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Edsel Ford's 1934 Model 40 Special Speedster Debuts at Pebble Beach - Web Exclusive

It has grace, style and a 77-year history shrouded in mystery that has intrigued automotive collectors, enthusiasts and writers worldwide.

Greg Emmerson
Aug 19, 2011

It has grace, style and a 77-year history shrouded in mystery that has intrigued automotive collectors, enthusiasts and writers worldwide. Edsel Ford's restored 1934 Model 40 Special Speedster was unveiled today by Lincoln and the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House at The Lodge, Pebble Beach in Monterey, CA. It will appear again on Sunday August 21 at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. Restored to its timeless elegance, Edsel's personal roadster shared its story of a decades-long journey.

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The Speedster's extensive restoration by award-winning RM Auto Restoration in Ontario, Canada, revealed the stunning, custom-made vehicle as it originally looked in 1940 following its final redesign by Edsel and designer ET Gregorie. The revelations uncovered during a year-long restoration have resolved many long-held assumptions about the illustrious vehicle's journey. But more than a story of restoration, the vehicle provides a glimpse into the early years of Edsel Ford's design and automotive styling as President of Ford Motor Company and its Lincoln line.

The Speedster celebrates Edsel's eye for design that began when, as a small boy, he would take pen to paper to sketch cars. "My grandfather was an early believer that everyday objects - including automobiles - could be seen as works of art," said Edsel Ford II, who unveiled the Speedster. "While he wasn't a designer in the traditional sense, his eye for styling was apparent as he initiated and built the design department at Ford Motor Company."

After Edsel's death in 1943, the Speedster crisscrossed the US making limited appearances, then it disappeared - some feared it had been destroyed. It was last seen in Hollywood in the 1950s, after which it was purchased by a US Navy sailor in Florida for $603 in 1958. It didn't appear again until Bill Warner displayed it at the Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance in 1999. In 2008 it was sold to a Texas car collector for $1.76 million. Then, following the collector's untimely death in 2010, the Speedster returned to Edsel's home, now operated as an historic site called the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House. Over the years, alterations were made to its grille, engine, paint and interior - it is these alterations that have been reversed by RM Auto Restoration to take the famous car back to its 1940 design and engine.

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The Model 40 Special Speedster's rich history began in 1932 after Edsel returned from a trip to Europe. He asked Ford's chief designer, ET "Bob" Gregorie to design and supervise the construction of a personal sports car similar to those he'd see "on the Continent."

The first design reportedly disappointed Edsel because it he wanted it lower and racier. So Gregorie, who was adept at turning Edsel's visions into tangible designs, went to work on a more dramatic, streamlined design. This "continental" roadster may have started with a stock 1934 Ford (aka Model 40) frame, but its subsequent chassis was radically altered. The Model 40 Special Speedster was unlike anything Ford Motor Company had built up to that time.

At 113 inches, the Speedster's wheelbase is approximately the same as the standard 112-inch wheelbase of a 1934 Ford roadster. Yet, it appears longer and lower. This illusion was achieved by modifying and lowering the car's chassis, positioning the cockpit toward the rear of the car and extending the tail section.

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Gregorie, Robbie Robinson (supervisor of the Lincoln plant) and personnel from the Ford Aircraft Division, then fabricated a topless, taper-tailed aluminum body with cut-down doors and mounted it over a custom-welded tubular aluminum frame.

It was believed that the Speedster's fenders were modified Trimotor Aircraft "wheel pants," but Ford's aircraft fabricators undoubtedly fashioned them from scratch. The custom-designed front cycle fenders were mounted so they turned with the car's Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels. The all-aluminum bodywork followed the best aircraft practice - light and strong.

The Speedster was painted Pearl Essence Gunmetal Dark; the interior upholstered in complementary gray leather. The flat, engine-turned instrument panel incorporated period Lincoln instruments. The 2100 lb Speedster was powered by a stock 75hp, Ford Model 40 flathead, with straight exhausts that were enclosed by the bodywork with only the tips protruding.

The Speedster had low-mounted, faired-in headlights, an enclosed radiator with a concealed cap, a starter button on the instrument panel, minimal chrome trim and no running boards - features that didn't appear on production Fords until many years later.

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The Speedster's shapely hood had louvered side panels that subtly matched the angle of the radiator grille and windscreen. A pair of narrow vee grilles with a single row of louvers running the length of each side of the hood limited the flow of cooling air. As a result, the Speedster had a tendency to overheat.

Two period photographs of the car show different louver treatments. One shows a single row of side louvers; the other features two rows, one atop the other. It's reasonable to suspect that because of overheating issues, the hood was modified.

Reportedly, a winter freeze in 1939/40 cracked the engine block; so a new 239ci, 100hp 09A Mercury V8 was installed. This would have been the most powerful version of the Ford flathead V8 available at the time.

By 1939, Gregorie had designed wider twin grilles for the Lincoln-Zephyr, so it followed that he would take the same approach for the Speedster. He redesigned the Speedster's front-end, shortening the upper grilles and fabricating a wide, horizontal grille for improved cooling. The new design, which required extensive modifications to the hood, was likely completed in 1940. The instrument panel may have been updated at the same time with a 160mph racing-type speedometer and matching Stewart-Warner accessory instruments.

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"The Model 40 Special Speedster was only enjoyed by Edsel for a few short years before his death in 1943, but its journey was just beginning," said Ford House President Kathleen Mullins. "Ford House is proud to bring to life Edsel's original vision for a unique, continental roadster."

The Model 40 Special Speedster has moved through almost eight decades of owners and modifications, yet has returned to its early design elegance. After Pebble Beach, its journey will continue, ultimately returning home to Ford House.

To follow the Speedster's travels and view the restoration process, visit www.fordhouse.org

By Greg Emmerson
1078 Articles

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