THE ICONIC 1949 FORD BRINGS AWARD-WINNING DESIGN TO THE LINE-UP AFTER THE END OF WORLD WAR II.
Following World War II, Ford Motor Company transitioned itself from a military manufacturing hub back to the consumer vehicle builder it had been previously. The 1949 Ford was the first post-war vehicle the company produced featuring a completely new design, under Henry Ford II’s leadership, and created by famed industrial and automotive designer, George Walker.
The 1949 design was molded along functional lines, resulting in its low sweeping silhouette. The iconic front end was distinctive, the hood large but smaller than prior vehicle models. The vehicle came in two lines, the Ford and the Ford Custom. Body styles in both lines include the four-door sedan, two-door sedan, club coupe. Convertible and station wagon models were obtained only in the Custom line and the three-passenger Coupe only in the Ford line. There were eight new exterior colors offered including Bayview Blue Metallic and Arabian Green.
The vehicle sales reflected the popularity of the car. In 1949 Ford Motor Company sold over one million Fords, Mercurys, and Lincolns to the American people. Their new popularity was reflected in Ford doubling its profit, emerging from the years of meager gains and disheartening losses to success and strength.
A total of 1,118,762 1949 Fords were produced. Historians refer to the car as the vehicle that saved Ford Motor Company as it was the 1949 Ford that started the company on the track from losses in the immediate post-war period to profits in the 1950s. The vehicle was only produced for a few years but it was crucial to the return of the company from wartime manufacturing to vehicle production. The 1949 Ford was the vehicle that proved that Ford Motor Company would remain strong in the new, post-war world.
IN 1936, FORD’S WORLD’S FAIR EXPOSITION FOUND A PERMANENT HOME IN DEARBORN AND BECAME ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR TOURIST ATTRACTIONS IN THE UNITED STATES.
“FORD will participate in the 1934 World’s Fair at Chicago!” exclaimed the March edition of the Ford News. That same spring, Ford Motor Company opened the doors on a new pavilion. Sitting on 11 acres of land along the Lake Michigan shoreline, the rotunda exhibition welcomed nearly 50 million people during its two-year run.
By late 1934, it was announced that following the Fair, the Rotunda would be re-located to Dearborn to act as a visitor center and starting point for public tours of the Rouge. The original architect, Albert Kahn, was called upon to update the building design for its new purpose. One thousand tons of structural steel as well as many of the interior displays were shipped from Chicago and reassembled on a 13 ½ acre site across from the Ford Administration Building. The original plasterboard siding was removed and replaced with Indiana limestone. The newly situated Rotunda would also feature the original “Roads of the World” outdoor exhibition.
After more than a year of construction, the new Rotunda was opened on May 14, 1936. The Rotunda welcomed nearly 1,000,000 visitors per year until it was closed to the public in early 1942. Movie stars, celebrities, business leaders, heads of state, and millions of ordinary people came to learn about and to celebrate the Ford Motor Company.
During the transition to wartime efforts, the Rotunda served as office space and a school for the Army Air Corps, with barracks set up across Rotunda Drive. The theater was used as a movie hall to entertain the soldiers. Following World War II, the Rotunda was used for Dealer presentations, press events and other business meetings. In 1946, ten young army officers, soon to be known as The Whiz Kids, first met Henry Ford II over lunch at the Rotunda.
In 1953, the building underwent a major renovation in anticipation of re-opening to the public. New displays were installed, and facilities were improved to better handle large crowds. The central courtyard was covered over with a light-weight geodesic dome, designed by Buckminster Fuller. A crowd of people braved stormy weather to watch as the Rotunda, decorated like a huge birthday cake, re-opened on the evening of June 16, 1953 – as the culmination of the Company’s 50th Anniversary celebration.
