1934 Ford Model 40 Special Speedster
Edsel Bryant Ford, President of Ford Motor Company from 1925 until his untimely death from cancer and undulant fever in 1943, had a considerable influence on Ford styling, first with Lincoln, then with the 1928 Model A, and soon afterward, with the 1932 Ford and many Ford models that followed. Edsel oversaw the design of the first Mercury cars and he initiated the concept that became the prototype Lincoln Continental. A true car enthusiast with impeccable taste, Edsel owned a series of interesting automobiles, ranging from Model T speedsters to a Stutz, a Bugatti and a Hispano-Suiza.
An accomplished artist who took art lessons all his life, Edsel had a particular interest in the design and styling of Ford Motor Company cars, an issue that didn’t much interest his puritanical father. In his book, Ford Design Department Concept & Show Cars, 1932-1961, former Ford stylist Jim Farrell wrote: “At a time when others did not recognize it as such, Edsel Ford saw the automobile as an art form. In reality, he was a far better designer than most who claimed the title. He knew design history and theory; he was Ford’s design director in the same sense that Harley Earl was design director at GM.”
Before Edsel’s involvement, Ford’s no-frills styling emanated from the company’s ultra-conservative engineering department. Edsel established Ford’s first styling group and chose E.T. “Bob” Gregorie, to head a small team. Gregorie, who had worked briefly at Harley Earl’s General Motors Art and Colour studio, was an accomplished sketch artist who was adept at translating Edsel’s visions into reality.
“Although Ford had only one-tenth the number of designers employed at GM,” Jim Farrell explained, “the cars designed at Ford during the Edsel Ford years consistently displayed an understated elegance and the sculptured simplicity he insisted on. They have aged well because of him.”
Edsel and Bob Gregorie began their collaboration in 1932. Gregorie had been a draftsman at Lincoln the previous year. Ford design folklore insists that Gregorie made certain that Edsel saw his talented sketches of yachts and speedboats. The two men soon found they worked very well together. Gregorie became adept at visualizing Edsel’s ideas through sketches; he quickly and skillfully translated concepts from two-dimensions-to-three. After Edsel returned from a 1932 European trip, he asked Gregorie to design and supervise the construction of a “sports car” similar to those he’d seen “…on the continent.”
The result, a custom boat tail speedster on a ’32 Ford chassis, was a smart-looking runabout with styling cues that foretold the 1933 Ford production cars, but Edsel soon wanted something more dramatic. Early in 1934, he and Gregorie planned a second, more contemporary speedster with a unique shape that would be much more streamlined. After sketching several alternatives, Gregorie built a 1/25th scale model, which he then tested in a wind tunnel in Ford Aviation’s Air Frame Building.
To achieve this new speedster’s dramatically low silhouette, Gregorie reversed the stock ’34 Ford frame’s rear kick-up and welded it back upside down for a six inch drop, so the frame rails now passed under the rear axle. A combination of existing and newly fabricated, specially-designed suspension parts were used to lower and extend the car’s front end as well. The front axle was moved forward ten inches in order to achieve the extended, elegant proportions Edsel desired.
Next, Gregorie and his Air Frame team fabricated a topless, two-passenger, taper-tailed aluminum body with a sharply vee-ed grille and cut-down doors, mounted on a tubular framework. Modified Ford Tri-motor aircraft “wheel pants” were adapted to serve as cycle fenders. The front fenders turned with the wheels. The speedster’s stock Ford wire wheels were covered by custom wheel discs. Painted Pearl Essence Gunmetal Dark (a gray shade Edsel favored), with a handsome, gray leather interior and an engine-turned instrument panel, the 2,400-pound Speedster was powered by a stock 75 brake horsepower, Ford Model 40 V8 engine, with straight exhausts that ran through a section of the frame, and exited at the rear. Custom bucket seats and a three-spoke steering wheel rounded out the specification.
