While recently rooting around in Ford’s image archives, we ran across a batch of concept car photos and renderings dating to the 1950s and 1960s that came with no contextual information or, worse, inaccurate labels. What struck us, upon deeper investigation, was that many of the concept cars in the photos were designed by Alex Tremulis, a man who is well known to most collector car enthusiasts, but more for his work with Cord and Tucker than for his time at Ford.
Hired away from Kaiser-Frazer by Elwood Engel in 1952, Tremulis first went to work in the Mercury studio, but within a year moved to Gil Spear’s Advanced Studio. Tremulis would head that studio from 1954 to 1956 and gain a reputation around Ford as an unruly and almost anarchic force, unable to be controlled by his superiors. His studio was taken away from him and he was later assigned to the Thunderbird and Ford pre-production studios, moves commonly viewed as demotions meant to keep Tremulis in line. He ultimately left Ford in 1962.
We’ll start with the La Tosca, shown above in color, which arrived in the thick of a run of jet-age bubbletop concepts such as the Mystere and the Lincoln Futura. According to Jim and Cheryl Farrell, writing in their book, Ford Design Department Concepts and Showcars, 1932-1961, it was conceived by Tremulis in 1954 “as an exercise to show students in the Advanced Studio how hard it was, even for professional designers, to design a car.” It ended up taking Tremulis and Romeyn Hammond four times as long as they projected to finish it, partly due to the then-radical canted fenders, and partly due to the radio-controlled chassis they built for the 3/8-scale model by scrounging together Lincoln convertible top motors, a power-window regulator, a power-seat unit, power-window relays and a standard car battery. (The Farrells dedicate quite a few paragraphs to the antics that ensued after Tremulis discovered that the radio-control system could operate the car more than a mile distant. The stunts didn’t win him many supporters among the Ford brass.) The La Tosca – presumably named after the Puccini opera – eventually evolved into the design for the 1958 Lincoln.
On a bubbletop kick, Tremulis – with help from Bill Balla – designed the X-2000 in 1956-1957. Like Tremulis’s X-1000 that preceded the X-2000, little on the car was meant to predict the shapes or features of Fords of the immediate future; they were intended to be advanced concepts of the far-flung automotive future. However, the Farrells note that the X-2000′s grille shape certainly predicted the Edsel’s horse-collar grille. Not many automotive historians connect Tremulis to the Edsel’s most distinctive shape today, possibly because the X-2000 was only completed as a 3/8-scale model (a full-size clay was in the works, but was canceled before completion) and only shown in person at the Ford Rotunda.
Tremulis designed the three-wheeled (and also 3/8-scale) Maxima in 1954, intending to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Henry Ford’s land-speed record at the helm of the Arrow. A jet engine would have theoretically powered the Maxima to 500 MPH; the Farrells claimed that it would later inspire Craig Breedlove’s Spirit of America land-speed car.
The two-wheeled Gyron, however, would shortly afterward consume much of Tremulis’s effort and time. As the Farrells wrote, Tremulis – whose chief and overwhelming concern was for aerodynamics – believed his design for a two-wheeled gyroscopically balanced car would represent the ultimate in automotive aerodynamics. “In short, Tremulis expected the Gyron to be a genuine breakthrough that would influence all future car design.”
The earliest Gyron sketches were rendered in 1956, but Tremulis renewed his interest in the Gyron after learning of GM’s 1959 Firebird III concept, which was hailed as the world’s most advanced and most exotic car. Tremulis felt he could do better. At about that time, Tremulis’s superiors at Ford assigned new hire Syd Mead to work with Tremulis on the Gyron, and together they convinced Ford to let them build a full-scale version of the car. Because a gyroscope of sufficient size to keep the full-scale Gyron upright proved far too expensive for the show car, a pair of wheels on outriggers were added to the design to keep the Gyron upright on the show stand (copywriters explained them away as necessary at low speeds and noted they’d retract at higher speeds); however, its front wheel did steer via a console-mounted dial, and an electric motor did propel the fiberglass-bodied show car up to about 5 MPH. The Gyron debuted in 1961 and would be one of Tremulis’s last projects at Ford, though he would continue to pursue the idea of a two-wheeled gyro car long after he left the company. The fire that destroyed Ford’s Rotunda reportedly took the Gyron as well.
From two wheels, Tremulis next turned his attention to a six-wheeled design. He’d been interested in the concept since at least the late 1930s, and seemed to take much of the inspiration for his latter-day design from the 1958 Nucleon, designed by Jim Powers, a designer that Tremulis himself recruited. Both the Nucleon and Tremulis’s design drew their power from nuclear fuel cells that could conceivably be swapped out in interchangeable pods to tailor the vehicle to specific usages. But while Powers addressed the heavy weight of the shielding around the nuclear powerplant by sticking it in the rear of the Nucleon and extending the cab forward as a counterbalance, Tremulis decided to stick the shielded nuclear powerplant up front, over the four steerable wheels. Inside, Tremulis packed the six-wheeler with all sorts of technology, including a Gyron-like fingertip-controlled dial on the console that replaced the steering wheel and a computer-controlled navigation system. Called the Seattle-ite XXI, it debuted in 1963 at the Century 21 Exposition in Seattle and has since been hailed as one of the most significant concept cars for all of the innovations it embodied. From an examination of the photos, it was likely never more than a pushmobile with inoperative screens and controls.
Though Tremulis didn’t design the 1956 DePaolo 3/8-scale model, another of Tremulis’s designs (the DePalma), inspired Buzz Grisinger to submit the DePaolo design for Ford’s Stylerama program. Named for Peter DePaolo, Indy 500 winner and, later, Ford racing coordinator, the design – which looks to borrow much from contemporary Bonneville streamliners and “represent an inversion of the form most typical of American automotive styling,” according to the Farrells – eventually became the catalyst for Robert McNamara’s interchangeability program, which aimed to reduce costs by creating common body panels across the Ford, Mercury and Edsel model lines.
The Farrells credit Tremulis with a number of other concept cars as well, including the aforementioned DePalma and X-1000, the 1954 Mexico, the 1954 Taj Mahal, the 1955 Madam X, the 1956 999 dragster, the late 1950s Wind Brake Car, the 1956 Scorpion and the 1961 Astrion. He would found his own consulting and design firm after leaving Ford.