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The Symbolism of Place

Edsel & Eleanor Ford’s Home

Duke Ellington / Take the A Train (Popular in the 40s)


Henry & Edsel Ford

Dynamics of a Father and Son Relationship

Expressing This in a Diorama?

John Fraim

One of the more interesting books I’ve read is the book Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives by Frank Sulloway. The book is a pioneering inquiry into the significance of birth order in families. His most important finding is that the eldest children identify with parents and authority, supporting the status quo, whereas younger children rebel against it. 

In effect, Sulloway envisions families as ecosystems in which siblings compete for parental favor by occupying specialized niches. A younger sibling that imitates an older sibling does not occupy a “specialized” niche. Comparing this to marketing, there is no “brand differentiation” when this happens and the younger siblings “brand” gets less noticed by the parents. Family dynamics, Sulloway concludes, is a primary engine of historical change. 

But what are the dynamics in one-child families where there no order to contend with? There are old adages of “Like father, like son” but does this adage have much truth to it? In a 1998 interview in Edge with John Brockman titled “How Personality if Formed” Sulloway addresses this question asked by Brockman.

“Only children pose another interesting question,” Sulloway says. With no sibling rivalry, Sulloway notes that two predictions follow from these circumstances. “One is that only children ought to be intermediate on many personality traits. This follows because they are not being pushed by a younger sibling into being particularly conscientious or aggressive; and they are not being pushed by an elder sibling into being particularly daring or unconventional. Hence only children ought to be somewhere in the behavioral middle. And this is where they turn out to be.”

However, Sulloway also notes that these “only children” also have much more freedom to  “occupy any niche they wish to in childhood.” For example, he says, “they do not have to worry about who is going to move in to occupy a niche that they vacate. For this reason, they are free to roam around. As a result, they ought to be more variable than average in their personality traits and interests. And, they are. Only children are the most unpredictable group. Their behavior is difficult to predict precisely because their childhood options are greater than for people who grow up with siblings.”

* * *

I was thinking of the above regarding the relationship that only children have with a father or mother. My father was an only child as also was my wife Stephanie’s father. But mainly right now I was thinking of this regarding the legendary American businessman Henry Ford and his only child Edsel Ford. 

It wasn’t something that just popped into my head. 

I had entered a few of my diorama models in an IPMS (International Plastic Modelers Society) show sponsored by the Detroit chapter of the group. The show was on Saturday at the VFW Hall in St. Claire Shores on Lake St. Claire, just ten miles northeast of Detroit. 

Stephanie and I were driving up from Columbus on Friday for the Saturday show. I had entered a few of my best dioramas in the show. But I really didn’t expect to win anything as the IPMS consists of master model makers. The best in the world. I had joined about five years ago but dropped out after a few months as it was obvious there was little interest in dioramas. But I felt that just meeting some other modelers and viewing their work and letting them see my work would be a good thing. 

The drive from Columbus to Detroit is only a little over three hours and check in time at the hotel was not until three so I thought of something we might do. On a Google map I noticed that the Edsel and Eleanor Ford home was just a few miles south of the VFW Hall and thought it would be interesting to take a tour of the home on Friday afternoon.

The weather from Columbus to Detroit that Friday was some of the worst I’ve ever driven in. We arrived at the Ford home around noon and had to run in from the car as it was still pouring. We had lunch in the visitors center and went through the exhibit hall in the visitor’s center. Then, we took the shuttle over to the Ford home. 

We pretty much had the entire home to ourselves as there was hardly any other tourist in it that stormy Friday. The only ones in the home were a few friendly docents who were always ready to answer any question we had. 

Edsel & Eleanor’s Home

Both Stephanie and I were stunned by the feeling of being inside the Ford home that day. One of those experiences you have that is hard to define. One that comes at you out of nowhere, unannounced and moves you very much. It sounds a strange but I could sense the Ford family that day walking through their home, almost alone, without tourists all over the place. 

More than anything, I got a sense of who Edsel Ford was more than any book could provide. This is so because as I’ve written about before, there is a symbolism of place that is one of the most powerful aspects of symbolism. It is the symbolism of the context of one’s life rather than just the content of this life. Spending time walking through Edsel Ford’s home that rainy Friday, after he had died in the home in 1943, when he was only forty-nine years old and President of the Ford Motor Company, was a very special and unforgettable experience. 

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, mixing European grandeur and Midwestern charm. Esteemed landscape architect Jens Jensen designed the grounds and gardens. The result was Clara and Henry’s ideal vision of a home. 

The Desk in Edsel’s Study (Appropriately with a bottle of Cutty Sark on it)

I wrote about the home in a post in a post to my site Midnight Oil a few days ago. The home was an amazing place for me. Partly the result of Edsel and Eleanor travelling to England with a leading architect getting ideas about the home they wanted to create for their family. The home they created is a large home but not as large as some of the mega mansions today and certainly not as ostentatious as many are. It is a home meant to be lived in and bring a family together. The children’s rooms were right next to their parents’ bedroom rather than in some far flung wings of  the home to encourage separation of the family. There was only one dining room in the home and the family fathered here each day for meals. The study of Edsel is right next to the front door of the home and is warm and inviting. On the walls are photos from Admiral Byrd’s famous Antarctica expedition which Edsel sponsored. 