The design was remarkably well integrated. The canted louvers were stamped to match the precise angle of the grille and the rakish windscreens. A valence panel tapered from front to rear, attached to the alloy body with discreet and perfectly-spaced rivets – another vestige of this car’s aircraft construction.
More custom touches included twin Brooklands racing-style windscreens, a louvered, elegantly shaped alligator hood, low-mounted, faired-in headlights, a fully enclosed radiator with no radiator cap or ornamentation, almost no distracting brightwork and no running boards. These were all styling features that would not appear on production Fords for several years.
According to Jim Farrell, “Mr. Ford took title to the car personally, liked the way it handled and was generally pleased with its design.”
Farrell further notes that Edsel Ford and Bob Gregorie “… spent many of their spare moments discussing the car’s design, and for the first time, both felt they had a car that could be built, somewhat modified, as a new, limited-production, sporty Ford.”
As he had done with his first Speedster, when it was not in use, Edsel stored the trim two-seater in an unheated shed on his Fair Lane estate (rather than incur the wrath of his stern father, who thought that sort of sporty job to be “frivolous”). Unfortunately, a sudden freeze in the winter of 1939-1940 cracked the engine block, so a new 1940 Mercury V8 was installed.
More recently, the Mercury engine was removed and replaced with a new old stock 1940 Ford flathead with a dual carb set up and dual exhausts. This engine was stored in its original packing crate for over 59 years and is in as-new, 1940 condition. The Mercury V8 remains with the Speedster, and will be offered along with the car, although it is in need of a rebuild.
In actual operation, the enclosed sheet metal below the radiator partially blocked the flow of air to the radiator, and the Speedster had a tendency to overheat. To improve its cooling, Gregorie built a 1/10th-sized model that showed the discreet modifications he felt would cure the problem. After Edsel approved the design changes, Gregorie shortened the upper grille on the car, and fabricated a new horizontal lower grille with matching bars, flanked by large headlights.
No top was ever designed for the Speedster, so its stunningly low silhouette remained undisturbed and very seductive. One can only imagine the effect this ‘ahead-of-its-time’ car had on startled onlookers when the adventurous Mr. Ford took it for an occasional spin.
After Edsel Ford died in 1943, the second Model 40 Speedster, one of six cars in his estate, was driven first to Miami, Florida, then to Atlanta, Georgia, where it was sold for $1,000. In 1947, the owner shipped the Speedster to Los Angeles and put it in storage, but it would not remain there for long. In the May 1948 issue of Road & Track, an ad appeared that read: Especially constructed Ford chassis. Aluminum body built for Edsel Ford. Now powered with special Mercury Engine. Priced reasonably at $2,500. COACHCRAFT, LTD, 86 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, California.
Apparently, the Speedster did not sell. $2,500.00 was a lot of money in 1948. In 1952, the Edsel Speedster appeared in an issue of Auto Sport Review, photographed in Hollywood, along with an aspiring actress named Lynn Bari.
Into storage again it went, emerging in 1957 when it was driven back to Georgia. In January 1958, registered as a 1940 “Ford custom-built speedster,” it was offered for sale on the Garrard Import used car lot in Pensacola, Florida. Not long afterward, the Speedster was purchased by John Pallasch, a US Navy sailor on leave, for the sum of $603.00. Pallasch then drove the car to his home in Deland, Florida.
By now, the much-traveled Speedster was painted red and its upholstery had been modified to matching red leather. Pallasch claimed he could “bury the speedometer at 120 mph.” He reportedly drove the car for a few years before disassembling it in 1960 for an engine rebuild. Several accounts indicate that John’s father, Earl Pallasch, bought the car for his son, and the senior Pallasch reportedly took credit for the purchase, but the present owner confirms John to be the original buyer. John Pallasch shipped out for Vietnam on an extended tour, leaving the Speedster’s engine apart. Upon his return in the late 1960s, it had seized. The car remained apart and in storage for nearly 40 years until a fortuitous event occurred that brought it into the public eye.
