Did the 1949 Ford really begin life as a Studebaker design?
The 1949 Ford design story is one of the strangest in automotive design history. How it originated has always been as mysterious as the Roswell, New Mexico, flying saucer incident that happened about the same time. Anything about the ’49 Ford before it came into Ford styling is really good flying-saucer reading, and leaves a lot to the imagination.
The legend is that the ’49 Ford was designed on the kitchen table of a former Studebaker designer, with the help of his Studebaker design buddies. Ford’s top management was so overwhelmed that they bought the design over their own in-house effort, and the rest is history.
The most complete and accurate ’49 Ford design story to date appeared in Special Interest Autos #134, February 1994, and was written by yours truly with information supplied by a number of stylists who were close to the project. I will recount that story only briefly. The ’49 Ford’s styling has long been surrounded by controversy, confusion and much mystery. The controversy only increased with my SIA story in 1994. But a lot of new information has come out in the past 11 years.
Above: George Walker`s team of Ford stylists discusses a slab-sided styling proposal.
At the close of World War II, the Ford Motor Company was losing a fortune. Top management felt that the ’49 Ford, styled by their own E.T. “Bob” Gregorie, was too big and heavy to turn their fortunes around. So they made that design the 1949 Mercury. That was in October 1946. Then a crash program was organized to produce a revolutionary 1949 Ford to be introduced in June 1948, an incredibly short amount of time.
The engineering “package” was laid down by Harold T. Youngren, Ford’s corporate engineering vice president. Except for the wheelbase, dimensions were virtually identical to the 1947 Studebaker Champion. In fact, Ford engineering went out and bought one or more 1947 Studebaker Champions and dissected them. Meanwhile, Gregorie was instructed to come up with an entirely new 1949 Ford design in competition with George Walker’s outside industrial design firm. But after a few weeks, Walker was not coming up with very much. Then, at just the right moment in time, he was approached by Richard Caleal who had just been let go from Studebaker styling. Walker promised Caleal a $50,000-a-year job at Ford if he could come up with a winning design in just three weeks. Caleal then asked his Studebaker styling buddies if they could help him, and they agreed. A car was designed and produced in quarter-size clay form by moonlighters working on Caleal’s kitchen table in Mishawaka, Indiana, in three weeks.
Caleal presented the model, painted bright blue, to George Walker, who was impressed. But Walker also came up with his own quarter-size model done by Joe Oros and Elwood Engel. This was very similar to the Caleal model. Both models, in quarter-size plaster form, were presented to the Ford Operating Committee, and they chose the Caleal model. This model, along with Gregorie’s model, was then brought up to full size at Ford. The Caleal car won out hands-down over the Gregorie car, and became the 1949 Ford that saved the Ford Motor Company. It was also one of the most influential car designs of all time.
Above: An illustration of the new Ford`s debut at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York
But this oft-told story might be only half the story. It has long been rumored that the kitchen-table ’49 Ford had origins in an earlier Studebaker model or models. But such a model or models has eluded historians for decades. Before we begin the Twilight Zone addition to the ’49 Ford story, let’s clearly state what made the ’49 Ford design truly new and different.
The ’49 Ford design had pure, unbroken slab sides that completely eliminated traditional fenders. The fenders and body sides were one and the same, with the beltline coming nearly all the way up to the windows. The front fenders were nearly as high as the hood. The rear fenders came nearly all the way up to the top of the trunk. This later became known as the “slab-sided” body that you still see today. There was no fender slope forward or rearward. The body-side molding was one clean line of stainless steel running from just behind the front wheel cutout, directly over the rear wheel cutout, nearly to the rear. The grille is a beautiful spinner. Viewed head-on, it looks like an airplane propeller and wings. The trunk is an extreme bustle with a back that drops straight down. The windshield is split into two pieces of perfectly flat glass. The rear window is very wide and curved.
