Millennial-era nostalgia from Uncle Henry.
America in the late 1940s was awash with post-war optimism, and one of the loudest fanfares would blow from the Ford Motor Company’s trumpet. Before its official launch in June 1948 at the Waldof-Astoria hotel in New York, the generated buzz was palpable – the ‘49 was here. Hailed as a dream car with simple lines, picture window visibility along with mid-ship ride, the 1949 Ford was not only a huge success, but slipped easily into the burgeoning craze of cruising and customisation. On sale a mere two years, this car replenished Dearborn’s black ink wells and some believe, saved the company’s hide.
Fifty years later, at a time when the blue oval began to lose faith in the saloon shape, a concept almost made the company perform an obligatory U-turn.
In 1999, Wolfsburg émigré, J Mays garnered attention with a retro-flavoured Thunderbird. Amidst this project, he asked his team to reflect back upon the original ’49. “The inspiration for the Forty-Nine concept comes from the passion and excitement of the original, combined with the imagination of people across America who customised the car and turned it into what they thought a really great car should be.”
Already something of a legend within the custom car world, Mays brought in Chip Foose as a consultant. Keeping the simple lined, large glazing structure whilst adding a modern convenience ethic, Foose and team brought about a most eye-catching shape. A convertible, (sans engine or transmission) would follow the roadworthy coupé.
Most important to any kind of Hot Rod, semicentennial or modern is what’s under the hood. From their Premier Auto Group, Ford utilised the DEW98 RWD platform which not only underpinned the retro Thunderbird, but mainstream exponents – Lincoln’s LS and Jaguar’s much-admired S-Type. But while the engine too derived from Coventry; the 32-valve, AJ V8 shoving out 272bhp, it never looked so startling. Framed within a satin black surround, the chrome accents and stainless steel work were a paragon of subtlety, a pictorial delight barely suggesting the power within. The only applied nomenclature was the legend, Powered by Thunderbird on the side exiting pipe – one imagines that Jaguar aficionados let that one slide.
Closing the hood, cast your eyes over the velvet black ‘hyper smooth’ bodywork. From stem to stern, the Forty Nine’s lines are low slung, slender and cohesive. The flanks, almost clear save for a thumb press door opener, the arrow straight side strake and an almost apologetic thunderbird motif, are sheer yet impart little heaviness, only a reassuring gravitas.
The Forty Nine’s DRG however needs a little more time for one to adjust. Foose chose to ditch the original’s front spinner grille. If anything, there’s maybe a hint of an LS-style horizontal band. On the Lincoln, this would be a chrome curve – on the Forty Nine, black and straight. The bonnet lettering, instead of an oval badge is a nice touch, as indeed are hidden wipers – cleanliness in this approach being next to a fastidious workshop.
The headlights, on the bodywork’s outer periphery resemble another British made product – (whisper it) MINI. The front fog light positioning and diameter reflect those of the exhausts to the rear. Tarrying here, the ultra slim LED taillights offer a sinister demeanour, wrapping around the bodywork, much like the gaze of street hoodlum upon witnessing this éclaireur slinking by.
We must now peer into the car, not hard to do even when siting on appropriately shiny 20” wheels. The melted sand casts a fluent arc, front to rear, with the chromed glass housing casting a elegant punctuation. Through this bird’s eye view we notice the floating silver central column, home to the Forty Nine’s slotted gear lever. This channel also strengthens the car’s chassis, allowing the two-toned seats a cantilever fit, offering a bucket seat impression, perfect for the right hand wheel grip as one’s left arm lounges from the window, cruisin’ style.
The rear view mirror’s silver connecting rod slides as low as she’ll go; do cruisers ever check what’s behind? A single dial houses the analogue tachometer and electronic speedometer, the wheel neatly surrounded by various controls, including engine start. Hues of black, sienna and silver brighten the interior for those all important trips to the bowling alley, drive-in or burger joint, although nothing much is mentioned of what would probably be placed third after power and looks: radio. Replete with a Blue Oval, a drop-down foldaway panel reveals audio along with heating and ventilation controls.
A glance at this semi-retro car, and ears are metaphorically tuned to a youthful Elvis belting out Hound Dog, or maybe the effervescent Little Richard with Tutti Frutti. But what more can be said of the Forty Nine or it’s immediate predecessor, the Thunderbird? Lauded as a thinking exercise, a physical suggestion upon which boulevard to run, such careful staging and well-wrought showmanship would ultimately lead nowhere but to the storage facility.
Despite both Ford and Foose team’s perfection-driven ethic, alongside their exuberance in the undertaking, Dearborn adopted a more distanced approach. Regardless of the auto show response, paying customers really didn’t want such jewellery. A marked shame, if one which cynics would no doubt file under futile. Those of a more romantic nature however are left to ponder what might have been had the planets aligned.
 sold at auction for $51,700 in 2010, then again in early 2019, the victorious bidder seen pushing the car away.
 Speaking of Lincoln, there is more than a hint of the ’49 concept in the tail treatment of the 2004 Mk X concept of 2004. [ED]
Data sources: conceptcarz.com, Hemmings.com, motor1.com, chipfoose.com