Saturday, January 17, 2009

T-Bird Design Story Part 2

The True Story Behind the Design of the Thunderbird
History of Ford Styling — 1952-1955 by John R. (Dick) Samsen - Part 2
From The Bird's Nest- New England's Vintage Thunderbirds Newsletter

One day. a meeting was called by Hershey. and we were informed that the program was dead! I heard that Engineering insisted on producing it in steel, which meant that a lot of units had to be sold to pay for the tooling, and Ford Division did not believe they could se!l enough. The clay model was taken to a basement storage area, and we designers were assigned to help finish the design of the 1955 Ford cars. Around this time, we were moved into a great new design facility.

Several months later, in January 1953, Frank Hershey called another meeting. Now we were told that the sports car program was revived. I recall that we were told that Henry Ford II learned about the new two-seat Corvette that GM was to introduce, and insisted that Ford should have a sports car too to pump up the corporate image- "even if it loses money."

The sports car clay model was brought back into Body Development Studio, and we were given new instructions. The Ford Division people wanted the little car to resemble the 1955 Ford production cars on which the design was nearing completion. The fenderline was to be straight from front to rear, and headlamps and tail lamps from the 1955 Ford would be used on the sports car to save money and give a family resemblance to the Ford line. Once again we three designers made full size renderings of our concepts and mounted them on plywood profiles. I was directed to finish my design on the front end of the clay model, and Bill Boyer was to design the rear end, incorporating the tail lamps and "finals" of the '55 Ford. Bill and I collaborated on the fenderline, placing a long wood spline on the clay and cutting a knife line denoting the new fenderline. I recall Bill guiding the modeling of the "wrap-around" windshield. Alan Kornmiller continued to supply sketches and renderings of design ideas to aid us, and produced more full-size profile renderings, which were used with the clay model in later shows for corporate executives. Boyer carried forward the round tail lamp shape through the doors on the model, and asked for my input as to ending the form in the front fender. I suggested angling it upward, and putting louvers next to it, at the same angle. I wanted the louvers to be stamped into the fender like many cars of the past, and these were kept on the model almost to the end of the program. Then Engineering said that they could not do "real" louvers, so they eventually were designed as die-cast ornaments in Ford Exterior studio. During this time, Damon Woods would oversee the project on a daily basis, and Hershey would check on it frequently and give his critiques and directions. As the clay progressed, we worked on ideas for the removable top. The top had to be modeled on a separate armature. Boyer, Kornmiller and I rendered full-size concepts for the top, and overlaid them on a full-size rendering of the design as it unfolded on the clay. I wanted the top to be a "slippery" aerodynamic shape.

One of my designs that was liked was mostly a Plexiglass bubble. The engineers shot that one down, saying that sounds would be amplified inside it. Probably true. Up to that time, I don't recall seeing George Walker or his designer Joe Oros in our studio. We did not get design input from them, unless it came through Hersey. Then one day I was given a sketch by Joe Oros, and told to develop a top design based on that sketch. It was a squarish, formal-looking design, and Boyer and I didn't like it for the sports car. We worked out the boxy top design and had it modeled on a separate armature. At that time, we had no knowledge of the 1955 Lincoln Continental Mark II, which was being designed then, and we were surprised later when we discovered how similar the sports car's top resembled that of the Continental Mark II.

The interior was modeled inside the exterior "buck", the seat armature was removable, so that modelers could work inside on the instrument panel and doors. Ford interior designers Alex Musichuk and Alden "Gib" Giberson and manager Art Querield were mainly responsible for the design of the interior.

During this phase of the program, I frequently saw corporate executives such as Henry Ford II, William Clay Ford, Lewis Crusoe, Robert McNamara, Earl MacPhearson, Henry Greebe, Lee Iacocca, Chase Morisey and others, checking out the sports car model and renderings.

I don't remember seeing George Walker in the studio, but assume he visited it after hours with styling execs. Engineering decided that the grille should not extend beneath the bumper, so I had to lower the bumper and complete the grille opening above it. The lower bumper made the front end vulnerable, so tall bumperettes were needed. I had noticed the bumperettes on the 1952 Mercury and figured that they could be cut off and mounted on the sports car's bumper. The Mercury bumperettes had "spinners" in them that could be removed and replaced with road lamps (I hoped). I made a trip to a Mercury dealer and bought several pairs of bumperettes. I had them trimmed to fit and placed them on the bumper. I figured that would save the company some money by not having to tool new bumperettes; as it turned out, new bumperettes were tooled for the car that looked just like the Mercury's. Bill Boyer put two of the bumperettes on the rear bumper and routed the exhaust tips through them. The egg-crate type grille texture I had wanted was deemed too expensive, so I picked a piece of decorative metal with square holes stamped out and had it trimmed to shape and chromed. It went into production. As the model neared completion, Woods and Hershey designed a "hump" over the rear wheel on the driver's side where the "hopped-up" fcnderline had been. This resembled the rear quarter of the Lincoln XL-500 concept car that had been designed the year before. However, the passenger side with the straight-through fenderline was finally approved.

