting outfit on. He was a terrific boatsman. He had a sailboat down at Grosse Ile. He would come in, and he would look like he just stepped off the boat with his whites and his blue jacket. He was tight as a son-of-a-bitch. I didn't go out much to lunch with him. Most of the older guys did. They always complained about how tight he was.
Q: He wouldn't pick up the check?
A: No. But he always treated me very well. I remember one time I'd been working on the clay model. We had these clay ovens, and the clay let off a lot of sulfur, and the sulfur had gotten all over my face, and I broke out in a rash. Gregorie looked at me, and he said, "Jesus, what happened to you." I said, "I don't know. I guess I'm allergic to this clay." He said, "We'll put you on the board for awhile. We need some designs for the rear deck handle on the 1940 Ford." So I went to work and made some sketches, and he picked one of them out, and he says, "Make a drawing, and we'll make this up at the Rouge Plant." So they sent it down there, and they made a wood pattern, then they made a sand mold, and they actually cast a solid brass casting of this thing. You can imagine how much this damned thing weighed after all the work they had to do to clean it up and chrome plate it, but it really was beautiful.
When it came time for Edsel to pick out a design, they put all these handles out on a big table on black velvet. I'll never forget just standing there watching as Edsel Ford came in. Edsel Ford came into the studio there almost every afternoon. He'd come in with P.E. Martin and Charles Sorensen. And Job Galamb came in quite a bit. Joe was the chief body engineer. He came in, and he looked at this stuff, and he picked my design up. God, I could have yelled. And that was it.
Q: This was the 1940 Ford sedan?
A: It was the rear deck handle and combination license plate light up on top. So that actually went into the car. It was the first thing that I ever designed that got into a car. That was a quite a thrill for me. I was there from 1937-1939.
I was talking to Johnny Walters one day, and, at that time, we young guys were still working for six bucks a day and no raises, no nothing. The regular stylists that were in there were on star badges. They were making 250/300 dollars a month. That was big money then. So Johnny told me, "Hey, they're looking for guys over at Hudson Motor." So I made some sample drawings up, and I went over to Hudson Motor. I went to work for Frank Spring over there in 1939 and doubled what I was making at Ford.
Q: Where was Hudson Motor in those days?
A: It was right on the corner of Jefferson and Conners. They had an engineering building there, and our studio was up on the third floor right across the street from the plant. In the summertime when you opened those windows, the grit from the plant would float in. It was a bad place to work and a funny place to work, too.
Q: In what way?
A: We were all in this little room. There must have been almost ten of us. We had little drawing tables and a taboret, and we sat there all day long making sketches. They'd tell us what they wanted.
Q: What is a taboret?
A: It's a cabinet to your side that holds your paints and brushes. It's a common expression for drawing equipment -- drawing furniture.
We would make sketches all day long, and then the straw boss over there -- a fellow by the name of Kibbiger -- would come in, pick up all our sketches, and take them into Frank's office. They'd look over the stuff, and then they would take it downstairs where the models were and have the modelers interpret and put it on the car, and we'd never see what they were doing -- big secret. And, Christ, nobody really cared what Hudson was doing at that time.
I worked there until I was drafted into the Army. I was one of the first ten guys drafted in Detroit .
A: That was November 28, 1940 , yes. So I got into the Army. I was in the Army five years.
Q: What did you do?
A: They put me with the Corps of Engineers at Fort Belvoir . I put on my thing that I was an automotive designer. I'll never forget the company commander when he interviewed me. He thought he had an engineer on his hands, and here I was a stylist. But I worked out for them. It was a maintenance engineer outfit. I had what was loosely described as the technical section of the company, and I made all the drawings they needed and designed things for them. I kept track of the work orders and all the manuals. I was overseas for three years over in Europe . Landed at Beach Utah and did all the things. I was lucky to get out alive. I went through the Battle of the Bulge.
I got out in May of '45, and I went to work for General Motors. I called up Howard O'Leary, who was Harley Earl's administrative head over there. So I went in to see him, and he looked at the samples that I had, and he said, "How much do you want?" And I told him, and he said, "You're hired." I often thought, what the hell, I should have asked for.... And one of things that he said to me, "Can you do airbrush renderings?" And I said, "No, I've never done any." He said, "You'll learn." He was a wonderful Irishman that guy. A terrific guy. A drunk, but a nice guy. In fact, they did a lot of drinking over at G.M. -those studio heads. God, I couldn't believe it. I was just a young kid. I was just newly married, and I didn't associate with them.
I was put in with a fellow by the name of George Snyder. George was a wonderful designer. He did custom body work before he went to G.M., and he did all of his designing on the blackboard, the way they do it at custom body places. So I went on the blackboard for him, and I designed cars. We worked on the postwar Oldsmobile. He was head of the Oldsmobile studio. Then Bill Mitchell came back out of the Navy.
[They began to play] musical chairs. George Snyder was then given a special studio working directly for Harley Earl doing special cars for him. Bill Mitchell went to the Cadillac studio. Art Ross took over the Oldsmobile studio. A fellow by the name of Henry Lauve took over the Buick studio. Bob Lauer had the Pontiac studio, and Ed Anderson had the Chevvy studio. So, then, we did special cars for Harley Earl. Harley was mesmerized by the P-38 plane and the P-40.
Q: Had he been in the service?
A: No. Harley was over-age. They did war work. They did a lot of camouflage stuff at G.M. during the war. But, anyway, every goddamned car we designed for him had to have a big spinner on the front and scoop underneath for the front end. I did more full-size airbrush renderings over there than I'd like to admit to, one drawing right after the other.
Anyway, my boss, George Snyder, quit and got a job at Ford's.
Q: That was '47?
A: '47, yes. So I went to Ford with him. I came back to Ford.
Q: Any problems with that?
A: No, no problem at all. Before that. when I first came into the Ford studios. I didn't have any assignment. I was sort of waiting around to be assigned to something, and there was a guy by the name John Oswald who was head of body engineering and also styling at the time.
Q: He had been at G.M.?
A: That's right. He was with Oldsmobile at G.M.
Q: Had he worked with Snyder?
A: Yes, he had worked with Snyder.
Q: He had preceded Snyder to Ford?
A: Yes. In fact, he was the guy that hired Snyder, because he was over styling. There were two heads then of styling: George Snyder and Tom Hibbard. Hibbard was still there.
Q: Another G.M. person?
A: Yes. By that time, Gregorie had left and gone to Florida with his boats. He could probably see the handwriting on the wall, and he took off.
Q: Was this mass exodus of designers from G.M. an Ernest Breech operation?
A: No, it wasn't Breech. Breech had nothing to do with styling.
Q: I know, but I mean the [several] stylists coming over from G.M. He was bringing lots of other people over from G.M. at this time. Did he also influence the designers?
A: He may have. I really don't know. All I know is that Oswald had been working at G.M. When he brought Snyder over from G.M., then Snyder brought me over. Then they got Gene Bordinat and Don DeLaRossa and a couple other guys to come from G.M.
Q: How about Bob McGuire?
A: And Bob McGuire, that's right.
Q: There was quite an influx of G.M. people?
A: Oh, sure. It was a lousy situation in that they still had people from Ford here, guys like Johnny Najjar, and Bill Schmidt.
Q: And all the guys you worked for were still there pretty much: Kolt, Walters, Rigitko?
A: Rigitko was there. Jimmy Lynch was still there. Eddie Martin. He was there.
Q: In fact, you had two studios?
A: They were supposed to be integrated, but they were fighting each other. And then on top of that, we were working for engineering, which made it even worse. So, anyway, it wasn't a very happy situation.
