by John Samsen
1952 Portfolio Sketch
I was lucky to get into car designing; I was at the right time and place. My early fascinations were with the planes and cars of the ‘thirties and ‘forties, and not knowing anything about Industrial Design, I took an Aero Engineering degree at Purdue, thinking I could “style” aircraft. At McDonnell, I quickly learned there was no place for aircraft design concepts. Later, I met Bob Bourke at the Loewy studios which were in the Studebaker jet engine factory building (Stude was going to produce GE jets, but the contract fell through). Bourke, Andrews, and other Loewy designers coached me in sketching and rendering techniques. As Loewy had no open requisitions, I took my amateurish portfolio to Detroit, and hit Frank Hershey at the right moment.
Being quite interested in sports cars, one day I asked Frank Hershey why Ford was not developing one. He firmly told me that Ford was in business to make money, and the market for sports cars was too small for that. He told me to “forget it.” I was surprised a couple months later when Frank and Damon called the three of us, Bill Boyer, Alan Kornmiller, and myself into a meeting. We were told that we would be designing a two-passenger sports car. There have been many stories about the Thunderbird design program, and most of them have been off the mark. Here is the way it was, from one of the horses’ mouths. It was early 1952. Hershey did have knowledge of the Corvette being designed at GM. He apparently was given a go-ahead to do a design study on a two-passenger car from corporate execs. Body Development was not busy at that time. There was no official design program for it, until early 1953. The design was finished and approved by then. Company records state that the project began in 1953. This is misleading. Our studio was off limits to all personnel except those involved in the project. I saw Henry Ford II and other top execs in the studio several times during the designing in 1952. We designers made full-size side view renderings of our chosen 3/8 scale concepts, and these were mounted on plywood cut to profile.
I was given the task of directing the modeling of the front end, hood, and fenderline of the clay; Bill Boyer was assigned to develop the rear end and windshield of the clay. I worked-out a Ferrari-style scoop and grille. Contrary to some stories, design consultant George Walker and his two designers, Joe Oros and Elwood Engle, were not involved in this project until later, when the body design was set, and we were developing the hardtop.
We had worked out the clay design to the satisfaction of most people concerned, when the project was suddenly cancelled. Engineering would not build these cars in fiberglass, like the Corvette, and to tool in steel would require many sales to cover the cost—more sales than was thought possible. After a few weeks, the clay was returned to our studio, and we were told the project was back on. The word I got was that Henry Ford II insisted on bringing this car out, even if it lost money. Now the sales people wanted it to resemble the standard 1955 Fords as much as possible, so a straight-through fenderline was mandated. Boyer and I held a sweep—a long strip of wood, to the model and knifed in a new fenderline.
Bill changed his rear end design to incorporate ‘55 Ford tail lamps, and brought the form in the rear quarter forward through the door. I suggested bending the line upward and putting a row of louvres next to it, to give it reason for being. I wanted “real” louvres, but the die-cast ornaments were substituted later.
The instrument and door panels were modeled inside the clay model, the modeler sitting on a stool. Interior designers Alex Musichuk and “Gib” Giberson created much of the interior, guided by Art Querfeld, manager of the Ford Interiors studio. Hershey picked some of Ford’s most talented modelers to work on the sports car; Walt Amrozi, Leonard Stobar, Clyde Trombley, Werner Framke, and Mike Nowicki. Initially, a unique panel was designed, but cost considerations decided that the standard 1955 Ford “astra-dial” panel would be used.
From the beginning of the project, a team of engineers worked with the stylists, as well as our two studio engineers Frank Pinkham, whom I had met at Purdue, and John Zimmrerly. First, a cut-down Ford chassis was prescribed, but when some engineers, and we stylists, made a fuss about the car being too nose-heavy, a new frame was designed with the engine moved back about ten inches. Engineering was developing a fuel-injection system at that time, and it was hoped it would be ready for production in time to be used on the little car. I designed a low, sloping hood. Then we were told that we could not count on the injection system, but a new manifold would be designed, allowing the low hood. When the prototype manifold failed to work properly, we then were faced with using the stock manifold, and that would make the carburetor higher than the hood. I thought it would be “neat” to cut a hole in the hood and have a fancy air cleaner stick through it. My sketches of this concept did not sell the idea to management, so the “shaker hood” would have to wait a decade for GM and Chrysler to introduce it on their muscle cars.
I designed a big “blister” on the hood to cover the air cleaner, and added an air scoop on its front surface. Engineering vetoed the grille extending below the bumper, so I lowered the bumper and revised the grille. I added ‘53 Mercury bumperettes to protect the grille. My egg-crate was thought to be too expensive, so I found a piece of perforated steel with square holes, had it chromed, and put in the front. I felt that the design had been “watered down” so much that it was no longer a “sports car.” Boyer and I were proposing concepts for the removable hardtop when Joe Oros, George Walker’s designer, gave a sketch to Frank Hershey. Frank had done his best to keep the Walker group away from the project, but apparently word from top management told him to design this kind of top. Bill and I designed the squarish hardtop similar to Oros’ sketch. We didn’t know until later that Walker had copied it from the Continental Mark II which was being designed at the same time. Before the project was finished, Alan Kornmiller moved to American Motors. Later he went to Chrysler, where he had positions in Styling Management. By early 1953, the little car was finished, as far as the body development.
Obviously, Styling management was aware of this project; it was not a “secret project of Frank Hershey’s, done without the knowledge of management” as some stories have said.
Then the clay went to the Ford Exterior studio, managed by Dave Ash, where the ornamentation and nameplates were designed. Ken Nelson was one of the designers who worked on that phase. During the project, we called the car “Sportsman” and “Sportliner.” Others suggested such names as “Saville,” “El Tigre,” “Denab,” “Coronado,” and “Lightning Rod.” The people involved could not agree to a name until Giberson suggested “Thunderbird.” Everyone liked that name except Henry II, but he finally accepted it.
I was disappointed in the car, until Hershey showed me a sheet-metal prototype. It was no sports car to me. The company decided to call it a “personal car,” which averted controversy. I decided to order one, and went to the Bob Ford dealership in Dearborn. I persuaded the sales manager to take my order for the first one off the line. A year later, I was called, and told I couldn’t have the first one, as it was going to William Clay Ford. I could have number two. By that time, I was planning to go to the Chrysler, having been offered a management position and much higher pay. I turned down the T-Bird!
Unlike some design executives, Frank Hershey was content to let the designers work out their designs without input from him, as long as he and other management people liked what was being created. He occasionally asked for changes when he or others saw fit. I do not recall seeing any sketching from Frank, and if he drew lines on the clay, it would have to be seldom. Damon Woods kept busy with the managing of the studio, and other than his input in meetings, seldom gave design direction on the project. The Ford clay modelers did not belong to a union, and we all got along well together. Boyer and I sometimes sculpted the clay ourselves in working out design problems.
A footnote about George Walker: Most people who had anything to do with George, including me, considered him highly talented in the art of persuasion and promotion. No one I know ever saw a car sketch done by Walker. He had his own design firm and employed Joe Oros and Elwood Engle, both good designers. I once saw Walker do a pen drawing of the profile of a girl’s face. He obviously had practiced it many times, and it was impressive. It reminded me of line drawings my grandfather used to create, having been how in grade school penmanship class. I think Walker was a good judge of car design, and probably helped sell the top execs at Ford the better designs. Frank Hershey highly resented the presence of Walker and his designers, and tried to keep them away from the Thunderbird and 1955 Fords projects. I’m sure that Walker had Hershey fired after George became VP of design in 1956.
Be sure to visit John’s website, Collectable Art.