Drop the top and cruise like a movie star! It sounds like fun. But movie stars live in sunny California— most of us don’t. Convertibles may draw people into showrooms, but sedans take them home. In 1956, only about 2.6% of Chevy customers drove home in ragtops. Despite that fact, the carefree appeal of 1950s convertibles has made them a symbol of that era. Let the wind blow through your hair!
Many entry-level brands—such as Chevrolet—made sleek, powerful convertibles to boost their image. It didn’t matter that convertibles weren’t big sellers.
1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Advertisement, "Man, that Chevy's Really Got It!" / THF100023
After enclosed cars became inexpensive enough for everyone to buy in the 1920s, open cars gained an aura of luxury and adventure. Ads associated the ’56 Chevy with youth, appealing not only to the young but also to those wanting to appear young.
1956 Chevrolet Bel Air Advertisement, "Youth, Beauty, Chevrolet, Action!" / THF100024
Convertibles became show-off cars, perfect for cruising around town, impressing dates, and hanging out. In 1949, these teenagers posed at a drive-in with their Ford convertible. / THF101124
This post was adapted from an exhibit label in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
Ford Motor Company was approached by the Vatican in 1965 to provide a vehicle in which to transport Pope Paul VI during a visit to New York City that October. It was an unprecedented occasion—no sitting pope had ever visited the United States before—and Ford was determined to meet the challenge. The automaker approached George Lehmann and Bob Peterson of Chicago. The two men had specialized in “stretching” and customizing Lincoln Continentals since 1962, and their firm had earned a reputation for the high quality of its work. Lehmann-Peterson did not disappoint, rushing a special car to completion in fewer than two weeks.
The papal Lincoln was lengthened to 21 feet (from the standard 18). Step plates and handrails were added for security personnel. Additional seats, arranged in a vis-à-vis (i.e., face-to-face) layout, were placed in the rear compartment. Supplemental interior lighting and a public address system allowed the pontiff to be seen and heard by the crowds, and an adjustable seat—capable of being raised several inches—further improved his visibility. A removable roof panel and added windscreen allowed the pope to stand and wave when conditions permitted.
Pope Paul VI Pictured Visiting New York in 1965 / THF128756
Pope Paul VI spent a whirlwind 14 hours touring New York on October 4, 1965. He gave a blessing at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, met with President Lyndon Johnson at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, addressed the UN General Assembly, and led an outdoor mass at Yankee Stadium. The pontiff ended his tour with a visit to the Vatican exhibit at the New York World’s Fair.
The modified Lincoln returned to Chicago where it served as a city parade car for visiting dignitaries. In 1968, the Vatican called once again, this time requesting the car’s use during a papal visit to Bogotá, Colombia. The car again performed flawlessly, despite Bogotá’s high altitude and the engine modifications made to the vehicle as a result.
Apollo 13 Astronauts Jack Swigert and Jim Lovell in a Parade, Chicago, Illinois, May 1, 1970 / THF288386
The car went back to Chicago and soon carried a new series of dignitaries. Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders—the first men to orbit the Moon—were paraded in the car on a visit to the Windy City in January 1969. Seven months later, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins enjoyed a similar honor. The crews of Apollo 13 and Apollo 15 would later have their own parades in the Lincoln.
Fred Duesenberg set out to build an automotive masterpiece. Its superlative engineering included a 265-horsepower engine that could push the car to a 116-mph top speed. Duesenberg built only 481 Model Js between 1928 and 1935. No two are identical because independent coachbuilders crafted each body to the buyer’s specifications. Is it the world’s finest? One thing is certain--the Model J will always be in the running.
Longer than a Duesenberg. Twice the horsepower of a Rolls-Royce. More costly than both put together. The Bugatti Royale was the ultimate automobile, making its owners feel like kings. It is recognized as the epitome of style and elegance in automotive design. Not only did it do everything on a grander scale than the world’s other great luxury cars, it was also rare. Bugatti built only six Royales, whereas there were 481 Model J Duesenbergs and 1,767 Phantom II Rolls-Royces.
Ettore Bugatti formed Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S. in 1909. His cars were renowned for their exquisite design and exceptional performance—especially in motor racing. According to lore, Bugatti was at a dinner party when a woman compared his cars unfavorably with those of Rolls-Royce. In response, he designed the incomparable Royale.
The Royale's elephant mascot was based on a sculpture by Rembrandt Bugatti, Ettore Bugatti's brother, who died in 1916. / THF90827
Because Bugatti Royales are so rare, each has a known history. This is the third Royale ever produced. Built in France and purchased by a German physician, it traveled more than halfway around the world to get to The Henry Ford. Here is our Bugatti’s story.
Joseph Fuchs took this 1932 photograph of his new Bugatti, painted its original black with yellow trim. His daughter, Lola, and his mechanic, Horst Latke, sit on the running board. /THF136899
1931: German Physician Joseph Fuchs orders a custom Royale. Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S. builds the chassis in France. Its body is crafted by Ludwig Weinberger in Munich, Germany.
