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The Two Fords & The Two Americas

Castle-like Home of Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan

“I believe a home isn’t four walls; it’s a place where you get the strength to go on.” Henry Ford

Stardust – Artie Shaw (A popular song in the 1940s in the Edsel & Eleanor Ford Home)


John Fraim

The old adage “Like father, like son” has little application to the relationship between two of America’s greatest industrialists: Henry Ford and his (only) son Edsel Ford. Henry, the great inventor, celebrated function over form while Edsel, the great marketer was much more interested in form over function. The division between the two closely aligned with the growth of America’s great industry in the 20th century as well as the growth of America as the world’s first great consumer culture.

Henry was the great egalitarian who made one product for all: the Model T Ford. His interests in one product to fit all consumers mirrored (perhaps created) the early years of consumer culture before the onslaught of product segmentation and differentiation. Edsel, on the other hand, moved the Ford company into more stylish cars starting with the Model A and later the Mercury and the Lincoln. The difference was in the ideas of equality and freedom, the two paradoxical ideas present at the founding of America.

The difference is well-stated in a 2013 issue of the key car magazine MotorTrend. “Edsel Ford was all about form. Henry Ford cared only for function. Henry, the practical, conservative inventor who believed his Model T was all the car anyone from farmhand to millionaire would ever need, clashed with his well-traveled, cultured, and artistic prodigal son from the moment he named 25-year-old Edsel company president on New Year’s Day, 1919. The collision of Henry’s practical conservatism with Edsel’s Gatsby-esque cultural ‘elitism’ is an American story plot that resounds to this day.”

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The clash between father and son is viewed in many ways by many historians and cultural commentators in words. Probably, millions of them. Yet, perhaps the most enlightening information about this clash is told simply in images of the cars and homes father and son lived in. Henry and Clara’s home was not a family home as Edsel was an only child. But Edsel and Eleanor’s home was the ultimate family home with their four children: three boys and one girl.

As to the clash in car preferences, this difference might be viewed best by putting the Model T of Henry Ford up against Edsel’s idea of a car in his 1933-34 Model 40 Speedster. Edsel created it with one of Detroit’s greatest designers: Eugene Gregorie.

As he recalls in the MotorTrend article, “My hands became Edsel’s tools in developing designs. I was able to put on paper and into clay the designs he was visualizing in his head.” He designed the Model Y for the 1932 English Ford lineup. Edsel had engineers scale the diminutive car up for the American 1933-’34 Model 40. “He handled all bodywork decisions,” Gregorie said. Edsel then had Gregorie design a roadster, requesting “long, low, and rakish” says Motor Trend Classic contributor Ken Gross in his history of the Model 40 Special Speedster written for the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House. Gregorie drew a boattailed speedster with pontoon fenders that stretched the appearance of the ’32 Ford’s 106-inch wheelbase. “A pretty little thing. We had it built partially in the Engineering Laboratory and over at the Lincoln plant,” Gregorie recalled.

Edsel’s Model 40 Speedster of 1934 / “A Pretty Little Thing.”

But the story of the ’34 Speedster goes back to at least 1922. As noted in the MotorTrend article, in 1922, Ford bought Lincoln for about $8 million, and it “gave the ‘boy’ something to do, as Charlie Sorensen and upper echelon of Henry Ford’s production group referred to Edsel.” Ford’s first design chief told Dave Crippin in “The Reminiscences of Eugene T. Gregorie” (1985) from The Henry Ford’s auto design oral history program. “Edsel Ford’s particular purpose was to expand a better taste in the Ford product.” One of the first examples of this was the fact that Edsel got his father to replace the Model T with the “baby Lincoln” A in 1927, the same year General Motors hired Harley Earl for its new Art & Color department.

In 1929, Edsel and his wife, Eleanor Lowtian Clay, niece of department store magnate and Hudson Motor Car Company funder J.L. Hudson, moved with their four children into their new Gaukler Point house on Lake St. Clair in Grosse Pointe Shores, far across town from Henry’s Fairlane Estate in Dearborn. Henry’s estate was close to the great River Rouge Ford manufacturing plant, the largest manufacturing facility in the history of the world. In many ways, it might have offered the image for F. Sctott Fitgerald’s “Valley of Ashes” in The Great Gatsby.

The River Rouge Plant / Valley of Ashes From Gatsby

That year, Earl’s Detroit office hired 21-year-old Gregorie, who had designed for a couple of shipbuilders in New York, then for Brewster, coachbuilder of American Rolls-Royces, on Long Island. The GM design job lasted three or four weeks: He was hired just before the 1929 panic. In 1931, Ford hired Eugene Gregorie, who became Edsel’s co-conspirator in transforming the company that built Model Ts into the company that built Lincoln Zephyrs and Continentals and Mercurys. And, Edsel’s sports car, the Model 40 Speedster.

