After Ford nixed the Budd Company's reworked version of the two-seat Thunderbird, the Budd Company tried to sell AMC the 1962 Budd XR-400 sports convertible, a car cleverly based on the two-door Ambassador.
We all affect the future from our place in the present, but no one can change the past. Except, that is, in the imagination, where one can reweave the fabric of history just by altering a stitch or two in time, place, person, or thing.
You can have "What If?" fun with the automotive past as much as any skein of history. Suppose, for example, that the sporty compact "ponycar," that wildly successful 1960s phenomenon, had come not from Ford but tiny American Motors? It could have happened -- if AMC had seized the opportunity that came knocking when the Budd Company presented a prototype called XR-400.
Understanding the XR-400 requires a little background on the Budd Company and one of its earlier projects. First, the firm. It was founded in 1912 by Edward R. Budd, a visionary engineer/entrepreneur who built it into one of the biggest companies in American transportation.
Over time, Budd's business came to rely heavily on the contract design and construction of rail cars, both city "trolleys" and high-speed rolling stock. Budd also became a power in shipbuilding and aircraft manufacturing.
But the firm was -- and still is -- a force in the auto industry, too. It was Edward Budd who in the early 1930s patented a form of unitary body/chassis construction for cars, a then-revolutionary idea first applied not in the United States but in France with the singular Citroen Traction Avant of 1934.
Budd soon expanded its automotive horizons to encompass engineering, design, and construction of production-car bodies for various clients. One of those was Ford, which in 1954 contracted with Budd to supply bodies for its new 1955 Thunderbird.
Budd continued to do so through 1957, after which Ford scrapped the original two-seat design for the four-seat 1958 "Square-bird," with unitized Ford-built construction.
In 1961, Budd took its relationship with Ford to another level by pitching a new car to the automaker. Learn more in the next section.
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Budd Company's Pitch to Ford
Let's consider Budd Company's pitch to Ford. Fast-forward to late 1961, when a young new president of Ford Division named Lido Anthony Iacocca began searching for sportier stuff to add to his wares. As it happened, division engineer Thomas B. Case, who had worked on the original T-Bird, was now planning manager for Ford's just-launched Falcon compact.
Well aware that Ford had been besieged by dealers and customers for a new two-seater since the last 1957 Thunderbird, Iacocca instructed Case to investigate the feasibility of a Falcon-based sporty car using the old two-seat T-Bird body.
Case called Budd, which happily advised that all 1957 T-Bird body tooling was still intact -- and available. Seeing the chance for a lucrative new Ford contract, Budd promptly ran up a prototype of Iacocca's concept. They called it "XT-Bird."
Starting with a 1961 Falcon, Budd engineers trimmed the understructure to fit the 1957 T-Bird bodyshell, which included slicing wheelbase from 109.5 inches to the original 102. Styling was updated by snipping off the old tailfins and lowering front fenders, though Budd ingeniously managed to retain the vintage dashboard and cowl.
In deference to contemporary tastes, the wrapped windshield and its severe "dogleg" gave way to straight A-pillars with front quarter-vents. Like the 1957, the XT-Bird had a steel body with an integral soft top that folded into a well behind the cockpit. Unlike the original, that cockpit contained a small rear seat that could hold a couple of kids or be flopped down for extra luggage space.
Budd executives pushed hard for the XT-Bird, arguing that unusually high resale values of 1955-1957 Thunderbirds suggested a strong, unmet demand for this updated version. They also noted that using the old dies together with high-volume Falcon mechanicals would keep the list price attractively low -- around $2,800 by Budd's estimate.
Additionally, "The total tool, jig, and fixture costs would not exceed $1.5 million. We could ship the entire body-in-white for a total unit cost of between $350 and $400 six months from the day you authorize us to start." Such fast, low-cost development was an accountant's dream.
In the end, though, the XT-Bird was refused, mainly for a lack of full four-place seating, though dumpy lines didn't help. Still, it did spur work toward Iacocca's eventual Mustang, the first "ponycar." The rest, as they say, is history.
Budd Company didn't give up, however. Learn how the XT-Bird became the XR-400 on the next page.
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XT-Bird Becomes XR-400
Now here's how the XT-Bird became the XR-400. Despite Ford's rejection, Budd Company evidently felt the XT-Bird concept attractive enough to interest someone else. We say "evidently," for the very next year, 1962, Budd pitched American Motors the exact same idea with an all-new prototype dubbed "XR-400" -- "R" for "Rambler," of course.
