A History of Ford’s Product Development Center

by Todd Duhnke

Dean’s Garage is noted primarily for recognizing the work and accomplishments of the countless stylists who designed the cars we all remember and cherish. But there are other interesting elements to the styling story. One of them is the facilities that these talented people worked in and the history surrounding them. With that let’s look at Ford’s Design Department, later named Styling Center in May of ’55 when George Walker became Vice President, and lastly renamed about 2000 as the Product Development Center.

In May of 1946 Henry Ford II announced that Ford was going to develop and build an all-new engineering and design center on 800 acres with nine buildings on mostly undeveloped land west of Oakwood Blvd. in Dearborn. A new home primarily for what had become commonly known as the Design Department. The Design Department for Ford products had a bit of a rocky start as Henry Ford concentrated purely on engineering. It was not till his son, Edsel, pushed the issue with his father that the look of a Ford automobile became just as important as its technical features. Clearly, Harley Earl’s hiring by GM also played a significant role in this awakening. With that Edsel carved out space for Bob Gregorie and himself in the Engineering Building, otherwise known as the EEE, to start the process of designing beauty in the 1930’s Fords and Lincolns. In May of 1935 Edsel began to call it the Design Department though it still was under Engineering’s auspices. Before Edsel, Engineering either drew a body to build on their engineering prowess or had an independent body builder like Briggs do the design work. The EEE Building, on the east side of Oakwood Blvd., was directly behind The Henry Ford Museum and is still in use there today.

Henry Ford II, who understood the importance of design, wanted to bring all elements of product development into one facility. Before the dedication of the center in ’53 elements of this task were spread out among a variety of buildings and locations within the huge EEE. In addition, the EEE Building was Engineering’s domain, and they were not too keen on sharing space with this upstart Design Department.

So, starting in 1951 Ford began work to complete the task set out by HFII.

Photos: Ford Design

In this first photo we see the Design Department (nee PDC) under construction, likely taken in the summer of 1952. The long building in the center of the photo is where the individual design studios reside. Shops in the basement underneath. The curved building to the right is where the Mahogany Row offices were for the executives. Just below that with the white looking roof is the large reception area. Above the offices in the photo is the Styling Rotunda where clay models were displayed on turntables to gain approval of management. It was styled to look somewhat like the famous Ford Rotunda from 1934, which unfortunately burned down in 1962. And lastly, left of the Styling Rotunda is the outdoor patio and its 14-foot high serpentine brick wall where full scale clays could be taken outside in the sunlight for review.

Note also in this photo’s upper left-hand corner is the EEE Building and to its right The Henry Ford Museum. That’s Oakwood Blvd. bisecting the EEE from the Design Department construction site.

In this next image, taken the same day, we are looking southeast towards the Test Track and The River Rouge plant in the distance. In front of the offices a huge reflecting pool was installed. Kitty-corner to the Design Department across Oakwood are the hangers where the Ford Tri-Motor aircraft were built. In addition, along
Oakwood, you can make out The Dearborn Inn, the world’s first airport hotel, and the original control tower. Henry Ford built the airport for the City of Detroit, and it was later converted to a Ford test track. Its original runways are still clearly in view.

In May of 1953 President Eisenhower helped Henry Ford II dedicate the now completed facility. An important part of celebrating Ford’s Golden Jubilee 50th Anniversary. Two years later the name of the facility changed to the Styling Center.

Here we have two gentlemen looking out the north side of the newly completed Styling Rotunda towards the patio area at early production ’54 Fords. One of the very first all new products designed in the new facility was the ’55 Thunderbird.

Here some models are showing off 1956’s finest fashions between the Styling Center offices and the reflecting pool mentioned above with a ’56 Thunderbird

Top two photo were taken in 1954 of the finished facility.

Here designers are putting the finishing touches on the ’57 Ford.

Taken in 1956, here is the Mid-Century Modern reception area and entrances to the executive offices.

In the Ford Studio full sized clay models were built of the most promising designs. First we have a full-sized clay proposal for the ’58 Ford Country Sedan. Even more interesting in the upper left background is a production ’56 Fairlane Sunliner. Note the DiNoc and fiberglass “wood” sides on this Sunliner. Perhaps being thought of as a modern version of the ’46–’48 Ford Sportsman? My guess is that this was taken after the ’56s had been introduced and perhaps as a proposed limited-edition spring model.

Also in the Ford Studio is this clay 1958 Thunderbird. While the basic design is obviously cast in stone, the stylists are still playing with trim ideas as well as potential two-toned designs.

