Curbside Cinema: 1961 Ford Motor Company “The Secret Door”


I thought I’d seen all the vintage Ford promotional videos, but YouTube served up this gem to me the other day. What is interesting about this video is that it isn’t one of your usual Jam Handy-style in-house productions. It has much higher production values, as it is culled from an episode of the 1962 TV series Keyhole, where host Jack Douglas takes viewers to various secret and off-limits locations. This particular episode, “The Secret Door” goes into the Ford Motor Company styling studios for a “never before seen” look.

The film opens with a quick introduction by Jack Douglas and William Clay Ford, followed by a brief history of Ford Motor Company filmed at Greenfield Village. The camera then follows WCF as he drives a 1962 Thunderbird Sports Roadster to Ford’s Styling Center in Dearborn. The red T-Bird is a great choice: If I had to pick a 1962 Ford branded vehicle to drive, I would have picked this exact same vehicle and color. I’ve always been particularly fond of the “Bullet Birds,” which wear exterior styling similar to the period Lincoln Continental.

Those are future Fords?

But enough introduction – at the four and a half minute mark, we finally enter the studio. A few doubtlessly hand-picked sketches are visible in the background, most of which don’t resemble any Ford product made before or since. (What, you were expecting them to show actual future Ford designs?) Indeed, most of the sketches that are shown have a distinctly (and probably intentionally) GM flavor to them.

The feature part of the film is dedicated to following the styling and design process for a fictitious Ford Astrion concept car (or is it Astreon? The name is never shown spelled out). Again, don’t expect to see any actual future production or concept cars here – the Astrion appears to have been conceived specifically for this video, or at the very least it is a previously rejected concept being recycled. Either way, the Astrion would never be seen again. Searching Google searches for more information on the Astrion come up with almost nothing.

For all the hoopla, the Astrion is a rather uninspired and generic-looking car, wearing a pastiche of late ’50s and early ’60s styling cues. Notably, Bill Ford’s Thunderbird from just a few minutes earlier is a far better-looking and more cohesive design – perhaps that was the point. The Astrion’s sunken grille and headlights look a lot like a 1961 Oldsmobile, while the rear end is almost identical to the 1958-1960 Thunderbird, and was already dated by the time this film aired. Ford would go with stacked headlights starting in 1965, the design of which was likely locked in by the time this film was produced, yet they are nowhere to be seen here. The leading and trailing fender creases were also yesterday’s news – by 1962 smooth slab sides ruled the roost.

Ford Astreon

Ford Astreon

Perhaps the one innovative styling feature of the Astrion was the “Coke-bottle” shape and the associated kick-up in the rear side window. No immediately forthcoming Ford model featured this look, so perhaps Ford thought this was another misdirection. GM would have the last laugh, as the 1963 Buick Riviera famously launched just one model year later with very similar rear haunches, and by 1965 the look had spread to the remainder of GM’s full-size lineup.

1966 Lincoln Continental Coupe

1966 Lincoln Continental Coupe

As we all now know, Ford would be forced to play catch-up on the “Coke-bottle” styling it previewed on the 1961 Astrion for much of the decade: Ford wouldn’t offer similar “Coke-bottle” styling until the 1966 Lincoln Continental Coupe. Full-sized Fords would get wider hips in 1966, but it wouldn’t be until 1967 before Ford coupes finally got the rear window kick-up like the one in the Astrion.

Getting prepared for Mr. Freeze.

For the remainder of the film, the 1955 Lincoln Futura concept fills for the Astrion as the car moves from design to pre-production (the Astrion is supposedly destroyed at this point in the film, but the car shown being junked is completely different). While it is easy for us to chuckle about Ford trotting out a 6-year old (and by 1961 seriously dated) concept car and trying to pass it off as a future production model, back in those pre-internet (and pre-Batmobile) days most of the casual viewers of this show likely had never before seen the Futura. Besides, it is interesting to see the future Batmobile being torture-tested.

The film ends as it started, with Jack Douglas sitting down with William Clay Ford for some Q&A. Some of the questions are downright bizarre, almost catching Bill Ford off-guard, even though he almost certainly was presented with the questions in advance. Maybe he didn’t bother to read them, or maybe it is just his natural acting ability.