(first posted 8/29/2011) The 1938 Lincoln Zephyr’s low and horizontal mustache grille may not look very revolutionary to most of us today, but it played a key role in triggering one of the most significant and lasting design transformations, not unlike the 1959 GM cars and the 1960 Corvair. GM Styling Head Harley Earl was quoted as saying: “Oh my God, how did we miss on that one? That’s going to ruin us”. Ironically, the new grille was not the result of stylistic creativity for its own sake, but the very pragmatic solution to a technical problem. Thanks to a link of an interview with Ford designer “Bob” Gregoire provided by CC commentator redmondjp on the 1936 Ford post, here’s the story of how it came to be, and its lasting influence.
The 1936 and 1937 Lincoln Zephyrs had a very handsome front end, designed by Gregoire to make the radical rear-engined Zephyr concept by Tom Tjaarda look more conventional, along with its front engine. Gregoire gave it the pointed upside-down boat-hull prow that he knew Edsel Ford favored. And as a result, the Zephyr avoided the controversial looks of that first American streamlining attempt, the Chrysler Airflow.
This was pretty consistent with the general approach to the influence of the streamlined envelope body at the time: the once exposed tall and vertical radiator was now hidden behind a tall and vertical radiator grille. But there was only one problem with the Zephyr’s grille: its airflow.
Somewhat oddly, the rather mediocre and troublesome little flathead V12 engine in the Zephyr had its radiator fan mounted directly on the end of the crankshaft, very low in the engine bay. As can be seen in the picture above, the grille’s opening narrowed at the bottom, so that the airflow available to the fan was constricted.
Complaints about the ’36 and ’37 Zephyr’s tendency to overheat were pouring in to Ford. This engine had problems inherent in its design and execution anyway, including rough running characteristic thanks to a 75° angle between the cylinder banks (60° is optimal for a V12) as well as hot spots due to the way the exhaust ports had to snake their way past cooling passages. And with only 267 cubic inches and 110 hp, it was hardly brimming with luxury car power.
So according to this interview with Gregoire, he measured the space between the front frame rails, and decided that the radiator would just fit between them, if mounted horizontally (cross-flow), and quickly had it cobbled up, along with cut-outs on both sides of the front sheet metal. A quick run in a crude air-tunnel proved its effectiveness, so Gregoire designed the delicately ribbed grille over the openings. Voilà; the first modern horizontally-oriented grille.
The new grille was expanded, and the bars turned vertically for the 1939 Zephyr, and of course, that front end was adopted on what has become one of the great classics,
the 1939 Lincoln Continental.
That’s a story for another time, but Gregoire sketched the Continental in a half hour, with Edsel standing there and the two of them feeding off each other’s ideas.
Now, that quote of Harley Earl was by Gregoire, and this is where the story becomes interesting, and possibly a bit less clear-cut. Buick was Earl’s and GM’s style leader for decades, and the 1938 Buick carried a very upright radiator grille.
And there’s absolutely no denying that the redesigned front end of the 1939 Buick pays massive tribute to the ’38 Zephyr’s, with that distinctive prow and low, horizontal grille.
But then Earl’s own revolutionary Buick Y Job concept appeared in 1938 itself, with a low and horizontal radiator grille, supposedly inspired by Mercedes’ W154 Grand Prix racers. Presumably, the 1938 Zephyr came out late in 1937. The exact timetable of the Y-Job’s creation is not readily available. Clearly, the Y Job predicts the Buicks’ (and GM) design directions to come a few years down the pike, while the 1939 Buick’s prow seems a more obvious Zephyr crib.
Needless to say, the tall, vertical grille disappeared almost overnight on most American cars, until it re-appeared in the neo-classical seventies. But Edsel Ford’s preference for delicate details also soon gave way to Earl’s love of large and heavy chrome grille bars and bumpers. And even the Continental soon fell victim to that trend, as this 1946 version shows all too heavily.
Trying to unravel the key turning points in design directions can be difficult, if not impossible. But there’s no doubt that Gregoire and the 1938 Zephyr played a key role in the pivotal change to low and horizontal radiators grilles.
