By on October 19, 2010

There’s an old Russian saying, “success has many fathers while failure is an orphan”. The automotive world has plenty of examples of that. Perhaps a half dozen Italian designers have taken credit for the Lamborghini Miura. Zora-Arkus Duntov is often called the “father” of the Corvette, even though it was seeing the already in production Corvette on display at the 1953 Autorama in New York City that inspired Duntov to write Ed Cole asking for a job as an engineer at Chevy in the first place.

Another case of mistaken automotive paternity is the Mustang. If you asked 100 auto enthusiasts the question, “who originated the idea of the Ford Mustang?”, most would say Lee Iacocca. After all, he made the cover of Time magazine when the original 64 1/2 was such a hit. When you type in Iacocca, Google autosuggests “iacocca mustang”. He’s even sold Iacocca signature editions of the ‘Stang. Sometimes Ford product manager Donald Frey, who passed away earlier this year, is given the credit for the Mustang’s concept. While Frey was a staunch advocate for the sporty four-seater, selling the idea to Iacocca and shepherding it past resistance from Henry Ford II, it turns out that he wasn’t the originator of the idea. In fact, as Robert Cumberford explains, the idea didn’t even start at Ford, or even a car company, it was the idea of ad man Barney Clark, and he pitched it first to General Motors, not Ford.

Clark was writing advertising copy on the Corvette account for Campbell-Ewald, Chevy’s long time ad agency, and he realized that the Corvette’s sales would always be limited by the lack of a back seat. In late 1956, Clark prepared a memorandum for Harley J. Earl, head of GM Styling and passed it along to his contacts at Chevrolet.

Pointing to the less than stellar sales of the Corvette and the competing Ford Thunderbird (then still a two-seater), Clark said that the way Americans socialized would favor the sale of four-passenger vs. two-passenger cars. In charmingly dated language, he described how

“the young American, still clinging to the childhood “gang” concept, prefers to double-date; he is accompanied, not only by his girl-friend but also by his chum and the chum’s girl.”

Clark’s research also showed that while single men might consider buying a MG or other two-seater, buyer’s remorse quickly set in due to impracticality. Once married, that young American male would have to put aside desires for a sports car, and drive something that could seat children too. Also, the low volume of two-seaters means that they can’t be sold cheaply, pricing them out of the market for young people. A Corvette doesn’t really make a practical second car, in case dad has to pick up the kids after school, or if a couple wants to go out with another couple.

It’s interesting that before laying out what his proposed four-passenger sports car would look like, Clark’s proposal digresses into motorsports. Clark was a strong believer in “win on Sunday, sell on Monday”. What he ended up proposing was a production-based race series that sounds a lot like what Trans-Am became a decade later.

It’s also interesting (remember this was 1956) that Clark says that despite the market handicaps that two-seaters face, and despite the Corvette’s lackluster sales during its first three years (the small block Chevy V8 didn’t show up until the 1955 model year), that “to avoid the embarrassment of confessing defeat” in the face of the Ford Thunderbird, GM could not afford to discontinue the ‘Vette. So he suggested that a larger market four-passenger sports car be built.

While a couple of his predictions turned out to miss the mark (Ford sold 400,000 Mustangs in its first year – Clark couldn’t see GM selling more than 20,000), most of his design brief accurately described the 1964 /12 Mustang and just about every Mustang and pony car since.

Clark said that it had to be a credible sports car, with better handling and performance than conventional cars. He said that it had to be durable. He also said it should be masculine – which applied in the case of the Mustang’s styling which doesn’t have many feminine curves, but it was inaccurate in the sense that the early Mustangs were very popular with young adult women. The car should have front bucket seats, and front accommodations should be comfortable. The back seat should be just big enough so that adults can sit back there without too much discomfort for short rides. The trunk should only be big enough for a couple of “two-suiters”, for overnight trips, plus there should be bins and storage areas in the interior.

In terms of performance, “a slightly hotter-than-standard production engine will do”, because of light weight, and a four-speed syncromesh transmission should be offered, along with shock absorbers, springs, and stabilizer bars to be able to put the car in racing trim.

So far that’s a pretty good description of the Mustang, but it’s in his styling brief that Barney Clark not only accurately described the long hood and short high rear deck that define pony cars, he also predicted the Mustang’s evergreen popularity. The Mustang’s shape evokes some very deeply rooted emotions (remember, he was writing in 1956):

A four-seater of this type cannot compete successfully with two-seaters using the modern long, low ultra-streamlined type of styling. It is necessarily too high, with too long a roofline. So why not go against the grain and revert to the idiom of an earlier day, the 1930 Bentleys, TC-MGs, and so on? Let’s revert to the slab stern and high luggage compartment, the nearly vertical rear window, the leather strap and “chunk of road machinery” feeling. There is a powerful sentimental appeal to reinforce us, as well as the masculine feeling for machinery that is visible. Besides, I think we would find an unexpected advantage in styling that is counter to the trend: we would be copying no one; it would always look individual and fresh; the visual impact of such a car on the street — even five years old — would remain sharp and clear. You could, in a sense, “style it and forget it” — there would be no nececessity for yearly revisions or major facelifts.