Nearly 1½ million people visited the Rotunda to see the displays, ride the cars, and tour the Rouge in the first twelve months after re-opening. Visitors were able to see how a car was designed, how steel was made, and how an assembly plant worked. In 1958, the new Continental was introduced to the press under a 100 foot tall model of the Eiffel Tower. In 1959, just after Alaska became the 49th state, a display was built featuring mountains, fishermen and a stuffed grizzly bear. Flower shows and custom car shows were also held within the Rotunda’s walls. However, among the most memorable displays was the annual Christmas Fantasy. Opening just after Thanksgiving, there were typically 60,000 or more guests on the opening Sunday. Children could visit with Santa or look at his workshop, while the rest of the family viewed the latest car models.
On November 9, 1962, as the Rotunda was preparing for the Christmas Fantasy, a fire started on the roof of the building where workers were making repairs. The fire quickly burned through and dropped onto the Christmas decorations. Fire crews from Dearborn and the Rouge were unable to stop the flames, and the Rotunda was destroyed.
By the time that 1908 had rolled around, Henry Ford had already formed three automobile companies after completing his famous Quadricycle of 1896. The first two of those companies failed his vision of a low-cost car for the masses, and he either left them or was thrown out for non-performance.
Ford was a tinkerer who, at one point, had dallied with the speed demon. His most famous example is the 1902 999 speedster, a beast of a car that could only be mastered by the soon-famous Barney Oldfield. Ford eventually had to step away from the temptations of speed cars and focus on making a vehicle for the Everyman. He could not do both.
Ford Motor Company of 1903 was the third attempt at forming a company that would finally fulfill Henry Ford’s calling. When the photo below was taken in 1924, Ford Motor had produced almost all of its record 15,000,000 Model Ts, a vehicle that is considered by many to be the most important American car made during the 20th century.
Did Ford Ever Make a Speedster?
The easy answer is: “No.” Ford Motor Company never officially produced a sporty vehicle that they named a “speedster.”
Nevertheless, in at least two instances they came close. Very close…
The first occasion was the Ford Model K 6-40 Gentleman’s Roadster, a luxury sporting car that Henry Ford was more or less coerced into producing to appease his partner of the time, Alexander Malcomson. Malcomson wanted a luxury car to appeal to the upper class buyer, while Henry Ford’s real allegiance was with rural and working class folks; the low-cost Model N was Henry’s solution.
Consider the sales material for the Ford Model N:
“To a man who buys a $600 car the amount invested is as great as $6,000 is to the wealthier man who pays the higher figure for his equipage.
“And no matter what the price, the man who buys an automobile from a responsible house … has a right to expect a practical motor car and one which with ordinary usage will withstand the hardest work over rough American roads.
“All these things Henry Ford had in mind during the two years he was working out the designs and the plans for his cherished scheme – a car that would combine all that was best in an automobile and built in such numbers and at a price that would place it within the reach of … men to whom a motor car is a necessity rather than a luxury—and who can pay accordingly.”
The two cars couldn’t have been more different: The Model N was a four cylinder that produced 15 hp, had an 84-inch wheelbase, had a terminal speed of 45 mph, and cost $600. The Model N was a car designed for Henry Ford’s low-budget target market.
The Model N and its variants, the Model R and Model S, preceded and anticipated the Model T which would be introduced in late 1908. These models formed the pathway that led to the Model T, which was Henry’s true vision.
The Model K, in complete contrast, was a large six cylinder that produced 40 hp, rolled on a 120-inch wheelbase had a top speed of 70 mph, and cost $2800. This vehicle appealed to the luxury crowd that Malcomson hobnobbed with and that Henry Ford secretly despised.
The history of the car business is replete with tales of achievers who clawed their way up from nearly nothing, penniless, to transform themselves through sheer willpower into human dynamos, industrial titans, architects of wealth and (literally) the stuff of dime novels. Imagine, however, undertaking that variety of personal transformation when you not only had to scramble over the everyday obstacles of poverty and ignorance, but on top of everything else, you couldn’t even speak the language.