Interesting article…the Zephyr is a sharp car. Someone once called it the first successful American attempt at streamlining, in a rather pointed jab at the failure of the Chrysler Airflow. The V-12, on the other hand, was probably the most problematic American engine until the aluminum Buick V-8 of the early 1960s.
Wasn’t the 1938 Zephyr’s grille treatment dubbed “catwalk cooling,” or am I imagining this?
No, catwalks referred to the small auxiliary vents on the sides of the hood. The Buick depicted there is a better example of catwalks.
I always thought that catwalks were the horizontal bits of sheet metal between the front fenders and the hood.
…as shown on this 1936 Buick. (I should have said “the more horizontal bits”).
That is the catwalk, yes — having actual functional radiator vents in that area was the catwalk cooling geeber was asking about.
The Zephyr’s grille & blended headlights do little for me, & I like its engineering less. Even though I was programmed to prefer Fords, if I went back in a Time Machine, I’d take the ’38 Buick or Cadillac instead. No Monster Chrome Grilles for me; that goes for modern large pickups, too.
I don’t get why Henry’s boys couldn’t do a V-12 right; you’d think they’d have a clue by then.
Henry’s boys could do a proper V12, but for the fact that he wouldn’t let them.
It’s been fairly well documented that Henry insisted upon routing the exhaust ports through the block on both the V8 and V12. And if one dared to stand up to him, it was career suicide. Again, countless volumes have been written as to how his megalomania even extended to his own son.
I suppose it’s a testament to the basic goodness of the Ford flathead’s design that millions soldiered about, from 21 years in production – all the time sporting a design flaw that would be apparent to any first-year engineering student.
Then I have to infer that Henry had little to do with detailed development of the 450hp GAA Sherman V8, for it was a state-of-the-art design by comparison: shaft-driven twin-cam, all-alloy. How could the same man have been behind this?
The GAA was the Army’s preferred motor for the Sherman.
Henry was less involved with the military projects during the war, having mixed feelings about U.S. involvement. Edsel Ford really was handling much of that up until his death. One of the reasons HFII was released from the Navy to become a Ford executive was that the War Department was heavily reliant on Ford as a materiel supplier and they didn’t want to have to worry about the elder Henry telling them to go to hell.
Henry’s involvement with different projects at Ford was highly variable. He was engaged with certain things to the point of micromanagement, but on other things, like styling, he would barely even comment. Gregorie said by the ’30s, Henry would occasionally glance at the styling stuff, but never said anything about it and left it up to Edsel.
It should be said that one of the reasons a lot of the mechanical package of the Zephyr was based on or similar to regular Ford stuff was that Edsel recognized the need to keep the price down. Lincoln was still building its senior cars, but they were barely selling and they were just too expensive for the Depression era. Edsel essentially accepted what Ford had to work with in order to keep the cost within reason.
That makes Cadillac at that time look all the more impressive, for they seemed to keep up a class act more than Packard & Lincoln could.
Cadillac was a very different story than Lincoln organizationally. Before the war, Ford didn’t really have automotive divisions in the GM sense. There were some separate Lincoln plants and some engineers who worked specifically on Lincoln stuff, but in a lot of ways, it was a barely even a separate department within Ford.
Furthermore, Edsel Ford had to do a delicate balancing act with Lincoln. Henry let Edsel do more or less what he wanted with Lincoln, in part because it kept Edsel occupied and in part because Henry just didn’t care about Lincoln one way or another. (Gregorie and others felt there was a lot of condescension toward Edsel among Henry and his favored lieutenants.) However, Edsel also recognized that Henry would object to anything that cost too much or threatened to interfere with Ford production. Honestly, I think the only reason Henry signed off on the Zephyr’s bridge-and-truss semi-unitized body was that Briggs agreed to build it and pay for the tooling.
By contrast, Cadillac in those days was more akin to a wholly owned subsidiary than a department. Despite sharing body shells and occasionally other pieces with other GM divisions (Oldsmobile engines for some mid-thirties LaSalles, later the Hydra-Matic), Cadillac was a complete organization full of people whose whole job was developing and selling Cadillacs with a corporate parent that expected them to be profitable.