Edsel and Eleanor raised three boys and a girl at the home. The boys would go on to run Ford after Edsel passed away. Eleanor lived another thirty years in the home and continued as one of the greatest patrons of Detroit arts as Edsel had been. Edsel had brought to the Detroit Art Museum the famous painter Diego Rivera and commissioned a number of paintings and murals that perhaps captured the feeling of the depression and the emerging modern era of industrialism more than any other painter. The murals influenced federal art projects during the depression.

* * *

On Saturday, the storm had subsided, and I took my dioramas to the VFW Hall around 9 and placed them on the tables alongside other models in my group. My dioramas were in that catch-all category of 705 or Miscellaneous or models that “don’t fit into any of the other categories” as the note on the entry sheet explained.

I had entered three of the dioramas I made about five years ago while a member of the Columbus chapter of the IPMS. One was simply called Bullitt and based on the chase scene in the film Bullitt, shot in San Francisco in the late 60s. I studied Google maps and read up on the chase scene and found the location where McQueen’s Mustang jumps the street. I modeled this scene in N scale by scratch building the flat in the background of the movie scene. I put a small blue-tooth speaker box (no larger than a square inch) under the model and turned on it could play “Theme from Bullitt” by Lalo Shifrin from an iPhone.

Another model was called Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and was based on the first paragraph from Hunter Thompson’s book Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. Modeled in HO scale, it features a two-lane high in the California Desert not far out of Barstow. There is a Burma Shave sign on the right side that paraphrases the first passages of Fear & Loathing. The last few signs note the appearance of a large dragon out of nowhere causing Hunter Thompson (and his attorney) to pull off the road to confront a great dragon by the side of the road. A billboard on the left advertises the movie Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. 

My third model from five years ago was The Last Dinosaur dedicated to those tourist traps along Route 66 of the 50s and 60s our family used to stop at. This one features, as the road sign says and a poster on the bars of the dinosaur enclosure confirms, the last dinosaur in the world. There is reason for rejoicing apparently as the notice on the dinosaur enclosure reads. They have been in battle with humans for many years and it is good that this is the last dinosaur. A little sign on the right in the hills reads “Repent, the dinosaurs are returning! In the front right of the diorama, in a little hill and valley, out of sight of tourists traveling down Route 66, two just born, baby dinosaurs push their heads out of giant eggs.

My fourth diorama was one completed just a week ago. It is called LA’s Great Donut and features the iconic Randy’s Donut shop in Los Angeles. Randy’s has a thirty-foot-tall donut on top of it and has been featured in all sorts of movies over the years. I had bought a little Walter’s N scale kit based roughly around Randy’s called Hole-in-one Donuts and in building it read a lot about Randys. All of this brought back my years growing up in LA and visiting Randys. I begin to read up on Randys and decided to make a little diorama featuring it. It needed to be placed in its true context rather than the photo of it on the cover of the Walther’s model box. 

But this was a little more difficult than I thought. Randy’s is at the intersection of two of the major intersections in Los Angeles as well as next to the 405 (San Diego) Freeway. There are two on ramps to the 405 near Randys. If I was going to model the real context of Randys. I was going to have to include these major roads. And, perhaps a jet overhead as Randy’s was right under the flight pattern into LAX. 

I modeled the diorama on a 9” x 6” board in 1/500 scale. I had a little jet coming into LAX, held up by a straight piece of wire under it. I had dropped the little Herpa model a week ago and the right tail section of it came off and I could not find it so my model was entered with this major defect. In an attempt to say something about this, I wrote on the entry form that was next to the model that “the jet lost its right tail section during the violent storm around Detroit yesterday while flying up to the modeling convention.”

* * *

After the models were all on the table Steph and I walked around and looked at the other models. As I expected, incredible work bordering much more on art than just craft in many cases. Small ships and airplanes featuring master modeling skills one doesn’t see anywhere else. The hall was loaded with vendors selling boxes of models and all types of accessories. 

The quality of the IPMS members models was – again – a revelation to me. As it was five years ago when I first joined IPMS. I had been building models since a teenager and worked helping my father build a model railroad layout. John Allen and his incredible Gorre & Daphetid HO railroad in Monterey, California was my hero. 

But in the five years since joining (and leaving IPMS) I had the good fortune to make contact with a group of modelers that called themselves Box Dioramists. I became friends Darryl Audette, one of founders of the Box Diorama site. Darryl is a Canadian and works much in set design for plays but was influenced to pursue box dioramas directly by Sheperd Paine. The work of the modelers on the Box Diorama site changed my perspective on modeling. But in all of this there was also my discovery of the visionary work of Matthew Albanese and his book Strange Worlds (Lazy Dog Press, Italy). 

I rejoined IPMS a few months ago thinking I might give it another try. I had little expectations of any awards in contests of the club. More than anything, it was simply a desire to be around other modelers and see what they were up to these days. Post pandemic when a new collective psychology seemed to have control over much of the populace. In the five years since being in the club I built many dioramas and experimented with various lighting ideas in my photography as well as putting sounds into several of them. I posted my photos with comments on my website Midnight Oil. 

* * *

Around noon, we had been at the show for a few hours and the judging didn’t start until 2 or so. We went out to lunch at a place in St. Claire and then drove south down Jefferson Drive past the Ford home and they Grosse Pointe Woods and Gross Pointe Shores. Jefferson runs right along the shore of Lake St. Claire. The lake to our left was much larger than I suspected. The Canadian shore was ten miles away but could not be seen today under a partially hazy grey sky. A freighter was a sliver a few miles out. On our right, magnificent mansions stood back from Jefferson maybe a hundred yards or so. All of them works of art. Most from the early years of the 20th century when Detroit was the powerhouse industrial city not just of America but of the world. 

