Bob Thomas and the Confessions of an Automobile Stylist

Bob Thomas and the Confessions of an Automobile Stylist

Above Photo:  Bob Thomas, Harley Copp and John Reinhart at the rear of the fiberglass styling model of the Continental Mark II complete with interior.  Spring, 1954.

Bob Thomas and the Confessions of an Automobile Stylist

by Tim Howley (Editor’s Corner)

Originally published in the September-October 1996 issue of Continental Comments (Issue # 212).

Anybody who is a student of the Continental Mark II should be familiar with the name of Bob Thomas, one of the principal architects of that milestone automobile. Thomas was descended from the McGuffeys who wrote the McGuffey Reader. Senior Henry Ford’s interest in the McGuffey Reader prompted him to call young Bob to Greenfield Village. There Ford personally offered him a job as a guide, draftsman and artist. Later Bob was hired as an apprentice in the original Ford styling department in 1937. This put him at that point in history when and where the original Lincoln Continental Cabriolet was styled in 1938. He is the only stylist who worked on the three famous Continentals—the 1940, v1956 and 1961.

In 1939, Thomas moved over to Hudson styling and then went into the Army. After the war, he worked for GM styling, then returned to Ford in 1947 to get in on the tail end of the 1949 Ford design project. When they draped it with chrome to create the 1950 Ford Crestliner, Bob got so mad he defected to Nash. Then he returned in 1952 as a key member of the Continental Mark II design team. He remained in Ford styling until his retirement in 1974. Few stylists have a career that compares to this one. Today, Bob is anything but retired in San Diego, California. He teaches piano, plays musical instruments and makes videos on collector car shows for public access television. He has written two books, or should I say one book, now with a major revision. Confessions of an Automotive Stylist, published in 1984, is about Bob and his life and many years in automobile styling. The recently revised book is more about the remarkable people he met during a career that spanned four decades.

He talks about Harley Earl who he says, “Scared the hell out of everybody he came in contact with, even me”. He says that even though Earl didn’t lift a pencil to design cars he is the father of American Automobile styling. He talks about Bob Gregorie and his incredible relationship with Edsel Ford that produced those amazing Ford designs of the late ‘30s. A staff of only about 25 people designed Ford cars and trucks, Mercurys, Lincolns and the Lincoln Continental. This included stylists, clay modelers, assistants and apprentices. He remembers Frank Spring who was the head of Hudson styling. He also remembers Bill Mitchell who followed Harley Earl at GM. He remembers Gordon Buehrig who was chief body engineer on the Continental Mark II. But most of all, he warmly remembers John Reinhart who was the Continental Mark II chief stylist. Reinhart and Thomas ate together, traveled to Europe together, drank together, and burned midnight oil together to take the Mark II from rough sketches to reality. The book is a must for every Mark II enthusiast, if for no other reason, to gain keen personal, often tearful insights into the heartbreaking Mark II story.

But this book is hardly limited to the Mark II saga. Take, for example, the 1949 Ford. At Hudson in the late ‘30s there was a fellow named Dick Caleal. He dressed like Raymond Loewy and smoked 25 cent cigars. He was more of a promoter than a designer. Well, as fate would have it, Caleal got involved with George Walker in the ‘49 Ford styling project. The design, prepared by Studebaker stylists moonlighting, was delivered by Caleal to Ford, and was picked over Ford’s own in-house presentation. Ever since, Caleal has taken credit for the ‘49 Ford. Thomas sets the record straight, telling how much Joe Oros and Elwood Engel refined that design to bring Caleal’s cigar smoke into a production reality. It is insights like this that make the revised Thomas book such enjoyable reading, and there are dozens of unique and humerous stories told here.

I won’t try to chronicle all of them. The Mark II story is the most fascinating of all because it represents the high point in Bob Thomas’ career, and it is told so compellingly. Thomas deplores the cars of what he calls “the crazy ‘50s,” when anything went and stylists blasted off for the moon in rockets. Harley Earl was in his age of golden gorp thrown on with a trowl. Virgil Exner over at Chrysler gave the world the highest fin and Earl made the fin high camp. Detroit styling went nuts.

At the newly created Special Products Division of the Ford Motor Company cooler heads prevailed to create the Continental Mark II, one of the great classic designs from a totally befuddled era.

For the third time at Ford Bob Thomas was in the right place at the right time. Or as Bob tells it in his book, “What happened to me during the crazy ‘50s? I got lucky”. He became a key player in one of Ford’s greatest Shakespearian dramas.