The design was done by Studebaker stylists Bob Bourke and Holden “Bob” Koto with Caleal supervising them. Koto probably did most of the work, with Bourke doing the front end, including the grille. The clay modelers were John Bird, Joe Thompson and John Lutz. Bourke insisted that the model have a spinner grille very similar to what appeared on the final design. Joe Oros is emphatic that when the quarter-size plaster model came into Ford styling, it had only a center sculpted bar, no spinner.
Now, here is where things really get muddy. Caleal has given himself full credit for the design. Bourke gives himself and Koto nearly all the credit, and Caleal no credit. John Bird gives Caleal only a little credit. Of all three designers and three clay modelers, only Caleal is still alive. What makes the story so difficult to sort out is that no photos of the quarter-size model seem to exist today. If Caleal took any photos, they have never been published, and if any photos ever existed in the Ford files, they were purged decades ago. Caleal claims he kept the plaster mold in his garage for years. Then he gave it to the Henry Ford Museum where it remains to this day.
In 1996, I personally met with Bob Bourke in Dearborn, Michigan. He was accompanied by two of his styling contemporaries, Tucker Madawick and Bob Andrews. We all went into the basement of the Henry Ford Museum where we inspected the mold. When we came out, Bourke shook his head, stating, “That is not the ’49 Ford mold.” I have Tucker Madawick who is still living as witness to that statement. Bourke and Andrews are now deceased.
Before I wrote my 1994 SIA story on the ’49 Ford, I spent a day with Joe Oros at his home in Santa Barbara, California. He and Elwood Engel, working under George Walker, completed the full-size model of the Caleal design in the Ford Engineering building. It was a two-door on one side and a four-door on the other, as was the quarter-size model. Joe Oros stated that the height of the greenhouse (roof) was raised for entry and headroom reasons. A few other adjustments were made. The deck compartment was modified to adjust to the stringent engineering requirement for accommodating a standard commercial milk can. The perfectly round wheel cutouts were squared off. This car, along with the Gregorie car, was shown to the Operating Committee headed by Henry Ford II, and included Ernie Breech, John Bugas, Lewis D. Crusoe, Mead Bricker, J.R. Davis and Harold T. Youngren. It was approved over the Gregorie car with two modifications.
At the suggestion of Henry Ford II, Elwood Engel changed the back by moving the vertical taillamps to horizontal. They were now sculpted out of the rear quarter sheet metal to trailing “wind splits.” The front end derived from Caleal’s quarter-size model was considered to be lacking in striking appearance. Joe Oros gave the car the spinner grille theme. Joe Oros also developed the instrument panel that echoed his spinner grille theme. Oros and Engel collaborated on all the details of the instrument panel.
With the final design approved, Walker did not have his contract renewed for a year. George Snyder from GM was made head of Ford styling, to share that title with Tom Hibbard who had been at Ford for some time. Gil Spear, also from GM, was made styling head of the ’49 Ford project. John Oswald, another GM man, was made head of body engineering. A bevy of Ford stylists did the detailing such as hubcaps, decklid handle, hood ornament, “Ford” in block letters over the spinner, the front bumpers and interior details. There were also many Ford clay modelers involved.
That’s the story up until now, and Joe Oros has presented many photos to substantiate the first full-sized model. Ford also took numerous press release photos of the styling development of this car, plus the Gregorie full-sized model. All of these photos survive to substantiate the story from the first full-size model to the production car.
But here is where the story moves into The Twilight Zone. I could never understand how Caleal and his crew could come up with such a revolutionary design and model it in just three weeks. I could never fully buy either Caleal’s or Bourke’s version of the kitchen-table episode. I believed that something had gone on beforehand at Studebaker. I had heard rumors of this for years, but had nothing to substantiate the rumors. Then, about two years ago, I heard that there was a collection of photos in the Los Angeles area of the 1949 Ford as a Studebaker. After many telephone calls, I was able to see these five photos. One is nearly a dead ringer for the 1949 Ford club coupe. All five of the photos are labeled “1946 Studebaker Champion Project.” Unfortunately, these photos are not being made available to the public at this time.