As you make your way south on Jefferson towards downtown Detroit, the big homes disappear replaced by smaller ones until the homes are all gone as one moves towards downtown Detroit. The downtown of Detroit is dominated by the great tube-shaped gleaming silver General Motors headquarters buildings next to the river and right across from city of Winsor in Canada. 

We headed back towards the model show through a bad area of town. These are not hard to find. Homes were burned out and buildings along the street had bars and boards on windows. No one was around and it was obvious that this area had been abandoned. There was an occasional small gas station at intersections. And here and there, car body shops and small drug stores. But all of these were empty of customers. A man sat on the steps of an abandoned Baptist Church and watched us drive by. Steph was not happy about my route back up to St. Claire but I told her we would be back soon at the VFW hall. 

* * *

We arrived back in St. Claire Shores around 2:00 pm when the contest judging had just begun. The cloudy day was punctured by pieces of sunlight. As I parked in the VFW parking lot right on the shore of Lake St. Claire, I could see the sun’s rays were making the lake glisten with a new life. 

Back inside the VFW building, us modelers watched as the IPMS judges slowly walked around the table examining models. Often, they brought out small flashlights and magnifying glasses. Detail and historical accuracy are an important key to success in IPMS. It was this detail that was stunningly on display on the five or so tables with the models on them. 

The team of judges moved slowly around the tables, lingering over one model longer than others, dismissing quickly other models by simply moving on. The judging took about an hour. When they were finished, there was an announcement that modelers could move back to the show area and see what prizes they won. 

Steph and I walked to the table where my four dioramas were. That weird 705 category. Just down the table from me was a full Ghost Busters diorama with sound and lights and figures that looked a lot like the original boys. To the left of my dioramas, an orange large scale car jumped some ramp. To the right of my dioramas, an alien creature was exploring a new planet. He really looked like a miniature alien though. 

There were no awards on any of the three dioramas made five years ago. But there was an Honorable Mention ribbon on my donut diorama. It felt good getting a little recognition for my Cheerio donut on top of the little Lego block I used for Randys. A little Cheerio I painted with a honey brown acrylic. The little Cheerio that “identified” as a thirty-foot-tall donut in the 1/500 scale diorama. 

We packed up my dioramas for our drive back to Columbus. I found myself talking to this modeler who had created an incredible three-foot-long model of the famous German battleship the Bismarck. I thought for sure he would win a silver or gold prize but – like me – the Bismarck had received an Honorable Mention. Like me, it was also his first modeling show with IPMS. He had spent almost a year on the model and pointed out details on it. One almost expected little German navy guys to be running around the decks of the great battleship. 

The day was clearing and sun continued to poke through the clouds as we headed south on 94 (the Edsel Ford Freeway) to the east of downtown Detroit and past the great Rouge Ford plant on the River Rouge just south of downtown Detroit. Looking out to the left from 94, factories as far as the eye could see, it seemed like driving through the valley of ashes in The Great Gatsby. This was the dream that Henry Ford had created. The great Rouge facility. The greatest manufacturing plant in the history of the world. The plant that created the Model T as well as the Mustang. 

That night, I started to read about Henry Ford and how his son Edsel was so different from his father. I read late into the night about Henry Ford. His home was very much a symbol to me. Totally different from his son Edsel’s home. A quote that Henry made is interesting. He said, “I believe a home isn’t four walls; it’s a place where you get the strength to go on.” A home as a producer of strength to go on. But Edsel believed so differently than this. To Edsel, a home was an environment to grow a family. This showed the immense difference between the two men. 

The City Called River Rouge

After all, the Rouge plant Henry created, located downriver on the Rouge River from his home. The river must have been seen as something by Henry much more than a river. More than anything, it must have seemed some type of lifeline, artery, umbilical cord, for the great Rouge plant. It was important for his home Fairlane to also be on this lifeline.

The Rouge was the source of sustenance for the great Rouge plant. It brought raw materials to the plant. 

Henry’s home on the upper part of the Rouge, looked like military fortress or castle of some type. There was little inviting about it. The great masses of stone only reinforce the coldness of the home. On one corner, there are turrets appearing like guard areas of some European castle. Few trees surrounded Fairlane. Perhaps a few hundred feet below is the upper part of the Rouge River. Down this river, maybe two miles, is the massive industrial city called the Rouge Ford plant. A large canal is cut into the river to the left at the plant and this is where Ford freighters bring the “food” that feeds the great industrial beast. There is much symbolism in all of this. 

Henry Ford’s Home Fairlane

Apart from the bemouth appetite of the great industrial city Henry Ford created, there is the speculation that he wanted to be attached to this great creation of his. And, what better way than have a home on the upper part of the most important artery in growth to his creation. The River Rouge. Emptying into the Detroit River. Coming from the Detroit River and bringing in supplies of ships from the Great Lakes to keep the great Rouge plant operating. Henry wanted to be attached by this artery that fueled his creation. 

Edsel and Eleanor’s home was so different. If Henry lived close to the smoke and lifelessness of the great Rouge plant, Edsel lived on Gaukler Point on the shores of Lake St. Claire. 