In the patio, full sized clays as well as pre-production cars and even some competitive makes are displayed in natural sunlight. A place where management can stand far back and take in all the proportions. A large enough area where a lineup of ideas in clay can be placed side by side.

This photo taken on September 1, 1955 shows that the design of the ’57 Ford is well along and only a year and a month away from introduction. Many trim details are yet to be worked out. There are countless design elements shown on this full-sized clay that did not make production. The upper windshield lines and front bumper especially.

Note in the background the drawings for a minivan. Ford had the design concept for a minivan all set to go in the 1950’s, but Finance killed the idea as too expensive. Truly a lost opportunity.

A row of full-size clay models with proposals for ’57–’58 tailllight, deck, and bumper. The Styling Rotunda is in the background.

Not all designs that made it as far as the patio were pretty. In fact, a few were rather “unfortunate” such as this proposal for 1959. Clearly this falls into the “What were they thinking” category!

Here’s a nice shot taken in 1960 of the Styling Center. By 1960 several buildings on the left side in this photo had been added. Another row of buildings was later added between the Styling Rotunda and Oakwood Blvd. Along the east side of the Styling Patio. In May of 1960 Gene Bordinat took over from the retiring George Walker. Bordinat didn’t think of himself as a “stylist,” so he again renamed the facility the Design Center according to Jim Farrell.

Note also the trees on the bare residential lot just north of the facilities. A large two- story home used to reside there. It turns out that GM had bought the home and been using the second story in ’53 to spy on the Styling Patio as it had a mostly clear view. A Ford employee noticed all the suspicious coming and goings at this house and notified security. Ford called GM on it, bought the house and promptly tore it down! It remains a green space today.

As time progressed, more Ford models were introduced in the now renamed Design Center which was expanded again several times. This photo was taken in 1983 looking towards the south.

The “Aero Bird” photographed in 1983 on the patio. Ford always measured each new version of the Thunderbird against the original. In a lot of advertising as well. Ford knew people still carried a soft spot in their hearts for the two- seat, original Thunderbird.

The center was renamed again around 2000 to the Product Development Center to encourage both designers and engineers to work more closely together.

As an interesting side note, in 2016 the PDC used over 200,000 lbs. of clay for modeling tomorrow’s Fords! Most all of which was recycled.

So, you might ask what makes this story so relevant today? Well, after designing every Ford, Lincoln and Mercury car and truck since the ‘55s, Ford began tearing down the PDC in 2020 and replacing it with a new facility mostly on the same site. Every Thunderbird, Mustang, F-100, Galaxie, Fairlane and others we so cherish today ALL came through these doors over the last 70 years. So, it’s a bit bittersweet to see this chapter of FoMoCo history replaced.

One may ask why, and why now? Well, every building that’s 50-70 years old is going to have issues. Connectivity issues. Difficult to maintain. And literally outgrown. In addition, according to Ford, it was getting difficult to get the best grads to come and work in an old and dated complex compared to new and architecturally stunning design centers built in Southern California in recent times by the Asian car companies. Add to the equation the pay’s the same, Michigan winters and it’s hard to remain competitive in attracting the best talent. And to make a difference today, you need brilliant designers.

So, bit by bit, the PDC is being torn down. Several buildings are already gone including the Styling Rotunda. The basis for a new and larger center will be up by 2025. A fully operating facility by 2030 and all interconnected by walkways, green space, and people movers.

I was in the PDC in the 1990’s scrounging for some of the photos you see today. It was a stunning facility. A Mid-Century Modern Architectural masterpiece. I just hope Ford re-purposes all the beautiful, priceless mahogany and artwork.

  1. Chris Sawyer

    It was the Ford Rotunda, not the Styling Rotunda, that was destroyed by fire just after 1:00 p.m. on November 9, 1962. The two buildings were not related, nor located near one another.

  2. Todd Duhnke

    Correct. It was just a typo error in the initial release of the story. The story has now been fixed.

  3. The color photo of the “Mid-Century Modern reception area” was Alex Tremulis’ waiting room. At the time, he was the head of the Advanced Styling Studio under George Walker. On the table is his 3/8 scale wind tunnel model of the proposed 200MPH 1956 Thunderbird “Mexico” (sister car to his famous radio-controlled La Tosca) specifically designed to compete in the Carrera Panamericana race. On the wall is a huge rendering of his 999 Dragster which also eventually made it to 3/8 scale. You could sit and wait all day in that waiting room and still be content!

