The 1949 Ford sedan was a new direction for the Blue Oval, a streamlined, slab-sided or car that tucked its wheels under the body. Nicknamed the ‘shoebox’, it was a huge departure from the inverted-bathtub shape that had dominated car design for more than a decade. Though a bit plain in its basic form, it was nevertheless a clean design, with judiciously placed brightwork, a large glasshouse, and tiny little tailfins sprouting from the rear.
Many design ideas displayed in the Shoebox Ford had been circulating around Detroit for some time, and had been incubating in secret design studios throughout the Second World War (The War Department forbade any design, engineering, or manufacturing of civilian cars during the conflict). It was well known that the future would be sleek and fender-less with generous canopy-like glasshouses and aeronautical styling cues. Smaller marques such as Kaiser-Frazer, Studebaker, and Crosley began producing cars right after the war that had these characteristics.
But Ford was the first of the Big Three to get the ‘ponton’ package and design to the market, thus setting the trend for the early 1950s. It would update the ‘shoebox’ several times, installing better, wraparound glass and (unfortunately) more streamlined chrome accents. But Ford would continue to look for the sedan of the future, and this week’s concept car is one of the results of that search.
The car was one of the many experiments of Ford’s Special Projects studio, beginning in early in 1954, and given the designation D-528. The project was designed to explore new packaging ideas, especially related to the integration of air conditioning into the automobile of the near future.
An experimental version of the forthcoming Y-block engine was also installed and a new interior with experimental seating and safety concepts was planned. The whole package was wrapped in a fibreglass body, another experiment for Ford.
The air conditioning system was the primary determinant of the design. In the early days of automotive air conditioning, the evaporators were huge. Ford had determined that they would need to be placed in the trunk area.
This would compromise luggage space, so lead designer Gil Spear decided to create a pair of round Continental-style wheel bulges at the rear of the car. One bulge held the spare tyre, one contained the petrol tank. Both had their own access hatches.
This allowed a deeper, more functional trunk.
The cooled air was to be ducted into the passenger cabin through the C-pillar and into a central duct in the roof. The roof itself was an early version of a T-top, with the arms of the ‘T’ bent down to form the C-pillars. The rest of the roof was intended to be glazed units that popped up when the door opened.
Although sketched out and at least constructed in one version of the prototype, a more conventional hardtop was installed.
Still, this was Ford’s first cantilevered roof, originally supported by the C-pillars and marginally held in place by the windscreen. Later, thin B-pillars were installed between the doors to help support the roof, after test drives produced cracking in the windscreen from the stresses of the car in motion, and the weight of the roof itself.
The interior incorporated a new padded safety dashboard and an array of instruments with a refreshing lack of over-chromed ornamentation. The focus of the car’s concept was a rolling lounge, so comfort was the primary concern. Early studies called for modular seats that could be easily swapped for various trim options, but these apparently never made it into the prototype.
The body was long and lower than the Shoebox Ford. The front and rear ends were elongated with a frame that explored early concepts in crash absorption.
The front was originally designed to have four headlights, evenly spaced across the fascia. At some point in the process, the design was simplified to just two headlights and a modified egg-crate grille.
Overall the design was sleek and remarkably restrained for a period when concept cars featured glass canopies and nacelles and antennae that sprouted from fuselage-type bodies. Also, given the number of changes and experiments performed on the car during its design process, its aesthetic holds together well. That said, perhaps it will never be on the list of anyone’s favorite concepts.
The public never saw the D-528. It was strictly an internal engineering test mule, and not dressed up for the show circuit. It’s very likely that its reviews would have been mixed – the overall form was sleek and the interior room with a nice glasshouse was a plus, but those twin bulges on the rear would have been an acquired taste, to say the least.
Ford kept the D-528 around for further experiments, and then finally sold the car to George Barris, who brought the car into film projects with Paramount Pictures, where it played a bit part in several movies including Back to the Future III. As a movie prop, the car acquired a name, the ’Beldone’, and somehow got associated with the Mercury name – perhaps because of connection to the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser concept.
The D-528/Beldone has been fully restored and can now be seen at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles.
The technical problem of air conditioning evaporators was solved within a few years, with smaller evaporative coils allowing air conditioner units to be placed in the engine compartment. The Y-block engine went into production and became a Ford standard for a decade. The safety features such as a padded dash became available by 1956.
But perhaps the most successful part of the whole exercise was the idea that the car could be a mobile self-contained lounge for cruising along the ever-improving highway system in the US.
In our time, that concept gets a lot of criticism for being anti-social, but back then it was an interesting concept, a part of the jet/space age zeitgeist, when self contained environments fit right into the public’s imagination of travelling to, and exploring, new and exotic places – on the earth and beyond.
Today, the sedan is struggling in certain markets of the world, overtaken by SUVs, CUVs and crossovers – formats that more closely resemble the architecture of cars in the 1930s. The D-528 shows that the sedan format, even then, was ripe for experiment with new packaging incorporating new technologies. In our own time, autonomous technologies and electric powertrains show a similar opportunity to renew the format.
And that, in the end, may be the greatest lesson of the D-528:
Don’t kill the sedan, reinvent it.