* * *

The next few days, between helping Steph with the job of putting her parents’ home on the market, I continued to read about the Rouge auto plant and about Edsel Ford and his father Henry. The two were so different. Here, an only child becomes the opposite of his father not the copy of his father. It is almost the way a younger sibling (as Frank Sulloway says) differentiates itself from an older sibling to have a life. Henry Ford played the older sibling in the relationship it seems to me. Henry was married to function in the world. Beauty had little meaning or importance to him. Yet, perhaps this was a key factor in him becoming one of the greatest industrialists in history. 

On the other hand, Edsel, from the very start was interested less in function and more in form of the world. More in art of the world. His father had little use for art. It was a distraction from the work that had to be done. It was Edsel’s good fortune to marry a woman who also passionately believed art. In fact, was an artist herself. The influence of Eleanor on Edsel, helping him escape the chains of his legendary father, might never be given the credit it truly deserves. Her father was one of the great contributors to art in Detroit, the key benefactor to the Detroit Museum of Art. Eleanor learned much from her father and emulated him in many ways. 

In my post to Midnight Oil, I said that perhaps a diorama was possible to express the difference I felt between Henry Ford and Edsel. I began thinking about what a diorama like this might look like. Could symbolism play a part in creating a new type of diorama? 

I envisioned the symbol of the Model T Ford on one side of a diorama. And, on the other side, the sleek, streamlined Lincoln Zephyr of 1934 that Edsel designed. The opposition between father and son was not only in their different homes but in also the difference in the cars they believed in. 

But how best to suggest this? By placing these two cars in the diorama? Along with the different homes? Maybe figurines of father and son? How does one contrast the family that Edsel grew up in to the one he created with Eleanor?

* * *

I downloaded several maps of the Rouge plant as well as Detroit today and read more about the great auto plant and its effect on Detroit as well as the nation. I put photos of Henry’s Fairlane mansion into a file I created. Along with photos of inside Edsel and Eleanor’s home I had taken on our visit the other day. 

At the bottom left of the diorama, I was able to work in Henry Ford’s home and the Rouge River and Rouge plant. On the top right, on the shores of Lake St. Claire, was the home of Edsel and Eleanor. This seemed a good juxtaposition of the two symbols in the diorama. 

I went to Staples and had my little Google map I printed out blown up to around 24” x 15”. I bought a foam core board at Staples and when I got back to my studio I placed the blown up map image over the board and traced the outlines of the lake and river through the large blow-up onto the board with a pen pushing hard through the outlines of the lake and river defining the eastern boundaries of Detroit. 

* * *

When I finished this, I sat and looked at the board and wondered how some symbolism might be shown on it so that it is alive for a viewer of the diorama. I took out a bunch of mini-Logo pieces I had in a box and began playing with them on the poster board with the boundaries of river and lake on it. As well as the position of the Rouge plant and the home of Henry and Edsel. 

I found a few grey Legos to represent Henry’s home. And some little gearshift Legos that looked like smokestacks to represent the great industrial Rouge Ford plant. I traced the course of the Rouge River making sure Henry’s home was on it and that it flowed past Rouge and then into the Detroit River and then to the great lakes. It was the key source of supply to the Rouge plant. And, somehow, perhaps symbolically, a key source of supply for the life of Henry Ford. 

In my mini-Lego box (everyone should have one) I found several grey and black mini-Legos and spread them around the Rouge plant on my board. I placed these little gearshift Lego devices in them which looked like miniature smokestacks. The diorama color with the Legos moves from the grey and black of the left bottom to the brown of the stacked Legos representing skyscrapers in downtown Detroit. Then, the brown changes to light green and white as we move towards the upper right of the diorama – the home of Edsel – opposite the bottom left of the diorama – Henry’s home. 

A Preliminary Sketch with Mini Legos

The two homes in the diorama remain just mini Lego blocks right now. They are not detailed. Just a grey and black to Henry’s Fairlane and a Maroon color to Edsel’s home. The contrast between the colors of science and art perhaps. 

It doesn’t seem that the two different cars are needed in this particular diorama. Just the little Legos and the change in color from grey and black on the bottom of the diorama to maroon and green on the upper right. Perhaps the river and lake should be colored with a changing blue of the lake to a dirty brown around the Rouge River. This for now, seems enough to suggest this grand opposition in two powerful symbols. 

Who knows what this diorama might evolve into. Or, all things on it might stop with just the above. A contrast in color suggested by the Legos moving from the bottom left to the upper right. Color is an important symbol just by itself. Why try to screw it up with a bunch of other symbols?



The Edsel Eleanor Ford House

The Automaker’s Surprising Aesthetic Legacy in Michigan

By Ann E. Berman

Architectural Digest 6/30/2001

June 30, 2001

The Edsel Eleanor Ford House, a Cotswold-style mansion on Lake St. Clair in Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan, is a surprising blend of the conventional and the extraordinary. Architecturally a standard midwestern manor, complete with period paneling and heraldic motifs, it contains the collection of 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. Today it stands open, preserved and polished—a window on the grandeur of America’s industrial aristocracy and the unexpectedly rich aesthetic lives of Eleanor and Edsel Ford.

Their 1916 wedding united two of Detroit’s most important clans. Edsel was the son of Henry Ford and heir to the Ford Motor Company; Eleanor Clay was the niece of one of the city’s leading merchants, Joseph L. Hudson, and first cousin to Robert Tannahill, whose peerless collection now enriches the Detroit Institute of Arts. Beginning with the wildly successful Model A, Edsel Ford revolutionized the American automobile industry, creating cars that captured the spirit of their era—dream machines in streamlined shapes and dashing colors. Ford’s interest in the fine and decorative arts caused him to be named a founding trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, and he and Eleanor were the most influential patrons in the history of the Detroit Institute of Arts—going so far as to pay staff salaries during the Depression. Even Diego Rivera, brought to the city by Ford to paint the famous Detroit Industry murals, was surprised by the passion and open-mindedness of his sponsor, who, he observed, “was quite lacking the characteristics of an exploiting capitalist.”

