The Ford Division’s X-Cars
Designs for a New Age...
By the end of the 1950s, Ford moved to centralize company-wide styling decisions and processes and the introduction of more “realistic” tone to corporate dream car development and construction. George Walker's guidance of Ford styling during that decade had been well-received by corporate leadership, and his promotion to a Ford vice-president unified the styling division office that had been established under him. Anxious to bring a more youthful image into its product line, the Ford Division committed itself to exploring the possibilities of fresh automotive styling. Even the dramatic 1957 and 1958 Ford Fairlanes (obviously influenced by the Mystere dream car) seemed a bit stodgy compared to many General Motors production coupes in the late Fifties. The emergence of the so-called "Fast Freddie" hardtops on many cars at General Motors in 1959 was seen as a challenge to Ford styling. Ford designers knew that they had to do something dramatic and practical and do it quickly.
The mid-engine Ford Mystere presented elements of the ‘57 Ford though the appearance of this car was delayed until the production ‘57 model line was in showrooms. The fins set the stage for many Ford products – ‘57 and ‘58 Ford, the ‘58-‘60 T-Birds, the ‘61 Ford, the ‘61-‘63 T-Birds, and the ‘62 and ‘63 Ford Fairlanes.
After Walker’s departure, and with the rise of Eugene Bordinat who became Ford Vice-President of Styling in 1961, executives and stylists became more aggressive while developing vehicles that were also more practical to manufacture and use, and started to exhibit a more "sporty" personality in their designs to attract a younger, more freely-spending buying public. Bordinat retained the youthful team that Walker had previously assembled: Elwood Engel, William Boyer, Damon Woods, Joe Oros, John Najjar and David Ash To help the effort and provide a fresh venue for new ideas, Bordinat established the Ford Design Center, into which he moved the designers from the decrepit Triple E building. With these changes, he hoped, better and more aggressive designs could be created that would lead to the development of production vehicles. After a hiatus from developing new dream cars necessitated by company reorganization and the construction of new facilities, it was time again to create some dream cars so that the Ford Division’s goal of re-taking the lead in the creation and campaigning of visionary prototype vehicles could be realized.
With the controversial 1960 Ford Starliner, Ford not only responded to the sleek new GM coupes but established another key styling theme that would grace 1961 Galaxies and appear, in vestigial form, on Lincolns from 1961 through 1971 and on Thunderbirds from 1961 through 1963. A high beltline (sometimes capped with a delicate stainless steel molding) was introduced to integrate the overall design. This “peak,” which began on the front fender, progressed along the top of the doors, and resolved itself at the end of the rear quarter panel, visually tied the car together, and appeared on the ‘60 and ‘61 Fords, the ‘61-‘63 T-Birds and the ‘62-‘63 Fairlanes as fins, however restrained. When matched with a swept-back roofline, those “fins” (in whatever guise) generally produced a graceful "fastback" design that appealed to millions of potential customers. The fastback roof and fin design motif was also to appear on some of the second generation of X-Cars.
But these cosmetic efforts alone didn’t satisfy Bordinat’s expectations. The fastback Fords (especially the 1960 and 1961 Starliners) were still production versions of large, too-often ponderous sedans with basic mechanical layouts still rooted in the Fifties. Something more dramatic needed to be done and the changes needed to be generated from the top since the firm -- some would say oppressive -- leadership of Robert McNamara had effectively squelched innovation and risk-taking.
However, that would change with the appointment of Lee Iacocca as the new President of the Ford Motor Company. He as a different leader than his predecessor and was convinced that the public wanted exciting, sporty cars, rather than warmed-over sedans. Better exposure to competitive events and access to expanding markets moved Iacocca to direct Bordinat and his Design Center to start working on a series of styling exercises that would mix a graceful design with established Ford Motor Company mechanical details in a two-place vehicle echoing the original concept of the Thunderbird. The availability of the new compact unibody platforms used in the first-generation Ford Falcon and Mercury Comet (and later the Fairlane and Mustang) provided not only a good foundation for the new set of concept cars that Bordinat envisioned, but also offered a relatively inexpensive way to move the new vehicles into production if the studies were successful.
By mid-1962, the Design Center’s staff had undergone several changes, and by then was headed by Don DeLaRossa and Joe Oros, and supervised by Ford chief stylist and Vice-President Eugene Bordinat. Assistant designers John Mahiar and Jim Sipple designed a two-passenger sports coupe under the general project banner of Aventurra. This effort was underway alongside the Ford T-5 program, which would eventually lead to the production Mustang. In fact, the threads of the Aventurra and the T-5 projects often became intertwined to the point that clear distinctions were difficult to make. Bordinat liked the designs but Lee Iacocca thought that it was out of place in Ford's marketing scheme because he believed there was no market for a two-seater. For a similar reason, the Budd Body Company's design project, the XT Bird (which was little more than a deconstructionist take on the two-seater 1956 Thunderbird mounted to a Falcon unibody and stripped of the fins) was rejected as an unacceptable styling redux. Despite the negative response to the XT Bird, the Aventurra project continued apace.