Packard’s cars of the mid-thirties really didn’t lack for special, even the One-Twenty. They were solid and ritzy in a way the Zephyr really isn’t. A well-kept Zephyr is an attractive car with nice interior materials and a lot of neat detailing, but it’s not on the same level as the Packard for finish or trim. You could fairly say that the Zephyr looked more modern than Packard’s late-thirties and early-forties models — Packard had a tougher time trying to adapt its traditional themes to the later styling idiom, which wasn’t a problem the Zephyr had to face — although I think the Clipper and postwar Super Clippers are much, much more attractive than the 1942–1948 Lincolns.
Its been fairly well documented that the government got Henry I “fired” from the company he founded. Because of war production, they could not risk having him in charge anymore.
If I could go back in a time machine, I’d go to 1934 for the LaSalle Series 350 or to 1936/37 for a Cord 812 Phaeton
What a good story. Is that a double-ended distributor off the camshaft, where the fan would have been? Seems an elegant solution to the problem of fitting 12 plug wires onto a distributor. That pushed the fan down, which pushed the grille down and across. These are the kinds of trade-offs that engineers deal with all the time.
Looks like. I haven’t looked into the engine compartment of one of these in a long time.
Both flathead V8 and V12 engines have the front mounted “spider” distributors. They have dual points, and the coil is mounted on top. The assembly bolts directly to the front of the engine, and the end of the camshaft has a slot machined into it–slightly off center. The distributor’s rotor shaft has a corresponding blade that mates to it. The slot and blade are off center so as to ensure that the distributor could only be installed one way–never 180 degrees off.
To replace the point sets, the distributor was removed—only 4 5/16 bolts need to be removed. The distributor rotor and points could be replaced on a workbench. Timing was adjusted by rotating the points mounting plate within the housing. I don’t recall if there is a procedure for setting timing while the engine is running.
Flathead V8s went to a more typical rotary distributors after the War…if memory serves.
That’s right – starting in the 1949 model year the distributor was conventionally mounted atop a shaft at the back of the flathead V8 engine. The shape of the water pumps/engine mounts also changed at that time.
Love that 46 in shadowcoat looks awesome The link is excellent and as usual you wrote an excellent story around it according to Gregorie the Buick is a copy whatever it certainly ushered in a change in grille styling. Ive allways liked that 39 Buick and the Lincoln styling now I Know the real reason for it cool.
The 39 Connie must be one of the prettiest faces ever to grace a four-wheeled transport machine. That grille looks like something from Tiffany. Like the F-series diesel locomotive and the DC-3, some 30s designs just refuse to grow old.
The 1938 and 1939 Ford grilles also became lower and wider than the ’37’s. Ford car lines ended up with three slightly different variations on the theme as the Mercury debuted in 1939.
I’ve loved the Zephyr since the first one I saw at around 8 years old. But that engine…
Seeing the nose of a ’46 Continental always fills me with a sort of awe — to have so drastically vandalized such a gorgeous design, it’s almost unthinkable…
Just wondering how you feel about the ’42. I find it not as gauche as the ’46, but still not as pretty as the ’39.
I’m humbled to have contributed to this site in some small way . . . thanks for elaborating on the fascinating story behind some iconic cars of our past!
It’s really interesting to look in on the early part of the life cycle of a company that had become large, but was still being ran as a small one. I’m sure the same can be said of most new companies as well.
Another bittersweet tidbit from Bob’s interview was that he had left Ford shortly after Edsel died, and was coaxed back by Henry Ford II, on the condition that another long-time employee was moved out of the way, but Henry had the other man fired on the spot instead. Ouch!
Excellent link having read Paceys Ford book this link gives another insight into the machinations of FOMOCO Thanx
How elegant and graceful 30s cars are compared to todays jelly bean look a likes.