Although the couple had a strong attraction to contemporary design, cutting-edge modernism took a backseat when they began to plan their new house on 125 lakefront acres in the fashionable suburb of Grosse Pointe Shores. They wanted a private retreat, appropriate to the neighborhood and their public persona, as well as a family home for their children (Henry II, Benson, Josephine and William Clay). Their choice of architect Albert Kahn was a comfortable fit: Like Ford, Kahn knew how to work with many kinds of design, from the modernism of the Ford Rouge plant, considered the prototype of twentieth-century industrial architecture, to the traditionalism of his residential commissions. After an extensive survey of English architecture, the couple selected the understated Cotswold style.

Kahn designed a gracious sixty-room house resembling a Cotswold village. The exterior was fashioned in Briarhill sandstone from Ohio; the interior was paneled and plastered in the seventeenth-century English manner. Construction took three years—from 1926 to 1929—and no detail was overlooked. A different intricate pattern adorned each of the ten plaster ceilings, and the gabled roof was covered with limestone tiles—period and new—laid by English workers imported for the purpose. These artisans knew how to make a proper Cotswold roof, laying smaller and smaller tiles as they ascended toward the peak. (To this day English workers are brought in to make repairs.) The same craftsmen installed the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century paneling and other architectural details culled by the Fords from old English manors. The library was designed around seventeenth-century oak paneling and a Caen stone chimneypiece from Deene Park, while eighteenth-century pine paneling from Spitalfields was seamlessly installed in the morning room. The house contains elements from six English estates, including a circa 1600 staircase from Lyvedon Old Bield Manor in Northamptonshire.

On their early scouting trips abroad, the Fords were accompanied by their art history mentor, William R. Valentiner, the new director of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Valentiner helped lay the groundwork for the paintings, furniture and decorative objects that filled their rooms. The Fords were quick studies, and through dealers such as Joseph Duveen, Wildenstein and others, they were soon buying old-master oils, including Annunciatory Angel by Fra Angelico, and English portraits like Mrs. Richard Paul Jodrell by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Mrs. Irvine J. Boswell by Sir Henry Raeburn. Such purchases were standard fare for wealthy industrialists of the 1920s, but the Fords went on to make audacious and, in retrospect, brilliant choices, among them van Gogh’s The Postman Roulin, Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire and Bouilloire et Fruits, as well as works by Matisse, Renoir and Chagall.

The couple’s approach also led them to acquire everything from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English and French furniture to ancient Persian and Chinese ceramics, medieval ivories, Islamic pottery and African art. There are no period rooms in the Ford house. Objects mingle naturally, emulating far more closely the true spirit of an English country house than the determinedly “Olde English” gallery and cloister Kahn provided. The collection is an amalgamation of all the couple admired: After seeing designer Walter Dorwin Teague’s work on the Ford World’s Fair pavilions of the 1930s, Ford brought him to Grosse Pointe. The result was one of the first Art Déco rooms in Detroit (still a bit of a shock to visitors to the house), in which leather-lined walls and sleek curved surfaces evoke the interior of a luxury automobile. Upstairs, Teague created three more rooms for the Ford boys, featuring Art Déco furniture, hidden entertainment systems and art by Lyonel Feininger and Juan Gris.

The more formal, antiques-filled rooms were also expected to accommodate active family living. When the children played tag around the sixteenth-century Italian octagonal table in the gallery, nobody whisked away the Han Dynasty wine jar it supported. In the same room, a rare James I court cupboard was casually mounted with a radio—entertainment for family gatherings that sometimes also included first-run movies. 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).

Jensen preached the glorification of the Midwest prairie, the use of native plants and a planned informality, although his preference for natural undergrowth was overridden by the Fords’ insistence on unobscured sight lines (the threat of kidnapping was very real). Consequently, the landscaping has a deceptive openness that keeps the house from view until the visitor is nearly upon it. Jensen also remade some of the actual contours of the landscape, dredging a nearby cove and building up a sandbar into a wildlife sanctuary. Like ponds in a manicured meadow, his irregularly shaped 132-foot-long swimming pool drained into a lagoon and then into the lake beyond.

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 cavernous fireplace is dark. After Edsel died in 1943 at the age of forty-nine, his widow 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. The illusion is complete. It is easy to imagine Eleanor Ford slipping out the front door, being helped into her tall black car and disappearing around a curve in the drive.

* * *

Edsel Ford: The Businessman as Artist

John Dean

1934 Ford Model 40 Special Speedster

The Dark Knight Returns

Jessica Walker photographer Todd Lassawriter

Jan 16, 2013


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.

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.”

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 & Colour 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.

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 panic.

In 1931, Ford hired 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.

“My hands became Edsel’s tools in developing designs,” Gregorie said. “I was able to put on paper and into clay the designs he was visualizing in his head.” Gregorie 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.

“Accounts say Edsel was disappointed that this first car wasn’t lower and racier,” Gross writes.