  4. Just a side note.
    At GM Styling in 1963 I was in Oldsmobile Studio and we had just sent our 1965 Delta 88 out to the paint shop to be first sprayed with latex, then glossy white paint. The latex allowed the paint to be easily removed after presentations, restoring the clay surfaces to their originaln finish.

    I was new and was really surprised by the change in the design of shiny polished clay versus white paint. The chrome parts were painted a bright silver. All to be done in the paint shop. Our sculptors would remove the white paint and latex after the presentation. I think the union finally figured out that thy should do that!

    Shortly after that we tested a new process, silver foil, probably from Reynolds, to be applied with a spray glue over all the chrome parts. We heard that the process had been brought over by a new hire that had come from Ford Styling, Nello Toconelli. Ford was way ahead of us in clay model presentation.

    It worked very well and it appeared shortly the “Tape Drawing’ was invented in Oldmobile Studio by the Chief, Stan Wilen.I think it also emerged simultaneously in other studios.

    I would work with Nello a few years later. Harley Earl would have loved the chrome foil I am sure!

  5. Alan Jackson

    In February 1967 I was a 22 year old Styling Designer with Ford of England. I had already worked with Ron Bradshaw on the LeMan GT40’s that went on to beat Ferrari in 1966 . The recent famous movie barely mentions the extent of the changes made in England by the Lola collaboration with Ford and with Specialized Mouldings , the English Company used to develop new aero efficient GT 40’s Front ends in clay and then fiberglass for the 1,2,3 winning cars. I had been present at the high speed track at MIRA when the total Front ripped off from “A”pillars forward. In 1967 I joined Jack Telnack the USA Chief Designer and Brian Rossi in the All New Australia Ford Design team set up to create the first all new Falcon for Australia. Great times and ground breaking events during my 50 year career in Car Styling

  6. Ron Wilson

    I find it interesting that Ford has been promoting the historic preservation of the train station yet find nothing historic worth preserving at their Design Center. I think part or all of GM design has a historic designation.

  7. Chris Sawyer

    I agree. You would think that some part of the complex, like the Rotunda, could have been preserved.

  8. Jay S

    Unfortunately, corporations tend to spend their money on forward-looking causes. It’s kind of remarkable that GM has maintained the Heritage Center collection. Can’t stop marveling at the Firebird III.

  9. Todd Duhnke

    It does appear that Ford is attempting to preserve some elements of the PDC. Not long ago the beautiful iron entrance gates were carefully removed and taken apart but by bit indicating that hopefully they will either be saved or repurposed.
    The gates were at the intersection of Oakwood Blvd and Village Road.
    The gates said “Ford Engineering and Research Center – June 16, 1953.”
    It was the main entrance to the entire campus of which the PDC was only one element.

  10. Paul Meisel

    Worked in Building 3 in the early 80s and was a not infrequent visitor to the Design Center. Then, about 1999, was dispatched from my plant to Dale McKeehan’s office in the (no longer remember the name, but it was the old Design Center) to review the details of a line rebalance plan to free up people to transfer to the new program at Kentucky Truck.

  11. Jason Houston

    June 16, 1953, was no casual date for a gate to be built: it not only celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Ford Motor Company, it honored the reopening of the famous Ford Rotunda Visitor Center to the public.

    Did anyone notice the unique two-tone convertible top on the 1956 “Sunliner Squire”? Ford also offered a Skyliner top for the Sunliner in 1954, in the form of a collapsible clear plastic window over the front seat.

    Most of those proposed 1957 Fords look like George Barris nightmares. Thank heaven someone had the foresight to deep-six those (and that dreadful 1958 Thunderbird that looks like a bad dream out of “Car Craft”).

    Look carefully at the photo dated 9-1-55 of a proposed ’57 Ford with the ’57 Chevrolet wind splits on the hood. Ford was wise to purchase that 2-story house from where GM was spying on Ford’s brilliant design team’s ideas!

    PS: “till” is a cash register repository for coins. That word you want is “’til”, a contraction for “until”.

    Another fine installment of the most colorful chapter in the history of the automobile!

  12. Jason Houston

    That “what were they thinking?” 1959 Customline Asymmetry Chinese Relief Station Breezeway definitely belongs in the clay crusher. Apparently, not everyone believed the Design Center was supposed to be a drug-free working environment.

  13. Jason Houston

    The car getting the “finishing touches” with the modified fin (9th photo) is actually a ’58 Fairlane model with a ’55 deck lid.

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