We would, in essence, be creating a “classic”. And such a car would live longer in the minds than any “car-of-tomorrow” designs we can produce today.

Clark’s prediction that the styling of the Mustang would be timeless has been borne out by its many iterations that have not departed too much from his own styling brief. Whenever Ford makes a new Mustang, you immediately know that it is a Mustang. For the matter, Clark’s prediction also holds true for the reborn Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger. At the same time, the original Mustang was in many ways a pastiche of a number of styling cues from earlier cars. While John Najjar and Phil Clark may have been the formal designers of the Mustang, they used shapes inspired by other designers including Elwood Engel and Virgil Exner.

There is the long front hood of the classic 1930s Duesenbergs and Bentleys. The front end treatment and high rectangular grille was borrowed from Exner’s Dual Ghia. The Mustang’s fender line and the way it kicks up just before the rear fender is taken directly from Engel’s 1961 Lincoln Continental. The roof line, though similar to the Thunderbird’s, was actually lifted from the Pontiac Tempest. On the interior, the Mustang’s double cowl dashboard was meant to evoke the MG-TD (or the early ’60s Corvettes), and the bucket seats that Barney Clark insisted upon were copied from the Lotus Elan. Not quite a horse designed by committee but a remarkable pedigree for a car that is so strongly identified as a Ford product.

Though Harley Earl angrily rejected Clark’s proposal, in the early 1960s Chuck Jordan’s team developed a sporty car that they actually named Mustang. It was Tony Lapine, later head of Porsche styling, who set the Mustang’s 108″ wheelbase while he was at GM. According to Gary Witzenburg’s history of the Mustang, a Detroit newspaper published a leak that Ford was working on a car called the Mustang. A panicked GM designer Chuck Jordan called up John Najjar, who actually was lead designer of the Mustang I and asked him if it was true. Jordan’s team had only recently revealed their own sporty car to styling head Bill Mitchell. With Ford about to go public with a Mustang show car, GM’s own Mustang was shelved.

By then Barney Clark had moved on to J. Walter Thompson, Ford’s ad agency, and had gotten the ear of Don Frey. Frey, as mentioned, started the production Mustang as a skunk works project based on the compact Falcon and ushered it into production.

Just as who actually came up with the idea of the Mustang is an open question, Iacocca, Frey or Clark, there’s also some dispute over who originated the car’s styling, particularly that of the Mustang I concept car. Though not a four-seater, the concept has the long hood and short high rear deck of the production car (and Barney Clark’s design brief). Though it borrowed some themes from the Mustang I concept, the production Mustang was the product of John Oros’ team at Ford-Lincoln styling.

Ford designer John Najjar is generally credited with designing the Mustang I concept. There is some evidence that a young member of his team, ironically also named Clark, not only contributed the galloping mustang logo, but also the name “Mustang”, as well as preliminary drawings of the Mustang’s basic shape. There is no question that Phil Clark designed the galloping mustang grille ornament, Ford archivists and Ford styling chief J. Mays acknowledge that. According to his family, he’d been taken with the idea of a car called Mustang since he saw wild mustangs from his train going west to Pasadena’s Art Center for college. He’d been drawing galloping mustangs since that time.

The Mustang I was developed in the summer of 1962 and introduced in October. Phil Clark joined Ford in April of that year, after a stint at GM under Chuck Jordan. So it’s possible that Phil Clark may have influenced the naming of the Mustang I. Since there are drawings by Phil Clark of a car that looks very much like the Mustang I that are dated before Najjar’s own drawings of the Mustang I, it’s been suggested by more than a couple of people that Clark had more than just a subsidiary role in the styling of that vehicle.

What’s interesting is that Phil Clark may have also had a role in GM’s own aborted “Mustang”. According to Najjar, when Jordan called him “he told me they had just finished a special vehicle for Mitchell that they called Mustang, with the horse and everything on it.” Phil Clark’s family says that he worked on that GM project as well. Since Clark worked for Jordan immediately before going to Ford, it’s possible that his family’s history is accurate. The actual fathers of the Mustang may both have been named Clark.