After a thorough inquiry to the Studebaker Museum Archives in South Bend, Indiana, and talking to several Studebaker historians, I was not able to come up with another copy of the one photo that looks as close to the 1949 Ford as the photo I saw in the Los Angeles area. I have uncovered what appear to be three of the other four photos, plus one or two more. These photos were furnished by Richard Quinn, Studebaker historian, and are printed here.
It appears that there were possibly five full-size plaster models. They were four-door sedans on one side and two-door coupes on the other. One of the four-door sedans is getting fairly close to the 1949 Ford in that it has completely slab sides, but with flares over the wheel wells. The greenhouse is quite similar to the ’49 Ford’s. A third photo is a coupe, which appears to be the opposite side of one of the four-door sedans. One of the two four-door sedan photos shows a somewhat different coupe in the background. A close-up of that coupe shows a car with slab sides and flares over the wheel wells. There are strong elements of the 1949 Ford here, but you could not say it is the ’49 Ford. Unfortunately, I have no photo of the other side of this car, which could very well be the ’49 Ford club coupe. These photos are captioned “Champion 1946 model. Short wheelbase, light weight. Built sixth month, 46th year. Plaster mockup.”
There was also a small compact model on an approximately 100-inch wheelbase. It is not clear whether or not the full-size plaster models shown here were various versions of this model. The photos are only captioned “1946 Studebaker Champion. Short wheelbase, light weight, etc.” However, all of the cars in the photos have a compact look, and the car in the background, next to a full-sized Studebaker, appears somewhat smaller. Bob Koto was involved in a compact project, with at least one model built in early 1945 for possible 1948 introduction. That would have been more than a year earlier than the models shown here. The most likely contender as the compact Studebaker was a very modern fastback, nothing like the cars in these photos.
Another photo from Richard Quinn shows all of the smaller table models, with no date. The model on the top at the right is pretty close to the one that actually became the 1947 Studebaker Champion. The second model from the bottom right, the black sedan, is so interesting that we are printing a close-up of that model. Here you can clearly see the 1949 Ford, except for the front grille area. But you must remember that the ’49 Ford spinner grille was done at Ford styling, not on the model that Caleal presented, although Bob Bourke said it was done by him on Caleal’s kitchen table, and it looked exactly like what ended up on the ’49 Ford except for the parking/directional lamps outside of the grille fame. (Something else I am at a loss to explain.) This is the only other photo I have been able to find that shows the 1949 Ford as a Studebaker.
To further describe the photo closest to the 1949 Ford, the photo we are unable to print, it looks to be a club coupe taken from a three-quarter front angle. It has the straight-through fender line so characteristic of the ’49 Ford. It has the ’49 Ford’s straight side stainless-steel line going from the back of the front wheel well and over the rear wheel well. The wheel well cutouts are squared off and have flares over them. The grille is one piece with a bullet in the middle, and the two wings coming out. There is a frame around all of this. Not exactly the Oros spinner, but a spinner with wings, nonetheless. The front bumper is not at all ’49 Ford, and the hubcaps are Studebaker. I have been told this photo may have been altered/retouched/computer-enhanced to make it look like the ’49 Ford. Perhaps, but it does not appear so to me.
From the story behind these photos, reading forties Studebaker design articles in old issues of Special Interest Autos and talking to more old-time stylists, I was able to piece together a probable other half of the story of how the 1949 Ford design may have originated.
All of the smaller models were definitely done by Raymond Loewy’s styling staff working at Studebaker in South Bend, Indiana. The stylists involved were Bob Bourke, Holden Koto, and Gordon Buehrig who was the boss. Others involved may have been John Cuccio, Frank Alroth, Jake Aldrich, John Reinhart, Vince Gardner and Dick Caleal, who were also on Loewy’s team at the time. The purest 1949 Ford as a Studebaker was probably designed primarily by Holden Koto and Bob Bourke. Virgil Exner was not quite a part of this team. He worked over Bourke and Koto, but was on an equal footing with Buehrig under Raymond Loewy. Exner has stated in SIA #19, November-December 1973, “We built a full-sized wooden mockup in the Studebaker die-model shop. This was a flush-sided job, and that’s what convinced me that the first post-war car shouldn’t be completely flush-sided.” I take this to mean that anything along the lines of the ’49 Ford was never going to fly at Studebaker.
