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October 20, 2007

The Face of Ford

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A while ago I discussed continuity of automobile brand styling cues. I used Packard as an example, but Rolls Royce and Mercedes would have worked just as well.

They are among the exceptions. A few other makes use styling themes fitfully, keeping with cues for a few model years, discarding them and occasionally reintroducing some of them years later. I wrote about Buick's use of "portholes" and other cues here.

Most often, themes are used for a few years and then are discarded for good. I suppose this can be justified/rationalized by claiming that obliterating old cues tells the public that the brand is progressive, continually reaching into the future for newer, better solutions to evolving conditions. While this might make sense for a brand with a miserable reputation -- erasing as many references to a shoddy past as possible -- I'm not convinced it's a wise policy for successful brands.

Confusing the issue is the pressure of fashion. Car stylists seem to be about as prone as anyone in the fashion industry to herd behavior, so brand continuity often has to fight styles considered "trendy" or even "expected."

And then there are management changes. Perhaps a new styling director or even a company president in true dog-and-fireplug fashion wants to make his mark.

All of these factors seem to have affected styling of Fords for the last 60 years. In the examples below, I use as best I can the "standard" Ford model of the time. This didn't matter in the early years, but since around 1960 Fords have come in several sizes and bodies each model year, and I tried to select the model that would have represented Ford absent the extension of the brand to multiple "platforms," though that selection might be pretty arbitrary for some model years.

To keep things simple, I'll concentrate on grilles, which are the "face" of a car.


1947 Ford
Aside from Studebaker and the new Kaiser and Frazer brands, 1947 American cars were face-lifted pre-war models. Ford was in turmoil when the '47s were styled. Founder Henry was finally out of the management picture, having been succeeded by grandson Henry II and a newly hired corps of former General Motors hands aided by the famed ex-Army Air Force "whiz kids" who included Robert McNamara in their ranks. The company had been losing money, in part because of chaotic accounting practices, and was feverishly working on 1949 models that had to be good enough to stave off expected redesigns from Chrysler and General Motors and thereby save the company. The grille was a simple affair featuring horizontal chromed bars.

1949 Ford
And save the company the '49 model did. Although its styling has an interesting history, I'll focus on what moved down the assembly lines. I like the 1949 Ford grille very much. It's simple. And the round "bullet" shape in the middle echoes the round headlights while providing a triangular subtext to what otherwise might have been a dull, horizontal theme. Fashion was a factor. Model years 1946-54 were a period when grilles tended to feature large, chrome-plated shapes intended to boldly state a brand's identity. Hence the large horizontal element on either side of the bullet along with the bold surrounds for the bullet and grill area opening. A particularly nice touch is the rounded cut-out in the hood just above the bullet: it gives the ensemble an "organic" look.

1951 Ford
Following a 1950 model trivially different from the '49s, Ford "freshened" the 1951s while preparing for an all-new 1952 model. So if one bullet or "spinner" (the word that tended to be used at the time) was good, then why not use two? Actually, two spinners wasn't better than one aside from perhaps making the car slightly wider visually. The "triangle" of the bullet and headlights was eliminated and replaced with a more static look.

1954 Ford
By 1954, the Ford grille boasted what amounted to three spinners, a central one and two outliers that housed turn-indicator lights. This was the last year for large chrome-plated shape elements in grilles; fashions were changing.

1955 Ford
As if by magic, grilles lost those large, sculpted pieces for the 1955 model year. The styling herd shifted to relatively or actually fine grids and meshes (and, in some cases, plain holes) for the next half-century. I imagine that the justification had to do with "functionality" -- ironic, in that American automobile styling was about to enter its most Baroque phase (tail fins and other forms of metal sculpting). The '55 Ford didn't have a totally new body, despite appearances. In fact, it was the result of a massive, cleverly-done face-lift (including wrap-around windshields, a must-have fashion fad) of the body introduced for the 1952s. The grille is basically a rectangular grid pattern with a large, spinner-like element at each end housing running lights/turn indicators -- this to provide some continuity from earlier front-ends.

1957 Ford
The 1957 Fords finally got a new body. At the time, I liked it, and today I still do; unfortunately, facelifted versions were awful. The rectangular grid patterns continues, but with fewer vertical bars. The last trace of spinners/bullets is gone.

1967 Ford
Now we start fast-forwarding, making ten-year hops because grilles retain the grid theme. American cars went to "quad" headlights in the 1958 model year. There are three basic things a stylist can do with paired headlights that must remain near the sides of the car: (1) place them horizontally, (2) stack them vertically, or (3) stack them at an angle. All variations were used, but the '67 Fords had option (2). Otherwise, the grille is pretty simple, the grid relieved by variation in the size of the bars to create a framing pattern.