I was standing around, and John Oswald -- he's a great big guy and had huge hands -- came over to me, and he hit me on the back, and he said, "Bob, I want you to do a job for me." So he took me over to the front of the '49 Ford model. He says, "I want some lettering right across the front of this model, and he told me exactly when he wanted it. He said, "I want the lettering to chamfer on the top."
Q: What's a chamfer?
A: It's a V shape chamfer. You could either chamfer this way or this way, but it's a V shape. It could be other shapes, too, but it's an expression you use in drawing. So I made a drawing of what I thought it should be, and I looked around for some modelers to do it for me. I didn't have anybody working for me, so I modeled the letters. I foiled the letters myself, put them on the model, got Oswald, brought him over, h looked at it, and that was it. That's the lettering that went on the '48 Ford.
Q: And it's remained?
A: It was only one year, because the next year they put the emblem on the front. But that was as close as anything that I ever designed that got on the model exactly the way I did it. But Oswald was the guy that told me what he wanted. He told me the type of letter.
Then George Snyder formed an advanced studio in the group, and he had Bob McGuire doing interiors, and he had Gene Bordinat doing exteriors, and I was doing his designing for him on the blackboard, as usual, like G.M. We had done a special 3/8th model over at G.M. The theme of the design was oval shaped -- tubular shaped -- fenders that went all the way from the front -- oval shapes in the front -- with the headlamps inside the ovals all the way to the back that had three lights in the back -- oval shaped. And then the inner body was sort of suspended in between these two shapes. Very modern. George said to me, "Now, we're going to do a Lincoln Continental. It's bigger than we'd worked on over at G.M. It's a 125 inch wheelbase. Take that design and put it on to the package of the Lincoln Continental," which we did, and
it was beautiful.
Q: What year was that?
A: It was in '47 that we worked on that. It was a '49 Lincoln Continental proposal, because the '48 was still there. That was the last year of the Lincoln Continental. '47 and '48 were the same.
So we did this model, and it was a first for Ford, because we designed the buck so you not only could model the outside, but you could model the inside -- the seats and everything. We had the instrument knobs and things made up in the metal shop. It was beautiful. The whole thing was painted. This was before we had dinoc to put on the outside of the clay models. So the whole thing was painted, and it was foiled -the chrome parts. Then we had the windshield made up. I made a drawing of the windshield, and they made a mold and actually formed the thing out of plexiglass. Then they made the convertible top up in the trim shop, so you could put it on or take it off. God, it was a beautiful model. But Ford, they looked at it, and they liked it, but they weren't planning. They didn't have the money, really, to do a new Continental.
Q: Is that why the Continental stopped in '48?
A: Yes. They had spent all their money doing the retooling on the new Ford, and both the Lincoln and the Mercury were all new tooling, too. They were running out of dough for this thing, and they just weren't that interested. And Breech is very money conscious. If a project isn't making money, he doesn't want to hear about it.
So, anyway, they looked at it, and that was scrapped. I never knew what happened to this model, and I couldn't find any photographs. So I had to make sketches to put in my book.
Then I got discouraged with Ford. In fact, I was so damned discouraged with them because their planning was bad. G.M. was having this Motorama every year in New York , and you could tell what they were going to do by these models. All you had to do was look at this stuff, and you knew what they were going to do. o. They had these two-door hardtop models. This was in 1949, and by '49, they had the Cadillac models -the Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile, they all had hardtops. Then the Chevrolet and the Pontiac had the smaller hardtops. I was so pissed at Ford by that time, I went out down here in Dearborn , and I think it was at McCarthy Chevrolet, and I bought a hardtop right off the floor -- a Chevrolet hardtop.
Q: You didn't like the Ford postwar products?
A: I liked the products all right, but I was mad at them for not paying attention to what G.M. was doing and not doing a hardtop in competition with Chevrolet. They did come out the following year with their hardtop. But, God, they were a year late.
So I was lucky, anyway. I got a call from Ed Anderson, who had gone from G.M. to Nash. He was the chief stylist at Nash, and he called me. What had happened was he'd tried to get a senior stylist from G.M., and they wouldn't move for him. He called me and asked me if I'd be interested. Later he told me, "If you could work for George Snyder, you can work for me." Both of them were pretty hard to get along with. I'm an easy-going guy, and I got along with both of them very well.
Anyway, he hired me, and I made a lot of bucks over at at Nash. It was a good raise for me. We worked hard over there. God, we had just a small group. There couldn't have been more than a dozen people there.
Q: Were you working on that 1950 Nash?
A: Oh, yes. When I got over there, they were just bringing out the Rambler. Nash was funny. They were so set on aerodynamics, really, and that's one reason they covered the front wheels for less wind resistance. And they also designed their upper structure. Even their CV windows were compound glass. They never used that on any of the other cars. They did that so as to get a rounded effect around the front of the windshield. They had the lowest coefficient of drag of any American car.
Q: They rounded the whole shape?
A: The whole shape was round, yes. They called them "upside down bathtubs."
Q: They had a fold-down front seat.
Q: It made into a bed?
A: That was in the Rambler.
Q: Quite innovative for that time?
A: Right. They were good, the engineering group they had over there. They had a fellow by the name of Ted Vlrick, who was a master at unitized body construction, and he designed all their cars that way.
I went to work over there, and the first job we did was the facelift of the Rambler. Everything was round: the front and the rear end. We took the rear fenders and extended the rear fenders and gave the thing a little pizzazz, and that helped a bit. We redesigned the front end. And we did a step-down station wagon on the Rambler that was pretty good. Then we started work on the Nash that they were going to bring out in 52. They had hired Pininfarina to do the car.
Q: From Italy ?
A: Yes. So they sent over a Nash Ambassador car, and he, of course, chopped it up, and he did an actual metal model of the proposal for the Nash. There was a guy by the name of Bill Flajole. Are you familiar with the name?
A: He was the guy that designed the NXI, the little Metropolitan -the original model. He's the guy that designed that. He had his own design firm here in Detroit -- Bill Flajole. They liked that design of that damned little car so much that everything they did at Nash they wanted the same thing. Do you remember that had a little step-down on the side of the doors in the lines? That was designed into the little Metropolitan.
Q: It's become a cult car?
A: Right. And the front end always had sort of an oval shape grille. In the original NXI, the bumper was the grille, because they had a bumper here, then they shaped the oval grille, and the whole thing was bumper. Of course, they couldn't build that because that would have been too expensive. So when they finally came out with the Metropolitan, it was a straight-through bumper.
But, anyway, everybody over there, especially Mead Moore -- Mead Moore was the vice-president of engineering, and he was a son-of-a-bitch to work for. He and Anderson just didn't get along at all. It was terrible, the feeling in the place. Ed Anderson and Ulrick got along fine. They were drinking buddies. So Ed and Ted Ulrick worked together very well.
We did a car, and I have pictures of it in my book. We did a model -- a design proposal -- for the '52 Nash, and it was very modern. We used this same step-down design on the side of the doors, and it was a very modern, good-looking car, which we thought they should build. We worked overtime without pay. I made all kinds of full-size renderings of this thing. Ulrick approved it, and we went ahead, and they made a plaster model of it, of which the pictures are in the book. It was a nice-looking car. But Mead Moore got to the board of directors over there somehow, and he stopped all work that we were doing on our model, and they bought the model that Pininfarina had sent over, and it was horrible. It was the worst-looking thing I ever saw. You see, Pininfarina was used to doing these small cars, and he did the Cisatalia, which was beautiful. And he did all these nice-looking, twoseater sports cars, and he did some nice-looking small European type cars. But, God, this Nash was a monster to him. The car had a fairly nice roof on it, and it had this same step-down design for the doors, which they wanted. But everything from the cowl forward just went downhill -- broke downhill -- and everything from the backlight back on the deck, broke downward, so that Farina got his low-looking front end and low-looking rear end, but from the side, it was horrible, just terrible.