Edsel gave Gregorie carte blanche use of a Depression-idled Ford aircraft plant. In the summer of 1934, “discussions about a Ford sports car came up again,” Gregorie told The Henry Ford. “This incidentally is really the beginning of the Continental. I developed a sports car chassis based on the 1934 Ford.”

The car was lowered by modifying the front spring perches and I-beam axle, while retaining the transverse leaf spring’s stock position. Wishbones were split, and custom attachments were fabricated. Two front crossmembers on each side of the radiator “resemble the best aircraft practice of the era,” Gross continues. Chassis side members, especially in the center section, are much deeper than a stock Ford’s. Gregorie reversed the rear kick-up and welded on an underslung section, with frame rails passing under the rear axle.

Ford Aircraft craftsmen fabricated the sleek body from high-quality sheet aluminum, mounted over a custom-welded tubular aluminum frame. “At first glance, this car looks a great deal like the 1935 Miller-Ford Indianapolis 500 two-man race cars,” Gross writes, “but it was designed and built one year prior to their construction.” It’s painted in Edsel’s favorite color: Pearl Essence Gunmetal Dark.

It resembles the boattailed 1930 MG Midget that Edsel garaged at Gaukler Point, “upsized” like the Model 40 versions of Gregorie’s English Model Y. The two-seat cockpit is at the extreme rear of the wheelbase. Dash-to-axle proportions stretch into the next time zone.

Its 75-hp, 221-cubic-inch flathead V-8 reportedly cracked its block during a 1939-’40 winter freeze, Gross writes. Edsel replaced it with a 239-cubic-inch V-8 from Ford’s new Mercury brand, the engine that’s now under the side-hinged hood. At some point, a Thickstun dual carburetor intake manifold, hotter cam, and Edelbrock high-compression cylinder heads were added. The Edelbrocks have since been removed and it’s rated 100 hp — 5 more than a stock Mercury engine.

I remove my shoes and gingerly step over the cutdown into the passenger seat, and swing my legs under the gearshift. The warmed engine doesn’t require any choke when I press the starter button, which cranks the V-8 into an easy, laid-back burble. My left leg needs a long throw to the clutch pedal as I shift the non-synchro three-speed into first. I’m elbows-out at the wheel, which turns easily and sharply on the thin Coker-Firestone Deluxe Champion 5.25/5.50-17s. There’s lots of positive camber front, negative rear. Peering past the engine-turned dash over the forward pass-length hood, this is the Edsel/Gregorie philosophy of styling: a big, stylish roadster with no extraneous parts, nor the chrome Earl worshipped. It’s clearly a precursor to several future Continentals.

The car is sprung stiffly enough to provide a modicum of whatever was considered good handling in the ’30s, though the ride is reasonably comfortable. The steering is quick and direct, the hand-fabricated front fenders turning with the wheels. Brakes feel ephemeral. My drive of the unlicensed car is limited to the vast Ford House grounds, where groundskeepers mow for a day and a half twice a week to keep the lawn trim. The car easily shifts through second and third. When I get the opportunity to goose the throttle pedal, the loping burble turns into a late-’60s musclecar roar. I feel the torque’s strong pull, though I’m wary of the temp gauge and work to keep it under 180 degrees Fahrenheit.

Shortly before the engine swap, Gregorie designed a new grille with horizontal vents below new flush headlamps on the lower fascia. Earlier, he designed a third two-seater in the winter of 1934, called Special Sports. Gross writes that Edsel approved Gregorie’s plan to shop a coachbuilder to produce the car in limited numbers. Gregorie and friend Walter Kruke made the rounds of East Coast bodybuilders in a car with side curtains but no heater. John S. Inskip, from Gregorie’s former employer, Brewster, showed interest, but only if Ford would build a small assembly plant. Edsel declined, and when he couldn’t get Ford of England to build the car, he gave the ’35 Special Sports to Gregorie.

Gregorie went on to design the unibody 1936 Lincoln Zephyr, 1939 Lincoln Continental, and, even though he left Ford for the second and last time in 1946, the 1949 Mercury.

Edsel’s death came at age 49, on May 26, 1943, four years before that of his father. Gregorie quit Ford shortly after Edsel had passed away, though Henry II, Edsel’s son, convinced him to return for a couple of years. The Speedster, valued at $200, was bequeathed to Eleanor, who lived at the Gaukler Point house until her death in 1976 (see sidebar). She never had a driver’s license. In 1946, 38-year-old Gregorie moved to St. Augustine, Florida, where he returned to designing yachts and where he died in 2002, aged 94.

Twenty years after the Speedster, Ford finally built a two-seat sports car, a response to Chevrolet‘s Corvette. If not for Edsel Ford and Bob Gregorie, there might not have been a 1955 Thunderbird, a ’61 Continental, or a Mustang. Ford would be playing PC to GM’s Apple.

Henry “was frustrated by styling and design,” Gregorie said. “He had no interest in that at all, and that’s the reason Edsel Ford must have been awfully frustrated that his father would not take any interest in that phase of the automobile. Mr. Ford had established himself as a mechanical genius, so to speak. I think the old gentleman had a feeling that Edsel Ford was too artistic for the automobile business, if I can put it that way. Do you follow me?”

Cozy Cottage

Albert Kahn, Detroit’s most influential architect, designed the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House to resemble a collection of Cotswold cottages. The interior is “modern” in the 1920s-to-mid-century sense. Danish landscape architect Jens Jensen aligned the trees and gardens to the path of the setting sun. The house and grounds are owned by the Edsel & Eleanor Ford Foundation, separate from The Henry Ford museum and Ford Motor Company.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Motor Trend classic.