Once the body design had been approved, the model went to the Ford Exterior studio where the chrome "hash marks" replaced the fender louvers, chrome detail was added to the "power-dome" on the hood, and ornaments and name-plates were designed. A number of names for the car had been proposed, but finally designer "Gib" Giberson's suggestion "Thunderbird" was accepted. Alan Kornmiller left for American Motors before the sports car was finished.

The Thunderbird was introduced at the Detroit Auto Show February 20, 1954. My parents brought my fiance' from Indiana, and I took photos of her standing beside the turquoise mock-up that most people took for the real car. The display was very impressive, with the top mechanically removed and replaced with the convertible top. Its headlamp bezels were from the standard '55 Ford cars, later to be replaced with more "rakish" '55 Fairlane bezels. I was a little disappointed with the car. I had wanted it to be more like the sports cars we had compared it with. It was no longer a sports car to me, especially since so many features I had wanted were changed or deleted, and I felt that the new Corvette was more of a sports car design. As time passed and I saw and drove the first prototypes, I began to appreciate the "T-Bird" more. I went to the Bob Ford Dealership in Dearborn and told the manager I wanted to order a two-passenger sports car. He had no knowledge of it, but I managed to put money down and get an order for the first one off the line. Later, when I was being recruited by Virgil Exner, I got a call that said my car would be built Saturday- but it would be No. 2, and the first one was going to William Clay Ford. I declined the purchase, thinking it would not be welcome at Chrysler Corp. One of many mistakes I have made!

Thunderbirds did well in races, and I began to see it as a unique kind of vehicle, with a personality all its own. It was not the result of one person's concept, but was created as a team effort. Without the support of Henry Ford II it would never have been produced. The executives of the Ford Division made decisions that affected the final design. The input and decisions of Ford styling management, especially Frank Hershey, had a lot to do with the final outcome. The classic Thunderbirds we see in car shows, museums, movies, and TV commercials and documentaries look the way they do because of a number of people who were involved in the program in many ways, and because of the everyday "hands-on" direction of the clay modeling by Bill Boyer and myself, and the talent of the men who sculpted the clay. The Thunderbird was a product of its time, the first time many middle-class Americans could own exciting, stylish cars as they created a new "American Dream".

At the close of the '55 Thunderbird program I was transferred to a new Special Projects studio managed by Gil Spear. I worked on the exterior design of experimental gull-wing car D-523 and the interior design of the D-524 later named "Beldone". In 1955, I left for Chrysler Corp. and a 21-year career designing for that company. Not long after the Thunderbird was finished, McNamara dismissed Frank Hershey.

Frank had not concealed his dislike of having George Walker's consultant team involved in the design studios, and Walker had now been made a vice president in charge of styling. Not a very good reward for the one who probably was most responsible for starting the Thunderbird project. Hershey was hired by Kaiser Aluminum Co. and was in charge of their design and public relations projects. Bill Boyer contributed most of the design of the Ford "Mystere" show car, and worked on the design of many later Thunderbirds. He later became design executive for Ford Division cars, and was chief designer for Ford of Australia for 3 years.

Ed. Note: In the mid-90's, we kept hearing about someone in the Southwest Florida area who worked on the Thunderbird but never knew his name or exactly where he lived. Mr. Samsen was at the CTCI convention in Wichita, and we met him and talked to him for a short time. He confirmed that he had indeed lived in Englewood before moving to South Carolina. Too bad we were not able to connect with him while he was here in Englewood.


Barbara Strobel Lardon said...

We just got a 55 tbird with the top stored behind the back seat. When we try to bring it out it scrapes the sides of the upholstery. Can you tell me what we are doing wrong? We tried all sort of things but must be doing something wrong.

Barbara Strobel Lardon said...

It would be really helpful if a member or your group would put a video on You Tube on how to fold and unfold the 1955 t-bird soft top.
I will watch for it on there.