The Lamborghini Miura has at least three designers who claim it as their work (Marcello Gandini has the strongest claim, but Giorgetto Giugiaro claims that Gandini was working from the ItalDesign founder’s drawings he did before leaving Bertone, and Nuncio Bertone claimed that it was all his idea in the first place). As successful an aesthetic design as the Miura is, it sure didn’t sell 400,000 units in its first year in production. There’s success and then there’s success. With a car as successful as the Mustang has been, it’s not surprising that at least a couple of people have claimed paternity.

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14 Comments on “Who’s Your Daddy, Mustang?...”

  • avatar

    What a great article!

    • 0 avatar

      You’re right. This is the kind of entertaining,research-based article about cars the buff books used to publish, before they lost their way and became whatever it is they are now.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks, but a lot of credit should go to Rob’t Cumberford, whose styling analysis of the 64.5 Mustang at the Automobile site was where I found out about Barney Clark. Go read his article and understand what Baruth was saying about leaving styling commentary to those that know something about designing cars.

  • avatar

    Every car is derivative in the sense that design elements are re-used. Every painting is derivative in the sense that a similar range of colors (palette) are used.
    It’s those who combine these elements in a unique way, either never seen before, or one that invokes an elemental response in people that they’re witnessing beauty – that’s art, or in the sense of the Mustang, a classic form that has nearly universal appeal. Glad they kept the formula.

  • avatar

    What I find remarkable is how the designers using the Falcon underpinnings developed a radically different top hat that turned out to be so iconic.   The foot print was much smaller than the Ford Thunderbird.  From 1964 1/2  forward the Thunderbird was relegated to a luxo-barge status by my generation. The early Mustangs weren’t the fastest cars on the road.

  • avatar

    As a designer myself, the above is true. King Solomon once wrote under inspiration, that there is “nothing new under the sun” and that’s true. As Shaker says, it’s all in how the basic elements are arranged, modified, massaged and proportioned. The ability to do that effectively – now that’s the challenge, and those that are able to do this better than the others, in the right circumstances, are the winners. The winners are the ones who are credited with the icons of society, whether they create the C2V, Corvette, Mustang, Camaro, T-Bird, etc. Once in a while, something like the Trabant becomes an icon, maybe not in what we may call a great design on the surface, but in the circumstances it was – it has endured and thrived in its unique environment.

    • 0 avatar

      This can be said of music as well.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      @Zachman, amen.  But this is the first time I can remember someone trying to create a classic and actually pulling it off.  Most classics weren’t consciously created as such.
      We would, in essence, be creating a “classic”. And such a car would live longer in the minds than any “car-of-tomorrow” designs we can produce today.

  • avatar

    I think most designers would admit any final creation was the work of a great many designers and long, endless nights away from others and family.

    I have a son working game design and the team consist of many writers, artist, programmers and coming home at 5 AM, or not at all.

    Perhaps auto design has more lasting individual imput, but it is always going to be difficult knowing who scetched what and what small line drawing grew into the next car.

    I think this is why the Beatles NEVER wrote the hits after the break up. The thousand semingly insignificant words, phrases or note inputs from the band members during the long nights recording added to, even made the song a hit.
    Same thing here.

  • avatar

    “Once married, that young American male would have to put aside desires for a sports car, and drive something that could seat children too.”
    Old Coot Confused ™.
    Isn’t that why those little metal luggage racks capable of toting only the lightest loads were installed upon two-seat cars?
    Strap the squawking brat or two to the rack and motor away!!!
    “In the day” back before intrusive government stomped individual freedom into mush, often with jack-boots, before child safety seats and other intrusive laws, statutes, etc. became the norm; back when us younguns’ rode in the pick-up bed free to fly and slide and revel in the direct contact with the environment we passed through transporting people was a much simpler event.
    An era long-gone.
    Some finger-pointing properly done at a legal system that allowed lawyers to alter society greatly via lawsuits.
    At what price did we as a people pay for having so many freedoms trampled upon?

  • avatar

    Actually, the car that Mr. Clark was describing in the mid 50’s, and what eventually became the Mustang, started out as the 1953 Studebaker Starliner, designed by Raymond Lowery.  If Clark was the Mustang’s daddy, then Lowery was it’s grand-daddy.

  • avatar

    The only problem I have with this article is that Robert Cumberford was wrong in his interpretation of Barney Clarks’ styling direction in order to make the production Mustang meet his conclusion. Ever see an MG-TC or a Bentley from 1930? They didn’t have high, flat trunks. The slab Clark described was vertical. The TC just had a wedge shaped gas tank with a spare tire and a rack fastened to it. The Bentleys typically didn’t even have the visible wedge. Based on what Clark actually wrote, the car he proposed would have been a shooting break, perhaps something resembling the first Corvette based Nomad.

    As for Robert Cumberford being an arbiter of auto styling, take a look at his own Martinique before following him off a cliff.

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