“Bill Ford was given the job of doing the Continental and as it turned out, he was the right man for the job,” writes Thomas. He was named vice-president of the Special Products Division of Ford Motor and was given the buildings of the old Ford Trade School as headquarters. The beauty of the place was that it was isolated from the rest of the company (meaning all the crazy goings on) and the basketball court made a great styling studio. Bill’s right hand man in this new setup was Harley Copp. Harley was a great engineer but I think his genius was in organization. He had a knack for putting his key personnel as chiefs in body engineering, chassis engineering, manufacturing, product planning, sales, and styling while backing them up with assistants who had different personalities and abilities…John Reinhart was the consumate stylist with impeccable taste. I was hired to keep order. Progress reports came to my desk in writing, but working for John Reinhart and Bill Ford was the most rewarding styling experience of my life”.

The first design they did was a deliberate update of the 1948 Lincoln Continental Coupe. Henry Ford II was not impressed. He walked out of the meeting suggesting they start over. All were crushed. The worst was yet to come. Ford hired four outside consultants to help them design the car. They were George Walker, Walter Buhl Ford, Vince Gardner, and Grisinger and Miller. Then fate dealt a strange hand. Without knowing who had designed what, the styling committee unanimously selected Reinhart & Company’s second proposal. “It was an interesting choice for the design was the most modern of all  the proposals,” recalls Thomas.

How the Continental Star emblem came about is a story as bizarre as Caleal and the ‘49 Ford. Here is what Thomas recently told Continental Comments: “When the basic design of the car was approved and we were doing the details, Bill Ford was to make a speech to build a 25 million dollar plant for the manufacture of the car, and the podium for the speech had Ford, Mercury and Lincoln emblems on the front. So, we were asked to do an emblem. During the flurry of getting our clay model ready for showing, we forgot about the emblem. The next morning I woke in a start. ‘My God, we don’t have a design for this morning’s meeting.’ I got to the studio and started working on the design. I had been thinking about a Continentalo emblem for several months and settled on a four pointed star from the Lincoln emblem and the lions and roundals from the Ford Crest. All I had to do was to put it down on paper. It took me about an hour. Bill Ford got approval for the new plant and we had an emblem. It was featured in the center of the steering wheel and as a hood ornament without the lions and roundals. It was an example of doing the right thing at the right time.” This story is carried in great detail in the book, as are many other amazing stories. This is why the book is called Confessions.

Naturally Thomas has his own version of why the car was taken out of production after only two short years. He blames it all on the “beancounters”. John Reinhart was utterly devastated and soon left Ford. Thomas rolled with the punches. He stresses that the whole industry at the time was nuts. Bob kept his cool. In a few years he would become a key player on the 1961 Lincoln Continental project.

Elsewhere in this issue of Continental Comments, William Clay Ford recalls the Continental Mark II project and tells why he thinks the car was killed after 1957. Read William Clay’s version. He pretty much agrees with Bob. Get ahold of the Bob Thomas book and you’ll have the whole story and a whole lot more.

For $25 Bob will personally autograph the book and send it to you first class. His address is 10539 Caminito Polio, San Diego, CA 92126.

The Ambassador’s Lincoln

The Ambassador’s Lincoln

The Ambassador’s Lincoln

by Jim Farrell

Originally published in the July-August 1996 issue of Continental Comments (Issue # 211).

In October and November 1927, Ford dealers were eagerly on their way to Dearborn, Michigan—some on Ford Tri-Motor airplanes—to get their first look at the long awaited Model A Ford. The comment most often heard from dealers who saw the soon to be introduced Model A, was how pleased they were that it looked like the Lincoln. That family resemblance was not by accident. Edsel Ford had spent the previous five or so years, refining the looks of the Lincoln, and had succeeded in making it a style leader.

The success of the Lincoln L and the Ford Model A were instrumental in proving to Henry Ford that when it came to styling, Edsel not only knew what he was doing, but what he did sold cars. In the years to come, the clean but racy styling of the early Ford V-8, the Lincoln K, KB and KA, early Mercurys, the Lincoln-Zephyr, and the early Continentals were all the result of Edsel’s earlier successes in determining what Ford Motor Co. products ought to look like.

Lincoln L

The Ambassador from Peru used this car until 1943. The second owner turned it into a cargo carrier and tow truck. Collector Bill Kuettel found it in #5 condition, and now has turned it into a top prize winner from Dearborn to Pebble Beach.