Proposing the XR-400 to AMC made even more sense for Budd than plying the XT-Bird at Ford. At the time, as a later Budd press release noted, the firm supplied a great deal of AMC's tooling, plus numerous body stampings, structural parts, and sub-assemblies.
More important to this story, Budd and AMC had collaborated on the one-piece "Uniside" rocker/pillar/door frame assemblies destined for AMC's new 1963 Rambler Classic and Ambassador. Budd also viewed XR-400 as a showcase for all its many capabilities.
As Thomas J. Ault, president and general manager of the firm's Automotive Division, later recalled: "We had a dual purpose in mind. The first was to [show] the industry that we could take a standard production-model car and, by rearranging high-volume structural parts, create unique assemblies -- and produce completely new vehicles with a minimum of new panels and modifications. We did [XR-400] at relatively low cost for development and new tooling, and in very short time.
"Secondly we wanted to demonstrate that Budd Automotive is one of the few, if not the only supplier capable of taking on complete programs. We can start with a designer's sketch, do the designing, engineering, prototypes, testing, and perform every other step necessary to mass-produce completely assembled automobile bodies."
Naturally, Budd hoped to make big money from AMC by supplying the "unique assemblies" for its proposed "sports convertible," besides doing all the up-front work.
What Budd offered AMC was an open 2 + 2 "sports car," à la XT-Bird, derived from the two-door sedan version of the new 112-inch-wheelbase 1963 Classic/Ambassador. Because those cars weren't yet in production, the XR-400 prototype was built from a two-door 1962 Ambassador with 108-inch wheelbase and 327 V-8, though it assumed use of the approved 1963 Uniside design.
Specifically, Budd planned to clip production Unisides at the B-posts above the belt, at the sills just behind the B-posts, and at the A-pillars about 7/8ths of the way up. The result was a still very rigid structure with integral cowl, stub B-posts, and lower-profile windshield frame.
So modified, this assembly would be shoved rearward exactly 16.24 inches from its stock 1963 position to accommodate the long-hood styling deemed essential for a sports car. Rear chassis rails were also trimmed -- by no less than 14.3 inches -- to suit what Budd called a "stubby rear similar to many European sports cars."
No major change was envisioned for the 1963 Classic/Ambassador chassis, a conventional box-section affair with integral floorpan. This was because each Uniside comprised inner and outer stampings welded to the rocker rails, which made the rearward "slide" easy to achieve on an assembly line.
That was just as well, for numerous changes were required elsewhere. Besides mostly new exterior sheetmetal, the XR-400's unique styling meant a heavily modified AMC driveline: engine lowered by two inches; radiator lowered by 3.5 inches; shortened fan blades and oil-filler neck; resited air cleaner, battery, and heater; reshaped exhaust system; and new rear engine mount, pedal box, and gas tank.
The car's format also dictated a plethora of new underbody components including the top well, rear-seat structure, and fender-wells, plus revised front suspension and dash mounts, reinforced and relocated front-seat anchorages, reshaped fuel-filler housing, and different inner panels for doors, hood, and trunklid.
Check out the next section to learn how Budd Company attempted to sell their idea to AMC.
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Budd Company's Pitch to AMC
Budd Company's pitch to AMC management estimated that "total new tool, jig, and fixture costs for production of the complete body-in-white and underbody would not exceed $4,100,000." That, said Budd, was about half the cost of a similar car tooled from scratch.
Unit cost was pegged at $450, close to the XT-Bird estimate. So was promised delivery: again about six months, which Budd was proud to note was the time taken to design, engineer, and build the prototype.
Budd's rationale for the XR-400 also echoed XT-Bird experience. Again quoting from the formal presentation:
- "Registrations of imported two-seater sports cars totaled 261,712 at the end of 1961 -- an increase of approximately five percent from the mid-year figure.
- "Sales of Chevrolet's high-priced Corvette, the only American-made sports car on the market, have risen in every year since its introduction in 1954. [Not true; the Corvette bowed for 1953, and 1955 production plunged to only 655 units.]
- "Demand for the two-seater Thunderbird in the second-hand car market is so great that no other car built during the years 1955-57 has exhibited [its] stability of value.
- "Popularity is mounting for the so-called sporty or personalized compacts such as [Chevrolet Corvair] Monza, [Ford Falcon] Futura, [and Pontiac Tempest] Le Mans and more new cars of this type are on their way to market.