During this time, Ford chief Bordinat and newly-appointed Lincoln-Mercury chief Benjamin D. Mills (longtime friends) traveled regularly to Europe to check on company operations and visit the several auto shows that regularly presented the newest in often exquisitely-executed (but not always visually pleasing) European vehicles sporting coach-built bodies. Those concept cars, featuring custom bodies by a wide array of foreign body makers, clearly demonstrated showed that graceful sports cars (most of which were practical) could be built using production chassis and drive line components. At the 1962 Auto Show, Mills in particular became enamored the work of carrozzeria Bertone and specifically the achingly beautiful, short wheelbase Ferrari that Bertone debuted at that show.
The Bertone carrozzeria created this one-off concept car for the 1962 Paris Auto Show. Lincoln-Mercury Chief Benjamin Mills was stunned by the car, and later retained the services of the Italian shop to build his Division’s “answer” to the Ford Division’s X-Cars.
On Iacocca’s direction to continue the development of pending concept car designs, the Ford and Lincoln-Mercury advanced styling studios were each called upon to design and produce two dream car designs on the theory that, although both teams worked in the same studio, a dual, somewhat competitive, effort might spark some more fertile ideas. Joe Oros took the lead, and was instrumental in creating additional styling exercises that would eventually resolve themselves into the production 1964-1/2 Mustang.
Those design edicts would test the styling, engineering and mechanical acumen of the Ford and Lincoln-Mercury Divisions. To aid in the creation of a new series of designs -- and to avoid another XT Bird debacle -- Iacocca formed the Fair Lane Group (composed of selected Ford executives and representatives from, surprisingly, the J. Walter Thompson, Ford's ad agency) to define overall corporate design goals. The Fair Lane Group met weekly at the Fairlane Inn Motel to explore the existing and developing markets for youthful sports/personal cars. Since little development time was available for the project, the team worked long hours to move the project from the early conceptual stages to production of engineering drawings and renderings within just a few months. That effort was extraordinarily fruitful: 13 "in-house" dream cars (all initially code-named the Allegro) were designed and mocked up in several configurations -- including two-passenger, four-passenger and 2+2 arrangements.
The Mustang I presaged a few design features later found on the production Mustang.
That incredibly intensive design effort also produced the epochal Mustang I. The brainchild of Walter Murphy, head of the Ford Division Public Relations, and “Cog” Briggs, the Public Professional Relations Manager for Ford Research and Engine Engineering, the Mustang I was an improbable effort because of its single purpose as a competition vehicle amid other passenger-car oriented Ford design efforts. The Mustang I was also remarkable because it was constructed with no specific funding allocation from Ford management. Rather, Cog Briggs knew that his research and engineering center, and Murphy’s office, had the budget for exploring and constructing these sorts of vehicles. Briggs was prepared to tap into that funding source to get the Mustang I built.
Deemed the “100-day wonder,” the Mustang I was the first in a string of public, functional show cars to come out of the Ford Corporate Project Studio. Troutman-Barnes, a Los Angeles-based race car fabrication shop, was chosen to do the actual construction. Two Mustang I vehicles were actually produced, the first a nicely detailed, but non-running fiberglass mockup, and the second an identical, fully functional, competition-equipped vehicle that was taken to the Grosse Point raceway for on-road testing and to gauge the reaction of the public and auto journalists. The Mustang I was so thoroughly developed that it met, without modification, the regulations of the Federation Internacionale de l'Automobile (FIA) and Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) at its first and only competitive event.
Out of the Aventurra and Mustang I projects, which appear to have been warm-ups for the later Ford Division project, the Ford X-Cars were the answer to the Division’s goal of producing visually exciting, if mechanically prosaic, concept cars. The Allegro -- the first of the second-generation X-Cars, fashioned in late 1962 -- was based upon the earlier DeLaRossa Aventurra design and built on a Falcon unibody.
The Allegro presented a Cobra-esque front end design, and presaged the later production Mustang fastback roof. The small, vestigal fin picked up elements of the ‘61-‘63 Thunderbirds, also.
Originally painted a delicate metallic gold, it established design elements that would heavily influence Ford styling throughout the Sixties: An isolated, centrally-mounted grille with satellite headlights, a long frontal aspect, and a short-coupled fastback roof line. The Allegro’s rear fender treatment mimicked the 1961-1963 Thunderbird design and anticipated the styling of the production British Ford Cortina later in the decade. Moreover, the Allegro's fastback styling established the basic configuration for the later production Mustang fastback, and clearly traced its rear quarter panel treatment to a 1957 Ford Styling Studio exercise during the original Falcon’s development effort. Prominently featured in Styling, a beautiful book on automotive design published by Ford in 1963, the Allegro was described as a " . . . practical dream car, developed jointly by stylists and engineers." In Styling, Ford went on to further describe the Allegro as:
Though the proportions on the front clip were exaggerated, the fastback roof had clear influence on the first-generation, 1965 Mustang fastback. There were two Allegros built: a red-painted fiberglas mule that appeared in a 1964 Mustang promotional film, and this fully-functional car.