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For many, the legacy of Edsel Ford is unfairly tied to the ultimate failure of the Edsel car after just a few years. But this is far from the truth about Edsel Ford. Of course the difference of father and son can be seen in the cars associated with them. Yet perhaps more than anything else, the differences in the two men is not seen in the cars they built but rather the homes and families they created.

And, the location of their homes. Henry’s home was near the great River Rouge Plant. It was the area that Edsel grew up in. It was one of the first historic sites to be designated a National Historic Landmark, the architectural style is an eclectic mix of English castle and prairie style. The home announced European grandeur, sitting on a hill with few trees around it. The esteemed landscape architect Jens Jensen designed the grounds and gardens. The result was Clara and Henry’s ideal vision of a home. A home suggesting power and strength befitting the quote of Henry Ford about the purpose of a home at the top of this article.

Fairlane – The Castle-Like Home of Henry & Clara Ford

Cold and Forbidding Entrance to Fairlane

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Edsel and Eleanor Ford’s Home – A Warm and Inviting Family Home

But the home of Edsel and Eleanor Ford was just the opposite of Henry and Clara Ford’s home in appearance and style. Located twenty miles from Henry’s home in Dearborn, Michigan, Edsel home was not near the great River Rouge plant but on Lake Shore Drive in Grosse Pointe Shores, northeast of Detroit. It was situated on a site known as “Gaukler Point” on the shore of Lake St. Clair.

The Edsel & Eleanor Ford Home on Lake St. Claire.

The house became the new residence of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford family in 1928. The Edsel Eleanor Ford home featured a Cotswold-style mansion with a surprising blend of the conventional and the extraordinary. As Ann Berman wrote in the 2001 edition of Architectural Digest, architecturally it was a standard midwestern manor, complete with period paneling and heraldic motifs, with the collections of the two art connoisseurs who varied their rooms full of ancient, Renaissance and eighteenth-century art with presciently chosen paintings by van Gogh and Cézanne and great Art Déco design. The house was also the very private domain of one of America’s wealthiest families, invisible behind spreading lawns and stone gates and rarely photographed for a half century.”

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Today the Edsel Ford home is open to the public and offers a window into the grandeur of America’s industrial aristocracy. But also, even more important, an insight into the aesthetic lives of Eleanor and Edsel Ford and the true family they created. A tour through it offers up a warm family home more than a cold, ostentatious monstrosity like the mini-mansions of the newly wealthy today. We were lucky to take a tour through it on a rainy day in April when there was hardly no one else on inside the home except for a few docents.

Edsel Ford’s Study

As Berman notes in the AD article, “The walk from these sunlit grounds to the cool recesses of Edsel Ford’s Elizabethan study is a trip back in time. There, snapshots of family yachts and of the slim, carefully dressed Ford himself with the duke of Windsor, Mary Pickford and John D. Rockefeller share wall space with a photo of Franklin Roosevelt driving his specially equipped Ford. The battered flag first hoisted at the South Pole is displayed along with a note of thanks to Ford from Admiral Byrd for underwriting the expedition and developing the plane that made it possible.”

The Dining Room Where the Family Had All Their Meals

The Living Room

The Room Used for Large Events

The Library

The Kitchen

As Anne Berman notes in the Architectural Digest article, “The very plan of the house promoted togetherness: There is no children’s wing, and Benson and William cheerfully shared a bedroom. Most meals were taken in the formal dining room, the house’s only designated eating area. The eight-car garage held Eleanor’s black Lincoln limousine (built tall enough to allow her to exit without stooping) and Edsel’s pewter-colored 1941 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet, while out on the winding drive, the children had their own cars—powerful miniature Fords—which they tooled through a sun-dappled meadowland designed by Danish-born landscape architect Jens Jensen (1860-1951).”

Berman observes that the cavernous fireplace in Edsel Ford’s study was never lit again after Edsel died in 1943 at the age of forty-nine. Eleanor gave orders that the fire never be lit again. Eleanor Ford lived on among her treasures, pursuing a family-centered, philanthropic life that culminated in the preservation of her home for the enjoyment and education of future generations. Upon her death in 1976, she left a generous endowment for the house’s upkeep, along with the request that everything be kept much as it had been in her lifetime. It was a wise suggestion: The dining table is set; family photographs smile from polished frames.

An illusion is complete. It is possible to imagine Eleanor Ford slipping out the front door, being helped into her tall black car and disappearing around a curve in the drive. Although she didn’t drive.

Maybe trying to find Edsel somewhere in his 1934 Model 40 Special Speedster.



Author John Fraim grew up around Ford, Lincoln and Mercury in Los Angeles of the 1950s.

His father owned a Ford dealership in Pasadena and a Lincoln- Mercury dealership in Culver City.

Ford House Website.

(A tour of the Ford complex and home is alone worth the effort to go to Detroit.)

Article from Architectural Digest on the Ford House

Edsel Ford: Businessman as Artist

Motor Trend Article on the 1934 Ford Model 40 Speedster

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