So they said, "That's it," and here we had this goddamned thing to make into a Nash. So we took templates off the thing, and I laid it out full size on the blackboard and straightened up all the lines, and that's the way the car turned out. That's it. From my line drawing, they went right into the drafting room, and it was put on the plates. And then from that, they made templates, and then they made a plaster model to see what it looked it. Luckily, it turned out all right. We did quarterscale models, too, for Anderson 's approval. But, generally, that's the way it went.
Q: Was that standard procedure?
A: This was a rush thing. They didn't do any real full-size clay models over there. They did quarter-scale models, and then they blew them up into full size, and then they would make plaster models. You should see the way they made those plaster models. They'd make a buck and put chicken wire around it, and then they'd throw a bunch of plaster on and let it dry and harden, and then they'd run templates up to it and shave it down. It was quite an obsolete procedure. But the models -- in plaster -- they were beautiful. They painted them and cleaned them all up, and they looked good.
We were heartsick, because we wanted our car. Anyway, the model turned out pretty good. It sold well. Then they had had to have a instrument panel for the thing, and I made us six quick sketches of the instrument panel, and they picked one out that featured the hood. You remember that hood, the fenders were high, and then they dipped down to the hood. They had their airflow type scoop up front for the intake to their heater system. So I designed the instrument panel with the same shape, of course, and then on the two ends I put two speakers for the radio. Then across the center was this soft crash pad type thing. Then underneath or on top, I forget now, is where they put the instrumentation. They bought it, and that was it. That was another one of those deals that just went right in.
That was the nice thing about working for Nash is that the stuff you did got into production just like that -- it was gone.
Then we did the little Metropolitan. That was another one of those rush jobs. By this time, Ed Anderson and Mead Moore weren't even talking to each other.
Q: Because of the Pininfarina thing?
A: Yes, and the fact that their personalities just didn't click. So I was at my drawing board one day, and Mead Moore came in. He came over to me, and he said, "Here's a Lucas headlamp bezel. We're going to use this on the NXI car." I said, "You mean we're going to design the fender around this?" He said, "Yes, this is it. We're going to use this. We're going to build the car in England , and we're going to use Lucas headlamps. This is the bezel that we're going to use." I thought to myself what the hell is this guy talking about? Designing a whole car around a goddamned headlamp! Then I thought why is he talking to me, but I realized that he didn't like Anderson , and they weren't talking. So I took this goddamned bezel, and we did the model quarter-scale, and I drew up the bezel quarter-scale. We put it on the quarter-scale model, and a wonderful guy by the name of Ray Smith was the designer and modeler over there, and he modeled this NXI quarter-scale. We did it so fast that he would actually make clay templates. And if you didn't think that wasn't a mess. You'd take clay about a quarter-inch thick, and you put it on a finished surface, and you spread it like this, and then you splash some cold water on it to make it set. Then I would take those messy clay templates, and I'd put them on my quarter-scale layout and draw around them and then blow that up to full-size layout in back of me, and then I'd put them on a full-size layout.
I said in my book, it's a wonder we weren't fired for doing it that way. On the other hand, it's a wonder we didn't get promoted, because we were doing it so fast.
But, anyway, I made the full-size layout, and we finished the quarter-scale model. Anderson approved the thing, and that's it. That's the way the Metropolitan came out.
Q: It was a big success.
A: Yes, it was. I recall [thinking] at the time that that car sure is stupid looking. Because they wanted to make the doors interchangeable -right to left -- they wanted the right front fender and the rear fender to be interchangeable. When you think about it, it's pretty ridiculous, because, God, you'd have to make the taillamp the same size as the headlamp, and it would really look bad. They ended up with the outer skins of the doors the same. Then, when you think about it, the inner panels of the doors had to be different because of the handles and the mechanisms that went in there for the windows. We thought that was a pretty funny-looking little car.
At the time that we did that, you must remember that cars got their speed by their raked-down look. You always drew a belt line going down the back, and that gave it that hunched look and the look of speed. Well, here's the car that the front and the rear door had to be the same height, so it was nothing. The damned little thing just sat there straight across. Of course, now it's the way, everything goes down in the front.
We finished that, and then we did some facelift sketches. By that time, things were slowing down at Nash, and I got a call from Gordon Buehrig who was working at Ford. He said, "There's something opening up at Ford. I want you to come over to the house." So I went over there, and, God, he had the nucleus of the Continental Division -- Harley Copp, chief engineer; and John Reinhart, chief stylist; and several other guys that were there. And Gordon Buehrig was the chief body engineer. So I talked to them, and, jeez, they hired me as John's assistant. I was assistant chief stylist on the job. That was in the Fall of '52.
Of all work experiences, that was it. God, Bill Ford was wonderful. He had his office right close to Reinhart's and my office. Then we had the old basketball court of the Trade School. We were in those old Trade School buildings in back of the World Headquarters, and the basketball court was our design studio, and it was nice. And Bill was in every day, and Harley Copp, of course, he's a goddamned genius, that guy. He put together a lot of talented people to build that car.
It was so funny working on that Continental because at that time the stylists were really going berserk. We had bombs and chrome all over the place, and they were starting with the goddamned fins and everything. They told us right from the beginning, "Now, look, this is going to be the new Continental, and we don't want all that crap on this car." I'm sure you're familiar with that design contest they had.
Q: Tell us about it.
A: Harley Copp had set up a package based on a grid system so that perspective drawings -- any of the designers that were doing a design for the Continental -- had to adhere to the package. He had designed these acetate things with the package points on that they could put over top of a rendering and tell if it was high enough, if the air cleaner was covered by the hood and so on.
They did that. Harley worked on that along with the styling studio. That was quite a nice system. All of the perspective drawings were good, except the front and rear three-quarter drawings and the vanishing points were too close to the object, and they looked strained. They looked like they were coming out of the paper. It didn't look right. You have to cheat on perspectives. You can't make it exact to look right -- you have to cheat on it. Because when you look at an object, you've got two eyes -- not one eye -- so you have to cheat a little bit when you're doing a perspective.
We did three designs. The first design was a model that was sort of an update of the '48. It had the spare tire in the trunk and the general appearance of the old '48. Then there was another model that was a split-grille model. It was a little more up to date. And then the third model was completely up-to-date. In fact, it was the winning model, and it was the most up to date that was presented. It didn't even have a spare tire on it, which was unusual for designing a Continental. In conjunction with that, they had four other design consultants that submitted designs. George Walker submitted three designs.
Q: By this time, he's a consultant?
A: Yes. He was a consultant at Ford. George Walker was one. Walter Buhl Ford did three designs. A fellow by the name of Vince Gardner, who was at Studebaker, did three designs. Buzz Grisinger and Reese Miller had a design firm at that time, and Buzz went with Ford later on -- so did Miller, actually. They did some designs. There were five groups competing against one another. They were out to do 3/8ths models, too, for their edification, but the design was going to be picked from these renderings, and they had to be all the same color -- all blue -- and they had to adhere to the grids. They had to be on package.