In 1999, Bill Warner, founder of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, was searching for the Edsel Speedster for a special display. Warner had read an article in Special Interest Autos magazine written by its editor Mike Lamm, which told the story of all three of Edsel’s unique roadsters, saying that each of the cars had dropped out of sight. The SIA article listed the last owner of the 1934 Edsel Speedster as Earl Pallasch, located in Deland, Florida. After failed attempts to locate an Earl Pallasch, Warner called Mike Lamm, who provided him with the contact information of Earl’s son John, who had inherited the Speedster from his father. Invited to bring the car to Amelia Island, Pallasch replied that it hadn’t run for years, and that he really wanted to sell it.
Recognizing he had stumbled upon a unique opportunity, Bill Warner hitched up a trailer and immediately drove to nearby Deland to investigate. Sitting in the Pallasch garage, dusty and forlorn, covered with junk and tin cans, the long-lost Edsel Ford Speedster was virtually complete except for its custom wheel discs. Incredibly, the car’s odometer read just 19,000 miles.
Warner wrote Pallasch a check on the spot and hauled his miraculous discovery away. “I decided to show the Speedster to Bob Gregorie (who was then 91 and living in Saint Augustine) on the way home,” Bill Warner says, “So I called Mr. Gregorie and asked if I could drop by. I said had something I wanted to show him.”
Bob Gregorie’s response was one of pleasant surprise. “Mr. Gregorie came out of his house, smiled, and ran his hands over the surface of the car.” “I haven’t seen it since 1940,” he said. “The old girl still looks pretty good for her age.”
Bill Warner initially considered doing a ground-up restoration to the Speedster’s first iteration, complete with narrowed V-grille and Pearl Essence Gunmetal finish, but upon consideration, he decided to preserve the car’s remarkable patina. “It was prettier with the front end that was designed in 1934,” Warner said, “but the 1940 grille was original. It would have been a travesty to completely restore it.”
Warner and his team carefully rebuilt the Speedster’s Mercury V8, meticulously touched up the body paint, repainted the fenders, and Al LaMarr replicated the aluminum wheel discs. Bill Warner’s restoration crew removed a set of finned Edelbrock high-compression heads that were on the engine, because they rubbed on the insides of the hood, lending credence to the theory that the Mercury engine was modified (with those heads, twin carburetors, and a racing camshaft) when the car was in Hollywood, not in Dearborn.
Bill Warner believes the car’s red paint was hastily applied when the car was used in a movie. He’s been searching for a copy of that film for years. “They didn’t paint under the hood,” he notes, “and the masking was poorly done, so there’s a little overspray. You can still see the original gray color coming through in some places.”
That said, the well-preserved Speedster remains a time warp, and a truly remarkable find. A few years ago, at the Meadow Brook Hall Concours d’Elegance, Bill Warner kindly allowed this author to drive the Speedster. Respecting the remarkable discovery’s rarity, its well-preserved condition and substantial value, I was reluctant to really get on it, but I was surprised at the car’s peppy acceleration, and enjoyed the visceral rap of the twin, un-muffled exhausts. The gearshift is a three-speed, floor-mounted setup with a handle that extends out from under the dash. The driver’s bucket seat is quite comfortable.
Once inside, one sits low in the narrow cockpit, where the front tires and fenders and can actually be seen as they respond to the changing road surface. The steering is a tad lazy, in a characteristic early Ford V8 way. There’s virtually no cowl shake, and the overall ride, cushioned by the car’s extended wheelbase, is pleasantly firm. The Speedster sits much lower than a typical ’34 Ford roadster, and its long, stylish hood stretches majestically forward like a prestigious, thirties-era classic. Even with its “push and pray” mechanical brakes, Edsel Ford’s custom-built Speedster remains a stylish performance car, just as its patron and creator intended.
Unseen for 40 years, sympathetically cleaned and preserved, and benefiting from a careful mechanical restoration, Edsel Ford’s Continental Series II Speedster, essentially a hand-built and operational concept car from the 1930s, conceived and designed by a pair of acknowledged automotive legends, remains of the most famous and well-documented special Ford cars in existence.