Cars, poetry and the Utopian Turtletop

By Bart Bealmear, a reading room assistant at The Henry Ford

To close out National Poetry Month, we present the strange tale of Marianne Moore and the decidedly poetic names she came up with for a new automobile that was about to be launched by the Ford Motor Company.

In 1955, David Wallace, of Ford’s Special Products Division, started a correspondence with renowned poet Marianne Moore regarding potential names for the company’s new model (then going by the tentative label, “E car”). In his October 19th, 1955 letter, Mr. Wallace first reached out to Ms. Moore, asking her if she would be willing to assist Ford in coming up with a mark that has a “compelling quality” and “that flashes a dramatically desirable picture in people’s minds.” Just over a week later, she submitted her initial offerings and continued to provide work that was creative and stimulating, to say the least. Here are some examples:

  • The Silver Sword
  • The Resilient Bullet
  • Bullet Lavolta
  • The Intelligent Whale
  • Anticipator
  • Mongoose Civique
  • Dearborn Diamante
  • Varsity Stroke
  • Pastelogram

From a letter dated Dec. 8, 1955, she included a single, final proposal—and it may have been her most inspired: Utopian Turtletop.

Alas, these highly imaginative ideas weren’t taken seriously by those at the top and were quickly dismissed. Nary a mention of Ms. Moore, or the still captivating monikers she offered up fifty-plus years ago, could be found in the vehicle’s marketing records, now held in our archive at the Benson Ford Research Center.

In the end, the name chosen was championed early and often by the Ford brass, and may have been a forgone conclusion, hence the standing tag of “E car”: Edsel.

1958 Edsel Citation Hardtop at The Henry Ford

1958 Edsel Citation Hardtop (Object ID: 58.91.1)

Here are some sources for further reading on the Ford-Marianne Moore story:
Lacey, Robert. Ford, the Men and the Machine, Little Brown and Company, 1986.
Warnock, C. Gayle, The Edsel Affair…What Went Wrong? A Narrative, Pro West, 1980.
“The Department of Amplification,” The New Yorker, April 13, 1957.

Gertrude Stein

Portrait of Gertrude Stein, New York. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, LC-USZ62-103679 DLC

By Rebecca Bizonet, an archivist at The Henry Ford

Another interesting association between the worlds of cars and poetry comes from the experimental writer and poet Gertrude Stein. Some time ago we’d been asked to do some research into whether Stein ever wrote anything for Ford Motor Company. It turned out she hadn’t—or not that we could find—but we did discover that she was a devoted fan and owner of Ford vehicles. She wrote about the Fords in her life, among many other topics, in her memoir, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (playfully written as if it were the work of her partner; available online as part of her Selected Writings here). What we found in our collections was that a later poet, Donald Hall, had written a short piece on “Gertrude Stein and Her Fords” for the June 1978 issue of Ford Times (a publication we’ve visited before). In both Stein’s work and Hall’s breezy summary, we learn that Stein’s first Ford, “Auntie” (she seems to have been fond of naming her vehicles) was a Model T Ford truck, acquired in 1917, when it was shipped over to France, where she lived as an expatriate, by family in the United States. Stein and Toklas used Auntie to deliver supplies to French hospitals as part of their work for the American Fund for French Wounded during World War I. Stein’s second vehicle she christened “Godiva,” because the little Ford runabout arrived, in 1920, in a very stripped-down fashion, with few or no amenities.

Model T Runabout

This Model T runabout was of about the same vintage as “Godiva”—though obviously it operated in a very different setting and was put to a very different use! Stein might have admired the juxtaposition in imagery. Ford Model T Runabout Converted to a Tractor, Reaping Grain, circa 1919. (Object ID: 83.300.1205.1)

Stein was apparently known in and around Paris not just for her brisk, not to say reckless, driving, but for her stopping: Hall writes that she would stop Godiva near noisy intersections to work, as the cacophony all around her (French motorists at the time were required to sound their horns at intersections) actually improved the flow of the “automatic writing” technique she liked to employ. They say that you never know when inspiration will strike, but in this case Gertrude Stein certainly did!

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