They put them up in our design studio over at the Trade School, and Bill Ford took all the members of the committee around separately. It was a design committee that was made up of Ernie Breech, Henry Ford, Benson Ford, Earle MacPherson, Jack Davis, who was head of sales, and I don't who else, but, anyway, I think that was about it. Bill Ford took these people around separately, and they voted on what they wanted. The most advanced model won, and we were really surprised.
Q: Yours and John Reinhart's?
A: That was the John Reinhart design. That was the one that won. So we were elated -- Oh, Christ! If one of those other guys had won, then we would have to build their models and work with them. But inasmuch as we won, now we were on our own to do our own models, which was a big plus. So we started full size from the 3/8ths that we had. We started doing a full size model.
Jack Davis came over one day, and he told us, "I don't think this is going to be a Continental without the spare tire on the back." He said, "You guys got to have a spare tire." We were relieved, frankly, because we wanted it, too.
Q: Bill Ford did not, at this point, insist on a rear tire?
A: No, at this point, he didn't insist, because we were all happy and grinning and would do anything. But when Davis suggested it, we were all happy that we were going to get a hump on the back for a spare tire.
Then we started, and we finished the full-size model. We showed it over at the Design Center out on the patio, and they approved the model with minor variations. At one time, when we showed that model, we had beautiful louvers on the lower front fender. They were gorgeous, The reason we had the damned things, is that engineering requested it, and this is sort of unusual, too. They had a problem with heating under the hood, and they had a cross member that ran right next to the toe board, and they were trapping heat under the hood because of that. They solved the problem by moving the toe board back. They had excess leg room in the thing, anyway.
Q: The toe board is below the firewall?
A: The toe board is where you put your feet on where the accelerator is. They had a lot of leg room, anyway, so they moved that back, and that gave a space between the cross member and the toe board, and they no longer needed those louvers. God, we were heartsick. We thought, oh, Christ, we lost our louvers, and they wouldn't have them if they weren't functional. They just tossed them out.
Q: This is body engineering?
A: This was Harley Copp, chief engineer. Actually, this dealt more with chassis engineering because it was a heating problem under the hood. So, anyway, we lost our beautiful louvers.
Q: Any drawings of those that survived?
A: I've got pictures of the clay model. We finished the clay model then without our louvers, and then we made a cast of the thing and did a beautiful fiberglass model. That's the one on the front there [showing a picture]. If you'll notice, we had wire wheels on that thing. Dayton Wire had designed some wire wheels for us, and they were beautiful. God, they were gorgeous. And the unusual thing about them was the spokes were radial -- they weren't crossed -- and that's the reason we couldn't have them because they weren't strong enough.
Then after we got that model, then we started on the interior. That model was the first time that Ford ever had a model like that -- a non-running model -- that had seats in it that worked and doors that worked, and Ernie Breech and the rest of them could open it up and get in, and sit down, and evaluate the whole car -- look down over the hood. It was a first. The head of our shops -- a fellow by the name of Stan Braum-- he was magnificent. He worked his ass off to get that model finished.
The grille was made out of wood. That was chrome-plated. The bumpers were all fiberglass. Those were chrome-plated. A lot of details were made out of polished aluminum, and it was really beautiful.
Then we finished up our interior, and I was given the job of presenting the interiors, and that's a mess. You've got all these different colors, and you've got all the variations of how you put them together with the exterior colors. We had all these people -- Ernie Breech and the Ford brothers -- and they were all sitting there, and I was standing in front of them scared to death. Fortunately, nobody gave me any trouble but Ernie Breech. He looked at our red that we were going to paint the car, and he says, "When I was at G.M. I had a Cadillac -- a maroon Cadillac -- and I loved that color." And he looked at our red, and it was a beautiful red color. We worked hard on this thing, and it was just right. All the other cars at that time in '56 -- you remember the awful colors they had? They had pumpkin, they had lavender, and the reds were just almost orange they were so bright. So I showed Ernie all the colors that they were going to have the '56 Cadillac and the '56 Lincoln . It didn't make a damned bit of difference to him. So I said, "Mr. Breech, we'll make that color look more like maroon," which we did. And he was right.
So, anyway, we changed the color, and they bought the whole interior, and that was it. And that model really sold the thing. That was beautiful, really gorgeous.
Q: Full-size fiberglass?
A: Full size. It had the seats in. When you think about it, when you have open doors, you've got to design all the door facings, and we didn't even have that designed yet. We had to guess at what that was going to look like. If you'll remember, the Continental had chrome ends to the doors in the hinge pillars -- the door pillars and the hinge pillars -so we had to chrome those things, and it was quite a job. It was really something.
One of the nice things about working for Bill Ford, he sent Reinhart and I to the Paris Auto Show a couple of years. The second year we went over there, Earle MacPherson was there along with Henry Grebe, who was the chief body engineer. MacPherson was married to a French woman, and they did a lot of traveling over there, and Paris was their home ground. Mrs. MacPherson would buy materials from a company called Tassinari and Chatel. It was a company that was formed back in 1750, and they did fabrics for the palaces. So MacPherson took us over to this place and introduced us to the manager. Reinhart and I were looking at all the silk brocades. God, they were gorgeous. They were samples and out of one of them we saw a little patch cut out, and it was the fleur de lis pattern of the [later] Cadillac, and we said to the guy, "What happened here?" He said, "There was an official here from General Motors, and he took that back." That's how Cadillac got that fleur de lis pattern that they used for years on their trim.
And Reinhart and I picked out a couple of fabrics which they gave us samples of. We were going to have the introduction of the Continental at the Paris Auto Show in 1955 -- in October. We were going to have special trims with this French fabric, and we were going to do special colors. We had this thing all laid out, and it was going to be great. We had a fellow with us by the name of Alan Wilson, who was the assistant sales manager in charge of advertising, and he was going to set up the whole press thing over there. We went to the Palais Chaillot right across from the Eiffel Tower , and we checked the building out, and we found a place that we could put the cars. We wanted a layout of the building, and they didn't have any to give us, so Reinhart and I went down to the basement. They had a layout down in the basement, and we went out and bought some tracing paper, and we traced the layout of that damned building. That was quite a job.
We came back with all this stuff, and they looked at it, and they decided it was going to be too expensive. Do you know what they showed at the Paris Auto Show? One lousy car! No special trim, no special color, no nothing. It was just a grey car with a grey leather interior or something like that. It was the '56 Continental.
Q: They only brought one?
A: Yes. Mark II Continental. In the introduction that we had here in the States, was George Ferret playing the Continental on the piano, and they had a replica of the Eiffel Tower in the showroom. That's where they showed the thing to the press.
Then we built a new plant [in Dearborn ]. This is an interesting story because we were over there at the styling showroom, and we had our model there, and Bill was trying to get twenty-five million dollars to build the plant. He was on the podium practicing his speech. We had the model there, and we were getting the thing prepared and ready for the show the next day, and somebody said, "Hey, we need a crest for this goddamned car." We didn't have anything. The podium that Bill was working on had three holes in it. They had the Ford crest, the Mercury crest, and the Lincoln crest. So they said, "We've got to have a crest." So I measured the hole, and then we went on working the rest of the day, and Reinhart and I completely forgot about it. The next morning I woke up at 6 o'clock in the morning, and I thought, my God, we don't have a crest for that damned meeting. So I showered and shaved and got into work. I had thought about the crest. You're always thinking about designing. I had thought about using sort of a combination of all the other three crests. For instance, I used the roundels from the Mercury crest, the rampant lions from the Ford crest, and the star from the Lincoln crest. I cut out a piece of black cardboard, and I was rendering this damned thing in, and Reinhart burst into the studio, and he said, "Hey, we need a crest." I said, "I'm working on it!" And he came over and looked at it, and he didn't have time to change it or do anything. He said, "Well, finish it up."
