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.

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