Ford's famous filly turns 40
By James R. Healey, USA TODAY
Don Frey recalls clearly the horror he felt as he realized what boring cars Ford Motor was planning.
It was the early 1960s. Frey had been put in charge of Ford's product planning. The generation of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll was about to burst upon the American stage; the Age of Aquarius was dawning.
AP,The 1964 Mustang, top, and its latest incarnation, unveiled by Ford CEO William Clay Ford Jr.
Interactive documentary: Mustang turns 40
And Ford, Frey could see, was planning a staid, somnambulant waltz through it all.
"I realized we were sitting on a powder keg — or an opportunity," says Frey, now 81 and a professor of engineering at Northwestern University.
So Frey pulled the trigger on a project known simply as the "Ford sporty car." It became the Mustang.
The car made Ford Motor rich and Ford executive Lee Iacocca famous, and it ignited Detroit's obsession with the baby boom market, a preoccupation that prevails decades later.
But the inside story is not one of a sharply honed organization coming up with just the thing. It's a tale of rank-and-file perseverance against brass-hat opposition — a car rising from a cauldron of creativity, fueled as much by instinct as by inspiration.
"I had never, ever been associated with something like that. I think it was the most exciting car that I worked on at Ford," says Joe Oros, design director for Ford-brand products back then. His team's long, low, lean European look beat offerings from two other Ford studios to become the winning Mustang design — but Oros had to compromise on air scoops, taillights and other details to slice $15 off the cost for the bean counters' OK.
Reaction, especially to a car done fast and on the cheap, "was just unbelievable," says Oros, 87, now a sculptor living in California.
Buyers stood in line for Mustangs
The car was launched 40 years ago on April 17, 1964, opening day at the New York World's Fair. It was dubbed a 1964˝, though its vehicle identification numbers made it officially a 1965. The coupe started at $2,368, and the convertible, $2,614. The prices were similar to those of the far less exciting Chevy II and Dodge Dart, small economy cars.
People stood in line at dealerships to pay full sticker price or more for a Mustang. They were wowed not only by Oros' design, but also by the then-unusual array of accessories that meant your Mustang needn't be like your neighbor's.
"I will never forget this. The first 500,000 units went out the door at an average of $3,500, 50% more than the car's base sticker, because they (buyers) loaded them up," Iacocca, 79 and semi-retired in California, told Mustang Monthly in an interview published in the magazine's May issue. As head of the Ford brand during Mustang's gestation and birth, he kept the project under wraps so Ford executives, burned by the failure of the 1958-60 Edsel, couldn't say no to another radical idea. Then, when the idea was well along, he had to sell it to Chairman Henry Ford II.
It took five tries, Frey says. Finally, the blunt-spoken Ford "came over to me in the styling studio and said, 'Frey, I'm tired of hearing about your f——— Mustang. I'm going to approve it, and it's your ass if it doesn't sell."
Ford worked the original Mustang factory in Dearborn, Mich., for all it was worth, cranked up a second plant in San Jose, Calif., and the next year added a third in New Jersey to keep up with demand. Ford surpassed its goal of selling 417,000 the first 12 months.
A 'pony' like no other
Mustang is not the longest-surviving marquee model from Detroit. Chevrolet's Corvette has been around since 1953. Jeep, now a DaimlerChrysler brand, has sold a civilian version of the World War II mechanical mule since 1945.
But Mustang, which quickly got the obvious nickname "pony" and begat a genre of imitators called pony cars, was the only one meant for the masses. Designed as a low-price, high-style car that, in a radical departure for the times, would attract women and men equally, Mustang's appeal was immediate. It has created a legacy of Mustang anecdotes no doubt greater than the number of people who ever owned a Mustang.
Frey's favorite came in a letter from a Texas janitor shortly after the car was launched: "I've been courting this 5,000-acre widow for years. I finally got her in my red pony. Thank you, thank you, thank you."
Iacocca, in the Mustang Monthly interview, recalled that during the early months, before Mustang was a sanctioned project, the team members did their normal jobs at Ford, then met on Mustang business at the Fairlane Motel at night and in a Ford storage room by day, "because they weren't allowed to be working on a car that wasn't approved."
Frey's colleague in product planning, Hal Sperlich — who later developed the minivan for Chrysler after Ford rejected it — used the chassis and other parts of the Ford Falcon economy car as a foundation for the Mustang, holding down costs by using a model already being produced. Today, they call that platform sharing. Then, they called it necessity.
"The whole project was bootlegged. There was no official approval of this thing. We had to do it on a shoestring," Frey says.
Race to the assembly line
Once the project came out of the closet, Ford Motor's three styling studios competed to design the Mustang.
