The sketch that launched the Mustang

Happy birthday, Mustang! The legendary Ford sport coupe made its historic public debut at the New York World’s Fair on April 17, 1964. Fifty-five years later, rather than joining AARP (American Association of Retired Pony cars), the Mustang gallops on in its strongest form ever.

For Gale Halderman, however, the Mustang’s “birthday” came 21 months before the World’s Fair introduction. It was then that Halderman, who spent his entire design career at Ford Motor Company, made the sketch that would become Ford’s most famous postwar model. Fittingly, he will be on hand for Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the Mustang Owner’s Museum in Concord, North Carolina.

Halderman, who retired from Ford in 1994, has in recent years been receiving past-due attention for his role in the original Mustang. He came up through the ranks during a time when car designers typically remained in the background. Indeed, Lee Iacocca, who became a general manager of the Ford division in 1960, is often called “Father of the Mustang.”

Well documented in Mustang history, Iacocca had championed the initially secret project to develop a compact, affordable, sporty car, and he risked his job to convince company chairman and CEO Henry Ford II to approve it. Iacocca was always quick to credit those who developed the car, including product planning manager Don Frey and his special studies assistant, Hal Sperlich.

But the Mustang’s success took the right design, which started as a grease pencil sketch.

Farm fresh

halderman museum
courtesy Gale Halderman Museum

Halderman grew upon a small farm in Tipp City, Ohio, which was locally famous for its strawberries. He still lives in a house on the family property, and its renovated barn now holds his own small museum, a tribute to the Mustang and to car designers.

A few months before graduating from the Dayton Art Institute in 1954, Halderman drove to Ford headquarters in Dearborn and met with Gene Bordinat, then head of the Lincoln-Mercury Design Studio, who hired him based on his portfolio. After his work defining the 1957 Ford, which outsold the Chevy by a few thousand, Halderman was promoted to design manager of the Ford Design Studio, under Joe Oros, who became its director.

In mid-1961, Bordinat, by then Ford’s vice president of design, had a small team quietly working on ideas for a small, stylish coupe for young buyers.

Iacocca, Bordinat, and a few others at Ford saw Chevy’s Corvair Monza as validation of demographic research suggesting a potential market for such a car.

The team designed and made clay models for a car code-named “Allegro,” for which Halderman did some work. The Allegro established the basic long hood, short-deck theme that would come to define the Mustang, but it was not based on any existing platform. Another, smaller concept, called Avventura, looked like a baby Ferrari 2+2.

courtesy Halderman Barn Museum mustang fastback
courtesy Gale Halderman Museum

Iacocca supported the idea but needed to see a hot design and a solid business plan before trying to convince Mr. Ford. He knew very well that, following the Edsel fiasco, the boss was still gun-shy about new products and distrustful of market research. Halderman recalls Iacocca saying, “If we do a car that he likes, he may change his mind.”

Iacocca assembled an informal team of executives, among them Frey and Sperlich, who would meet for dinner and drinks at Dearborn’s Fairlane Inn to discuss such a car. Sperlich devised the plan to base it on the compact Falcon, to minimize development cost and time, spurring the name “Special Falcon” for the project.

“Without Hal Sperlich, there wouldn’t have been a Mustang,” Halderman tells Hagerty. “He was the one who convinced Iacocca that there was a huge market that we did not have a car for.” (Later, working for Chrysler, Sperlich led development of the K-Car and convinced Iacocca to build a minivan based on that platform.)

Rush job

Worlds fair mustang advert

The basic parameters for the “Special Falcon” called for a compact coupe, about 180 inches long and 2500 pounds, to sell for $2500. (As an aside, the tiny, mid-engine “Mustang” sports car concept first shown in 1962 was never part of this program. It was purely a design and engineering study, never considered for production and giving only its name to the new car.)

By late July 1962, Iacocca had Sperlich’s “Special Falcon” plan but still hadn’t seen a design he liked enough to show Mr. Ford. Bordinat set up an internal competition among the Ford, Lincoln-Mercury, and Advanced studios to create new designs and full-scale clay models in two weeks.

“My boss, Joe Oros, said, ‘Tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock, we have to decide what we’re going to do,’” Halderman recalls. “We knew the car had to use the Falcon base, and we knew we could play with the proportions slightly.”

Halderman was already working late nights on the 1965 Galaxie, often not leaving until 11. At home, he worked on his kitchen table into the early morning hours, making five sketches for the rush assignment. Working under pressure, it seems, paid off.

Oros especially liked one of Halderman’s ideas showing a prominent recessed panel along the car’s flank, ending in a shallow, ornamental scoop in the quarter panel. That theme went on the driver’s side of the Ford Design Studio’s clay model. The passenger side got Oros’ design, with a side bulge, higher scoop, and more pronounced hop-up over the rear fender. (It was common practice to put different designs on each side for easy evaluation.)

Working out the details

Ford Mustang cougar concept model front end
Ford Mustang cougar concept model rear

The model initially had the softer lines seen on the sketch, but that would change.

“My boss, Joe Oros, was a straight-line guy,” Halderman says. “We started the clay with a little more crown in it, a little softer. He looked at it and said, ‘I like it, but we have to straighten this up a bit.’”

Without sketches, Halderman worked with designer George Schumaker and clay modelers until three o’clock one morning to craft the Mustang’s distinctive rear styling. Halderman says the triple taillights, which would become another Mustang hallmark, were his idea. To save costs, the production version used a single lens, divided into three segments with a chrome bezel.

Other designers working to refine the model included Dave Ash, John Foster, John Najjar, Charles Phaneuf, and Damon Woods. With the rear styling set, Halderman, Oros and the group put in another late night with the modelers to create the front, again without working from a sketch. The key feature they wanted was a prominent “Ferrari-like” grille that pushed out beyond the fenders.

Ford Mustang cougar concept model 3/4 driver

The model’s oval headlights, like those on some European Fords, were not allowed under U.S. lighting regulations and were replaced by round lights. “Gills” were used to fill in the gap between the lights and the grille, creating another iconic Mustang touch.

One point of contention, Halderman recalls, was the shape and size of the “hop up” behind the door.

“We argued about it, and we finally agreed that it should be like the one on the Continental Mk II,” he says. “We made a cardboard template from the Mk II’s hop-up.”

The finished model was called “Cougar,” with a sculpted cat in the grille where a galloping horse would replace it by that fall.

Show time, go time

Ford Mustang cougar concept model 3/4 front

“When we showed the clay to Iacocca, he said, ‘I like that. That’s distinctive,’” recalls Halderman, whose side design won the day. “Henry looked at it. He said, ‘I like it, but I’m not approving it.’ As he started to walk away, he said, ‘But don’t stop working on it.’”

The Oros team clay model won the competition, and the design, with halderman’s “scoop,” was finally approved for production with a few dozen changes made mainly for engineering and assembly—and, of course, with the name changed from Cougar to Mustang.

Fifty-five years later, it’s a look that still turns heads … and still sells.

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