Ford’s Forty Nine concept promised a mainstream retro future for the blue oval

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Photos courtesy Mecum Auctions.

At the crest of a wave of retro design that swept over the auto industry at the turn of the 21st Century, Ford introduced a pair of concepts that called back to one of its most successful vehicles and that narrowly missed becoming production cars in their own right. Nearly 20 years later, one of that pair will cross the block and remind Ford fans of what direction the brand could have taken.

The arrival of the Volkswagen New Beetle in 1997 (along with the Plymouth Prowler that same year) led automakers around the globe to mine their histories for iconic – or merely well-recognized – designs and nameplates they could use to generate their own retro buzz. Perhaps no company took that formula to heart more than Ford, which hired Volkswagen designer J Mays – who collaborated with Freeman Thomas on the Concept One show car that presaged the New Beetle – in 1997 as the company’s vice president of design, replacing Jack Telnack.

Whatever job description Ford wrote up for Mays, he knew his marching orders. He introduced the Telnack-penned retro Thunderbird concept at the 1999 North American International Auto Show and oversaw the details of making a production car out of the concept. Then, during that process, he tasked his design staff with another retro concept, one that reached a little further back in Ford’s history, to Ford’s first new post-war car.

Describing its design as “the look of the year” with “long, low graceful lines that invite envious glances” and “a ‘dream-car’ silhouette,” Ford touted a number of advances beyond the slab-sided styling of the 1949 Ford: independent front suspension for a better ride, greater visibility for increased safety, and improved fuel economy via a new overdrive transmission. Sales skyrocketed (thanks, in part, to an introduction date four months earlier than normal) to more than 1.1 million, almost as many cars as Ford sold the prior three model years, good for first in domestic market share.

To try to recapture some of the impact of the 1949 Ford, Mays brought in designer Chip Foose – whose Art Center College of Design thesis led to the Prowler – to consult on the new retro Ford sedan. While the Foose-influenced design did away with the 1949 Ford’s big bullet nose in the center of its grille, it retained much of what made the 1949 Ford distinctive and noteworthy, chiefly the slab sides that gave it a long and low appearance, and the minimal chrome trim. Modern touches like the “hyper-smooth” surfacing, 20-inch wheels, the all-glass roof (on the coupe version) and the wraparound LED taillamps brought the design into the 21st Century.

The concept, which Ford dubbed the Forty Nine, debuted at the 2001 NAIAS in both coupe and convertible form. Both sat on the same DEW98 rear-wheel-drive platform that the production retro Thunderbird shared with the Lincoln LS and the Jaguar S-Type, but only the coupe received a full drivetrain, a Thunderbird-sourced 3.9L dual overhead-camshaft 32-valve V-8 backed by a five-speed automatic transmission. In its press release for the Forty Nine concepts, Ford acknowledged the hot rod and custom car cultures that its cars spawned and that inspired Foose, noting that “The Forty-Nine Concept harkens back to the romance of a Friday night at the drive-in or bowling alley, listening to rock-and-roll and cruising in a chopped and channeled custom car.”

Ford executives were pretty blatant about the Forty Nine’s chances at entering production. “It is quite feasible to do it if we so desire,” Ford’s Martin Inglis told Automotive News at the time. Given the history of other retro concepts tied to Mays reaching production, many saw it as a possibility, and Ford continued to ride the retro train over the next few years with the Ford GT in 2002, the fifth-generation Mustang and the 427 in 2003, the Shelby Cobra in 2004, and the Shelby GR-1 in 2005. However, once the disappointing sales numbers for the retro Thunderbird started to roll in after its launch in June 2001, Ford executives decided to commit their resources toward creating a production version of the GT.

The convertible version of the Forty Nine remained in Ford’s collections until 2010, when the company sold it – along with a number of other early 2000s concept cars, including the 2003 Mercury Messenger – at RM’s Monterey sale, netting $67,100 against a pre-auction estimate of $75,000 to $100,000.

Now being offered out of the Wayne Davis collection, the Forty Nine convertible concept will cross the block as part of Mecum’s Kissimmee sale with a pre-auction estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. Mecum’s Kissimmee sale will take place January 3 to 13. For more information, visit Mecum.com.

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