Such was the challenge faced by the man who became officially known as William S. Knudsen, or more colloquially, whether affectionately or not, as simply Big Bill. At his core, he was no different from the millions of immigrants who flooded into the United States, grasping at a little bit of its dream and promise, as the 19th century melted into the 20th. Knudsen, however, had a more expansive vision. He became a giant in the industry, to excavate a much-used phrase, by serving as the ayatollah of mass production at both General Motors and at the Ford Motor Company. He would also wear stars on his shoulders as a leader of the United States’ armed forces, presiding over his industry’s hugely critical contribution to defeating totalitarianism during World War II. How many other halting steps down a gangplank have ended with so much accomplishment?
Like so many newcomers to this country, Knudsen adopted a name other than the one his parents had originally given him. He was born in Denmark in early 1879 and baptized as Signius Wilhelm Poul Knudsen. He emigrated in 1900, at age 21, from his native Copenhagen and landed like untold millions of others at Ellis Island. When he reached the U.S. mainland, Knudsen managed to find employment at a New Jersey shipyard. When that job ended, Knudsen–who had paid pennies to neighborhood youngsters in New Jersey to give him some instruction in rudimentary English–found work with the great Erie Railroad, repairing steam boilers at its locomotive shops in Salamanca, in southwestern New York. By then, Knudsen’s younger brother was also stateside, and had whittled out a sideline of importing Copenhagen-made bicycles for his own employer, John R. Keim Mills of Buffalo, New York. It wasn’t very far from Salamanca, so Knudsen decided to visit. When he did, Keim offered him a job, too.
A big part of the reason why was that Keim made steam engines, and Knudsen’s experience with the Erie made him an attractive prospect. The firm was one of hundreds across the American industrial belt that were also turning into subcontractors for the young auto industry. Just as one example, Keim hammered out one order of brake drums for the Olds Motor Works. That soon led to an order from Henry Ford for sheetmetal subassemblies such as fenders and fuel tanks.
Clearly, Ford liked the product, because he one day showed up and bought the entire Keim operation outright. By this time, the Model T was in production, and Ford moved rapidly to erect a regional assembly plant in Buffalo. Knudsen, who had exhibited clear and proven capabilities in production planning, was tapped by Ford himself to set up the Buffalo plant and get it into the business of turning out new cars. It was 1911, and Knudsen was only in his 30s, but he immediately proved to Ford that he could rapidly make sense of what even then were highly complicated issues of production and time management. To this day, Knudsen is believed to be the first person to propose spray-painting cars to save both money and time, as well as to ensure consistent quality.
Ford responded to his prodigious ability by bringing Knudsen west to his Dearborn stronghold in 1913. The Model T had already exploded in popularity like nothing else in the history of the still-young American auto industry, and Ford tasked Knudsen with ensuring that demand could be sated by setting up 27 regional assembly plants, something that had been beyond conception in the business up until that juncture. Part of that assignment included building 112 Eagle boats for the Navy in 1917, during World War I. Washington would remember Knudsen’s efficiency at getting it done.
The History of Ford Motor Company is filled with larger-than-life figures, starting with the founder himself and continuing right up through Lee Iacocca. So many characters, as it happens, have cropped up in Dearborn history that some have been unfortunately overlooked to a great extent. John Bugas, better known as Jack, was one of them.
Bugas was one of 10 children born to Austro-Hungarian immigrant Andrej Bugos, who adopted the name Andrew Bugas and served six terms in the Wyoming State Legislature. In addition to politics, Andrew was a serial entrepreneur and a rancher. The family ranch, called Eagle’s Nest, would be John Bugas’ home from shortly after his birth in 1908 until he enrolled in the University of Wyoming.
In college, Bugas was an outstanding athlete. He studied law and supported himself by working jobs as diverse as forest ranger and trucker. Upon graduation, in 1934, he went to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
It was the height of the Public Enemies era, and the brave and capable Bugas was a valued asset to the Bureau. In 1938, he was appointed to head the Detroit office. There he would liaison with the auto industry, something the federal government was already viewing as a strategic asset as totalitarian regimes in Europe and the Far East made no secret of their territorial ambitions.