So I finished this thing up. I rendered it in poster water colors. We took it over to the meeting, and we took a piece of tape, and we put it underneath Bill's speech -- his text. If the thing was a success, then Bill was to take this and flip it over. We had it taped just perfect so it would come right down over the other three holes on top of it, so that it would look like a hole and look like we had our crest. And, sure enough, he sold the plant and got the twenty-five millions dollars, and when he did, he picked up his text, and he took that thing and flipped it over, and, Christ, everybody applauded!
The funny thing about that is that if we hadn't of done that at that time, we would have spent all kinds of hours on heraldry research and all kinds of drawings of things. But, as it was, that was it. I'll never forget one day in the studio, Bill Ford came in, and he was questioning Reinhart about those roundels. He wondered what the hell those were, and John said -- John was wonderful like this -- "Well, those roundels are berries. They represent the Ford brothers, because we think the Ford brothers are the berries." And Bill Ford laughed so loud he snorted. He walked out of the studio, and we never had to explain anything from there on. That was it.
Q: That's a great story.
A: Oh, God, that was funny.
Q: You had a lot of fun in those days in the Continental studio?
A: It was wonderful.
Q: Largely because Bill Ford really let you do what you wanted to do?
A: I'll tell you, we even had poker parties over at the Dearborn Inn, and that was sort of an experience to have Bill Ford mixing your Jack Daniels for you. He was a great guy. I think everybody over there was wonderful. And Reinhart and I, Christ, we were together all those years like brothers. It was quite an experience.
Then they pulled the rug out from under us when the car failed.
Q: How did that happen?
A: The premise of this thing was that we had to make money.
Q: That's the only reason Breech would okay it?
A: That's right. That's why it was priced at $10,000, because that was a lot of money in '56. It was going great. In the very beginning we were selling all kinds of cars. In fact, in the plant they were scratching to find out how to go from -- I think they were up to 16 cars a day. They wanted to go up to 28 or something like that, and they were trying to figure out how to speed up their production. Well, that didn't last long, because the sales just went down. So, we were disbanded. We had about twenty-five guys left over there in Lincoln-Continental design, and only eight of us actually got jobs back in main styling. Reinhart was demoted to an exec designer, and I was demoted to a design analyst, which is like a studio engineer. Christ, it took me six years to work back into styling.
Anyway, I couldn't go back to G.M., because they wouldn't take anybody that had quit, and I didn't want to go to Hamtramck and work for Chrysler, and the independents were in trouble. There was no sense in even talking to them. So I had to stay. So I did my job and worked my way back up. It was Bordinat that really -- after he became vice-president -- got me back into a design manager job.
Q: That was in '60?
Q: For about four years, then, you worked at...?
A: It was six years all together. I worked two years as a design analyst, and then I became a head designer, and then when Bordinat took over, he made me a head stylist.
Q: What sort of projects did you work on during those six years?
A: I had a lot of interesting stuff. First of all, I worked for Alex Tremulis, and he was doing all those crazy 3/8ths models.
Q: Were you involved with that?
A: Flying cars and things! And they were going to build them over in Europe . They had five of them that they were going to send to Europe and have them made up full size.
Q: What were they?
A: One of them had propellers, like a Levacar, and it would go up.
And rocket cars, and you name it, they had 'em all in different shapes and sizes. My job was to take these 3/8ths models and get templates made and lay the thing out full size so they could build them. So that's what I was doing originally. Then I went into another advanced group and did mostly layout work for them -- package work.
I got to work with Elwood Engel, and Elwood was sent over to Ford of England to do a Zephyr/Zodiac replacement. That was in '58. He took me with him as his package engineer and a fellow by the name of Jimmy Doyle, who's a modeler. The three of us went over there, and we did a real nice-looking proposal for them.
We had a wonderful time with Sir Patrick Hennessey. He was [chairman] there then. We went to his house for dinner, and I played the piano, and we danced with his two beautiful daughters. It was really funny, because when we were all done with dinner -- this was typical of the [British] male chauvanistic approach -- they excused the ladies, and the men stayed at the table with their cigars and brandy. No women's lib there. But Sir Patrick was a wonderful guy. He told a lot of good stories.
Anyway, we did the model for that. What I actually did, Elwood would tell me what he wanted, and I'd lay it out on the blackboard, and we'd start working on it. Then I would pitch in with Jimmy Doyle and [help] model, because I knew how to model, and we finished the model up ourselves.
Then after that, I was back working for Elwood in the downstairs studio, and we did the '61 Lincoln-Continental.
Q: Tell us about that. That's quite a story?
A: Yes, it is. It's interesting because Joe Oros was working on the new T-Bird upstairs in his studio, and we were given the job of doing a Continental type T-Bird. I was in charge of packaging for the damned thing. We had the package. We knew what the package was. But I called a friend of mine in engineering, and I said, "What's really important on this damned package?" And he said, "Well, the cowl. We've got to hold the cowl area around the front door cuts." We had to hold that, and that was the important part. So, at that time, they were doing delta shapes, where the back end was wide. So I said to Elwood, "Hey, you know, we could really make this thing exciting by holding the door cuts in the front and pulling the back end out. By doing that, see, then you'd have your rear fenders way out, and you could set this Continental-type roof on top so it would set down." Christ, we ended up with about that much space between the roof and the rear fenders as it came up, and it looked terrific. And George Walker would come into the studio, and he'd look at this damned thing from the back, and he said, "Tommy, you sure that's on package?" "Yes, Mr. Walker, right on package."
They finally discovered the overall dimensions. We were five inches over package on the back of that damned thing. So we had a meeting the next morning. We were supposed to show it. So we made templates real quick, and I developed a new plan view, and we had to pull that thing in two and half inches on the side. And we worked all night long, and Elwood, in the middle of the night, said to me, "You son of a bitch. You're lucky you're not paying for this overtime."
We finished it up, and McNamara looked at it and liked it.
Q: The next day?
A: Yes. He said, "Jeez, that looks great. Let's do something with that." Then they decided that they would put it upstairs in the Lincoln studio and make a Continental out of it.
Q: McNamara was, at that time, head of Ford Division?
A: Yes. Crusoe was head of North American.
Inasmuch as it was designed as a Continental type, they decided that would look good as a Lincoln-Continental. And then they took it upstairs, and then they made the four door out of it -- stretched it a little bit and made the four-door. They did a terrific job upstairs. That was under Bordinat and DeLaRossa that worked on that. And that's they way the car came out. But, I'll tell you, the principal designer, of course, is Elwood. Being in his position -- he was called a staff stylist -- he was allowed to go to all the studios, and he followed that model upstairs and followed it every step of the way. He did all the designing on the instruments. Dave Ash worked on it, and Elwood directed that whole car. So when you ask who designed the '61 Continental, I say Elwood Engel was the guy.
We did the Levacar. Remember that funny thing?
Q: Yes. Tell us about the Levacar. Was that Andy Kucher's inspiration?
A: Yes, that's right.
Q: Vice-president of engineering?
A: Right. He was into the Levatrains.
Q: What were those?
