Author Michael Lamm recounts the development of Ford’s 196 Mustang the first mid-engine throust toward Total Performance.
People have tried for years to weave a connection between the Ford Mustang I-the knee-high 2-seater in which Dan Gurney lapped Watkins Glen in 1962-and the production Mustang that came out in May 1964.
Well, forget it. There ain’t no connection, or at best precious little. Other than the name, the horsey emblem, and the side scoops, the Mustang I didn’t contribute to the production car in any rational way. The little Mustang I did lead Ford into the GT40 program, though, and was emblematic of a performance and marketing bonanza that soon became known as Total Performance.
The Mustang I was created, it turns out, as an early component of Ford’s Total Performance buildup. According to retired Ford engineer Robert D. Negstad, who worked on the Mustang I and was later part of the team that developed the 7-liter Shelby Cobra, “The people who came out of (the Mustang I group) went on to win Le Mans…. They learned their craft and their skills in that Mustang I project. It was a labor of love….”
Horse of a Different Color
To begin at the beginning, around 1960 a Ford product planner named Don Frey became disturbed that the company was losing its performance image, especially among younger buyers. Hotrodders had given up the flathead Ford V8 in favor of smallblock Chevys and Chrysler Hemis. Sports-car enthusiasts were buying imports and Corvettes. Ford was becoming an old-maid car company.
So Frey expressed his concern to Robert S. McNamara, Ford’s car and truck VP, and to Henry Ford II, the company president. Frey also rallied a number of other Ford executives, key among them vice presidents Gene Bordinat (design) and Herb Misch (engineering). Frey’s message, in effect, was “Hey, fellas, we’ve got a marketing problem. Let’s do something to polish up Ford’s styling and performance
Designer Bordinat immediately got busy. Ford’s studios were turning out an armada of showcars-as many as one a week, most of them fiberglass rollers minus powertrains. Often these projects came in response to design competitions routinely held among Ford’s various studios. But for a competition in January 1962, Bordinat asked his styling chiefs to submit concepts for something new: a small, no-holds-barred sports car.
One of the designers was John Najjar, now retired after a career with Ford going back to the late ’30s. “We had a studio under Bob Maguire,” Najjar explains, “and in it were Jim Darden, Ray Smith, plus an artist, Phil Clark, several modelers, and me. We drew up a 2-seater sports car in competition with the other studios, and when they saw ours-saw the blackboard with a full-sized layout and sketches- they said, ‘That’s it! Let’s build it.’ So we made a clay model, designed the details, and then built a fiberglass prototype.” This car was simply a concept study rather than the final configuration, but it included a lot of the sporty, rakish flair the later showcar embodied.
With the performance kettle starting to simmer in Dearborn, VP of Design Bordinat decided to take this 2-seat concept further and build it into a showable prototype. To that end he invited his opposite number in engineering, Herb Misch, to come over and take a look.
Misch got excited as well, and he selected a special-projects wizard named Roy Lunn to head up the creation of a complete prototype. Lunn would act as liaison between the styling and engineering sides and oversee the building of the car.
By now it was early May of ’62, and the car had even earned a name: Mustang, suggested by John Najjar. Ford insiders actually referred to it as the Mustang Sports Car, and it wasn’t until the 4-place 1963 Mustang II concept car came out that people began calling the 2-seater Mustang I retroactively.
The Mustang I advanced quickly from concept sketches to package drawings conforming with the engineering specifications that were being laid down simultaneously. Najjar recalls that his studio’s full-sized drawings contained the suggestion of a tubular spaceframe, and Ray Smith, the studio engineer, added the popup headlights, retractable license plate, fixed seats, and adjustable-reach steering and pedals.
Fueled primarily on enthusiasm-the budget for the project being virtually nonexistent-in short order Ford had a fiberglass prototype of their 2-seat sports car. Initially no one knew whether the prototype would be developed into a runner or not, but by mid-summer Misch and Bordinat decided that in either case they wanted to display the car at the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen on 7 October 1962.
At that point the project still had no budget and only the fuzziest of goals: to show up at Watkins Glen on race day. But on that goal alone Roy Lunn quickly assembled a team and dedicated them to building a finished showcar in the remarkable time of just 100 working days.