Ford Motor Co. was a shambles in 1945 when Henry Ford II became president.
The automaker was losing $10 million a month. The company's future at the end of World War II looked bleak. The company needed a home run, a car so different from previous Fords that buyers would clamor to own it.
The solution materialized in an 18-month crash program guided by former General Motors executives and a stylist with ties to Studebaker. The home run was the 1949 Ford.
The herculean task to reinvent Ford Motor Co. began with Henry Ford II.
Facing the 28-year-old in 1945 were issues such as converting the company to peacetime production, a feat requiring millions of dollars for machine tools, factory remodeling and new plants.
The task was compounded by the scarcity of essential materials because of the war and government controls on purchasing and pricing.
But in the auto industry, it's all about product. A hot new car could erase many of Henry Ford II's headaches.
"The company would require brilliantly successful new cars, yet its engineering talent had been depleted" by the war, retirements and departure of key personnel, largely because of Henry Ford's chaotic management style, wrote Allan Nevins and Frank Ernest Hill in their book Ford: Decline and Rebirth.
Henry Ford II looked outside Ford Motor for help, calling on executives with links to GM. Among them was Ernest Breech, president of Bendix Aviation Corp. and a former GM vice president. Breech became Ford's executive vice president in July 1946. Harold Youngren became Ford's chief engineer the next month. Youngren had worked as chief engineer of GM's Oldsmobile Division and later had been chief engineer for BorgWarner Corp.
Too big, too expensive
Ford's products for the 1948 model year had been approved before the arrival of Breech and Youngren. Two new cars were under development: a larger car replacing the standard Ford and a smaller, inexpensive sedan developed under the Light Car program.
Breech's first experience with Ford engineering had been at a test track in April 1946 before joining the automaker. After driving the Ford planned for the 1948 model year, he left unimpressed.
Youngren agreed: The car was too heavy, too big and too costly. He criticized the car's primitive engineering and unfashionable styling.
Longtime Ford styling chief Eugene "Bob" Gregorie had penned the car. The car was larger and more expensive than the 1947 model because Gregorie envisioned selling it to "a higher social class," wrote Jim Farrell and Fred Hoadley in the April 2001 issue of Collectible Automobile.
Gregorie favored pricing the 1948 Ford above the 1948 Chevrolet and Plymouth. But while the exterior styling would be new, much of the car's engineering, including the chassis, would be carried over from the 1947 Ford, and much of that dated back to the 1930s.
Breech, with Youngren's urging, wanted to kill the program and start fresh. An exciting car was mandatory, and in Youngren's eyes, the car planned for the 1948 model year was a dud.
In August 1946, Ford's Policy Committee met to decide the fate of the 1948 Ford. But at the end of the day, no decision was reached. Driving home, Breech prayed: "Show us the right way."
An inspiration came the next day, Nevins and Hill wrote.
"I have a vision," Breech told the committee. "We start from scratch. We spend no time or money phoneying up the old Ford because this organization will be judged on the next car it produces, and it had better be a new one. We'll have a crash program as if in wartime."
The car planned for the 1948 model year was canceled. A new Ford would be developed and put into production in approximately 18 months, debuting for the 1949 model year. Previous vehicle programs had taken twice that time. The chassis, transmission, suspension - everything except the engines - would be new.
A lot of engineering talent was needed to create the new car, along with redesigning the Mercury, Lincoln and truck lines. Ford had 800 engineers in 1939. In 1947, that number stood at 2,600.
To save time and money, the committee decided that Gregorie's Ford design would become the design for the 1949 Mercury and his design for Mercury would become the 1949 Lincoln. Also, with Youngren's urging, the committee hired an outside styling consultant to provide fresh ideas. George Walker, an industrial designer, was selected.
Finally, to save money and resources, the Light Car program planned for North America was killed.
Ford's Policy Committee gave Gregorie and Walker three months to develop a styling proposal for the 1949 Ford.
According to Farrell and Hoadley, the new car had to:
On Dec. 11, 1946, Henry Ford II, Benson Ford, Breech, Youngren and others gathered in a studio to review the full-sized models created by Gregorie's team and the model that Walker's group developed with some unknowing assistance from Studebaker. (See story below.)
Walker's car got a thumbs-up. Gregorie was furious; four days later he resigned, and Walker's model became the 1949 car.
The new Ford debuted June 8, 1948, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.
"It was an attractive car, almost severely simple in design with a minimum of chrome trim," Nevins and Hill wrote.
The 1949 Ford was lower than the 1947 model, giving it a modern look and a clean break from the 1930s and 1940s styling. It was roomy: The front seat was 6 inches wider, although the car was 1.7 inches narrower. The new frame was 60 percent stiffer, while the car's overall weight was cut by 239 pounds.
It's a hit
Thousands of people thronged the Waldorf-Astoria's ballroom to see the 1949 Ford. Ford claimed 28 million people rushed to dealerships in the first several days and 100,000 orders were taken on the first day.
Sales of Ford cars totaled 532,646 in 1947, then slipped to 486,888 in 1948, reflecting strikes and materials shortages.
But in 1949, sales roared to 806,766. The automaker also sold 186,629 Mercurys and 37,691 Lincolns. The automaker surpassed the million mark for cars - 1,031,086 - for the first time since 1930.