"Symbolizing sleekness, motion and, as its name indicates, brisk and lively performance, the Allegro is distinguished by a long hood, compact passenger compartment and a "fastback" roof line with grille waste gates in the fender area."
Ford stressed that its dream cars, particularly the Allegro, were essentially existing production unibody platforms upon which new design features could be tested. "This 'idea car' incorporates many new design features tailored to existing engine, drive line and frame components," Ford intoned as it described the purpose behind the Allegro. Later, Ford restyled – some would say ruined – the Allegro by turning it into a roadster.
Sometime in the late Sixties, Ford Division design studios restyled the Allegro and didn’t improve on the design. Though more obviously “sporting” in the way that seemed to predominant in an era of smoke and glitter, the heavy rear end styling and too-low windscreen was almost comical. The slotted wheels also mimicked aftermarket wheels available in speed shops.
The second X-Car, the Mustang II, was also based upon the Falcon/Comet/Fairlane platform and enjoyed a lithe body designed by Joe Oros. Despite its name, however, it carried few styling and design cues from the Mustang I. The pearl white experimental car, first displayed at Watkins Glen in September 1963, played an important role in the public reception of the X-Cars and was presented to the auto enthusiast press as a direct precursor to the production Mustang that debuted in April of 1964. Also built on a Falcon platform, it displayed all of the production Mustang styling cues that would appear on the production car. A toned-down front end, a modest bumper, a raised roofline, and a slightly revised dashboard and modestly reshaped rear quarter panels were almost the only design elements to distinguish the production vehicle from the concept car.
The Mustang II was very close to production. The too-long front clip and too-low windscreen were changed, this X-Car transfixed the automotive press and public. The car still exists today
The Cougar II, the third of the X-Car group, was named after the Cougar I which preceded it by a scant 18 months. It was the most radical of the first three show cars and was not based upon an established Ford platform. Instead, the iridescent candy red car was constructed on AC-Cobra tube frame (Chassis #CSX2004) obtained from the newly-created Carroll Shelby Enterprises in California. However, the chassis set up had to be modified: To clear the hood, the high-performance 289 Ford engine was moved rearward in the chassis. Intended as a response to the powerful and lithe Ferrari, it was the most competition-oriented of the first three X-Cars.
The Cobra II was probably the most beautiful of the three X-Cars, but was the least influential in terms of styling. This fastback coupe was designed before the Corvette Stingray. Built on a Cobra frame, the 289 K-Code powered car and wire wheels set a styling standard that was hard to replicate. The candy-red car still exists today.
So startling was the impact of each of these three Ford X-Cars that Automobile Quarterly carried an unusual four-page feature on them -- its first coverage of any factory dream cars in Volume II, No.3. Clearly, the X-Cars cast Ford Motor Company in a leadership role within the industry when it offered the public a practical, coherent vision of what future automobiles might actually be like. As the production Mustang was being tooled, Ford began introducing a series of Mustang-based show cars that spanned the next three decades, all of which explored development of additional variations on a production vehicle series.
As a side note to the successful X-Car program, and in the context of the enthusiasm then present throughout the Ford Styling Department, Gene Bordinat directed the styling studio to create a second version of the Cougar II for him. Bordinat wanted a dream car of his own, much as Bill Mitchell was then enjoying at General Motors and what Harley Earl had done earlier. Always interested in innovation and good styling, Bordinat’s customized X Car was a stunning statement of the kind of nimble, droptop Ford sports car that could be created. Called alternatively the XD Cobra or, more authentically, the Bordinat Cobra, this iridescent honey gold iteration of the Cougar II was a beautiful roadster with a body fashioned from Royalex – a miracle "memory" material that recovered from minor dents.
The Bordinat Cobra was based upon the styling of the Cobra II and was also built on a Cobra frame. This was Eugene Bordinat’s personal car for a few years, and influenced the design of the Lincoln-Mercury Division’s response to the X-Cars.
The Bordinat Cobra was also built on a 427 Cobra (coil spring) chassis, #CSX3001, and, like the coupe, required the Ford small block motor to be set back in the frame to clear the low hood line. Although it was in many ways a "dream car," the Bordinat/XD Cobra was never a part Ford's second generation X Car program. Apocryphal evidence and urban legends suggest that Bordinat used the car regularly at least for a year or so. As Ford expert Jim Burgy notes, “ . . . the Bordinat Cobra has not been restored -- it is in it's original condition, complete with original paint and drivetrain. It has been washed and waxed, but NOT repainted or restored.” The Bordinat Cobra was an important part of the Ford Division’s wonderfully creative explosion of practical – but still dramatically styled – concept cars that directly precipitated the production Ford Mustang and additional corporate show cars in the rest of the Sixties.