Even as he proved adept at fighting more mundane crimes like kidnapping and bank robbery, Bugas was particularly renowned for the work he did protecting Detroit’s defense plants from espionage. He broke up a Nazi spy ring centered on Canadian socialite “Countess” Grace Dineen, and could boast that no sabotage occurred in the Arsenal of Democracy while he was in charge.
Naturally, Bugas met many of the Motor City’s leading lights at this time. Henry Ford, apparently still fearing that his grandchildren might be kidnapped like the unfortunate Charles Lindbergh Jr., hired away Bugas to work under the notorious Harry Bennett, head of Ford’s euphemistically named Service Department— essentially, a private army answerable only to Henry.
The tough westerner was not overawed by the ex-boxer to whom Henry was so inexplicably devoted, but had been impressed with the cultured, sensitive Edsel, whom he had met before Edsel’s untimely death in 1943. A self-described “Edsel loyalist,” Bugas determined to carry out the younger Ford’s wishes rather than those of the thuggish Bennett.
The Ford Motor Company’s transformation under fire
The two titans hated each other.
It wasn’t a matter of upbringing or pedigree, either, because at first, Henry Ford had actually admired Franklin Delano Roosevelt, considering his sonorous reassurances to be good for a country mired in self-doubt over the fallout from a decade of reckless extravagance. What he proposed, however, government intervention in the economy and the social contract on an unprecedented scale, turned Ford into a fountainhead of venom for Roosevelt and his policies. The New Deal, in the form of its public works projects and business regulation, infuriated the Michigan farm boy turned mogul. At the same time, Ford’s intransigence and detestation of organized labor would rankle the New York patrician who occupied the White House.
The forces that whipsawed at the two American giants would eventually form the history of the Ford Motor Company in the early and middle 1940s, as it groaned to align itself with the massive World War II production torrent, and with its own future. Those years were a three-act play that would mold Ford into vibrancy, reversing its long skid toward oblivion and forging the business that would outlive its founder.
In 1938, Henry Ford turned 75, and he had accepted the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, bestowed on the orders of Adolf Hitler himself. Perhaps he was the only person to express surprise at the uproar that followed, particularly given his own status as a former pacifist dating back to his ill-starred Peace Ship foray that failed to prevent or halt the First World War. Ford the elder had already given his public blessing to the “America First” movement founded by another American icon who would accept a bauble from the Third Reich, Charles A. Lindbergh. Meanwhile, Germany was “annexing” territory across Europe, and would invade Poland outright in late 1939. Ford and Lindbergh then openly opposed U.S. aid to either Britain or France, both of which were clearly in Germany’s sights.
Nevertheless, Ford declared in 1940, when the Reich had goose-stepped through France and Benelux, and its bombs were shattering residential blocks in Britain, that his workers were prepared to “swing into production of a thousand airplanes of standard design a day,” as Robert Lacey recounted in Ford: The Men and the Machine. Lacey believed that Ford became miffed at his onetime executive William S. “Big Bill” Knudsen, who had departed for the presidency of General Motors and was now commissioned as an Army general, in charge of Washington’s war-production effort, whom he apparently believed had steered an unfair percentage of governmental booty toward GM. For the record, Ford would ultimately rank third in wartime production, behind GM and Curtiss-Wright, the aircraft giant. Following Ford’s boast, Knudsen sent a relatively simple pursuit plane for Dearborn to evaluate, and the old man agreed to send his only son, Edsel, the company’s president, increasingly sickened by the intrigues of Ford’s tough guy, Harry Bennett, to meet with Knudsen and discuss a possible production plan.
At that point, Winston Churchill had approached Roosevelt with an urgent request for 6,000 license-built Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines, which he believed could tip the Battle of Britain irrevocably against Germany. Knudsen agreed, and believed Ford, the birthplace of the modern American industrial-production miracle, was right for the job. Edsel Ford and the old man’s production maven, Charles E. Sorensen, were eager to jump on the Merlin job. Then Lord Beaverbrook, Knudsen’s British counterpart, publicly proclaimed that Ford’s help would be invaluable to the United Kingdom’s war effort. That was all Ford needed to hear. He undercut his son by refusing to allow the Merlin engines to be built, enraging Knudsen over rejection of his goodwill gesture toward Ford and holding Edsel up to public humiliation. Within three years, Edsel would be dead and Sorensen out the door, nudged not too gently by Bennett.