The Lincoln L reached the end of its life span in 1930. By that time, Ford had caught up with the demand for new Model A’s, and the onset of the Depression mandated a new model if Lincoln was to remain in competition for those few buyers who still had the money and the desire to own a luxury car.

The Lincoln L was the original product the Fords got from the Lelands when they bought the company in 1922. Starting in 1922 Ford improved construction techniques at Lincoln, and made a few refinements to the technologically superior mechanics Henry Leland had incorporated in the Lincoln Model L when it was first put into production in early 1920. The Lincoln the Fords got from the Lelands, although mechanically superior, had stodgy styling which was probably the reason the Lelands failed as automobile manufacturers.

If there was doubt in anyone’s mind, however, about the mechanical superiority of the Lincoln L, it was put to rest in 1923 when Lincoln beat out nine other makes asked by the Detroit Police Department to compete for use as a police vehicle that could perform well enough and went fast enough to catch the bootleggers and crooks who always seemed to have faster cars. By the late 1920’s, the Lincoln L “police flyer’ was preferred by big city police departments all over the country.

The Ambassador’s Lincoln takes Best In Class at the 1995 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

In its own right, and even though it was barely beginning to reflect the influence of streamlining, the Lincoln L of the late 1920s was recognized by the public as as fine a car as was then available. Even after the body and upholstery began to  show the effect of wear and tear, and with the passage of years became outdated, the chassis and running gear of the Lincoln L remained reliable and as good or better than anything else on the road. Old Lincoln Model L’s didn’t wear out. Probably more than any other car during that time period, Lincoln Model L’s were regularly converted into tow trucks, service trucks and campers. In the 1930s and even on up into the 1940s, it was common to see Lincoln Ls once fitted with the finest in custom body work, converted to commercial use by chopping off the body and replacing it with something that met the requirements of the preferred commercial use.

There weren’t all that many Lincoln Model L’s built in the first place, and the secondary market that developed for converting used Model Ls into commercial vehicles, further decreased the number of untouched, uncut ones that survived. Some of the ones that did survive into the early 1940s, were scrapped as part of the war effort during World War II. We will never know how many were lost this way.

During the calendar year 1928, only 6,362 Lincolns were built. (Compare this with 713,528 1928 Model A Fords built.) One of the rarest is the Holbrook collapsible roof, five-passenger Cabriolet. Eight 1928 collapsible Cabriolet Lincolns were built by custom coach builder Holbrook Co. A total of only 27 were built by Holbrook between 1926 and 1929. Each one sold for some $8,000. (Compare this to the $1,200 price tag for the 1929 Ford Model A Town Car and the $395 price tag for the Ford Model A Phaeton.) Holbrook, one of the smaller custom coach builders, was located in Hudson, New York. Before it went out of business in January, 1930, a victim of the Depression, Holbrook built special order bodies for Packard, Franklin, Cadillac and Lincoln.

In 1988, Bill Kuettel of Capitola, California, found one of the two 1928 Lincoln Holbrook collapsible roof, five passenger Cabriolets known to still exist. (The fancy name really means that it is a town car—no permanent enclosure over the driver’s seat area—but with a leather top over the closed passenger area that can be lowered just like a convertible.) The car Bill found has an interesting history that in some ways confirms the mechanical reliability and longevity of the Lincoln L.

The original owner of this particular 1928 Lincoln was diplomat Alfredo Gonzales Prada. Senor Prada was born into a wealthy and influential Peruvian family. His father was a well-known Peruvian author and political activist. Prada, while still in his early ‘30s, was assigned to the Peruvian legation in Washington D.C. as first secretary.

At about the time he took delivery of the 1928 Model L that Bill Kuettel now owns, Senor Prada was appointed Charge D’Affairs at the Peruvian legation. Senor Prada had seen a 1927 model Holbrook bodied Lincoln Collapsible Cabriolet at the Paris Auto Show. When he returned to the United States he ordered an identical car for his own use. The car Senor Prada ordered was built on the first Lincoln chassis and engine made in 1928. It is not hard to imagine the impression that Prada and his American wife made in their new Lincoln, both in diplomatic circles and on the social circuit. However, only a year later, Prada resigned from the diplomatic corp after a public squabble with the former American ambassador to Peru and the ambassador’s friend, the president of Peru and Prada’s boss, over the alleged mistreatment of a Peruvian servant of the American ambassador. It was a tangled affair. As happened all too often in that era in some South American countries, in 1930 the Peruvian president Senor Prada had squabbled with was unceremoniously removed from office by revolutionaries and replaced by a close friend of the Prada family. At the time the government in his homeland changed, Senor Prada and his wife were on a world tour, which was interrupted when Prada was sent to England to serve as Peruvian Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Once he arrived in England, Senor Prada promptly had his Lincoln L shipped over from the States, where it again was the perfect car for Ambassador Prada’s diplomatic and social duties.