Virgil Exner, head of Studebaker styling, disliked Raymond Loewy. His dislike was shared by Studebaker’s engineering head, Roy Cole, who induced Exner to come up with an alternate design on his own “kitchen table” that was actually his bedroom design board and his basement table. That design was chosen over everything that had been done by the Loewy team. There were a lot of sneaky politics going on here.
As the approved 1947 Studebaker Champion design (and the similar Commander and Land Cruiser designs) moved towards production, Loewy was forced to cut back on his South Bend design staff. One of the people he had Bourke let go was Richard Caleal. Caleal was very well liked, and everybody was sorry to see him leave. They were all delighted to help him out when he got the assignment from George Walker. (Incidentally, they thought they were doing a car for Nash.) Nobody but Caleal had a clue that this was to be for Ford. But it would take nothing short of a miracle to produce something acceptable in three weeks. So they may have gone back to a design that was abandoned at Studebaker, the slab-sided coupe. Once you have done a model, it is not too difficult to do it the second time around. Instead of a coupe, they made it a two-door on one side and a four-door on the other.
Apparently, the only thing they really changed was eliminating the flares around the wheel wells. Even the grille must have remained pretty close to the Studebaker design. So since Bourke told me, in 1996, that the car on the kitchen table was something new, I have been puzzled. But I cannot explain why Bourke said that the mold in the Henry Ford Museum was not the real 1949 Ford mold.
There has also been a rumor for years that the 1947 Studebaker design closest to the 1949 Ford was the one that Loewy and his designers had picked to be the 1947 Studebaker, and it lost out to the Virgil Exner design. A further rumor is that the Studebaker designers were so mad they gave this very design to Caleal and redid it on Caleal’s kitchen table. So the 1949 Ford was designed more out of spite than anything else. I have found this story to be nothing more than a rumor. I have never been able to confirm any of this.
Of course, none of them could take credit. If Loewy had found out, he would have fired all of them. They were happy to give Caleal all the credit, which Caleal was happy to take. And he must be given credit for getting the assignment from Walker in the first place, and delivering the model that actually became the ’49 Ford. Walker did give him a job, but not for $50,000 a year.
The full story has been very well covered up for so many years. And there must have been a massive cover-up at the very highest levels at Ford because the full story would have been a major embarrassment to the company. I should also remind readers that all or most of the Studebaker stylists involved in the 1949 Ford design, except Caleal, are no longer with us. And what we have left is only a thread of evidence, sprinkled with a lot of stories over the past 58 years, that the 1949 Ford design originated prior to Caleal’s kitchen table. There must have been a lot of photos that did not survive. For example, Studebaker engineering threw out hundreds, perhaps thousands of photos, decades ago.
But, in my opinion, the 1949 Ford originated in the smaller (table) model shown here, in elements of all the full-size plaster models shown here, and in the club coupe, with only one photo located so far, and we have not been given that photo to print with this article. It is totally possible that Studebaker’s abandoned design became the car that saved the Ford Motor Company and ushered in a whole new era in automotive design.
Remember, except for the wheelbase, the 1947 Studebaker and 1949 Ford had the same engineering specifications. In fact, both cars have a vaguely similar look.
The chosen 1947 Studebaker design became one of the most advanced automobiles of its day, but that design had no influence beyond the early Fifties. The 1949 Ford design reshaped the future for decades to come. Ford had a slogan at the time, “There’s a Ford in your Future.” In my opinion, the 1949 Ford truly was the future.
This article originally appeared in the MAY 1, 2005 issue of Hemmings Classic Car.