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Eugene Gregorie, 94; Key Designer in the Golden Age of Ford, Lincoln

December 05, 2002|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

He was considered the "grand old man" of Ford car design.

Eugene T. "Bob" Gregorie, who became the Ford Motor Co.'s first design department chief in 1935 and presided over a Golden Age of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury styling through the late 1940s, has died. He was 94.

Gregorie, who died of undisclosed causes Sunday in St. Augustine, Fla., is best known for creating the Lincoln Continental.

Originally designed as a personal car for Ford Motor Co. President Edsel Ford, the Continental debuted as a prototype in 1939 and hit showrooms in 1940.

An instant critical hit for its sleek and graceful lines, the Continental was selected by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1951 as one of the eight best prewar automotive designs.

Gregorie also helped design the 1936 Lincoln-Zephyr, which the Museum of Modern Art called "the first successfully streamlined car in America."

And he styled the 1949 Mercury -- the car immortalized by James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" -- which featured fenders that were integrated with the body design.

"Gregorie was the last of the greats of the Golden Era of design in the '30s and '40s," said Jim Farrell, a Roseburg, Ore., attorney and automotive historian who has written extensively about the history of Ford design.

During his years at Ford, Gregorie worked closely with Edsel Ford, the son of founder Henry Ford.

"We thought along the same lines and had a very satisfactory meeting of minds," Gregorie told the Florida Times-Union in 2000.

Indeed, Farrell said, "If you know and appreciate Fords of the '30s and '40s, you've got to credit them to Edsel Ford and Bob Gregorie."

"Gregorie had the unique ability to translate onto paper Edsel Ford's ideas and thoughts," Farrell said.

"Designers that were at Ford during the Gregorie-Edsel Ford years talk about seeing Edsel Ford in Gregorie's office and Gregorie drawing as Edsel was talking and literally coming up with these absolutely gorgeous cars."

With the Lincoln Continental, Farrell said, "they basically were able to cobble a Zephyr into probably one of the most beautiful cars that's ever been built.

It was a long hood and a short deck, with a continental [exposed] spare tire. It had a gracefulness about it that reminded people of racing boats."

Although the aesthetically acclaimed Continental never became a high-volume commercial success, it quickly became a favored car of Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth, Ronald Reagan and other stars who enjoyed motoring around Hollywood in their two-door Lincoln coupes and convertibles.

Responding to marketing conditions, the Ford Motor Co. announced earlier this year that it would cease production of the Continental.

The son of a mechanical engineer who also ran an import business, Gregorie was born in New York City in 1908 and grew up on Long Island, where he sketched boats and car designs as a teenager.

A high school dropout, he began his professional life at 19 when he went to work as a draftsman for a small ship-design firm in New Jersey and then a larger one in New York City.

In 1929, he began designing custom-car bodies for Brewster and Co., a New York coach-building firm.

Less than a year later, he was working at General Motors' design center in Detroit but was laid off after two months because of the Depression.

Then, in late 1931 after about five months of unemployment, Gregorie received a call to work as a body draftsman at Ford's Lincoln plant in Detroit.

Lincoln, Farrell said, is where most of the styling innovation, under Edsel Ford's creative leadership, had been occurring at Ford Motor Co.

"Edsel kind of transferred that over to the Model A [in the late 1920s] and then the '32 Ford," Farrell said. "As they started setting up a separate design feature, that's where Gregorie came in."

One of the first cars Gregorie was asked to design was the Model Y, a smaller Model A for the British market.

"Edsel was so pleased with the design," Farrell said, "he had somebody else in essence enlarge the design to be what became the '33 Ford."

That marked the beginning of the streamlined look that "by 1936 was in full flower with the [Ford] Zephyr," Farrell said.

The Ford Motor Co. had never had a separate design department and when it established one in 1935, Edsel Ford put Gregorie in charge.

The 1949 Mercury, which was originally scheduled to come out in 1947 as a Ford, was the last car that Gregorie designed.

After the death of Edsel Ford in 1943 at the age of 50, Farrell said, Gregorie was forced out of the company by Harry Bennett, who was running the company for the ailing Henry Ford.

But Gregorie returned in 1944 at the request of Henry Ford II, who later became president.

It wasn't the same, however.

Ernest Breech, who was recruited from General Motors to become executive vice president of Ford and help teach Henry Ford II how to run the business, initiated a GM-style committee system of design at Ford.

"Gregorie had always worked one-on-one with Edsel Ford," Farrell said. "He didn't like the committee system and decided it was time for him to leave Ford."

In late 1946, at the age of 38, Gregorie moved to Florida. From then on, Farrell said, he designed boats.

Gregorie is survived by his wife, Evelyn.

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