Sperlich: Mustang 'was all about youth'

Sperlich: "As I began to understand the thing, it was all about youth. Kennedy was the president. People were thinking anything is possible."

Among the Ford Mustang's fathers, Hal Sperlich is one of the most fascinating. Sperlich gets credit for being the product-planning genius behind the Ford Mustang and Chrysler's original minivan, the vehicles that made Lee Iacocca famous. These days, the two keep in touch.

Sperlich was known for not being afraid to express his opinions. Like his mentor, Iacocca, he ran afoul of Henry Ford II and ended up getting fired. Also like Iacocca, he ended up at Chrysler.

MotorTrend magazine wrote last year: "Sperlich may be the most influential auto executive you barely know. He created Detroit's sport compact pony car class with Ford's 1964 Mustang, then two decades later launched the minivan at Chrysler. Both times, boss Lee Iacocca took most of the credit."

Sperlich, now 84, talked in March about the Mustang's early days with Staff Reporter Bradford Wernle.

Q: You were working as special studies manager when the Mustang was in development. What did that job entail?

A: I was in the product-planning department of Ford Division reporting to Don Frey, who was head of product planning. It was a department that hadn't existed previously in product planning. It was kind of created to match up with my potential. The job was to take up anything that didn't have a home. So I got into a whole variety of things, one of which was the Mustang.

Sometime in that first year, when Iacocca was the head of Ford Division in 1960, Mustang was born. I was handed that from a product-planning standpoint. I was working for Frey and Iacocca.

What were your instructions?

Iacocca wanted to develop a sporty car for younger people -- baby boomers. I was given that job. Everybody had their own idea. Iacocca had his. Frey had his. I had to run those out to develop them. As I began to understand the thing, it was all about youth. Kennedy was the president. People were thinking anything is possible.

Describe the atmosphere at the company in those days.

The company had just come off the Edsel, which was very sad. It was a tough blow and an embarrassment from a national standpoint. It not only failed but was made fun of -- the toilet seat grille. The idea of spending a bunch of money on a sporty car venture was not real popular in all corners of Ford Motor Co.

What kinds of cars inspired the project?

We were looking at how to make it broadly usable so a family of four would be able to use it for vacation -- four golf bags. A sporty car that would be a real turn-on but would also be usable. We were all admiring the two-seat passenger sports cars from Europe, from the MG on. We loved those long-hood, short rear-deck roadsters. The roadster was the aspirational image for the younger generation.

Where did the Falcon come into the picture?

I came up with the idea of putting it on the lowest cost package we had -- the Falcon.

I spent three days over in engineering with a guy named Charlie. I wish I could remember his last name. I knew what I wanted in terms of roadster proportions. He was a body draftsman. We messed around and figured out a car with the rear wheels pulled forward that would still have room in the back seat. We wanted to lower the whole seating package so the roof would be lower and still leave room for two passengers in the back seat with a rear overhang that would accommodate a family on vacation. I just knew this was it.

I had done the whole bill of material for this potential car. I was able to work with the Falcon bill of material. We retained most of what the Falcon was, all the powertrain and chassis. We found a way to rework the chassis so it wouldn't be a deal breaker. I took it to styling and styling did me some cars. You could see it was going to be really exciting. I worked up a cost that wouldn't be much more than the Falcon but would be a roadster. It used three-fourths of the Falcon's parts. But it still wasn't happening so Lee said, "Why don't we have a styling contest?"

How did that work out?

I said I'd be the cop. There were six or seven models from all these different design studios. Something about competition brings out the best. We had several knockout designs. One of them was the Cougar. It was a really sexy-looking car. Lee and I were quickly drawn to this one called the Cougar. That became the first Mustang. He brought Henry over, and Henry liked the car. He still wasn't ready to say "Yes." That got us going. We knew where we were going. I worked with Joe Oros, Ford styling division studio. There were some great designers, including Gale Halderman.

What happened next?

I put together the bill of materials against the specific model. It was crazy. Today we've got program management teams that do all this stuff. I did all this myself and put together the whole program for $75 million.

How did it get approved?

Lee was pushing me like crazy to get it done. I got it done. I took it to the product-planning committee. There weren't a lot of people raising their hands because of this risk-averse thing that had come over the company. Everybody was cautious. It wasn't happening until Henry showed some willingness. He added some back seat knee room. It actually helped the car, and it didn't hurt the visuals. I can't remember the volumes they planned, but it was probably a couple hundred thousand. The car ended up selling a half million a year. It ended up as an enormous volume success and a big product success. It was also a big emotional success with this cadre of young buyers coming into the market. Most cars were really dull in those days.

Describe your relationship with Iacocca.

He is arguably the best automotive marketing guy ever. He was a genius at marketing, advertising and promotion. My skill was in the product arena -- putting together products that would be attractive to large volumes of people. We worked well together. We did a lot of things together at Ford and Chrysler. He got a lot of credit as he should. He credited me for having done the two cars that defined his career. I wasn't afraid to challenge him, and he wasn't afraid to tell me when I was doing something stupid.

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