After resigning from the diplomatic service for the second and last time in 1932, Prada spent much of his time traveling and editing his father’s writings. All through this time period, and up until the time of his death in 1943, when he “fell out” the window of his twenty-second floor apartment on Central Park South in New York City, Ambassador Prada kept and used the Lincoln, maybe as a reminder of the prestige of former times and certainly as a sign of his real affection for the car. The car also made many trips back and forth between the Pradas’ New York City home and Washington D.C. where they still had many friends and a full calendar of social events.

The second owner of the Lincoln L was Hans Hinrich of St. Louis, Missouri, who bought the car from the Prada estate in 1944. The Lincoln L was not purchased for its collector car value, but as a sturdy and reliable, if somewhat unusual, work horse. Mr. Hinrich was a collector of stationary gas engines. This Lincoln L, with its 485 cubic inch V-8 engine, was used as a fancy cargo carrier and tow vehicle; Mr. Hinrich traveled about the mid-west pulling a big trailer and looking for gas engines to buy. In 1946, during one of his trips, Mr. Hinrich stumbled upon a fire truck he liked. He bought and towed it home, behind the Lincoln L. When Mr. Hinrich died in 1980, the Lincoln passed to his son Ludwig, who had it shipped to his home in Grass Valley, California. Hans Hinrich also owned two other town cars, a Packard and a Cadillac. They went to his other two sons who had no interest in old cars, and soon sold them to the Imperial Palace Auto Collection in Las Vegas, Nevada, where they can be found today. Although Ludwig had the interest, he soon realized he didn’t have the resources to restore the Lincoln.

One of Ludwig’s sidelines was selling yogurt at local fairs. At one such fair he set up shop next to a concession run by one of Bill Kuettel’s tenants. As soon as Bill heard about the car from the tenant, he contacted Ludwig, and they soon struck a deal on the car.

When Bill Kuettel bought the car from Ludwig in 1988, it was but a shell of its former self. Hans Hinrich last used the Lincoln L in 1960, and even though it was in storage at his home in St. Louis until his death, the years were not kind to it. The body was rusted, the leather top torn, the upholstery badly water stained, and the wood frame of the 60 year old custom body was rotting away; but at least it was mostly intact, and it only had 44,000 miles on it. Bill trailered the car to his ranch near Capitola, California, and with a helper, started what became a five year long body off restoration. Everything was disassembled down to the frame and refurbished to its original luster and configuration.

The parts that were missing proved difficult to find. Bill spent several years going to swap meets all across the country looking for needed parts. The hardest to find were the back seat microphone, the back seat clock, and the cigar case ensconced in the vanity box.

Reproduction of the leather top over the passenger compartment of the car proved to be an almost insurmountable problem. The top was originally made out of a long grained embossed leather that hadn’t been made for years. It took finding a tannery in Ohio and coaxing the disbelieving owners into processing seven hides Bill was begging to send them on old time rollers long since gathering dust. It wasn’t cheap, but the problem was solved.

The exterior of the car is refinished in black as is the chauffeur’s compartment. The passenger compartment is finished in gray wool (no embroidery) with rosewood trim and is quite striking. The top is fully collapsible. When it is down, the door windows rolled down, the divider window rolled down into the seat back, and the “B” pillars collapsed inward on the front seat back, the car looks just like a four door phaeton.

Bill Kuettel’s Holbrook bodied Lincoln L, now restored to its former glory, won best of show at the 1995 Lincoln Owners Club Meet in Dearborn, Michigan and best in class at the 1995 Pebble Beach Concours. In 1996 this fine car won a Ford Trophy at the LCOC Western National Meet in Fresno, California.

Bill has two other Lincoln L’s; a 1927 Lincoln bodied sedan in original condition with only 13,000 miles on it, and a Dietrich bodied 1928 Lincoln pickup truck that was used for many years as a shop truck at a Virginia City, Nevada silver mine. Bill’s plans are to make the pickup into a rolling chassis display.

Photos for this article were furnished by Jim Farrell, and Bill Kuettel shown here.