- "Growth in the number of two-car families resulting from the suburban population explosion and increase in leisure time. Today, the second car is frequently of the sport type.
- The basic appeal [of] the sports-car idea seems to hold for Americans of all ages, inclinations, and occupations. In a recent survey conducted for us among a selected sample of business and professional men, college students, and housewives, four out of five admitted that they were intrigued by sports cars."
Budd allowed that "Mr. and Mrs. America" were put off by import sports cars because of high cost, lack of passenger space, weak resale values, and scarcer parts and service; the firm also recognized a public "preference for American-made products."
But these facts only further argued for XR-400: "After all, it would be made in this country servicing and parts would present no problems [with AMC's broader dealer network] the price would be right and [XR-400] would be a truly useful second car, for it would provide passenger space available in no other comparable car."
That last statement was true on its face, but even Budd's own photos showed the rear seat was really too small for anyone bigger than grade-schoolers.
No matter. Budd lobbied as hard for the XR-400 as it had for XT-Bird.
Consider this bit of schmoozing: "What could be more appropriate than for American Motors to introduce a brand-new idea in sports cars -- classic in styling, in road-ability, in performance -- but designed and built for family motoring pleasure. It seems to us to be the kind of idea that could create a revolution -- admittedly a smaller-scale one -- of the character set off some years ago when you introduced another brand-new idea the compact car."
More ego-polishing included notions of pioneering a market "presently untapped by any other manufacturer" with a car so "unlike anything else on the road it would attract widespread attention provide your dealers with both a new profit area and morale-builder and offer unusual advertising and sales promotion opportunities."
These arguments were a lot like the reasons Iacocca would use to muster the Mustang. And why not? The evidence was there for everyone to see. Yet for all the kind words and rosy picture-painting, AMC was unmoved. So like the XT-Bird, XR-400 was a no-sale.
Find out why AMC pass on the XR-400 in our final section.
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Why AMC Passed on the 1962 Budd XR-400
At least two factors explain why AMC Passed on the 1962 Budd XR-400. First, the company was in the midst of a historic management change. Its president, George Romney, high priest of compacts, went off in February 1962 to make his successful run to become Governor of Michigan. Taking his place was the enthusiastic Roy Abernethy, who had his own ideas about cars, sporty and otherwise.
Judging by his practical-minded dictates for the unfortunate "3 + 3" Marlin of 1965, it's likely that Abernethy deemed XR-400 too small to be competitive against other sporty compacts, and thus not likely to be a profit-maker.
More critically, AMC probably decided it couldn't afford the XR-400 no matter how cheap the tooling. Remember that in 1960, despite the advent of Big Three compacts, AMC was still king of the small-car hill, earning a record $60 million on some $870 million in sales and model-year production of near 459,000 units.
But that new competition helped depress profits to $23.5 million in recessionary 1961, and 1962 earnings were little better at $34.2 million even though sales reached $1 billion. With the new mid-size Classic/Ambassador a major expense, 1963 profits came to $37.8 million despite higher sales of $1.1 billion.
Finally, AMC already knew the market was fast-swinging to sporty cars; indeed, it joined the bucket-seat brigade in 1962.
What's more, designer Dick Teague had sculpted pretty new Rambler American compacts for 1964; among them was a true four-passenger convertible that Abernethy doubtless felt would sell far better than a 2 + 2 in the burgeoning sporty-car wars.
In the end, AMC was probably right to ignore the opportunity's knock of XR-400. Even if buyers had accepted the rather sedate Budd styling, the limited interior package would have been a tough sell.
Besides, a sports car, no matter how "practical," was the last thing people expected from AMC in those days -- and that AMC dealers knew how to push.
But tantalizing questions remain. Would a Rambler sports convertible have been as hugely popular as the Mustang? Would it have brought the same high prosperity? Could that have changed AMC's destiny?
Would AMC be with us now had it introduced the XR-400 in late 1963 (which Budd said was entirely possible) -- a good six months before Mustang? Sadly, we'll never know the answers.
What we do know is that the XR-400 made two public outings soon after AMC's rejection. Renamed "XR-Budd," it helped tout the firm's then-new disc brake in an exhibit at the Detroit Auto Show and Society of Automotive Engineers annual convention, both in early 1964.
Later, according to Paul Flancbaum of Budd's Public Affairs Department, the car appeared in several parades and was occasionally driven by senior company officials.