Some great cars are born of vision; others are created by necessity. Of these, the 1949 Ford belongs in that second category. As a key component of "The Arsenal of Democracy," Ford Motor Company was a gigantic contributor to the war effort, building not just Jeeps and trucks and other vehicles but also airplane components. Like some veterans, however, Ford survived and thrived in the war only to have its very existence threatened by the peace.
When World War II came to a close in 1945, four years of war had created four years of pent-up consumer demand for automobiles, so the immediate post-war market swallowed up just about any new vehicle that could be produced. But Henry Ford II, who sat atop the Ford Motor Company, was savvy enough to realize that when the initial boom died down, the consumer would seek out modern comfort and convenience, and that was something Ford Motor Company, in the immediate post-war days, was simply not ready to deliver.
Even judged against their contemporaries, the Fords of the late Thirties and early Forties were nearly antediluvian. The flathead V-8 wasn't even state-of-the-art when it was introduced in the early Thirties, so close to 20 years later it was near the end of its useful life. And the flathead was positively leading-edge compared to other Ford "technology" that included a solid front axle and torque tube drive. These were vestiges of the regime of the first Henry Ford, but Henry Ford II (sometimes referred to unkindly as "The Deuce") knew that the competition from General Motors, Chrysler, and even Nash, Hudson, and Studebaker would eat Ford up if they stuck with that antiquated stuff.
Instead of letting the company that bore his name go down in flames, Henry Ford II set out on a bold course that ruffled the feathers of many Ford long-timers. He went on a hiring binge, raiding General Motors for talent. Among the GM personnel he brought over were Ernest R. Breech, who became chairman of the Ford Motor Company executive committee, and Harold T. Youngren, who took a key spot in engineering.
Soon after joining Ford, Breech eyeballed a proposal for the post-war Ford that had been conceived during World War II, and he determined that it wouldn't fill the bill. He and the executive committee decided the proposal, penned under the leadership of Bob Gregorie, was too big, too heavy, and too expensive to produce to be a successful Ford. Instead, that project went on to become the 1949 Mercury, which is an important car in its own right, but not the subject of this profile.
By nixing the Gregorie proposal, Breech was giving himself and his team a very difficult task. He wanted the all-new model to be ready for public introduction in June 1948. This meant that his design, engineering and production teams had less than 24 months to perform everything needed to produce an all-new car.
Based on the short timeframe and Breech's disdain for the internal Ford Motor Company design function, a design firm run by George Walker was hired to participate in a competition to design the '49 Ford. Up to that time, his organization was best known for its work with Nash.
Both Walker's group and the Ford design team headed by Gregorie were given the engineering parameters for the car laid down by Youngren. Word has it that Youngren's team borrowed heavily from the '47 Studebaker, going as far as buying several examples and disassembling them to study each part.
While hardly on the leading edge (Preston Tucker was trying to mine that vein at the time), the engineering at least brought Ford up to the middle of the 20th century. Instead of a front beam axle, the new design was an independent set-up with coil springs. The design was also equipped with a conventional open driveshaft and a solid rear axle housing a hypoid differential suspended by parallel leaf springs and damped with tubular shock absorbers. A key bit of carryover were the engines: the mundane six and the long-in-the-tooth 239 cubic inch flathead V-8. Though the chassis and running gear were obviously a huge leap forward for Ford, the '49 was obviously a car that would rely a great deal on styling for its appeal. To get the styling that was necessary, the Walker-led and Gregorie-led teams plunged forward, dealing with the tight restrictions imposed upon them by engineering. Among the designers involved in the Walker effort was a darkhorse named Richard Caleal. He was a former member of the famed Raymond Loewy studio, most noted for its work for Studebaker, and he got together with a couple of his former Loewy mates, Holden Koto and Bob Bourke, to put together a quarter-sized clay model. Walker then presented this model, along with clays from his full-time staff, in a meeting with top Ford brass. They liked the Caleal model best and decided the Walker team should proceed with refining that design for the final competition with Gregorie's in-house effort.
After that start, though, the progress of the design became absolutely Byzantine, and, because the car was eventually a huge success, a number of men claimed responsibility for it. One of them was, of course, Caleal, who was certainly responsible for the original model, and another one was Walker, who eventually parlayed his work on the '49 model and other Fords into a full-time job as Ford Motor Company vice president of design. But the fact is, like just about every production model, scores of designers, modelers and executives had a hand in the eventual design. In fact, some of the most distinctive elements of the car, like the prominent "prop-spinner" grille motif and the horizontal taillights, were added to the design well after the original clay.
No matter who deserves credit for the design (certainly Walker, Caleal, and Walker's team deserve the bulk of the kudos), the car that resulted was a huge step forward for Ford. While the pre-war Fords were good-looking, the '49 Ford started a whole new era in Ford design -- clean, modern, and forward-looking.
It was richly deserving of a big introduction, and that is just what it got. The car was the subject of a $10 million introductory campaign that included a weeklong blow-out at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, followed by a series of regional previews. The June 18, 1948 introduction was as big an intro as had been staged in the country, with an estimated 10 million people eyeballing the car in person in the first week. Apparently they liked what they saw, because supply of the new cars didn't catch up with demand for months, and before the 17-month production run was over, more than 1.1 million '49 Fords went out the showroom doors.
Oddly, the '49 Ford has never really caught on with collectors. That is strange because the car wasn't only important, but also very attractive. Part of the problem might be quality issues. Like the Cord 810, the '49 Ford program moved to production very quickly, which resulted in numerous body-fit and other quality issues. Those problems were addressed in the '50 Fords, but it was the '49 that sent Ford Motor Company in a new direction.