Hero: Eugene Bordinat Jr, Ford’s unsung rebel

Mustang, Cougar, Continental MkIII... just some of the iconic cars to emerge from the Blue Oval during the 1960s and ’70s. One man oversaw them all

His name has been largely forgotten by history, but Eugene Bordinat Jr deserved better. As head of Ford Motor Company’s design department for the better part of two decades – a spell that lasted longer than that of any incumbent before or since – he oversaw the creation of some of the best-loved and most profitable cars ever made by the Blue Oval.

Nevertheless, Bordinat remains in the shadow of period rivals such as Bill Mitchell (General Motors) and Virgil Exner Jr (Chrysler). The thing is, unlike many of his contemporaries, he wasn’t a glory hound. This in itself goes a long way to explaining why he is now barely remembered by all but the most devoted of marque fans.

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Bordinat was born on February 10, 1920 in Toledo, Ohio. His father was plant manager for Willys-Overland before moving the family to Pleasant Ridge, north of Detroit, on taking up a position with Chrysler.

Yet despite parental links to the motor industry, Bordinat Jr (pronounced Bord-in-nay) claimed in later years that he hadn’t been particularly interested in automobiles until he saw a Duesenberg blast past him while he was delivering newspapers as a boy.

He was spellbound, and credited this brief encounter as the moment that he knew his life would revolve around cars.

Following high school and two years at the University of Michigan, Bordinat enrolled in a new car-design programme at General Motors, and in late 1940 he was installed in the Chevrolet studio.

Shortly thereafter, he was shipped off to the Fisher Body plant, where he oversaw the production of tanks for the war effort. In early 1944, Bordinat enlisted in the Army Air Forces Cadet scheme and learned to fly, but he didn’t see active service. Instead, he was given an honourable discharge in 1945.

Bordinat subsequently returned to GM, only to accept an offer in August 1947 to develop Ford’s comparatively small advanced design studio. Before long, he was placed in charge of all of Ford’s exterior design, and in this capacity he attended meetings with most of the company’s senior executives.

Labelled a ‘brown-noser’ by Henry Ford II – a man who in time would become his protector and sometime drinking buddy – Bordinat was a social animal who made it his business to become friends with those who wielded authority.

Nevertheless, he almost came unstuck after renowned industrial designer George Walker was taken on as a consultant. Walker immediately installed up-and-coming talents Elwood Engel (later head of design at Chrysler) and Joe Oros (in time responsible for much of the original Mustang) in the Lincoln-Mercury studio.

What’s more, Walker’s contract stated that his protégés had the right to design competing proposals to those produced within Ford’s studios, regardless of brand. This didn’t sit well with Bordinat; even less so after his immediate boss Charlie Waterhouse retired in May 1955. Walker, Oros and Engel became full-time Ford employees thereafter, the former as a vice-president.

With a degree of predictability, Walker invariably favoured designs conceived by Oros and Engel. That year’s Lincoln Capri was the only model to the end of that decade which can be directly attributed to Bordinat – and even then only the rear styling treatment.

Bordinat may have been undermined, but he had a few allies in positions of power. Around this time, the Lincoln and Mercury studios were split up, with Bordinat becoming head of Mercury design.

Despite a hike in pay he viewed this as a demotion – and while the studios would soon be recombined, he was deeply unhappy that Walker was grooming Engel to take over as the boss of the entire design staff.

Ford dictated that executives had to retire upon reaching 65 years of age, and Bordinat was all too aware that Walker would reach pensionable age in May 1961.

In the six months leading up to this, both parties went into battle publicly and behind closed doors. Walker’s scheme ultimately took a tumble as he tended to fall asleep during meetings, which meant he lost the respect of the ‘suits’.

He also lost the support of William Clay ‘Bill’ Ford, the youngest of the three brothers in charge of the family business, after he referred to him as ‘that f**king kid’ behind his back – and more than once.

Engel, who by this time, had been sent on a fact-finding mission to Ford’s design departments in Europe, was still a major threat to Bordinat. However, his bid to be top dog unravelled after he was found to have been ‘creative’ when making out his expenses.