1933: Fuchs leaves Germany for China after Hitler becomes chancellor, taking his prized car with him.
1937: Japan invades China. Fuchs leaves for Canada—again, with his car. Having evaded the furies of World War II, Fuchs and his Bugatti cross Canada and find a home in New York City.
Although it wasn’t the most expensive car of its day, the 1937 Cord was pricey. But its Depression-era buyers were well-off and didn’t mind a stylish car that attracted attention. The Cord’s swooping fenders, sweeping horizontal radiator grille, and hidden headlights were unlike anything else on American highways. And although it wasn’t the first, the Cord was the only front-wheel-drive production car available in America for the next three decades.
This 1937 Cord catalog shows the sedan version of the car. THF83512
The company’s definition of luxury included not only the Cord’s styling but also its comfort, its ease of driving and parking, and the advantages of front-wheel drive. THF83513
Customers who wanted even more luxurious touches could buy accessories from the dealer. The Cord Approved Accessories catalog for 1937 included some items now considered basics, such as a heater, a windshield defroster, and a compass. Image (THF86243) taken from copy of catalog.
This post was adapted from an exhibit label in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
The 1953 Ford Sunliner, Official Pace Car of the 1953 Indianapolis 500. (THF87498)
As America’s longest-running automobile race, it’s not surprising that the Indianapolis 500 is steeped in special traditions. Whether it’s the wistful singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” before the green flag, or the celebratory Victory Lane milk toast – which is anything but milquetoast – Indy is full of distinctive rituals that make the race unique. One of those long-standing traditions is the pace car, a fixture since the very first Indy 500 in 1911.
This is no mere ceremonial role. The pace car is a working vehicle that leads the grid into the start of the race, and then comes back out during caution laps to keep the field moving in an orderly fashion. Traditionally, the pace car’s make has varied from year to year, though it is invariably an American brand. Indiana manufacturers like Stutz, Marmon, and Studebaker showed up frequently, but badges from the Detroit Three – Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors – have dominated. In more recent years, Chevrolet has been the provider of choice, with every pace car since 2002 being either a Corvette or a Camaro. Since 1936, the race’s winning driver has received a copy of pace car as a part of the prize package.
Amelia Earhart rides in the pace car, a 1935 Ford V-8, at the 1935 Indianapolis 500. (THF256052)
Likewise, honorary pace car drivers have changed over time. The first decades often featured industry leaders like Carl Fisher (founder of Indianapolis Motor Speedway), Harry Stutz, and Edsel Ford. Starting in the 1970s, celebrities like James Garner, Jay Leno, and Morgan Freeman appeared. Racing drivers have always been in the mix, with everyone from Barney Oldfield to Jackie Stewart to Jeff Gordon having served in the role. (The “fastest” pace car driver was probably Charles Yeager, who drove in 1986 – 39 years after he broke the sound barrier in the rocket-powered airplane Glamorous Glennis.)
Ford was given pace car honors for 1953. It was a big year for the company – half a century had passed since Henry Ford and his primary shareholders signed the articles of association establishing Ford Motor Company in 1903. The firm celebrated its golden anniversary in several ways. It commissioned Norman Rockwell to create artwork for a special calendar. It built a high-tech concept car said to contain more than 50 automotive innovations. And it gave every vehicle it built that year a commemorative steering wheel badge that read “50th Anniversary 1903-1953.”
Henry Ford’s 1902 “999” race car poses with the 1953 Ford Sunliner pace car on Ford’s Dearborn test track. (Note the familiar clocktower at upper right!) (THF130893)
For its star turn at Indianapolis, Ford provided a Sunliner model to fulfill the pace car’s duties. The two-door Sunliner convertible was a part of Ford’s Crestline series – its top trim level for the 1953 model year. Crestline cars featured chrome window moldings, sun visors, and armrests. Unlike the entry-level Mainline or mid-priced Customline series, which were available with either Ford’s inline 6 or V-8 engines, Crestline cars came only with the 239 cubic inch, 110 horsepower V-8. Additionally, Crestline was the only one of the three series to include a convertible body style.
William Clay Ford at the tiller of “999” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (THF130906)
Ford actually sent two cars to Indianapolis for the big race. In addition to the pace car, Henry Ford’s 1902 race car “999” was pulled from exhibit at Henry Ford Museum to participate in the festivities. True, “999” never competed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But its best-known driver, Barney Oldfield, drove twice in the Indy 500, finishing in fifth place both in 1914 and 1916. Fittingly, Indy officials gave William Clay Ford the honor of driving the pace car. Mr. Ford, the youngest of Henry Ford’s grandchildren, didn’t stop there. He also personally piloted “999” in demonstrations prior to the race.
As for the race itself? The 1953 Indianapolis 500 was a hot one – literally. Temperatures were well over 90° F on race day, and hotter still on the mostly asphalt track. Many drivers actually called in relief drivers for a portion of the race. After 3 hours and 53 minutes of sweltering competition, the victory went to Bill Vukovich – who drove all 200 laps himself – with an average race speed of 127.740 mph. It was the first of two consecutive Indy 500 wins for Vukovich. Sadly, Vukovich was killed in a crash during the 1955 race.