Engine 239.0-cu-in/3917cc flathead V-8, 2×2-bbl Stromberg 97 carburetors
Power and torque (SAE gross, estimated) 100-115 hp @ 3600 rpm,
170 lb-ft @ 2100 rpm
Drivetrain 3-speed manual, RWD Brakes front: drum, rear: drum
Suspension front: solid axle, transverse leaf-spring;
rear: live axle, leaf springs
Dimensions L: 172.0 in, W: 70.0, H: 56.5,
Weight 2100 pounds
Performance N/A
Price when new $100,000

Megan Callewaert is collections manager at the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House, which acquired the Model 40 Special Speedster in 2010.

WHY I LIKE IT: “It just looks really cool. The color choices, that gunmetal color Edsel favored, is unique and classy. For the estate, we’re collecting cars Edsel owned. He had other estates; on our ledgers, he had 20, 30 cars, and this just speaks to honing his design skills.”

WHY IT’S COLLECTIBLE: “This was a one-off Edsel really had an influence on, working with E.T. Gregorie. Edsel was happy with it, but it was overheating. He got a chance to go back and fix it. Having an excuse to do that, I think, is unique. Edsel was very much about the look and design of it, but he also liked speed.”

RESTORING/MAINTAINING: “After we purchased it, the car spent over a year at RM Restorations. They were able to restore the original 1940 engine, and did a beautiful job.”

BEWARE: “We took a really long time making sure we got the color correct. RM buffed the paint down on the car to find a layer of paint that matched the invoice we had in our archives. We went into the Benson Ford archives, and found a 1932-’33 paint chip book that had the original chip from Rinshed-Mason Paints, which was being used by Ford Motor Company at that time. From that, we were able to make our own custom paint.”


THEN: Edsel “liked the way it handled and was generally pleased with the design.” — Designer Jim Farrell, “Ford Design Department Concepts & Showcars.”

NOW: The Edsel/Gregorie Speedster isn’t just an early example of Ford “Continental” design, it’s an early example of “One Ford,” melding European sensibilities with American V-8 power.

The Model 40 Special Speedster’s Sales Prices, Adjusted For Inflation In 2012 Dollars

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Edsel Ford – Made In Detroit – Peter Epp

March 28, 2018

Old Autos

It was against Henry Ford II’s better judgment in 1955 that he allowed a committee of Ford executives to choose his father’s name to promote an entirely new division of Ford-built vehicles.

But the men at the Ford Motor Company were so confident that the new division would achieve all of their financial and manufacturing objectives that they deemed it the highest honour to name it after Edsel Bryant Ford.

Henry Ford II, Edsel’s eldest child and the president of Ford, was at first against the idea but grudgingly relented. Yet after the new Edsel was introduced and then quickly bombed in the marketplace, Henry Ford II rued the day he had allowed the name of his beloved father to become synonymous with such a public failure.

Edsel Ford deserved better, much better. The only child of the first Henry Ford and his wife, the former Clara Bryant, Edsel was the heir to one of the largest manufacturing concerns on the planet.

But he was also a sensitive, artistic man who loved automobiles and who had pushed his father, mostly without success, to improve the cars built by the Ford Motor Company.

For most of his life, Edsel was overshadowed by his father’s staggering success and by Old Henry’s frequently obsessive personality. Edsel’s influence on the company was therefore stifled and his potential as an auto executive and leader among Detroit’s most influential men was never fully realized.

Tragically, his life was cut short at age 49. Edsel Ford died in May 1943 from cancer. His dominant father out-lived him by four years; his sympathetic mother by seven.

Edsel wasn’t born into wealth or privilege. His parents had been married for five years by the time Edsel was born in Detroit in 1893. Henry Ford, however, was already well-known in the tight-knit fraternity of engineers and manufacturing men of the city. When Edsel was not yet three years old, Henry developed his first automobile, building the contraption in a tiny garage beside the modest house shared with his wife and their little boy.

By the time Edsel was 20, in 1913, his father was arguably the most important non-political person in the United States, and certainly on his way to becoming the wealthiest American. The Ford Motor Company that year was just hitting is stride, building more than half the cars sold in the U.S., and its chief shareholder, Henry Ford, was contemplating even greater things. And he wanted Edsel to be part of that.

But there always existed within Henry an ambivalent regard for his only child. He truly loved Edsel, yet harboured a consuming jealousy whose bitterness had the capacity to poison his relationship with whom he interacted, including his son. It was as if Henry couldn’t stand to share any of the considerable glory that shone on the Ford Motor Company, not even with his own flesh and blood and the heir to the company.

By the time Edsel was 26, in 1919, Henry had succeeded in buying out all of the non-family held shares in the Ford Motor Company. He made Edsel company president but remained the real power, over-riding Edsel’s suggestions and concern for the company’s future.

Most of the conflict swirled around the Model T, which since its inception in 1908 had become an incredible success. But Henry was loath to make an improvement to the Model T, surmising that the original design was perfect. To remain competitive within the marketplace, he lowered the sale price of the car, sometimes several times a year. Yet Henry found that the more he lowered the price, the more cars he sold. Thus, his genius continued to be validated.

By the early 1920s, cars such as General Motors’ Chevrolet were starting to gain popularity because of technical innovations and modern styling, and it was Edsel who pleaded with his father to make changes to the Model T.

