Auctions and Brokerage
Coachwork by LeBaron
Originally owned by Edsel Ford
As president of the world’s most powerful automobile company, Edsel Ford was in the unique position to own any car he chose. Though he often indulged in his passion for fine European sports and luxury cars, he was never without a special automobile of his own design. After all, anyone could buy a great motorcar – few could build one.
In late 1929, Edsel commissioned LeBaron to design a one-of-a-kind body for the new Model A chassis – a special project that would imbue the mass-produced Ford peoples’ car with style, grace and the grandest luxury. Intended for his personal use, Edsel’s coachbuilt Model A had to represent the height of contemporary styling, yet maintain a strong kinship to the marque’s identity.
A credit both to its location in the heart of “Motor City” and to a talented staff of designers, LeBaron was among the most prolific of the great American coachbuilders. Although other firms employed LeBaron to create custom and catalogued body styles, Ford Motor Company developed a particularly fruitful relationship with the Detroit coachbuilder. As Edsel was one of the firm’s great patrons, it is unsurprising that LeBaron is credited for the design of all of the Briggs-built open body styles available for the Model A chassis.
The design LeBaron created for Edsel, referenced as number D-358, is, in simple terms, a dual cowl sport phaeton - an open body style that was most seen on upscale chassis. Of the many successful works to come out of LeBaron's design office, the classic dual cowl sport phaeton was one of their finest achievements and several variations graced the most expensive luxury chassis of the era, from Lincoln to Duesenberg.
As would be expected, Edsel was involved in every detail of his car’s design and no expense was spared in creating a coachbuilt automobile of the highest order.
Though Edsel originally commissioned the body for a standard Model A, he eventually opted to have it mounted on an experimental chassis being developed for the European market. Correspondence between Edsel Ford and Ralph Roberts of LeBaron confirms this decision and details the relocation of body brackets to fit the special narrow-tread chassis.
Around the time of this car's construction, Ford was centralizing European activities in England, where it had recently established Ford Motor Company Ltd. Before the first production vehicle left the new Dagenham, England, plant in October 1931, Ford experimented with a number of proposals for a UK and European market Model A.
With this unique experimental chassis serving as the foundation, LeBaron created one of the most handsome bodies ever seen on a pre-war Ford.
The Sport Phaeton’s sweeping fenders, shortened running boards, lack of body moldings, and metal-covered rear spare all serve to lengthen the profile, while the narrowed track and custom radiator contribute to a svelte, upscale appearance that belies the car’s humble origins.
The windshield is mounted in a fixed position, at a rakish angle, without the familiar molding frame. An advanced feature for the period, the single driver’s side wiper is located at the bottom of the windshield, with the motor discreetly mounted beneath the cowl.
The beautifully integrated rear cowl assembly is one of the body's most extraordinary elements and a signature LeBaron feature. In this design, the rear cowl is hinged at the back of the front seats in order to fold forward, thus allowing passengers greater ease of ingress and egress. The sculptured look of the front and rear cockpit, inspired by the famed Lincoln Aero Phaeton of 1928, is yet another example of LeBaron’s excellence in coachbuilding and Edsel Ford’s fine conception of all that is good in automotive design.
Although the overall style and proportions of the LeBaron design are quite a success, the extraordinary bespoke details are what really set this car apart. For instance, exclusive French- made Stephen Grebel headlamps were sourced at Ford’s request and a custom headlight bar assembly was fabricated so that a special Klaxon horn could be mounted in the center. According to Ford Motor Company correspondence, the exotic Parisian headlamps were ordered from the Nil Melior Company in New York at a cost of $250. At the time, a standard Model A cost as little as $385.
While the front bumper maintained a close resemblance to the production unit, the upper and lower bars were joined at each end, rather than being connected with a pin rolled into the face bars. At the rear, a one-piece bumper was used, rather than the stock bumperettes typically fitted with a rear-mounted spare.
