DETROIT (March 30, 2010) — Who was the father of the Mustang? Depending on how you approach the subject, there were at least two guys.
At one level, it was Lee Iacocca, who was head of Ford Division when the Mustang debuted in 1964.
But drill down deeper, and the debate gets muddier. And no discussion of how the Mustang came into being fails to include Don Frey. The former Bell & Howell chairman and one of the engineers who helped design the iconic Ford Mustang, died March 5 of a massive stroke at Evanston Hospital in suburban Chicago. He was 87.
Mr. Frey was chief engineer and an assistant general manager of Ford Division when the Mustang was introduced.
“A few of us at Ford were sitting around one day in the early 1960s and thought it would be a good idea to produce a small, sporty car that would appeal to a mass market,” Mr. Frey once told a reporter. “We were a bunch of young guys in our 30s and early 40s.”
Mr. Frey and his colleagues had a hard time selling Henry Ford II on the idea.
“The company was just getting over the Edsel flop and really didn't want to gamble on another new model,” Mr. Frey said. So development funds for the Mustang were taken from excess money buried in the budget.
Years later, Mr. Frey said, it took five tries to persuade “The Deuce” to go along with the project. “On the fifth try, he said to me, 'I'm going to approve your Mustang, and it's your ass if it doesn't sell.'”
Sell, it did. Instead of an estimated 86,000 that first year, 400,000 were sold. The Mustang is still in production today.
In The Reckoning, David Halberstam wrote: “Frey's love of cars was famous at Ford. He was always at his desk late at night, working on some design problem. When he finished his desk work, he would go over to the test track just to drive a car.”
Mr. Frey also was known as the house egghead. He had been an academic at the University of Michigan before joining Ford. And he had an insistent way about him that got under the skin of Henry Ford II.
“The trouble with Frey,” The Deuce once said, “is that he's too…damn smart for his own good. Maybe he's a genius. Maybe not. But he's certainly a pain in the ass.”
This article appeared in Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.