Edsel Ford’s 1934 Model 40 Special Speedster

A determined, wealthy collector slugged it out with Ford family representatives, resulting in the $1.76 million price

{vsig}2008-6_2180{/vsig}

As president of Ford Motor Company from 1925 until his untimely death in 1943, from cancer and undulant fever, Edsel Bryant Ford had a considerable influence on Ford styling, first with Lincoln, then with the 1928 Model A, the 1932 Ford, and models that followed. He oversaw the design of the first Mercury cars and initiated the Lincoln Continental. A true enthusiast, Edsel’s personal automobiles ranged from Model T speedsters to a Stutz, a Bugatti, and a Hispano-Suiza.

An accomplished artist who took art lessons all his life, Edsel Ford studied design and styling-issues that didn’t interest his Puritanical father. Henry Ford’s no-frills styling emanated from Ford’s ultra-conservative engineering department, but Edsel established Ford’s first design group and chose E.T. “Bob” Gregorie to run it. Gregorie, who’d worked briefly at Harley Earl’s General Motors Art and Colour studio, was an accomplished “sketch artist” and adept at translating his boss’s visions into reality.

Edsel Ford and Bob Gregorie began their collaboration in 1932. Gregorie had been a draftsman at Lincoln and could quickly transform Edsel’s ideas from two dimensions to three. After Edsel returned from a 1932 European trip, he asked Gregorie to design and supervise the construction of a “sports car” like those he’d seen on the Continent.

The result was a boattail speedster on a ’32 Ford chassis. It was a smart-looking runabout with styling cues that foretold the 1933 Fords, but Edsel wanted a more streamlined creation. In 1934, Gregorie sketched several alternatives, built a 1:25-scale model, and tested it in a wind tunnel in Ford Aviation’s Air Frame Building.

To achieve the dramatically low silhouette Edsel wanted, Gregorie reversed the stock ’34 Ford frame’s rear kick-up and welded it back upside down so the frame rails passed under the rear axle. He also moved the front axle forward ten inches.

The Ford Air Frame team fabricated a topless, two-passenger, boattailed aluminum body with a sharp V-grille and cut-down doors, mounted on tubular framework. Ford Tri-motor aircraft “wheel pants” were made into cycle fenders. The speedster’s stock wire wheels were covered by custom wheel discs. Painted Pearl Essence Gunmetal Dark (which Edsel favored), with a gray leather interior and an engine-turned instrument panel, the 2,400-lb Speedster was powered by a stock 75-hp Ford Model 40 V8, with straight exhausts that ran through a section of the frame. Custom bucket seats and a three-spoke steering wheel rounded out a remarkably integrated design. Canted louvers matched the angle of the grille and the rakish windscreens. The frame was hidden under a tapered valance that was attached to the alloy body with rivets, a vestige of this car’s aircraft construction.

More custom touches included twin Brooklands screens, a louvered alligator hood, low-mounted, faired-in headlights, a fully enclosed radiator with no radiator cap or ornamentation, no brightwork, and no running boards-styling features that would not appear on production Fords for years.

According to author Jim Farrell, “Mr. Ford took title to the car personally, liked the way it handled, and was generally pleased with its design.” As he had done with his first Speedster, Edsel stored the trim two-seater in an unheated shed on his Fair Lane estate. Unfortunately, a sudden freeze in the winter of 1939-1940 cracked the engine block, so a new 1940 Mercury V8 was installed.

The enclosed sheet metal below the radiator partially blocked the flow of air, and the Speedster had a tendency to overheat. Gregorie shortened the upper grille and fabricated a new horizontal lower grille with matching bars, flanked by large headlights. No top was ever designed for the Speedster.

After Edsel Ford died in 1943, the second Model 40 Speedster, one of six cars in his estate, was driven to Miami, Florida, then to Atlanta, Georgia, where it was sold for $1,000. In 1947, the owner shipped the Speedster to Los Angeles and an ad appeared in the May 1948 issue of Road & Track. It read:

“Priced reasonably at $2,500”

“Especially constructed Ford chassis. Aluminum body built for Edsel Ford. Now powered with special Mercury Engine. Priced reasonably at $2,500. COACHCRAFT, LTD, 86 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, Calif.”

Apparently, the Speedster did not sell; $2,500 was a lot of money in 1948. Four years later, the Speedster reappeared in Auto Sport Review, photographed in Hollywood with an aspiring actress named Lynn Bari.

