1949 Ford
1949 Ford. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Immediately following the Second World War, the Ford Motor Company and other major American auto manufacturer offered cars that were thinly disguised versions of pre-war designs. But a car-starved society eagerly lined up to buy them.

There were a couple of important differences that set Ford apart from the Chrysler Corporation and General Motors: Ford’s management was in disarray and its products were obsolete compared with the competition.

Henry Ford had appointed his only son Edsel as company president in 1919 at the age of 25, but old Henry continued to call the shots. Unfortunately Henry’s management style was chaotic and dictatorial and he was locked into an austere Model-T mentality. At General Motors, the brilliant engineer/manager Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., was forging ahead with the annual model change and more comfortable, modern cars.

Edsel, a forward thinking but frustrated manager, was president of Ford until his untimely death in 1943. Old Henry again assumed power for a short while but at the age of 80 he was not up to the job. He lost his longest, most loyal aide Charles Sorensen, and came under the influence of the unsavoury Harry Bennett who had headed the Service Department, a euphemism for Ford’s internal police force.

To rescue the company and keep a Ford at the helm, Edsel’s eldest son Henry Ford II was released from his navy training and brought in. Old Henry tried clinging to the presidency but was forced to face reality by his wife Clara and Edsel’s wife Eleanor. Henry II became president, and although young and inexperienced he had the right instincts; his first significant administrative act was to fire Harry Bennett.

He then addressed Ford’s management and its obsolete cars. Old Henry’s stubbornness had kept features like solid front axles and transverse-leaf “buggy springs” for years after GM and Chrysler had switched to coil spring independent front suspensions.

The result was that the Ford Motor Company was in dire need of modern engineering. The pent-up demand would save it for a couple of years, but by 1949 a new model would be critical.

Henry Ford II immediately recognized that he needed management assistance. Coincidentally, a group of bright, young (age 26 to 34), well-educated officers headed by Charles Thornton came out of the armed forces and pooled their skills to provide management consulting services.

When they sent young Henry a telegram suggesting that Ford might be able to benefit from their expertise, he invited them to Dearborn for a chat. A deal was consummated and the “Whiz Kids” as they were dubbed became part of the Ford Motor Company in 1946.

They were a very capable group. Thornton would later leave and form Litton Industries. Six of the 10 ultimately became vice-presidents of Ford, two became president, and one of these, Robert McNamara, later became U.S. secretary of Defence in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

With a strong management team in place, the next requirement was a state-of-the-art product. In mid-1947, Ernest Breech, Henry Ford II’s assistant whom he had hired away from General Motors in 1946, announced that Ford would have a new model for 1949. To meet the competition the new Ford had to be ready by the summer of 1948, an extremely short development time.

In spite of the tight deadline the goal was accomplished. The solid, well-proved V8 engine was kept but everything else was new. A modern chassis was developed with independent coil-spring front suspension. At the rear, the single transverse leaf spring was replaced by two longitudinal “Para-Flex” leaf types.

The usual three-speed, column-shift transmission was used, and for more relaxed cruising, overdrive was available. It was a popular option among commercial travellers who valued the extra fuel economy and quietness.

The job of styling the new Ford went to an outside designer named George Walker, formerly of Nash, which prompted Ford’s own chief stylist, Eugene Gregorie, to resign. Walker’s group came up with a truly trend-setting shape, a complete envelope design, symmetrical front and rear. The fenders, hood and deck lid were on one plane. The single horizontal bar grille was dominated by a large “spinner” in the middle.

The public loved the new, clean, attractive style and demonstrated their approval by buying over a million ’49 Fords, more than double the sales of the 1948 model. There were some initial problems due to the rushed development, but these were gradually corrected.

The 1949 Ford has been credited with saving the Ford Motor Company. It put it back on its feet, making it capable of going head-to-head with General Motors and Chrysler Corporation. Ford had thrown off the stigma of technical obsolescence and was now well managed.

The company was poised for the epic production battles that would be waged by the Big Three in the 1950s. In 1952 Ford would jump back into second place in sales, ahead of Chrysler Corp., a position it had lost to Chrysler in 1936.

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