Henry wouldn’t budge, and indeed viewed it as treason that his son and other Ford executives would even suggest that his car needed improvement. Henry Ford must have viewed the Model T as an extension of his own existence and personality, for suggestions of improvement to the car were thought to be assaults on his personal being. He not only loved the car but also the industrial process that brought the vehicle to existence, and both were sacred.

There is a telling story of the time when Henry travelled to Europe on business and upon his return was led into a back room at one of the Ford factories where a beaming Edsel unveiled a Model T prototype that had been secreted updated and improved. Henry walked closely around the car, grabbed a nearby axe and in a fury started to hack the car apart.

It wasn’t until August 1926 that the old man finally relented and plans were made for a new car, the Model A. The final Model T was assembled in May 1927, and for the next six months Ford factories lay quiet as they were retooled to prepare for the launch of the new vehicle – the first new Ford car within a generation.

Edsel had a huge role in the Model A’s development, advocating for refinements and improvements. The styling was left to him alone. The Model A was an enormous hit, selling four million units within four years.

Henry had initially allowed Edsel to fulfill his passion for automobile design when the Ford Motor Company purchased the Lincoln Motor Car Company in 1922 for $8 million. Edsel was left mostly alone to make crucial engineering and styling decisions for Lincoln, and while never a profitable division, Lincoln’s progress was steady and its public profile was quietly elevated over the years.

In the 1930s, Edsel’s styling influence was further explored within the Lincoln brand. He alone deserves credit for the handsome Lincoln Zephyr, for his own personal automobile that became the template for the classic Lincoln Continental, and for the launch and development of Mercury in the late 1930s.

Zephyr was introduced as an inexpensive Lincoln to better compete for those few dollars within the Depression-era marketplace that were being set upon by the likes of Cadillac and Packard, both which had cheaper variations of their automobiles, the LaSalle and the Packard 120. LaSalle never sold well, but continued to be the style leader within the General Motors family. The 120 turned out to be a phenomenal seller for Packard, whose portfolio was entirely devoted to luxury car and therefore to an extremely limited market.

The Zephyr was streamlined and featured a boat-like prow for its grille that was far more attractive than the streamlined Airflow cars that Chrysler had introduced for 1934 for its Chrysler and DeSoto divisions. Zephyr was also lighter than most cars and featured a V12 engine that was engineered to fit into its narrow engine bay.

The car was a stunning hit for Ford and a personal achievement for Edsel Ford.

Another personal achievement for Edsel was his family. He had married Eleanor Clay in 1915 (she was a niece to J.L. Hudson, founder of Detroit’s premier department store and the principal investor for a car company that bore his name Hudson. So popular was the Hudson brand in the early 1920s that was the third most popular nameplate in America). Their eldest child was Henry Ford II (1917-1987) Their second child was Benson Ford (1919-1978). Their only daughter was Josephine Clay Ford (1923-2005). Their youngest child was William Clay Ford (1925-2014), a retired executive with the Ford Motor Company and the long-time owner of the Detroit Lions.

Eleanor Ford always blamed her father-in-law for her husband’s death. With the pressure of the company almost entirely on his shoulders, but with little support from his father, Edsel had developed health problems while in his 40s, including an ulcer. Eventually, he was overcome with stomach cancer yet continued with the company.

Henry was 79 years old when Edsel died and his mind wasn’t as sharp as it once had been. But he had never invested confidence into his son’s abilities, and whatever confidence was permitted was always grudgingly extended. Perversely, Henry had lent highly visible support to some unsavoury characters within the Ford Motor Company, and together they had allowed the company to be horribly mismanaged. Edsel knew this, and was compelled to deal with the fallout, but was unable to break his father’s hold on Ford. In the end, it was Edsel’s health that broke.

Edsel Ford’s death created an immediate crisis of the highest magnitude. Large and immense were the problems within the Ford Motor Company that the U.S. government – which was counting on Ford to fulfil crucial military contracts for the war effort – feared that a company collapse could sink America’s industrial front against the Axis powers.

The Roosevelt Administration therefore called upon Henry Ford II, who was in the Navy, to return to civilian life and join the company’s management. Three years later, Young Henry was named president of the Ford Motor Company, although Old Henry initially, and naturally, didn’t want that.

It was Eleanor who put her foot down and told her father-in-law that if her eldest son wasn’t permitted to lead the company and assume a role that had been denied her long-suffering husband, she would sell the shares she had inherited from Edsel.

Clara Ford agreed with her widowed daughter-in-law and told her husband that she would leave him if he didn’t submit to their wishes. The old man did. He died less than two years later.

The story of Edsel Ford is rather tragic. In his own right, Edsel was brilliantly talented and, in fact, held in high esteem by members of Detroit’s ruling class. Had he been allowed to take over the reins of the Ford Motor Company in the 1930s, perhaps upon the permanent “retirement” of his father in 1933 at age 70, it’s highly unlikely that the company would have drifted into the financial shambles it had become in 1943.

It was once said that James Couzens, the Chatham, Ontario-born man who had helped organize the Ford Motor Company in 1903, and who had become a major shareholder and then had a huge falling out with Henry Ford, once told Ford that he didn’t envy him for anything – “except for your son.”

But any success that was accorded to Edsel was always, and will always be, overshadowed by the brilliant genius that consumed Henry Ford and eventually consumed his only son.

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New National Authentic Map of Detroit and Environs

Map of Detroit in 1930

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