A: They were trains that ran on a flat platform on a rather wide rail. It was all Levacar. It worked under pressure. They decided to do a Levacar. I was still a design analyst, and I had to make a package for this damned thing from scratch. Here I had Andy Kucher, who was six foot five, and George Walker, who was about as round as he was tall, and I had to make a car that I knew damned well both of them were going to fit in, because I knew they were going to be sitting in this damned thing. But the package worked out. They could just fit in the thing. If you remember the shape of it, it went from the head right on down to the front, and the whole top opened opened for them to get in and out of it. They put it down at the Rotunda [in Dearborn ]. They made a stainless steel track for it, then they put it on a bar, and this thing went around, and it moved the Levacar around. The Levacar had three pads with holes in it that the compressed air was coming out of. This thing would float around that track.
Q: What year was that? '57?
A: Somewhere around there. But that was interesting.
Q: But you're the designer of the Levacar?
A: No, no. I did the package for it. The design of the Levacar was done by Elwood, and he had a real top designer at Ford by the name of Gale Halderman, who is still over there. They actually did the styling of the thing. All I did was the packaging.
Q: How did the compressed air work?
A: They had these pads that were built, and they had tiny holes in the pad, and they would shoot the air down through these little holes, and they would actually lift the car up not more than about the thickness of the paper. Then, when you did that, why it was free to move. They would run this thing around this stainless steel track.
Q: Where did you get the compressed air from under the wheels?
A: I think they just blew it in from a compressor, and I think everything came down through the center, because everything was off this center pole. I think they had a compressor out there somewhere where they were pushing air in. Everything was fake.
Q: It must have been a great experience?
A: Oh, yes, it was fun.
Q: What do you remember about Andy Kucher?
A: Yes. I had to go over and sit in on their engineering meetings every week. He was quite a guy. I've got a picture in my book of the guys that were [given] the design award for the '61 Continental, and I was surprised that they included me, because I was really a design analyst.
Q: Tell us about how that photograph came about. There's quite a story there?
A: Yes. It's interesting because Gene Bordinat had just been made vice-president, and Walker....
Q: Had not yet left.
A: No, he was still a consultant. That particular Monday morning, it was Gene Bordinat's first day in that office, and that was Walker 's office.
A: Yes, very awkward. And here we are all sitting in Walker 's former office. He was moved down the hall. Here we are all sitting in the office and smiling, and Walker sees it. He's quite a guy.
Q: He carried it off fairly well?
A: Yes, he carried it off.
Q: Gene has a characteristic look: the cat that swallowed the mouse?
A: Yes. Gene was the new vice-president. And we went to Chicago and got the award.
Q: You all went?
A: We all went, yes, and got little plaques. George took us to dinner at that famous restaurant in Chicago -- The Pump Room. Anyway, we got nice award plaques for that car.
Q: Who was giving the award?
A: The Industrial Design Institute.
Then Bordinat, when he became vice-president, switched my classification back to styling, which was a break for me. Then we got designing a lot of cars. I worked for Bob McGuire, and McGuire was the chief of advanced styling at the time, and Elwood was gone [to Chrysler]. Johnny Najjar was my boss. He was the exec under McGuire. We were given all sorts of wonderful jobs. We did a world car.
Q: What was that?
A: It was a car that was supposed to be world-wide -- cheap, no front and rear overhang. When you look at it today, if you just square it up a little bit, it would look like the Volkswagen. And I did that little Allegro and Aventurra model.
Q: Those were a couple of "dream cars," weren't they?
A: Yes. Those were two-seaters.
Q: Tell us about those two.
A: We started them. I always had this idea that you could get a real nice, fast roof if you take the rear passengers and make them face rear so their heads were together. It's a lousy way to sit. You can't ride very long that way, but, anyway, it's a wonderful thing to do to get a nice-looking, fast roof line. So I made out this package, and we used the [German Ford] Taunus front drive. We laid this thing out over the package. First, the air cleaner set up too far, so we got rid of that. We ran the roof line right over the throat of the carburetor -- the hood line. The car really turned out beautifully. I'll never forget one Friday we were in the studio, and Bob McGuire and Najjar were all around the front end of this damned car. McGuire just couldn't get satisfied. We changed that front end all day long. Finally, at the end of the day, McGuire said, "Put it back the way it was." So I looked at my chief modeler, Harry Strickler, and my senior designer, Ed Jacaquet, and they looked at me, and they knew what the hell was going to happen. I said, "We've got to come in here tomorrow and put this thing back." If you leave it, then McGuire or anybody would come in again, and they would change things. Inasmuch as he said, "Put it back the way it was," we had our assignment.
So we came in. All three of us modeled like crazy all day long Saturday. We put the front end back the way it was. We modeled the side of it and blocked in the back. McGuire came in Monday morning. He said, "Hey, that's it!" So we finished it up. Aventurra was the first model. I'll never forget, when we put the thing down on the chassis -- the fiberglass model -- the hood wouldn't shut. So here we were with the damned throat of the carburetor, and the hood was right up against it, and it wouldn't shut. So we just took and cut it off on an angle. It was right near the butterfly valve. When you'd drive the car and put in the gas, it'd go [sucking sound]. It was the damnedest thing you ever heard. But it ran. It was a nice design -- a nice little car. Of course, that front end design became the Mustang -- sort of.
Q: A slight variation?
A: Yes. I mean, that was sort of the theme of the Mustang. They credit that car with being the advanced model of the Mustang front end.
Then we did another one we called the Allegro. We did a special interior on that. It had a steering that went up and down. Engineering did a lot of work on that for us. That was shown at the New York World's Fair.
Q: Was it a driveable model?
A: Yes, it was driveable. Then I also did a station wagon called the Aurora . That had a lot of innovative lighting on it.
Q: What kind?
A: McGuire accused me of getting my inspiration of this cove lighting from some Dearborn bar. He said, "Thomas, what the hell bar did you get this out of?" It was a concave section with a spear running through, and Dick Noe, who was our head design analyst at the time, had a special material that this cove was painted that would accept electricity and light up, so it was real cove lighting. It was quite interesting. Then he had special horizontal beam lights on the front. John Breeden, who was our P.R. man at the time and was in charge f the promotion of these cars, said that that station wagon traveled more miles, was in more shows than any other show car that they had. And the interior was beautiful. I didn't work on the interior, but, God, it was gorgeous. They did a nice job on that. And Ray Smith had a design for a parallel latching action door. I don't know if you've seen these things work, but you open them, and they pop out, and then they come back, so they're very easy to get in and out of, especially in a tight place. So he had parallel action doors on the thing, and then he had a special uplifting tail door on the back. So he did a lot of work on that car.
We did a car called the Hummingbird, which was interesting. Engineering had taken a big V-8 Ford engine, and they'd taken the back half of the engine and the front half, and they'd taken these two and welded them together and made a two-cylinder engine, and it worked. They thought, eureka, we've got a two-cylinder engine! What they didn't realize was that this was an awful heavy thing. Because it was so heavy, it did work. So they wanted us to design a car with a two-cylinder engine, and they wanted it to only weigh 1200 pounds. So McGuire and the rest of us looked through all the magazines to try to find a car. We found a Citroen, and it was that weight. We had to have one. So we bought one from some dealer over on the East Side . I went over and picked the thing up, and it was the worst car I ever drove in my life. I had to speed shift it down the ramp to get it up to 35 to go on the expressway. Anyway, we got the car in there, and that was supposed to be the model for this car. We called it the Hummingbird. It turned out pretty good. It was all designed cheaply. The front grille, for instance, was nothing more than just slots with rolled section moldings to make it look like a front end. It had small taillamps and so on.
Then after the car was done, they liked it so well that Dick Noe designed all of the interior panels. He did a whole engineering job on this car, and it was a runable car. They finally gave up on the twocylinder thing, and it ended up four cylinder. I know I drove it around the Design Center once. It was a pretty nice little car.