Pearl Harbor, however, galvanized Ford as a defense contractor. The company’s everlasting fame would manifest itself in the form of the Willow Run plant, a production leviathan that, when opened in early 1942, dwarfed even Ford’s fabled River Rouge works. It was, by far, the world’s biggest industrial building under one roof, sprawling across some 2.5 million square feet, its frontal face 3,200 feet across. The legendary industrial architect Albert Kahn, father of the Rouge and Highland Park, had outdone himself with an edifice for the ages (after the war, Kaiser-Frazer would begin automobile production at Willow Run). Its signature product would be one of the war’s most famous bombers, the four-engine B-24 Liberator, which was designed by Consolidated Aircraft Corp. in San Diego, but built by Ford, since the Liberator’s creators could never hope to build it in the numbers that Washington demanded. The Liberator would eventually be mentioned just after the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-29 Superfortress; its fame would be forged during lethal operations such as the massed bombing raids on the Nazi oil fields at Ploesti, Romania.
Willow Run managed to get into full production well past 1942, after overcoming some daunting logistical barriers, not the least of which was that the bulk of its workforce lived in Detroit–a good hour away. The plant was actually located in Washtenaw County, Michigan, then a collection of farming communities with no local workforce of their own. Edsel Ford and Sorenson were still at their posts, however defanged their roles may have been, and Henry Ford suffered a major, debilitating stroke in 1941. At the time Willow Run was moving toward reality, with the Liberator force hanging in the balance, the person with the most power at the Ford Motor Company was arguably the conspiratorial Harry Bennett.
No less a Ford sycophant than Lindbergh would memorably call Willow Run “a sort of Grand Canyon of a mechanized world.” Henry Ford had loudly proclaimed that Willow Run would turn bins of parts into a flying aircraft at the rate of one an hour, though by late 1942 had built a total of 56 Liberators, less than half Consolidated’s production of 169 the previous year. Editorial writers, however, blazed with praise for Ford’s plant. It didn’t help that a War Department spokesman fed unrealistic expectations by declaring in May 1942 that Willow Run had begun full bomber production when, in fact, the opposite was true. Neither did Sorenson’s subsequent claim that Willow Run constituted an open invitation for Hitler to commit suicide. Once news of Willow Run’s slower-than-bragged-about startup broke in earnest, most of the blame was shifted to Edsel Ford, who was by then dying of complications from ulcers. While Edsel went on to create a reliable Willow Run P.R. apparatus, the damage was done, and he died in May 1943 at age 49, by which time Sorensen was being actively hounded out of Dearborn. Thus ended Act One.
Sometimes fictional drama simply can’t compete with reality. There are reasons why movies based on actual events are so popular. Having said that, actual events also don’t always cooperate in taking place in the best possible way to make a great movie. This means that the story we get on the big screen is rarely perfectly accurate, some details or characters always go through changes, and that’s what some people are saying happened to a major character in Ford v Ferrari.
The new movie, which is currently being showered with awards attention, deals with the attempt by the Ford Motor Company’s attempt to build a car that can win the 24 hours at Le Mans road race, and while the underdog story is quite real, some have come out and said that the depiction of one character, Leo Beebe, played by Josh Lucas, is not.
While the ultimate goal of Ford v Ferrari might be the battle between the two auto companies, most of the actual film is about the battle between Caroll Shelby with his friend Ken Miles, and the auto company that hired them, but may not completely trust them to do the job. The major antagonist of the film is the character of Leo Beebe, an executive within the Ford Motor Company who was a real person, but not the type of person the movie portrays, according to those who knew him.