Exposed chrome door hinges and swept-back door handles are classic LeBaron flourishes that further accentuate the expensive appearance of the car. Similarly, the custom narrowed radiator cowling, bumpers, and rear spare tire carrier were polished to highlight the elegant proportions and exquisite lines of the coachwork. Even the splash aprons were custom-tailored in gleaming patent leather – a fashionable modern material rarely employed in automotive applications.
The completed car was finished in black lacquer with painted Model A wheels and Firestone blackwall tires. The interior was trimmed in carefully selected leather hides, using small 2" pleats and a slight bucket to the front seats. A tan canvas top folded neatly behind the rear seats.
With the exception of the standard Model A engine, instruments, components, Edsel Ford’s Dual Cowl Sport Phaeton was a true one-off custom in the classic tradition of coachbuilt luxury cars.
Completed in May 1930, the LeBaron Sport Phaeton was immediately delivered to Edsel. Soon after taking delivery, he registered the car in his name, using the famed 1100 Lakeshore Road address in Grosse Pointe Shores. It is believed that the LeBaron-bodied Model A remained in Edsel’s personal stable until his passing in 1943.
In the early 1950s, the Model A Sport Phaeton was sold to Vernon Jarvis, a pioneer in the antique car hobby whose world-class collection formed the basis of an auto museum in Silver Springs, Florida. During his ownership, Mr. Jarvis placed Edsel’s special Model A in a dairy barn in Springfield, Illinois, and the unique LeBaron-bodied Ford was all but forgotten.
Over the years, the Edsel Ford LeBaron Phaeton became something of a mystery to car collectors and Ford historians. Though photos and records documented its existence, the car remained elusive and many believed it had disappeared forever.
In 1958, an antique car historian wrote in The Restorer that if the car had not been found by then, it probably did not exist any longer. In fall 1962, MARC News, the official newsletter of the Model A Restorers Club, featured an article on Edsel Ford’s “very special Model A,” highlighting the coachbuilt features of the presumably lost car. Ford Motor Company also searched for the Sport Phaeton, to no avail.
Approximately 10 years ago, a re-creation of the LeBaron Phaeton was built and displayed at the 2003 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, a remarkable testament to the enduring appeal of the original design.
Finally in 2007, Edsel Ford’s Sport Phaeton was discovered in a dilapidated barn on Mr. Jarvis’ Springfield farm. Clearly in need of restoration, but with the majority of its original panels, fenders and mechanical components still intact, the Sport Phaeton retained its original LeBaron body tag, no. LB-4093, and sections of original red leather upholstery.
To handle the restoration of this significant automobile, the current owner enlisted Manns Restoration & Maintenance of Festus, Missouri, a firm with experience preparing a wide variety of classics. Restored to the highest standards, this spectacular car is presented in concours condition in every respect and is complete with all the unique features and details originally requested by Edsel Ford.
Making its first public appearance since restoration, Edsel Ford’s LeBaron-bodied Model A is sure to be a star wherever it goes and will undoubtedly provide its new owner with an exciting, highly sought-after entry into any major concours event.
Beyond the inherent qualities of the car itself, the sale of this one-off Model A Sport Phaeton is offered with an impressive file of supporting documentation that includes a copy of Edsel’s original Michigan registration, archival photographs, period magazine articles, restoration records, and correspondence between Ford and the LeBaron-Detroit Company.
Presented here is a unique and truly important pre-war motorcar. Commissioned by Edsel Ford, this one-of-a-kind coachbuilt wonder is a powerful reflection of its owner’s sophisticated tastes, artistic talents, and profound influence. Although many believed that this car was lost forever, it standsbeforeustodayinmagnificentlyrestored condition, offering a glimpse of a brilliant period in American automotive history.
Considering Edsel Ford’s personal involvement in the design, its experimental narrow-tread chassis, elegant one-off LeBaron coachwork, and extensive documentation, this Model A Sport Phaeton is surely one of the most historically significant and beautiful automobiles ever built by the Ford Motor Company. For the collector who demands only the very best, the appearance of this car at auction represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.