Even when an idea is great, it takes a team to make it a reality. Though Lee Iacocca is often credited as “creating” the first Mustang, it took a team of dedicated professionals with a variety of skills who worked hard behind the scenes. Gale Halderman was one of the designers who created some of the first sketches of the Mustang and was the man who added a lot of the features that have made the Mustang an icon.
Halderman’s Pre-Mustang Work
Gale Halderman developed a love of auto design during his time at Dayton Art Institute and received a job offer from Ford before he even graduated. Halderman was able to convince the dean to allow him to graduate early in order to take the job after he saw some of Halderman’s drawings. In them, he saw the same promise that Ford did, and recognized that Gale was already on his way to becoming an automotive designer.
Halderman was drawn to automotive design because of the challenges that it presented, offering a mental puzzle in addition to a design opportunity. Some of his first designs at Ford reflect that love of challenge. Halderman worked on retractable hardtops, the Ford Falcon, and the Thunderbird.
Every designer who worked with Gale commented on his skill and his diligence. Not surprisingly, he worked his way through the ranks. Prior to the launch of Ford’s 1964 and 1965 car lines, Halderman was working as a design manager. The launch required he and his team to work long hours, but Halderman still loved automotive design.
Iacocca’s Great Idea
Then, Lee Iacocca had an idea, a sort of contest between the design departments at Ford. Every department was supposed to submit their best design for a car that was personal and sporty, that would appeal to women and to men, and that could be made affordably. It was a challenge, and that, of course, was what Halderman had been drawn to in the first place.
One late weekend night, Halderman worked on his sketches. His design was sporty. It was personal, and it had the kind of customizable feel that made it the right car for everyone.
Halderman’s designs were picked to be the basis for the team’s clay model.
It’s not hard to find the Mustang we know and love in Halderman’s sketches. It’s there in the quarter panel side moldings and hop-up design. His tail lights had the convex shape that has become iconic on early Mustangs. At the time, the project was called the “Ford Cougar” and early examples can even be seen with a cougar in the place that would be occupied by a running pony.
The First Fastback
The first Mustang Fastback, now considered one of the most classic styles of the first generation, was designed in secret because Halderman and his team knew that Henry Ford wouldn’t approve of it. There were many rules that the design teams operated under, but as soon as the design team saw the prototype for the Mustang they felt that a fastback version needed to exist, even if it would only ever be the one.
The team first created a clay model, and then a fiberglass finished model which they painted Candyapple Red. This first fastback was covered in the courtyard, where Halderman’s team took Lee Iaccoca during his next design review, adding an element of showmanship and pageantry in the hopes that it would pull Iaccoca to their side.
As soon as the cover was pulled off of the world’s first red Mustang Fastback, Iaccoca’s cigar began to twirl, a well-known tell for when he was pleased. Halderman knew then that there would be a Mustang fastback.
A Stunning Success
Even though the Mustang’s early engineers, test drivers, and prototype builders all loved it and said it was a special car, Halderman and his team were still blown away by the Mustang’s runaway success. It was the modern-day equivalent of “going viral” and everyone involved was elated. The Mustang, by Halderman’s count, broke seventy-seven of Ford’s “rules” for vehicles, and apparently, that was exactly what people were looking for.
Halderman was an integral part of the first Mustang design team, and then the first-generation Mustang design. The problem with hitting it out of the park on the first swing is that it puts enormous pressure on the subsequent years. Halderman describes passionate discussions between designers who wanted to lean into the design features people had liked about the first Mustang and other designers who wanted to try something entirely different.
The first generation of Mustang reflects the battle between keeping what people loved and creating something new, with no two years being exactly the same. Even the two closest years, the ’65 and ’66 Mustang, were full of differences. When Bunkie Knudsen and Larry Shinoda joined the team at Ford and brought the best and the worst of GMs design ideas with them, it became clear how broad the appeal of the Mustang was. Far from just being a personal sporty car, as they originally envisioned, the Mustang was also an enthusiast car.
Because Knudsen and Iaccoca’s tastes were so different, Halderman claims that the design team actually would make two almost identical models with touches that they knew would appeal to either but not both. Fortunately, they never visited the design studio at the same time.
Halderman’s Continued Contributions
Halderman’s contributions to the Mustang haven’t gone unrecognized. In 2004, Halderman was inducted into the Mustang Club of America’s Hall of Fame. In 2014, Halderman was presented with an Iacocca award, and if you visit Tipp City, Ohio you’ll find the Halderman museum.
In the Halderman museum, Gale keeps his favorite Mustang: A Candyapple Red Convertible. He also regularly holds meetups for Mustang owners at the Museum and can be found at many Mustang events and gatherings. Halderman is infallibly humble, discussing at length not only his contributions but also the way the entire team came together to create a car that people would still be talking about nearly sixty years later.
Image Credit: Ford, Halderman Museum