Another view of the 1953 Ford Sunliner pace car. (THF87499)
Following the 1953 race and its associated ceremonies, Ford Motor Company gifted the original race-used pace car to The Henry Ford, where it remains today. Ford Motor also produced some 2,000 replicas for sale to the public. Each replica included the same features (Ford-O-Matic transmission, power steering, Continental spare tire kit), paint (Sungate Ivory), and lettering as the original. Reportedly, it was the first time a manufacturer offered pace car copies for purchase by the general public – something that is now a well-established tradition in its own right.
Sure, the Sunliner pace car is easy to overlook next to legendary race cars like “Old 16,” the Lotus-Ford, or – indeed – the “999,” but it’s a special link to America’s most important auto race, and it’s a noteworthy part of the auto racing collection at The Henry Ford.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
1965 Ford Mustang Convertible, Serial Number One. THF90618
Ford Mustang Serial Number 1 and Original Owner Captain Stanley Tucker, 1966. THF98053
More than 55 years ago, Harry Phillips sold Mustang Serial No. 1 to Stanley Tucker in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.
The very first Mustang sold was a pre-production model only intended for display. It was meant to be sent back to Ford, and it took nearly two years for the car to be officially returned.
Harry Phillips and Mustang Serial No. 1, September 2019.
Thanks to a campaign spurred on by fellow Ford Mustang lovers, Mr. Phillips was reunited with that same car, in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, on Sept. 27, 2019. Hear his story of that landmark sale in 1964, and learn more about this important artifact: Stanley Tucker and Ford Mustang Serial Number One.
The Budd Company approached American Motors Corporation in 1962 with this concept car, which placed a sporty body and a powerful V-8 on an inexpensive Rambler Ambassador chassis. Fearing it would fail, AMC decided against putting the car into production. Two years later, Ford's Mustang became a massive hit using the same idea of a sporty body on an existing chassis.
Learn more about getting this car ready for the 30th Motor Muster, then see it for yourself June 15-16 in Greenfield Village.
Smallness was not attractive in itself, so Nash -- which competed for the same narrow slice of the market with small cars like the Crosley, the Willys, the Hudson Jet, and Kaiser’s Henry J -- pitched the Rambler as a small car that seemed big.
Nash tried to make the Rambler appeal to everyone by giving it a little bit of everything—even seemingly contradictory things: economy and luxury, convertible and hardtop, small enough to park and big enough to seat five, as safe as a sedan and as sexy as a sports car.
THF233334 / Advertising Process Photograph Showing the 1963 Ford Mustang II Concept Car.
The 1963 Mustang II (not to be confused with the Ford Pinto-based production Mustang II of the 1970s) surely is one of the most unusual concept cars ever built. Industry practice (and common sense) tells us that an automaker builds a concept car as a kind of far-out “dream car” to generate excitement at car shows. Most never go past the concept stage, but a few do make it into regular production. (Chevrolet’s Corvette and Dodge’s Viper are notable examples.) The Mustang II previewed the production Ford Mustang we all know and love, but the concept car was designed and built after the production Mustang project already was well underway! Why? It’s a case of managing public expectations.
Most Mustang histories start with the 1962 Mustang I, but devoted pony fans know that Mustang I was an entirely separate project from the production car. Ford built the “Mustang Experimental Sports Car” (its original name – the “I” was a retrospective addition) to spark interest in the company’s activities. Ford was going back into racing and looking for a quick way to create some buzz about the exciting things happening in Dearborn. The plan worked a bit too well. When Mustang I debuted at Watkins Glen in October 1962, and then hit the car show circuit, the public went crazy and sent countless letters to Ford begging the company to put the little two-seater into production.
At the same time Mustang I was being built, another team at Ford was working on the production Mustang that would debut in April 1964. Mustang I’s popularity created a problem: Everyone loved the two-seat race car, but would they feel the same about the four-seat version? The solution was to build a new four-seat prototype closely based on the production Mustang’s design.
Enter the 1963 Mustang II.
The new concept car wasn’t just based on the production Mustang’s design – it was actually built from a prototype production Mustang body. Ford designers removed the front and rear bumpers, altered the headlights and grille treatment, and fitted Mustang II with a removable roof. While the car looked different from the production Mustang, a few of the production car’s trademark styling cues were retained, including the C-shaped side sculpting and the tri-bar taillights. Mustang II also consciously borrowed from Mustang I, employing the 1962 car’s distinct white paint and blue racing stripes. Conceptually and physically, the four-seat Mustang II formed a bridge linking the 1962 Mustang I with the 1965 production car. Mustang II was a hit when it debuted at Watkins Glen in October 1963, and when the production version premiered six months later, there were few complaints about the four seats instead of two.
Fortunately, Mustang II is one “link” that isn’t “missing.” The Detroit Historical Society acquired the car in 1975 and has taken great care of it ever since.