Q: Why did you call it the Hummingbird?
A: I really don't know why we called it Hummingbird. I don't even know who named it, but it was a Hummingbird. Noe was a brilliant guy. The poor guy was our head design analyst in our advanced studio, and then he went to General Dynamics in Canada , then he came back. I don't what happened to him, but he finally committed suicide. You know, some people are so smart that they just can't stand it, and this poor guy, God, he went off his rocker.
Q: What year was the Hummingbird?
A: That was before I went to England . That was in '63/'64, somewhere around there. Duncan McCrea was named head of Ford of England in styling, and he asked for me to go over there. He had seen some of these models that I'd done, and he wanted me over there. So I went over there then as an exec stylist -- got a promotion -- and worked over there three years with him. We did a lot of nice stuff over there.
Q: Do you remember some of the models that you worked on?
A: Yes. We did replacements for the Cortina, and we did the Capri that came back here.
Q: One of the first ones?
A: Yes. That was an interesting car because a fellow by the name of Steve Sherer worked in the international studio, and he did this model called the GBX. It was done especially for Great Britain . It was a little two-seater, and it had that spear design coming off the front and going around the rear wheel. He designed that thing under Gil Spear at the time.
Q: Gil Spear was in Great Britain at that time?
A: No, he was in the international studio. And they sent that model over there. A fellow by the name of Stan Gillen was head of Ford of England at the time. He liked that model, and he pushed it. What they were after was to make a Mustang for Europe . Now, that was the idea, because the Mustang was a big success in the States. So they were going to make a European Mustang, and that was it.
So a fellow by the name of John Fallis actually took the two-seater and made it into a Mustang-type package that became a Capri . He's an English fellow. The English fought this thing. See, they wanted a replacement for their Corsair model. It was a four-door model, and they wanted a replacement for that car. They didn't want a small four-passenger car -- a sports car. They didn't want it. Ford of England management didn't want it. So they fought the design right from the very beginning.
Q: There were plenty of sports cars?
A: Yes, but Ford didn't have any, and they didn't want one. They had a four door that they wanted to replace. Their car was getting old, and they wanted to replace that model -- the Corsair.
That was a V-4 engine. It was a nice car. We worked on the thing, and they finished up the model. They insisted going in another direction. They had a design competition. They did one model the English liked. It was like a Jaguar. I did a model that was based on more advanced stuff that we had been doing in the States. And then, of course, we finished up the Capri model. The other model was in between all of them. There were actually four other designs that were made, so they had five designs for this competition.
When they got all done, Stan Gillen got his way, and they said, "The Capri, that's it." But they couldn't build the front end. The front end had a split bumper, and it was too expensive to build. So they took the front end that I did on my model, and they put it on the Capri . That was my front end on the Capri .
Q: Great. And it stayed all those years?
Q: Good car?
A: Yes. It was very successful. And I worked on all kinds of advanced stuff over there. I've got pictures of all of it in my book.
Q: Do you remember any of the names?
A: They were TC cars. They were a replacement for the Cortina. I remember I was working on a model over there, and Bunkie Knudsen, who was then president of Ford Motor Company....
Q: Had come on in the late 'Sixties?
A: Yes. And he came over, and he took a picture of one of the models that I was working on -- a clay model. And he drew on there what he thought it should be. He felt the back end was too high. I've got that in my book -- his scratch marks showing what he wanted. It was interesting.
And one of the models they brought back to the States that I did was in fiberglass.
Q: Which one was that?
A: It was a Cortina replacement model. They liked it. It's unusual, because most of the models came back from the States, now they were shipping stuff that we did in England back.
Q: The international studio would send you models, and you were supposed to either accept them or modify them?
Q: What finally did replace the Corsair?
A: The Capri .
Q: They didn't get their four door?
A: They didn't get their four door at all, so they lost that. They ended up, of course, with their Zephyr Zodiac series, and then the step down from that then went to the Cortina.
Q: Which was very successful?
A: Oh, yes. It was a nice car, too. I drove one over there. God, it was a beautiful car.
Q: And the third one was?
A: At that time, then, they went into Ford of Europe. They combined the German operation and the English operation, and it became Ford of Europe. Damon Woods came over. He was head of the whole thing. Duncan McCrea moved over to Germany then, and Gil Spear was sent to England . So I ended up working for Gil Spear in England .
Q: You enjoyed your stay there?
A: We had a ball. I even formed a band over there, and we used to rehearse in my office. It was great. A lot of fun.
Q: But it all had to come to an end, eventually?
A: Yes. Then they shipped me back, and I came back, and they didn't know what the hell to do with me. So they finally put me in working for Al Mueller in advanced Lincoln-Mercury for awhile.
Q: This was about the late 'Sixties?
A: Yes. I came back in '68.
Q: Is Knudsen still here?
A: Yes. Oh, Christ, Knudsen was giving Bordinat fits because he was in the studio every morning at 7 o'clock uncovering drawing boards and looking at sketches.
Q: Making changes?
A: Oh, Jesus, he was something. He was very interested in styling, and he was very good, but, God, he was driving Bordinat crazy.
Q: He also brought along a rather controversial chief styling assistant -- Larry Shinoda?
A: Yes, and Bill Wheeler from G.M.
Q: Al Mueller was running...?
A: An advanced design studio -- Lincoln-Mercury.
Q: Under Bordinat?
A: Yes, right. And then they reorganized. I went to work for DeLaRossa.
Q: Who was doing...?
A: He was in advanced styling at that time.
Q: Mueller left, and DeLaRossa took over the advanced?
A: Mueller went to interiors or someplace. They moved people around a lot. At that time, they were working on the Pinto, and they had done a lot of models. They had one model they called the Bobcat that was favored as the Pinto design, but Knudsen wasn't satisfied with it. So they had everybody doing stuff. Finally, Knudsen had what we called a wallpaper job. We had sketches all over the studios on every blackboard, and Knudsen walked around, and he picked out every sketch that he liked.
This one sketch that this fellow by the name of Jim Sherborne had done was handed to DeLaRossa, and DeLaRossa said, "Here," to me. He said, "Get a buck and do this." So here I had this front three-quarter
sketch of car, and I was to do a full-size model.
So we went to work and got a buck and started on the thing. The funny thing was that it was a drawing of a car like the Matador with the headlamps sort of inboard.
Q: The Matador was the...?
A: Yes. Where you had the headlamps sort of pushed in, and then you had sort of a cut line going out around the fenders, and that was the design of the car. So we did that front end, and then we finished off our own side view and back end of this thing. I had a real good head design manager working for me -- Bill Kramer -- at the time. They had
another show, and Knudsen liked the whole car, but he didn't like the front end, and that was the sketch, see? So they said, "Put the favored Bobcat type front end on this car," because they liked the side view we did and the back end. So I said to DeLaRossa, "You know, that front end looks awfully trucky to me. Do you mind if I change it a little bit?" He said, "No." And DeLaRossa is this way. A lot of times he's very flippant. He said, "Yeah, go ahead." He didn't care. Go ahead and change it.
So I had Bill Kramer take the headlamps of the design and move them out an inch on each side and lower them an inch. They had these hex bezels around it that looked too big -- trucky -- the whole front end looked trucky for a small car. So I had him reduce those. Geez, the front end turned out real nice. It wasn't very exciting, but it still turned out proportionately right for the rest of the car. They bought it. That was it. That was the Pinto.