Then it went back into storage until 1957, when it was driven back to Georgia. In January 1958, registered as a 1940 “Ford custom-built speedster,” it was offered for sale on the Garrard Import used car lot in Pensacola, Florida. Not long afterward, the Speedster was purchased for $603 by John Pallasch, a U.S. Navy sailor, who drove the car home to Sebring, Florida.

By now, the Speedster was painted red with matching red leather upholstery. Pallasch claimed he could “bury the speedometer at 120 mph.” He reportedly drove the Model 40 Special Speedster for a while before disassembling it in 1960 for an engine rebuild. Then Pallasch shipped out for Vietnam. On his return in the late 1960s, he found the engine had seized. The Edsel remained apart and in storage for nearly 40 years.

In 1999, Bill Warner, founder of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, was searching for the Edsel Speedster for a special display. Warner had read an article in Special Interest Autos that told the story of Edsel’s three roadsters, and noted that all had dropped out of sight. The last owner of the 1934 Edsel Speedster was listed as Earl Pallasch, in Deland, Florida. Warner called then-SIA Editor Mike Lamm, who helped locate John Pallasch, who said his father had passed away. Invited to bring the car to Amelia Island, Pallasch replied that it hadn’t run for years, and he wanted to sell it.
Warner hitched up a trailer and immediately drove to Deland. Sitting in the Pallasch garage, dusty and forlorn, covered with junk and tin cans, the long-lost Speedster was complete except for its custom wheel discs. The car’s odometer read just 19,000 miles.

Stopped by to show it to the designer

Warner wrote Pallasch a check on the spot and hauled his discovery away. “I decided to show the Edsel Speedster to Bob Gregorie (who was then 91 and living in St. Augustine) on the way home,” said Warner. “Mr. Gregorie came out of his house, smiled, and ran his hands over the surface of the car. “I haven’t seen it since 1940,” he said. “The old girl still looks pretty good for her age.”

Although he considered restoring the Speedster to its first iteration, with narrowed V-grille and Pearl Essence Gunmetal finish, Warner decided to preserve the car’s patina. “It was prettier with the front end that was designed in 1934,” he said, “but the 1940 grille was original. It would have been a travesty to restore it.”

So Warner rebuilt the Edsel Speedster’s Mercury V8, touched up the body, and repainted the fenders. Al LaMarr replicated the aluminum wheel discs. Bill Warner’s crew removed a set of finned Edelbrock high-compression heads that were on the engine, because they rubbed on the inside of the hood, lending credence to the theory that the Mercury engine was modified when the car was in Hollywood, not Dearborn.

Warner believes the car’s red paint was hastily applied when it was used in a movie (and if anybody can name the film, he’d love to hear from you). The well-preserved Speedster still has fewer than 21,000 miles on the odometer.

A few years ago, at the Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance, Bill Warner allowed me to drive the Speedster. I was surprised at the car’s peppy acceleration, and enjoyed the visceral rap of the un-muffled exhausts. The gearshift is a 3-speed, floor-mounted setup with a handle that extends out from under the dash.

You sit low in the narrow cockpit, and can actually watch the front tires and fenders as they respond to the changing road surface. The steering is a tad lazy, in a characteristic early Ford V8 way. There’s virtually no cowl shake, and the overall ride, cushioned by the car’s extended wheelbase, is pleasantly firm. The Speedster sits much lower than a typical ’34 Ford roadster, and its long, stylish hood stretches forward like a 1930s classic. Even with its “push and pray” mechanical brakes, Edsel’s Speedster remains a stylish performer.

Ken Gross

Ken Gross - SCM Contributor

Ken has been an auto writer for 38+ years, and his work has appeared in Playboy, AutoWeek, Hemispheres, The Rodder’s Journal, Street Rodder and Hot Rod Magazine. He wrote the award-winning TV series “Behind the Headlights,” and his books include Hot Rods and Custom Cars, Los Angeles and the Dry Lakes: The Early Years, Art of the Hot Rod, Hot Rod Milestones and The Allure of the Automobile. He was curator of the “Allure of the Automobile” exhibit at the Portland Art Museum during the summer of 2011. He was director of the Los Angeles-based Petersen Automotive Museum and has judged at Pebble Beach for 20 years.

Posted in American