Oros told his crew, "We're not going to design a macho car. We're going to design something that ladies would love to drive and men would, too."
The sporty car would use Italian styling touches for excitement.
• Elegant, narrow bumpers, instead of the fat ones popular at the time, would wrap around, almost to the wheels.
• Delicate grillwork would jut out at the top and slant back at the bottom to give the car a dashing, forward-thrusting look instead of the fat lip imparted by the protruding bumpers of the time.
• A hefty emblem — a galloping horse, as it turned out — would adorn the grille, as on a Maserati.
• The sides would have air scoops to cool the rear brakes and add visual excitement. Those scoops lost their function to cost cutting before production began, but decorative imitations survived.
Stylist Gale Halderman, on his own weekend time, came up with a sketch Oros liked, and Mustang's look evolved from there.
Oros was primed when Iacocca, of Italian descent, visited the studio. "I told him what we were doing: Italian front bumper, Italian look, Maserati-type grille. Well, he really brightened up. ... When he got excited, which he did, his cigar started twirling. And it started twirling."
Iacocca was non-committal, but Oros went with his gut, telling his crew: "Well, fellows, you saw him. Let's get to work."
Suspecting the other Ford studios would paint their models eye-popping colors, Oros insisted on using white, to stand out against what he called the "Easter eggs."
The Oros design won, although there was a dicey moment when Chairman Ford bopped his head on the roof getting in and asked for more room. That was late in 1962, and Oros, Frey and their teams had a lot of work and little time. Iacocca wanted a showy start by unveiling the car at the 1964 World's Fair 18 months away.
Automakers only today are approaching 18-month development times. Mustang's was so quick because it happened outside channels, avoiding what Frey calls "administrivia."
Frey, pleased that Oros' design fit the cheap-to-build Falcon chassis but had enough room for all the planned features, started trolling his contacts at Ford purchasing and manufacturing.
"I was operating as a lone wolf in what I called the blue-chip system. I'd done favors for people in assembly, so they'd say, 'Yeah, we'll do it for you.' " They showed him what tweaks to make and parts to use so the car would be easy and inexpensive to manufacture.
"You can do it twice as fast for half the money" when unshackled from corporate procedures, says famous hot-rodder Carroll Shelby, who had created the Ford-powered Cobra sports car and watched from the outside as Mustang came together. Iacocca hired him to develop high-performance versions — on his own, outside Ford's system — that gave first-generation Mustangs credibility with enthusiasts.
Grilled by executives about marketing studies and break-even points, Frey, having no such data, had to shrug. A market research chief bailed him out, telling the bosses later that the break-even point was 86,400 a year.
"He made the number up," Frey says, still delighted at the invention. "The Edsel had market research out the wazoo. Mustang didn't. We just knew what we were doing."
The gunslinger approach caught up with Frey.
"I never filled out the paperwork. At Ford, that's a court-martial. They called me in after (Mustang had been on the market) six months and said, 'Frey, where's the paperwork on this car?' I just said, 'Mustang speaks for itself: 1,100 a day, gross profit of 400 or 500 bucks each,' " he says. "Mustang made two-thirds of Ford Motor Company's profit the first year it was on sale."
Ford sold 1 million Mustangs in 24 months, a blazing start for a new model, then and now.
Peaks and slumps
The car has had its close shaves. In the 1980s, it almost became a small, front-wheel-drive, import-style, sporty car — a design Ford instead launched as the 1989 Probe coupe and discontinued after the '97 model.
In the 1990s, Mustang was on deck to be discontinued, judged unworthy of the expense of redesigning it to meet toughening fuel economy, safety and anti-pollution regulations.
Reprising the original approach, a small core of Mustang enthusiasts at Ford worked in an old warehouse away from Ford headquarters to redesign, on their own, a Mustang cheap enough to keep it in production. That version was launched as the 1994 model and remains today.
"The '94 is when we changed back to what I thought the Mustang should look like," CEO Bill Ford says. He bought the first one.
In fact, he says, "I've owned virtually every one since 1979." He got that one from his dad as a graduation present, "painted a glorious show color, a metallic green. But it was never intended for extremes of temperature. I took it to northern Michigan skiing and the next morning, the paint was coming off in strips," he says.
"I almost cried."
The fifth generation begins with the 2005 Mustang, on sale in late summer or early fall. It uses wholly different hardware, adopts import-brand manufacturing techniques and looks more like the original Mustang than ever. And it has Bill Ford's strong support — no need for stealth and subterfuge.
He believes the car is worth more than its profit. "The Mustang's always made money, but its importance has always been way beyond financial. It's a halo car for other products. Its contribution to the company always has been greater than its sales," he says.
"If you have a brand, an icon, like Mustang, and you treat it like just another vehicle, you're making an enormous mistake."