It’s said that you can’t have a rational debate with a crazy person. Maybe this axiom didn’t exactly apply when it came to Henry Ford, but it’s probably way too simplistic to insist that by the time E.T. Gregorie made his acquaintance, Ford the Founder was simply up in years and, therefore, a bit set in his ways.
In those years, Ford could have taught the most egomaniacal, plumed-hat dictator a thing or two about how to be a tyrant, and people like that have a nasty habit of sending the messenger to the gallows–or worse–if they don’t like what the messenger has to say. As we’ll see, “Bob” Gregorie was lucky enough to have a buffer, a protective go-between, but Gregorie still goes down as the guy who had to prove to Henry Ford that his cars were dirt-dull and convince him there was a better way. The 1949 Ford has long been hallowed as the car that saved the company, but without Gregorie’s creativity and, more importantly, his nerve, there may not have been a company to save.
Unlike many of his peers, Eugene Turenne Gregorie was a scion of considerable wealth. Born in 1908, he was raised in Cedarhurst, on Long Island. His father was a very successful investor and his mother an acclaimed painter. He attended exclusive private schools in Virginia, and summered with his family on the docks of the Long Island Sound and the Chesapeake Bay, intently eyeing all manner of yachts and ketches. He began to sketch what he saw and gradually added fillips of his own.
By 1926 he was a staff designer at Elco, the boat builder in Bayonne, New Jersey. He then moved to Cox & Stevens, marine architects based in New York City. Gregorie, like his father, was also fascinated with cars, and in 1928, he visited Brewster & Company on a whim, with a few sketches in hand. They grabbed him. Officially, he was a car designer, just in time for Brewster’s fortunes to fall hard with the rest of the world economy.
Intelligently, Gregorie reasoned that when cars were designed, the big manufacturers would be doing most of the work. Making another dynamite first impression, he landed a slot in Harley Earl’s studio at General Motors, but the Depression shortly claimed his position. His contacts and reputation, while rapidly built, paid off sooner than he’d expected: He was offered a position as a body designer at Lincoln in early 1931. One of the first people he met at the Lincoln plant in Detroit was Edsel Ford. The only son of Henry Ford would become Gregorie’s inspiration, creative mentor and, for a while, his defender.
Ford, the company, was already losing momentum because of a product lineup that was aesthetically stale in too many ways. The Model T’s design speaks for itself. Ford had no in-house styling staff when the T’s run ended, so the Model A’s basic body crafting was farmed out to Murray, but Edsel had full oversight of that process. When the 1932 Ford was developed, Edsel contracted the design work to Briggs, again under his direct control.
Gregorie, meanwhile, had performed a minor miracle by penning a hurry-up export-market replacement for the Model A, which was too large to comply with British tax and licensing laws. The Model Y, as it was called, had a wonderfully shaped grille that came to a point at the bottom. Edsel loved it, and told Gregorie to update the Deuce. The 1933 Ford was really an upsized Model Y, but it was a styling smash. In Gregorie, Edsel Ford had his Harley Earl, the gifted company man around whom Ford styling would coalesce and find its identity.
Edsel Ford, very unlike his old man, had a real thing for European cars and their looks. He commissioned Gregorie to design cars for his own use with lines reminiscent of the European designs, but based on Ford production chassis, and called them “continentals.” Edsel also received the nod to redo the awkward appearance of a critical new car for Ford, the Lincoln-Zephyr, which in its original incantation from Briggs by way of John Tjaarda, looked tail-heavy. Gregorie rescued it with a clean, prow-first frontal treatment.
At age 27, Gregorie was rewarded by Edsel with a vice presidency of Ford, overseeing all design work. To build a staff, Gregorie created a design school for trade students inside Ford, which produced a generation of stylists and product planners for the company.
Coming off the success of the 1937 Ford, Gregorie was assigned to replace the Lincoln Model K, which had existed with little change since 1931.
Over a Lincoln-Zephyr blueprint, he hand-sketched a two-door cabriolet. Edsel Ford was thrilled. The production car became the first Lincoln Continental, a car that almost certainly would have never been built at Ford without Gregorie’s gift of taste and Edsel’s protective persuasiveness. Gregorie’s encores were the first Mercury, the 1940 Fords and their radically wider replacements the following year.