It’s putting a lot of weight on an inadvertent decision, but I would agree that the horizontal grille was the great turning point in automobile design. That interview with Bob Gregorie has had me up way beyond my bedtime. What a great read. Towards the end of the article, he even anticipates the rise of the SUV and his description/prediction matches the Cayenne almost exactly. Sometimes I gush too much about CC but right here is why I do. Many thanks.
Those grille bars are a tad too delicate, as if I recall correctly, unbroken ones bring gold like prices. Beautiful car. I agree that some of these designs have really stood the test of time. When I was a child, I recall a man trying to sell my Father several of these engines, all with transmissions still attached. Now I know why. I wonder what was used to retrofit a Zephyr – the regular flathead V8? I haven’t seen one in person for at least a decade.
The Zephyr is a beautiful car. The low grill ‘accidental necessity’ got rid of the 20’s carryover look and is a real improvement. The huge bumpers on the 46, although great for protecting the body work, almost look like the 1974 bumper requirements were adopted 28 years earlier.
I love these ‘design trend’ articles – keep them coming Paul.
It’s also been interesting to see Lincoln resurrect, quite skillfully, this very distinctive grille treatment in recent years.
Thank you for a great article that combines history, design, and function. I may even have to take another look at the “butterfly wings” on current Lincolns, now that I understand their origin.
Great write up and some irony. The current Lincoln look inspired by this car is also slow selling much like the original. In the past it was apparently because GM and Packard were simply selling better and more reliable cars. Today’s Lincolns are competent, but uninspired for their price point.
A more obvious crib of the ship’s bow wave grill than the Buick is the senior 39 Studebakers.
Another car with a low, horizontal, grill, that blocked a large part of the radiator, was the Cord 810, which was also notorious for overheating.
Those who have been to the ACD, or go this fall, head over to the north wing of the building. On the outer wall are the board room and E. L, Cord’s office. On the inner wall is a large display about the development of the 810.
The design was based on a concept Buehrig had played with while at GM. The initial mule was rear drive, using an off the shelf Auburn drivetrain. Somewhere along the line, some honcho decreed the 810 would be front wheel drive, sending the design team down the road of time and expense to develope the new (troublesome) V8 and the new (troublesome) preselector trans.
Next time I’m there, I’ll have to remember to bring a tape measure and head to the engine display room on the top floor, front of the building. I suspect that the Auburn V12, developed about 4 years before the Cord, would have fit in the amount of space the V8 and trans took, given the same performance as the supercharged V8, saved the struggling company a pile of money, brought the car to market a year earlier, and saved owners a lot of grief.
The Cord 810-812 used a 125 hp Lycoming 288.64 CI V8, a large-bore short-stroke design (3 1/2 x 3 3/4 inches), according to a review in the British periodical Motor (Nov 1935). The four-speed transmission was developed for the car; it used a Bendix pre-selection mechanism for gear change.
Ad is 10/29/37, promising debut in showrooms the next day:
Small correction — the original Zephyr was styled by John Tjaarda, the father of Tom.. Tom is an accomplished designer,but he was born in 1934, so his contribution would have been limited.
Found this in a Dec 1938 issue of Autocar (UK) – a contemporary perspective on front end / headlamp design at the time.
Here’s a 1958 travel pic by an owner who had just turned 203K in his Zephyr–love the Kodachrome!
This is a great article that shines a light on the interesting ways that engineering affects styling. Another car that went this route in their 1939 styling was Hudson.
Indeed. Who would have thought that Henry Ford’s stubborn engineering ideas on engine design would lead to a sea-change in the way cars are styled. It’s likely that, eventually, auto grilles would have moved from a vertical to horizontal orientation, anyway, but the cooling issue on the V12 Zephyr certainly seems to have hastened the process.
I guess I’m not old enough to have any fond memories of these, since all of these ’30s cars look alike to me. just differences in the grilles and the way the headlights are mounted.
kind of like what old guys think of modern cars, really.
I wonder if it also inspired Dodge as well when we check the 1940 front end?
The 38 might be the best piece of art deco. But the slat orientation was not new…see the 32 desoto as an example.
It’s not about the slat orientation; it’s all about the location, low down on the front end.