Unorthodox though it was, the the Briggs-built 1936-1948 Zephyr prototypes had been well-received, with fully 80 percent of the people Ford questioned expressing approval. But Edsel Ford knew as well as anyone in the industry that "unorthodox" often means "ugly."
The Zephyr’s streamlined styling translated
very well to open form, as this gorgeous
1939 convertible coupe attests.
Any doubts he may have had about the design were only confirmed in 1934 by poor sales of the new Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow, which had the same sort of abbreviated curved nose and waterfall-type grillework. Accordingly, he instructed Eugene T. "Bob" Gregorie, the 26-year-old head of his newly created design section, to do something about the dumpy proportions of Tjaarda's front-engine car.
Predictably, most of the changes involved the front. The decision to use the new V-12 instead of the shorter V-8 necessitated more length ahead of the firewall, and Gregorie made the most of it.
He drew up a new "ironing board" hood, hinged at the rear to open "alligator" fashion and running straight forward from the base of the windshield. Its pointed prow met a slightly raked, sharply vee'd vertical grille composed of fine horizontal bars and flanked by pontoon fenders mounting faired-in oval headlamps, an idea likely borrowed from recent pierce-Arrows.
Wheelbase was extended to 122 inches, and the prototype's overall body lines were sharpened up somewhat. In final form, the styling suggested graceful motion even with the car at rest, accented by fulsome fenderlines, skirted rear wheel wells, and upward-arcing character lines on either side of the grille, the sole vestige of the prototype's odd drooped snoot.
Gregorie also fashioned the production Zephyr interior, including the instrument panel. Though somewhat more restrained than Tjaarda's original, it did retain its chromed front seat frames, also a feature of early Airflows.
As a pioneer of unit construction, the Zephyr parted company with most other cars of the day including, of course, the senior Lincolns. But it was unique in being the first production car engineered with aircraft-type stress analysis, which actually proved the structural superiority of the integral body/frame.
As Tjaarda explained in his 1954 interview with Motor Trend: "Very careful construction and elimination of material where it was not necessary resulted in the car's light weight. Stiffness of the structure was accomplished by bracing at the spots where the lightest bracketing would be most effective. Therefore, large round corners were used in the door openings. The enormous strength of the glass area was used for bracing the roof by making the windshield and rear window part of the structure."
Weighing some 3,300 pounds at the curb, the Zephyr was around 940 pounds lighter than a comparable Airflow, yet it was much stiffer, and in crash tests could sustain nearly twice the impact loads of conventional body-on-frame cars. So it turned out that the aircraft-inspired Airflow had been built twice as strong -- and heavy -- as it needed to be.
All this talk of airplanes brings up the now-fashionable topic of aerodynamics. The Airflow was shaped at least partly in the wind tunnel while the Zephyr evidently was not, yet the Lincoln actually had a lower coefficient of drag. Neither car had terribly impressive "aero numbers" by today's standards, though both were quite good for the 1930s. The Zephyr's Cd was around 0.45, the Airflow's between 0.50 and 0.53.
Designer Bob Gregorie had a hand in the Zephyr's
interior as well. This 1942 glittery dash
borrowed heavily from Cadillac.
Let's take a closer look at the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr in the next section.
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