In the film, Leo Beebe is never a fan of Shelby or Miles and takes whatever opportunities he has to actively sabotage their chances of winning. That’s not the man that Ed Cloues knew. Cloues served on a board with Beebe and told the Philadelphia Inguirer that Beebe was actually quite the opposite person, somebody who pushed people to be the best.
I’ve dealt with a lot of people in the business world, and there’s nobody I hold in higher regard than Leo Beebe. He was tough, but a gem of a person. I call him a human engineer. He understood how to get the best out of people, and how to motivate people.
Beginning in 1915, Henry Ford, began developing the Rouge property in Dearborn, for a new Ford Motor Company plant on the east side of the Rouge River. The plan was to utilize the river to transport raw materials from coal mines and lumber mills to the factories. By 1923, the “river navigation project” was complete. The Rouge had become such a large facility, however, that one ship could not handle transporting the huge quantities of raw materials needed for production. Mr. Ford began acquiring his own fleet of ships for the company by ordering two ore carriers to be built. These ships, the Henry Ford II and Benson Ford– named after Mr. Ford’s grandsons – and would remain in service for over 50 years.
The freighters Benson Ford and Henry Ford II were the two most modernized ships on the water at the time. Ships of the day were mainly powered by coal fired steam propulsion engines, however, the Ford ships were each equipped with a British designed 3,000 horsepower diesel engine.
Operations for the fleet were growing so rapidly that by 1925 it was necessary to establish a Marine Department within Ford Motor Company. Under the direction from Mr. Ford, the department began building out the fleet, adding the East Indian later that year. By the 1930s, Ford Motor Company expanded overseas into Europe, Asia, and South America with export plants established on the east coast. During this time, Mr. Ford purchased 200 surplus World War I merchant vessels from the United States government. Of these ships, twenty-two were converted to barges, ocean-going ships and canal carriers; the rest were scrapped for the Rouge’s steel furnaces
After the East Indian was purchased in 1925, it was reoutfitted from a steam powered engine to a diesel, like the Henry II and Benson before her. At 461 feet long, and with her new engines totaling 3,000 horsepower, the East Indian quickly became the most powerful merchant motorship under the American flag.
At the start of World War II, the fleet carried less ore and fewer finished parts to Ford factories forcing the company to cut back on operations during the lake shipping seasons, placing more emphasis on non-Ford cargoes. By June 1942, 500 American ships were sunk by submarines in the Atlantic ocean with casualties of over 5,000 crewmen. During this time, almost the entire Ford Fleet was recruited by the United States government for war service.
In November 1941, the Green Island, the third of the Ford ships to go to war, was put on a maritime commission in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, only six months later, the Green Island was hauling sugar from Cuba to the United States when a German submarine came upon her and ordered her crew into lifeboats. After all the crew members were safely away from the ship, the ship was torpedoed and sent her to the bottom of the ocean. After being held prisoner by the Germans, the entire crew was rescued, the only Ford crew to be so lucky.
A month before the sinking of the Green Island, two of Ford’s ocean-going lakers, Oneida and Onondaga, were turned over to the government in June 1942. Only one month later, on July 13, 1942, the Oneida was on a bareboat charter when it was sunk by a German submarine off the east coast of Cuba; six of the crew were lost. The Onondaga was sunk just ten days after that, about 200 miles west of where her sister vessel was lost; fourteen of the crew, including the captain were lost along with one passenger.
Really good interview with a lot of insight into the future of Ford Motor Company
In this very special episode of Kidd in a Sweet Shop, I’m at my pub meeting with Jim Farley, the President and CEO of Ford! Together we chat about Jim’s role as CEO, before taking a tour of a selection of past & present Ford models, as well as taking a drive in one of the company’s finest new EVs. Sit back, relax, and enjoy this one!
After 20 years of producing millions of Model T’s Ford had an inventory problem…a USED CAR Inventory Problem. Find out why Ford scrapped all these derelict beaters; and it wasn’t necessarily to get cheap scrap metal.
Sources: My Forty Years with Ford; Charles Sorenson (1956)
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