Book Review: "Edsel Ford and E. T. Gregorie: The Remarkable Design Team and Their Classic Fords of the 1930s and 1940s"
Edsel Ford was not the shy and retiring type, easily pushed around by his inflexible and strong-willed father, as we have been led to believe. This is among the many revelations of this informative and very-readable book by Henry Dominguez. The book a labor of love, by a guy who adores the classic prewar Fords. Dominguez interviewed designer E.T. “Bob” Gregorie over a period of eight years, as well as others who worked for Ford during the 1930s and ‘40s. The result is a fascinating story of how Edsel Ford managed to pry the Model T Ford from his father’s vice-grip, and to transition the Ford Motor Company into the modern era. Henry Ford was not an easy man to work for, as this book and many others about the Ford dynasty demonstrate with stark clarity. His son learned how to pick his spots and therefore was able to make a number of key decisions that kept the company from failing, and to meet the challenge presented by General Motors. That the Ford Motor Company succeeded is a testament to Edsel’s vision and fortitude. Yes, he was cowed by his father, but not enough to keep him from pursuing his vision of engineering and design excellence.
The role played by E.T. Gregorie was crucial. Gregorie could not fight Edsel’s battles for him, but he was the rock Edsel needed, a friend in a world of management bullies, paranoia, and archaic thinking. As important, Gregorie shared Edsel’s artistic vision of cleaned-lined, low-slung automobiles. Gregorie loved good proportions and clean lines, whether it was a yacht, an airplane, or a car (his favorite designs while at Ford are the 1933 Ford and the 1949 Mercury). The cars considered to be his greatest design achievements are the 1936 and '38 Lincoln Zephyrs, and the 1939 Continental.
Gregorie’s role, which he freely admits, was to put Edsel’s (not his) ideas down on paper, and see them through to full-scale clay mock-ups, and then into finished body design ready for the tool-and-die makers. Gregorie did his share of original design, certainly—the famed and elegant 1939 Continental was all his—but he couldn’t have done it without his close working relationship with Edsel Ford.
Without Edsel’s influence, it seems likely the Ford Motor Company would have gone on making crude black-painted Model Ts into the 1930s, and been snuffed out by the Great Depression, as so many auto makers were. As company president, Edsel oversaw the purchase of the Lincoln Automobile Company, introduced color into the product line, spear-headed the transition from the Model T to the Model A, created Ford’s styling department (and put Gregorie in charge), encouraged development of the revolutionary Ford flat-head V8 engine, and moved body production in-house (up to 1937, car bodies were designed and built by suppliers; the exceptions are the classic 1932 Ford "Deuce," which Edsel designed, and the 1933/34 Ford which was the first car Gregorie designed). About the 1933/34 Ford, Gregorie says, "the general proportion was excellent . . . the axel was ahead of the grill, and that is the basis for a good design."
When Edsel was appointed president, the company produced but one car. Under his management, the product line expanded to five cars, and to graduated pricing: Ford, Ford De Lux, Mercury, Lincoln, and Continental (to match GM’s five-car line of Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac).
Sadly, Edsel Ford succumbed to the same ailment as a number of Ford executives, stomach ulcers, known as “Forditis." In Edsel’s case, it proved fatal. He died May 26, 1943, age 49. His death surprised everyone. Many knew Edsel was ill, but they did not know the seriousness of the condition. Says Gregorie: “The old man (Henry) was always an anchor around Edsel’s neck, as far as the product was concerned. The old man didn’t know a thing about design, but he was an obstruction in the way of design, and he had to be reckoned with. And that was an unfortunate situation. I think that is what ultimately killed Edsel—worrying about how to handle the old man.”
There is much, much more to this wonderful book: about the auto industry, car design, and how a design proceeds from simple sketches to finished cars, which is fascinating in itself. Mostly, the book is about the incredibly-successful working relationship between Edsel Ford and E.T. Gregorie and the classic Fords that resulted.