Unbowed, Walker began backing Oros as his successor. However, Bill Ford ultimately swayed the board, and they hired Bordinat for the top design job. Walker then had to explain to Oros why Bordinat was his new boss.

Commendably, Bordinat and Oros would work well together in future years, while Bordinat changed the name of the Styling Centre to the Design Centre on account of the fact that: ‘You design a car, you don’t style it…’ That decade would see him sign off the first-generation Mustang, the original Mercury Cougar and the Lincoln Continental MkIII.

He personally styled the 1965 Ford Galaxie (with some input from Gale Halderman), and also reclothed two AC/Shelby Cobras, allegedly for personal use. He would often take prototypes home with him, claiming that he wanted to gauge other road users’ reactions. According to those who knew him, Bordinat expected Ford products to appeal in an instant. He had no interest in designs that would ‘grow on people’.

Many of Bordinat’s former colleagues have claimed in print that his draughtsmanship wasn’t too hot. However, they all went on to state that he had an innate sense of style, and a knack for discerning what the American public craved. He was also not above appointing people whom he knew would do little to endear him to his betters.

In 1956, he hired African-American designer McKinley Thompson at a time when prejudice was rampant. He also came in for criticism from some quarters on hiring a Japanese-American designer – but his argument was that he didn’t care about skin colour, he cared only about talent.

What’s more, a designer who became seriously ill had his wages increased on the quiet to cover his medical bills. He certainly wasn’t alone in benefiting from Bordinat’s largesse.

Bordinat was, however, a magnet for internal politics. In 1968, Henry Ford II snubbed Lee Iacocca for the role of president – a job Iacocca felt he deserved given the sales success of models such as the Mustang. ‘The Deuce’ found Iacocca arrogant and too willing to claim credit every time the Blue Oval had a hit on its hand, and lured Semon ‘Bunkie’ Knudsen away from General Motors to take over the hot seat.

Never happy as a mere underling, Iacocca sparred constantly with Ford and Knudsen, with the latter doing little to win over Bordinat on personally hiring Larry Shinoda from GM as a senior designer. Disliked by many for his blunt speaking and caustic put-downs, Shinoda nevertheless had talent and often got his way because he had the ear of Knudsen. Bordinat could do nothing but complain to Iacocca, who in turn could only rail impotently to anyone who would listen.

This power struggle ultimately came to an abrupt end in September 1969, after Iacocca and ten other senior executives threatened to quit unless Knudsen was given the chop. They got their way, Henry Ford II having been less than sympathetic to his hiring’s plight on learning that Knudsen had signed off new models without first allowing Ford a say in the matter. Without Knudsen to protect him, Shinoda was fired by Bordinat almost immediately.

The 1970s would witness its fair share of boardroom coups, but Bordinat generally managed to stay on the right side of trouble. That said, the decade saw Ford’s design language become increasingly ‘safe’ and unimaginative. Bordinat pushed through the Lincoln Versailles, which he hoped would take sales away from arch-rival Cadillac (it wasn’t a huge success).

Another pet project was a shortened MkV coupe with pre-war-style sidepipes that looked whimsical rather than dramatic. It didn’t make production. Then, in late 1979, Ford hired Phil Caldwell as its president, and the so-called ‘bean counter’ soon voiced his opinion of Bordinat’s proposals future models. The new ‘aero’ look was in, while Bordinat preferred conservative straight lines. Caldwell wanted smooth and sleek, and Bordinat refused to accept the opinion of an accountant.

Caldwell won the day, and in September 1980 Bordinat was demoted to a nebulous role as head of international design. He spent all of two months in this new position before resigning. Iacocca, who had left Ford for Chrysler in 1978, attempted to hire Bordinat, but the Blue Oval offered to pay his salary in full until he reached retirement age. All Bordinat had to do in return was stay at home.

He did just that. He batted away offers to write salacious exposés of his time at Ford, and left the design world for good. Instead, he enjoyed swanning about in his Clenet (an Excalibur-like ‘neo-classic’), cooking and reading.

A lifelong smoker, he died of lung cancer on August 8, 1987. He was 67 years old – and while not a legendary figure, Bordinat deserves a degree of veneration for pushing through so many landmark designs in Ford’s back catalogue. He had staying power, that’s for sure.

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