Saturday, January 17, 2009

True Story Behind The Design of the Thunderbird

The True Story Behind the Design of the Thunderbird
History of Ford Styling—1952-1955 by John R. (Dick) Samsen - Part 1
From The Bird's Nest—New England's Vintage Thunder birds Newsletter

Since the debut of the two-seat Thunderbird in 1954, many articles, books and a History Channel program have been presented with various stories about the design program of the 1955 "T-Bird". Most writers of these accounts were not people with first-hand knowledge and experience in the Ford styling studios of the 1950's. They got what information they could from some of the people involved in that design program, but the stories were fragmentary and far from the complete history. A number of different designers were credited for the design of the first "Thunderbird". Finally, in 1999, Jim and Cheryl Farrell published a book "Ford Design Department Concept and Show Cars, 1932 to 1961" in which they presented the most complete and accurate account of the Thunderbird design program up to that time, after receiving first-hand information from hundreds of designers, clay modelers, engineers, draftspersons, and others who were working in the Ford design department and were in someway connected with that program. This monumental book, illustrated with a great many pictures, tells of the designers and design programs of a great many experimental, concept, show cars, and production cars, from Ford Motor Co. between 1932 and 1961.
The 1955 Thunderbird seems to be destined to be remembered far into the future as an icon of a time when the American people, victoriously released from the terrible traumas of the Great Depression and World War II, looked optimistically to a future of unlimited prosperity and happiness. This was reflected in the demand for radically new designs for their cars; "longer, lower, and wider", and the growing popularity of sports cars. As a designer intimately involved in the design of the Thunderbird, I am presenting a first-hand account from one designer's point of view to fill-in gaps and correct misinformation in the history, according to my memory of the program and memorabilia I have saved from that time.

I left Ford Motor in 1955, recruited by Virgil Exner and assigned to the Chrysler Corp. design department. A long-time policy at Ford Motor was to "forget" the designers who left the company, and to give credit for their contributions to designers who remained. Thus the public relations information given out regarding the design of the Thunderbird gave (deserved) credit to Frank Hershey and Bill Boyer, but did not mention other designers on that program, J. R. "Dick" Samsen, and Alan Kornmiller who went to American Motors in late 1952. Later publications and video programs made it sound as if Frank Hershey and Bill Boyer designed the whole car; however, in a recorded interview at the Edsel Ford Design Library of the Henry Ford Museum, Bill Boyer stated "At that time, there was myself in the studio. 1 was, more or less, the senior guy in the studio because 1 had all of three years in the business. I worked for Damon Woods, who was the section supervisor. Frank Hershey was Chief Stylist for Ford at that time. Gene Bordinat was Chief Stylist for Lincoln/Mercury, both forking for Charlie Waterhouse. A young gentleman by the name of Dick Samson was in the studio for a while at that time. The major portion of the car - the sketching that was done - was by Dick and Myself." The truth is that the design program was a team effort.

In mid-1952, when I joined the Ford styling Department, the Ford Motor Co. design studios were located in the old EEE building in Dearborn where the Ford Trimotor airplanes had been built. Charles Waterhouse, whose family had built custom car bodies during the 1930's, was the manager of the whole Ford design department, reporting the VP of engineering, Early MacPherson. The Ford division styling studios were directed by Frank Hershey, a talented designer recruited from the Pontiac studio at GM, and the Lincoln-Mercury studios were under the direction of Gene Bordinat.
George Walker was an independent designer retained by Henry Ford II as a consultant, and Walker's designers, Joe Oros and Elwood Engle, were assigned as consultants to Ford studios and Lincoln/Mercury respectively. An Advanced Styling studio directed by Gil Spear reported directly to Mr. Waterhouse and was responsible for creating new car concepts, show-cars, and the orientation of new designers under Alex Tremulis.

The three Ford division studios under the direction of Frank Hershey were the Ford Body Development studio, managed by Damon Woods, where the new Ford bodies were designed and where I began my design career; the Ford Exterior Studio, managed by Dave Ash, where the grilles, tail lamps, ornamentation, etc. were designed, and the Ford Interior Studio, managed by Art Querfeld. At the beginning of 1952, the Body Development studio was finishing the development of the 1955 Ford body. We designers were doing presentation renderings for the Ford Exterior studio on a facelift for the 1954 Ford cars.

I had joined the newly formed Ford motorsports Club, which was focused on sports cars. I ran my MG TD in time trials, hill climbs, and rallies, and I had been designing sports car concepts in my spare time. One day I asked Frank Hershey about Ford Motor offering a two-seat sports car to the public. He adamantly stated that the company would never get into that market, as it was too small to be profitable, and that the company needed its funds to keep its bread-and-butter cars competitive. I was surprised, not long after, when he called Woods, Boyer, Kommiller, and me into a meeting where he outlined a new project for us - to design a two-seat sports car.

This project began in strict secrecy; designers and other personnel in the rest of the design department were not aware of this program until it was almost finished. Some accounts state that the "T-Bird" program was started without authorization. I do not know about this, but I do not believe that Hershey would have done this on his own. I'm sure that an OK was given from above in the Styling and Engineering hierarchy. There was cooperation from Engineering from the beginning, as engineers were assigned to develop the chassis for the project. Body Development Studio had a light workload at that time, and the sports car project may have begun without official Corporate sanction. At any rate, I was happy to be assigned to this exciting project, and we three designers began sketching our ideas for the little car. The engineers gave us a chassis design, which was essentially a Ford chassis that was shortened to 102 inch whcelbase (like that of the Jaguar XK 120 which was the target design). Both stylist and engineers realized that the engine needed to be moved to the rear for proper weight distribution, and we won this concession. We were told that the engine would have fuel injection or a new, lower, intake manifold allowing a low hood.

After we had made a lot of sketches, Manager Woods and Chief Hershey picked out promising concepts and directed the designers to make 3/8 scale side view designs over the chassis and seating drawings, and then render these designs in airbrush. Eventually the concepts were narrowed down and each designer was directed to do a full-size airbrush rendering of his selected design on black construction paper. Full-size renderings were also made of a Jaguar XK 120 and a Nash/Healy sports car for comparison. Then the wood shop produced plywood profile cutouts on which the renderings were stapled. When the full-size profiles were supported on the show-room floor, they gave a good impression of what the concepts would look like in "real life". Frank Hershey bought himself an XK 120 to get a feel for this kind of car.

I was excited when my design was chosen to be modeled in clay. My concept had a "hop-up" in the fenderline beginning just aft of the doors and a front end with an egg-crate grille in a Ferrari-like opening. We had lost the fuel-injection system, so I covered the carburetor that was now too high for the hood, with a domed "air scoop". I had suggested letting the car stick up through the hole in the hood, hiding it under a fancy finned air-cleaner cover, but this idea was shot down. The "shaker hood" had to wait for future "muscle cars". The wood "buck" for the clay model was built to allow the "hop-up" fenderline. I directed most of the clay modeling, doing a little sculpturing on the front end myself, and Bill Boyer directed work on the rear end. We all worked as fast as we could, and finally in late summer, 1952, the model and renderings were shown to styling and Ford Division execs. I have a clear recollection of the decision to continue the development of the design, as I was elated! Continued next month...

1 comment:

Mel king said...

GREAT ARTICLE !!!! Enjoyed this very much, my all time favorite Ford product is the 56 Thunderbird. My wife of 50 years loves the 57 Bird. I presently own a restored 1965 Bird. I can't afford to get the "56" --- Well maybe someday.