I'll never forget, we were working one night on that damned car, and Bordinat came in with Bill Ford into the studio. Bill saw me, and he came over and shook my hand and asked me how I was getting along. We talked a little bit, and then they went on. All the clay modelers looked at me, and, "Who the hell is this guy? He knows Bill Ford so well." But I swear they worked harder after that. They did a better job.
We finished it up, and that became the Pinto. And then after that was done, they moved me into interiors, and I hated working on interiors. A lot of meeting with product planning. Details after details. At that time, we were working on those goddamned seat belts for the first time, and engineering didn't know what the hell they wanted in the seat belts, and we didn't know what we wanted, and it was a mess. It was terrible.
But I finally got out of there and went into truck, and truck was very interesting. A nice place. I worked for Jim Sipple. He was head of truck. It was nice. I really enjoyed that.
Q: This is in the 'Seventies?
A: Yes. It was '72.
Q: The Pinto is a success by now?
A: Oh, Christ, the Pinto lasted for ten years! It was just like the Model T!
Anyway, I went into Truck, and Phil Caldwell was head of Truck at the time. He's a nice guy. He'd come in the studio and talk. Just a nice guy. He's smart as a whip.
The first thing we did in there was the little Courier that they brought out. Truck had already done a design on this one particular design. It was a smaller truck that the truck studio had done about a year ago. They liked that design, so we got the Courier package, and we pulled it down even more and reworked this thing. It turned out real well. Well, that was it! That was the new Courier that came out. It was a success. It looked good.
I went out to California with them, and they surveyed the thing. I thought, Jesus, we're going to have a new Courier. Hell, the whole thing was shelved. They didn't have money to fool with it. So it wasn't until I was retired and driving down the highway in San Diego that I saw this goddamned car, and I thought, "Jesus, that's the car we worked on four or five years ago." That became the Courier.
Then we did the big 9000 Series truck -- the cab-over-engine. I'll never forget working with those goddamned truck engineers. They hardly ever changed any sheet metal, and what sheet metal they want, they want outside rivets and just bent in one direction. That's their idea of sheet metal. So we had a hell of a time with them. Finally, we got them to agree that they were going to put in some shape to the thing. And they did. They made some experiments with aerodynamics, and they did come up with a plan view of the front that they wanted, and it was a nice, curved front. We were tickled pink with it. So we did that for aerodynamic reasons and then rounded off the corners. Then they wanted that cab that floats, so we had to put a big gap in between, and that's when we did that grille that had the Ford lettering in the middle and the top and bottom. It worked out real nice. That thing was over ten feet high, and we had scaffolding up for the modelers to work on the thing.
They didn't want any tumblehome -- the side glass tip-in. That's the tip of the glass inward towards the top. All their trucks were straight up and down. We had trouble getting Ford engineering to use any tumblehome at all. So we pulled an old trick that we used in styling. We took one side of the model, and we tipped it in too much, and the other side we tipped in just what we wanted. So then we showed it to the truck management. They came in, and they looked at it, "Oh, God, we can't have that." They had looked at the extreme tumblehome, which we didn't even want, and they bought the other side, so we were all set.
That was an interesting experience doing that big truck. I'll tell you, I get a thrill every time I see one coming down the road. Because when you talk about designing cars, you don't do it all yourself. You've got a team of people that are working on it. Of course, Jim Sipple was the chief. If anybody should get credit for that thing, it was him, because he was my boss, and I worked for him. He worked for Bordinat. I was thinking of Don Kopka, but Don went in afterwards and took over Truck.
When you talk about designing these things, it's a whole team effort. Anybody that says, "I designed this," is full of baloney because so many people are involved. A lot of times, your clay modelers will design things for you. You'll tell them to do something, and they'll do it even better. So if you have a good modeler, you're saved.
I was so lucky to get into the styling business, because it's been a good life all these years, and now I've got this terrific retirement out in San Diego teaching music. I teach piano now. I had a band here in Detroit called the Running Boards, and we played all the Polish weddings around town. We even had a setup in the basement of the design studio -- in the storage room. We rehearsed every day at noon . We had a good band -- really a good band.
Last night -- my former band -- brought all their instruments and played last night. I sat in. They still play together. There was an organist that took over for me. They've gone on all these years. My brother-in-law has held the band together, and he plays the bass, and they've got a new organist who is much better than I ever was. And they have a terrific sax man and guitarist and drummer. I had more fun with music than anything else.
Q: What did you play?
A: The organ with the band. Actually, my instrument is a piano. In San Diego I've got over fifty piano students that I teach every week.
Q: Back to your last few years in design, did you feel that you were being fulfilled in what you were doing?
A: Oh, yes. In the truck studio, yes, definitely. The only place that I was sort of frustrated in was the tractor [studio]. See, I was in charge of Tractor, too. I'm not a farm boy, and I wasn't too sure what the hell I was doing in tractors. I had a wonderful guy by the name of Rulo Conrad that was a farm boy, and he was my manager of Tractor, and he sort of looked after me. I really had a wonderful experience.
In '74, then things were tough. I was chairman of a retirement party for Duncan McCrea, Roy Brown and Frank Francis. My band was going to play. We'd rented Roma Hall for the thing. That Monday morning they called me into personnel, and they said, "Would you be interested to know what you'd get in retirement?" I said, "Sure." You're always interested. I said, "Sure." So they made me an offer I couldn't refuse. So here I was selling tickets and playing for my own retirement party. So I went out with those four guys, and we had a ball. I've got pictures in the book of Bordinat and myself at the retirement party and the band playing for us for the retirement party. So that was it.
Q: So it was a happy ending to a long and productive career?
A: It was wonderful, really.
Q: You retired a bit early?
A: I was 58 when I retired. I've been out there 10 years now.
Q: Do you still keep your hand in design?
A: I designed a yogurt shop.
Q: Is it still going?
A: No, it went belly-up.
Q: But it was a nice design?
A: I did a nice New Orleans -- Frenchy -- type scene with the red and white canvas awnings -- red and white candy stripe umbrella tables with chairs -- those old ice cream type chairs. It was a nice design, but they weren't business people, and they didn't really know how to run a place like that.
Q: It would be very popular today. Yogurt has come back in popularity.
A: Yes. Then I designed furniture. I have a friend that was in the glass and mirror business, so I designed a lot of mirrored furniture and did mirrored sculpture work.
Q: Then I designed a home for my daughter and son-in-law, which they're going to build. I love architecture.
Q: You had an earlier interest in it?
A: That's right. If I hadn't of gotten into this [automotive design], I would have been an architect I'm sure.
Q: But you wouldn't have missed this experience for the world?
A: Oh, this was great; really great. And I had a lot of fun talking to Bordinat last night [at the Henry Ford Museum]. He was at the party with his new bride.
Q: Was he able to add something to your reminiscences? Something you'd forgotten perhaps?
A: No, not really.
Q: You've got pretty good recall?
A: Oh, yes. Writing this book is the best thing for recall, because I sit down every morning and print out a couple of pages. I can't write so anybody could understand, so I print. I love to write. I've never written anything in my life before, and it seems so natural. I'm not a writer, and my spelling and my grammar is atrocious. I'll never forget, my sister was out and looked at my first chapter, and she said, "Bob, you don't say things like this." She was an English teacher.
Q: I think we should note this. This is Bob Thomas' first book, Confessions of an Automotive Stylist. An Inside Look at What Goes On Behind the Locked Doors of Detroit 's Car Styling Studios. Published by yourself.
Q: And available through you in San Diego .
Q: This has been a marvelous interview. Thanks very much.
A: We're right on schedule. We've got 45 minutes to get downtown to get something to eat.