1977 Ford
Quad headlights were on the way out by 1977 and the boxy, "Mercedes-look" was in; it seemed that almost every car-maker was trying to imitate Mercedes styling. Therefore, the 1977 Ford grille retains a grid motif, but it's taller, narrower and bolder.

1987 Ford
This is an example of the original Taurus body: radically aerodynamic in its day, but tame by current standards. And it has no grille. Air is fed to the radiator mostly via an intake below the bumper (with a fan assist). The little hole in the hood with the old, blue oval with "Ford" in script was a nice touch.

1997 Ford
Here is Taurus, Round Two. A rather delicate-looking body whose hood-fender shaping ever-so-slightly evokes the classic 1953 Studebaker coupe design. Aside from the odd oval-ish rear window, I liked the exterior styling -- the interior is quite another matter. The sloping rear reduced luggage capacity and there were other defects making this car less popular than the original Taurus. Again, the "grille" is comprised of holes and air scoops.

2007 Ford
The 2007 Ford 500 reflects the trend from long, low bodies to taller bodies that offer drivers a slightly better chance to see road conditions when the rest of traffic is comprised of even-taller pickup trucks, SUVs and Crossovers. The grille styling is the last gasp of something Ford called "edge" styling, where body curves and arcs intersected and became emphasized detail elements. Rather than a grid, we find a mesh pattern in the 500 grille; otherwise, it is a simple affair.

Ford 2008
Ford is now run by an ex-Boeing guy who thinks Taurus is a better name for a model than 500. Whatever. The result is a face-lifted, renamed car that has the same body as the 2007 model shown previously. Ford has been moving to a common grille pattern consisting of three broad, horizontal chrome strips, as you see above. Rival Chevrolet has been doing something similar, settling on a large, single bar with a Chevy "bow tie" insignia attached. Dodge has been using a cross pattern for several years, but without heavy chrome plating. Apparently, stylists are, for the moment, tiring of girds, meshes and holes on a car's front end and are going back to bold 1950-vintage concepts. Also note the '08 Ford's similarity to the 1947 horizontal-bar grille theme. I haven't read that this was intentional, though that's a possibility given the Retro bent of styling honcho J Mays.



UPDATE: I glimpsed a '97-era Taurus and noticed that what appears in the photo to be simply a hole for a grille is actually filled with a dark, recessed demi-grid.

posted by Donald at October 20, 2007


I grew up in Detroit and suburbs. I was a car obsessed 6 year-old when that post-war '47 Ford came out.

The family car was a 41 Packard fastback. (Dad had sold Packards until the war) On trips I was small enough to lay on the deck over the back seat and under the slanted window and watch the stars. Funny to think of that in this day of seatbelts, carseats, airbags, etc.

Back to styling, though. Our Packard rusted apart in '48 and we got a used '38 Buick. Four doors, running boards -- and from an entire different styling ethic. The new style was ushered in, for most cars, in the two years before America joined the war. No running boards, along with headlights and tail-lights that were embedded in the fenders. That would be '40 and '41.

The grille treatment on the '47 Ford was different than the '41. Otherwise, I believe the sheet-metal was the same.

After that '38, we became a Buick family for a few years. A '52 then a '54 Roadmaster convertible. Today I look at the non-functional portholes and think how stupid. But at the time, man, having that fourth porthole meant something (lesser Buicks -- the Special and the Super -- had only three). It was meaningful, I guess, the way cuffs on pants were.

The big time of the year for kids like me -- and probably a lot of men -- was from September through November, when the new models were introduced. The release of a new product from Mac is comparable today.

Emphasis skewed from styling to horsepower and performance in the 50s.

I hope we can all get as excited in coming years as cars with revolutionary technology are introduced. If they ever are.

The world needs more than facelifts now.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on October 20, 2007 10:51 PM

Very enjoyable read. Thanks! Sent to it by Execupundit. DF+

Posted by: DF on October 21, 2007 6:31 AM

Neat! Growing up in NYC I never really 'got' car-lust, but it's neat to see the progression of cars across the decades. It seems like the first car that really looks 'modern' is the 77. Do you have anything between 67 and 77 to show us?

Posted by: SFG on October 21, 2007 12:34 PM

Why can't we go back to the '50s? ;^)

But seriesly, the '49 Ford was an absolute classic.

When Ford went to that 2 bumps or nipples look on the grill of the '51 model it might've been aping GM's Caddy.

Posted by: ricpic on October 21, 2007 8:03 PM

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