Classic Automotive History: How The 1938 Lincoln Zephyr Ushered In A Design Revolution Thanks To A Hot Radiator

(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.