“I’m here to see Mr. Ford” – A Detroit Story
One of my editors once described researching a topic as “falling into a rabbit hole”. Four hours later, you find yourself far away from the 1963 Whizbang X500 you started with. You never know what you will discover that might be new to you or your readers.
While researching details of the 1:10 scale 1939 Lincoln Continental style model that sat on the desk of Edsel Ford – whose idea was the Continental – I heard a great story involving his father, Henry, and clay modeler, Larry Wilson, who later discovered Edsel’s Continental clay style model forgotten in storage.
This is a true story about a 15 year old boy who took a train to ask Henry Ford for a job and as far as I know it has never been released before.
It’s hard to imagine the scale of Henry Ford’s fame. It’s also hard to separate the facts from the public relations fiction that was pitched for Henry’s benefit by the Ford Motor Company advertising department, but part of it was, at least, partially true. (For example, it is said that the post office once delivered a letter to Henry Ford that had no address, just a photograph of the industrialist from a newspaper clipping stuck to the envelope.)
FoMoCo’s PR machine cultivated the image of Henry as everyone else, so the idea that a 15-year-old boy might think he could travel across the country to meet him was not not as ridiculous as it sounds today. Plus, a 15-year-old in the mid to late 1930s probably grew a little faster than today’s precious little snowflakes. After a prolonged Great Depression, young people were probably a little more independent then, too.
Regardless, the way his friend, auto historian and collector Samuel Sandifer, tells the story, Larry Wilson has spent his entire career as a clay modeler for Ford Motor Company after having been hired by Henry Ford himself.
Growing up far from Motor City, Wilson desperately wanted a career in the auto industry. Using the materials and tools at his disposal – cans, hammers and shears – he had made two fairly realistic scale models of 1938 Ford sedans. Perhaps he had read Edward’s DIY guide. Thatcher in 1919, “Making canned toys“. These independent young people of yesteryear made a lot of their own toys. People still make miniature cars (and other models with metal boxes) for pleasure and for profit.
Wilson left for his trip to Dearborn.
Taking a train first to Chicago, then to Dearborn, he somehow made his way into the executive offices of Ford’s headquarters and found himself in front of Henry Ford’s personal secretary.
“Who are you here to see?” she asked him.
“I am here to see Mr. Ford,” he replied sincerely.
“Do you have a date?”
“Well,” his secretary said to young Wilson, “Mr. Ford is a very busy and important man and he doesn’t just see walk-in people. If you are looking for a job, I can show you the way to the employment office. “
Depressed, Wilson left, but as he made his way down the hall, in the other direction walked a thin, older man wearing a straw hat.
The man stopped Wilson and asked him, “Young man, what are you doing here?”
“I’m here to see Mr. Ford.
“Henry Ford?” asked the old man.
“Yes,” Larry replied, “Henry Ford.”
“Well, it’s me. Why did you want to see me? Asked the industrialist.
Wilson unwrapped his two models in pewter and told Ford about his dream of making cars. Impressed with the quality of the work, and perhaps recalled his own youthful enthusiasm, Ford hired him locally as an apprentice model maker.
While you might think the story is apocryphal, the protagonist is identified by name and the storyteller is someone with some credibility as an automotive historian. He also has a ring of truth. At the age of 16, Jack Telnack, who went on to lead Ford’s design, got an interview with Alex Tremulis, Ford’s head of advanced styling, because of his interest in becoming a car designer. Tremulis told him to go to design school and then gave Telnack his first job when he graduated. A number of designers working for General Motors and other domestic automakers started as their teens competing at GM Fishermen’s Guild of Craftsmen model making competition.
After Henry Ford hired him, Larry Wilson went on to spend his entire career as a clay modeler in Ford’s styling department. Once, while browsing through some stored material, he came across the contents of Edsel Ford’s personal office, removed after his death in 1943. Among these items was Edsel Ford’s 1:10 scale personal model of the Original Lincoln Continental, sculpted by Gene Adams, the clay modeler who worked with stylist Bob Gregorie on the design of the Continental. It wasn’t quite the first Continental model – this one was sculpted by Gregorie and Adams on an existing Lincoln Zephyr model – but it was probably used to develop the car’s bumpers and trim. series. The fact that this was the personal property of Edsel Ford gives it an unrivaled provenance.
Wilson eventually passed the model on to Sandifer, where it is part of what is arguably the largest collection of studio-style scale models in the world.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars in depth, a realistic perspective on cars and auto culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post interesting, you can get a parallax view at Cars in depth. If 3D scares you, don’t worry, all photo and video players used on the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS