The Ford Mustang isn’t just a car – it’s an American automotive icon. But a car company doesn’t sell 9 million copies of the same nameplate over five different design generations for 45 consecutive years by accident. It takes passionate people – or, more precisely, passionate car people, to make such an ongoing success happen. For a company as large and as enduring as Ford, literally thousands of people have had a hand in making the Mustang a legend over the years. The vast majority of them, from mid-managers to marketers all the way down to the assembly line workers, have toiled their entire careers in anonymity; but some have been permanently cast into the spotlight of Mustang history.
Here we’ve collected what might be considered the Top 10 names in Mustang history. While each selection’s proper place in our listing could be the subject of an endless discussion, what cannot be argued is the fact each and every one of these folks played a major role in the ongoing success of the Ford Mustang. Enjoy!
1. Lee Iacocca: President, Ford Division
If there is one, single person who could be credited as the “father” of the Ford Mustang, it is Lee Iacocca. The dynamic son of a hard-working Italian immigrant, Iacocca grew up in Pennsylvania and got an engineering degree at Lehigh University and a Masters from Princeton before joining Ford Motor Company and completing an extensive business training program – all by his 22nd birthday. Ford had offered him an engineering job, but he passed on it after finding an available sales position within the company.
Bold, competitive, and amazingly intuitive, Iacocca came up with a successful “$56 per month for a ’56 Ford” promotion that helped propel him though a series of truck and car marketing manager posts and finally the general manager’s job. But because he knew that Ford product decisions were made only at the vice-president level and above, he set a goal for himself to be a VP by time he was 35. He was less than a month past his 36th birthday when Henry Ford II made him VP of Ford Division in November of 1960.
The young upstart Iacocca immediately set out to change Ford’s stodgy image among boomers who were entering the workforce in a strong economy. To his credit, he surrounded himself with other passionate “car guys” who soon became major players in the Mustang saga by becoming part of the now famed “Fairlane Committee,” a group of Ford upstarts who met after work to noodle on development of the Mustang. While Iacocca had little to do with the physical car itself, he was undeniably the Mustang’s greatest high-level champion who got the car “sold” both to Ford brass and to America at large.
By his 40th Birthday, October 15, 1964, Iacocca was made President of Ford Division. His Ford career was a rollercoaster ride that went from the highs of the original Mustang’s skyrocketing success to surviving the car’s bloating under the Bunkie Knudsen years, and its downsizing and fall from grace during the Mustang II era before he was summarily fired in 1978. Time magazine once called him “the hottest young man in Detroit,” brilliant, an “ingenious automotive merchandising expert.” He is perhaps equally known for saving Chrysler from the brink of bankruptcy in 1980 and launching another all-new automotive segment, the minivan,” albeit much different from his Ford ponycar. He went from Chrysler CEO to Chairman in 1979, helped acquire AMC (and Jeep) in 1987 and then retired at the end of 1992.
2. Don Frey: Mustang Product Planning Manager
Donald Frey was the Executive Engineer for Ford’s car programs during the time the original Mustang was created. He is credited with conceiving the first mid-engine two-seat roadster prototype, the 1962 “Mustang I” concept. As a key member of Iacocca’s Fairlane Committee, Frey headed up all engineering aspects of the first Mustang as Product Manager. He was eventually promoted to Vice President of North American Product Development, and oversaw the development of all Mustangs up until completion of the 1973 model year. He was also involved in the development of the Ford Bronco.
Frey understood the kind of driving dynamics and styling that would be needed for a successful sports car. While in the Army he had driven an Allard on the twisty European roads, and became convinced that the first order of business for the Fairlane Committee was to change the company’s marketing and product planning to focus on the “Total Performance” of the Ford brand. The car that would lead the performance charge, of course, was the all-new Mustang. Frey’s group conducted a number of survey programs that all indicated there was a tremendous youth market clamoring for a fun car from Ford. The charge was given to take the Falcon, re-body it, re-trim it and re-introduce it as sports car.
Frey joined Ford in 1951 as a supervisor of the metallurgical department in the company's Scientific Laboratory and became associate director of the Laboratory in 1955. He was appointed director of the Engineering Research Office in 1957 and later that year was designated executive engineer, Ford Division. In November 1959, Frey was appointed assistant chief engineer, Ford and Mercury Product Engineering Office. In 1967, he received an honorary doctorate in Engineering from the University of Michigan. He resigned from Ford in 1968 to become president of General Cable.
3. Joe Oros: Ford Studio Design Chief
Joe Oros is credited with creating the initial clay model for the 1964½ Mustang. His striking design is said to have been the creative force that won over decision-makers at Ford, thus securing the internal green light to move forward with the Mustang project. Oros, who was a Ford Division Design Chief, received an Industrial Design Institute award for his work on the original Mustang.
Oros was also in charge of the Ford Studio that had won the open styling competition for the Mustang. His concept, called the Cougar, featured a wide stance, long hood, short rear deck and side sculpting that went on to become a Mustang trademark. More importantly, his design was a key ingredient in the overwhelming success in the market that is now central to Mustang lore. The Mustang was the first automobile to win the Tiffany Gold Medal for excellence in American design. The inscription read, “Mustang has the look, the fire and flavor of one of the great European road cars. Yet it is as American as its name and as practical as its price.”
From clay to production model, Oros noted that in his career, no car had ever been so little changed from original design to production. He was also adamant that the production car be called Cougar, which had been the codename for the car during development. Market research overruled design and the name Mustang was suggested.
He retired from Ford in 1981, and now lives outside suburban Los Angeles in a home filled with his original paintings and sculptures.
4. Gale Halderman: Mustang Stylist
Ford Stylist Gale Halderman worked closely with then division vice-president Lee Iacocca to lead the design team responsible for the Mustang from feasibility through production. With direction from Ford Studio Chief Joe Oros, Halderman sketched six different ideas for the new sports car concept. The next day, Oros selected Halderman’s out of the two-dozen designs that were submitted. Halderman received the Industrial Design Society Design Award for his design work on the 1965 Mustang.
From concept sketch to clay to production, Halderman served as deign chief for the Mustang for eight more years. Mustang design advances under Halderman’s leadership included the ’65 Mustang 2+2 Fastback, the ’67 SportsRoof and the ’71 Notchback and full Fastback designs. Later, Mr. Halderman oversaw the design development of the 1979 Fox-body (3rd generation) Mustang.
Halderman joined Ford in 1954 after graduating from the Dayton Art Institute. He started as a designer in the Lincoln-Mercury studio. Then, after a month of working in the corporate advanced studio, he was assigned to Ford’s pre-production studio. In 1958, after assignments in both the truck studio and Ford Studio he was selected to head up Ford’s Advanced Studio. As manager, he helped design Ford concept cars such as the Levacar, the Mark X sixty-five, the Astrion, and the Gyron.
In 1960, he transferred back to the Ford design studio and began work on the Falcon compact and then the original Mustang under Oros. After eight years as manager of the Ford design studio Halderman moved to head up the Ford truck studio. In 1968, he became director of the Lincoln-Mercury design studio. While at Lincoln-Mercury he worked on the Lincoln Continental Mark VI and led the team that designed the Lincoln Mark VII and VIII.
5. Carroll Shelby: Racer/Builder
When most people think of performance Mustangs, the name Shelby comes to mind. Carroll Shelby, a Texas chicken farmer – turned race-car driver – turned race team manager and car builder, is credited with helping Ford create the first high-performance Mustang. He began his involvement with Ford Motor Company in 1962 by installing Ford 260/289 V8 engine in British sports called the AC that Shelby renamed the Cobra. Shelby’s Ford-powered car went on to win the FIA Manufacturers Grand Touring World Championship in 1965, the only American car company to ever do so.
Shortly after the launch of the first Mustang, Iacocca’s team reached out to Shelby and asked if he would be willing to help Ford turn the Mustang into a credible performance car. Shelby and his group of racing engineers were up for the task, and on January 27, 1965, the first Shelby Mustang – a 1965 Shelby GT350 – made its public debut. The car was an instant hit at the track. Shelby’s California facility at the Los Angeles airport began churning out a couple of hundred street-version GT350s a month. When Mustang got a big-block V8 in 1967, Shelby offered a GT500 version, and when the Cobra Jet engine came along in ’68, the Shelby GT500 became the GT500KR, for “King of the Road.”
Bunkie Knudsen took over as Ford president in 1968 and brought the Shelby Mustang operations “in-house” while Ford embarked on the Boss Mustang program, which was the beginning of the end of the Ford-Shelby relationship until the final 1970 Shelby Mustangs were sold.
Similarly, upper management changes at Ford in 2005 reintroduced Shelby to Ford Mustang when his name became the lead brand on the 2006-2010 SVT Mustang Cobra that came to market as the Shelby GT500. Shelby and Ford Racing also teamed up to massage a series of Mustang GTs and market them as “Shelby GTs,” plus have recently offered a variety of other limited-edition specialty Mustangs of late.
6. Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen: Ford President
Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen became President of Ford Motor Company at age of 55, after an already successful 29-year career at GM in which he rose to become head of the Pontiac Division. In his rather brief but important tenure at Ford, Knudsen pushed high performance for the entire Ford lineup including the Mustang, beginning with the Cobra Jet 428 program and culminating with the Boss 302, Boss 429 and Boss 351 models.
The son of William S. Knudsen, a former president at General Motors, Bunkie reportedly jumped ship to Ford after being passed over for the president’s post at GM. Henry Ford II personally recruited Bunkie in January of 1968, just days after GM’s board had met and decided to offer their presidency to Edward N. Cole. But Ford had passed over a few of its own talented insiders when it hired from outside the company. One in particular was Executive Vice President Lee Iacocca, who at just 44 had already proved himself a product and marketing star with the Mustang, one of the company's biggest successes, and was about to have another hit with the new Maverick compact car. Iacocca was very disappointed – shocked, actually – when he learned that Knudsen had been hired over him. But that hurt soon turned into resentment when it became apparent that Knudsen began making decisions and forcing policy changes in parts of the company that fell under Iacocca's responsibility.
It was Bunkie who ordered a bigger and heavier Mustang for 1971, with much of the enlargement said to be needed in order to fit Ford's massive 429 cubic-inch Cobra Jet V8 under its hood without extensive modifications (unlike what was needed to be done on the 1969-1970 Boss 429 Mustang). But within months of the bigger Mustang’s introduction, the muscle car market had collapsed and Knudsen faced political infighting with career Ford executives, notably Iacooca and those associated with him. It all finally led to Knudsen’s firing on September 2, 1969, after rumors of his dismissal had turned one of Henry Ford’s hallmark quotes, “History is bunk,” into a widely circulated quip within Ford circles as, “Bunkie is history.”
Following Bunkie’s departure, the Ford presidency position would officially be vacant for more than a year until Iacocca was promoted to that office in December of 1970. (Ironically, Iacocca would be dismissed in similar fashion some eight years later, in 1978.) In 1971, Knudsen became the president of truck manufacturer White Motor Corporation in Cleveland, Ohio, where he worked until retiring in 1980. Knudsen passed away in 1998 at the age of 86.
7. Neil Ressler: Ford VP/Advanced Product Creation/SVO/SVT
Neil Ressler joined Ford in 1967 as a senior research scientist and became principal design engineer for suspension and steering in 1971. But between 1981 and 1994, Ressler’s career grew by leaps and bounds, serving as chief components engineer for the Climate Control Division, chief engineer of Small Car Design and Development, chief engineer of Chassis and Electrical Engineering and then executive director of vehicle engineering at Car Product Development. But it was also his growing reputation as a true “car guy” that made his opinions count when it came to making enthusiast decisions, such supporting the SVO Mustang and SVO operations and voting against turning the Mustang into the Ford Probe.
Most importantly, Ressler was instrumental in setting up the Ford Special Vehicle Team and getting its first SVT Mustang Cobra to market in 1993. He became a key enabler for SVT engineering to accomplish work within mainstream manufacturing and allowed SVT the autonomy it needed to succeed. Ressler soon became a strategic sponsor and mentor for a fifth-generation Mustang program that would pay homage to the early designs. He and his SVT co-founder, Bob Rewey, who was a Ford VP in charge of marketing, set the wheels in motion to assemble a group of Mustang designers and engineers who could turn that idea into a reality by the 2005 model year.
With the SVT program already up and running, Ressler was elected a Ford vice president in 1994 as head of Core Product Development in Ford Automotive Operations and became the head of Advanced Vehicle Technology later that year. In 1998 he added the chairmanship of Jaguar Racing and Cosworth Racing to his duties and became a board member of Stewart Grand Prix. From 1999 until his retirement in 2001, Ressler held the position of Ford Motor Company vice president and chief technical officer.
8. O. John Coletti: SN-95/Director SVE/SVT
Is John Coletti best known as the team leader who was put in charge of Ford’s “skunkworks” effort that became the 1994 SN-95 Mustang? Or will he best be remembered as Ford’s modern “go-fast guru” as the head of Special Vehicle Engineering and SVT? The answer is, yes.
Coletti headed up the “secret group” that breathed new life into one of the most legendary automotive nameplates of all time – Mustang – for 1994. Coletti’s SVE group also developed noteworthy performance concept vehicles, including such past products as the Mustang Mach III, 10.0-liter BOSS Mustang, Ford GT90, Mustang Super Stallion, and the 6.1-liter Mustang CJR.
Coletti joined Ford Motor Company in 1972 as a product design engineer in the General Products Division. “I was hired by Ford the day after I graduated from college,” Coletti explained. “Later I discovered that I was hired because of my hands-on experience with racing and cars. This background would be essential in dealing with Mr. A.J. Foyt.” Demonstrating his ability to find himself in the right place at the right time, Coletti was assigned to do liaison work between Ford and the legendary racer, engine builder and team owner on the Foyt Indy engine program.
All good things do come to an end, however. And so it was that Ford’s emphasis on Total Performance that began in the ’60s came to an abrupt halt in 1973 as the industry’s focus shifted from excitement to emissions and fuel economy. And Coletti’s career shifted along with it. He was named Mustang business planning manager in 1989. His efforts were integral in reviving the hallowed ponycar for 1994 and led to his assignment as director of the Ford Special Vehicle Team in January 1994, replacing Janine Bay as SVT’s chief engineer. While his pet projects always seemed to center around the Mustang, Coletti was charged with overseeing product development and engineering of all SVT vehicles, including the SVT Mustang Cobra and three different Cobra R-model racers, two generations of the SVT F-150 Lightning pickup, the critically acclaimed SVT Focus sport compact, and the cult favorite SVT Contour sports sedan. Coletti also oversaw the Ford GT engineering program under Neil Ressler, directing the ground-up development of Ford’s centennial supercar.
After SVT’s high-level founders, Ressler and Bob Rewey, both retired, the SVT program became a political football within product development, and Ford Division soon ordered the group to be assimilated into mainstream engineering and marketing. With the SVT brand’s high-level support now gone, Coletti saw the handwriting on the wall and abruptly retired in December 2004 after 33 years with the company.
9. Larry Shinoda: Boss Mustang Stylist
Automotive designer Larry Shinoda gained well-deserved notoriety after he penned the groundbreaking Mako Shark Concept Car, but he is perhaps better known for his work on the Ford Mustang. In 1968, Shinoda followed then-Chevy General Manager Bunkie Knudsen to Ford. He took over design leadership of the 1969 Mustang in time to sponsor and create the Boss 302 and Boss 429, likely two of the most famous Mustangs ever produced. He also led the design team for the classic 1970-1973 Mustangs.
Although his time at Ford was brief (only around 18 months), his ideas had a lasting impact on the styling of the performance Mustangs of the early ’70s. Born in Los Angeles, he became part of the Southern California hot-rod scene as a young man, and actually won the first NHRA Nationals in 1955 with his 1924 Ford roadster hot rod. After a short stint at L.A.’s Art Center College for Design, he got brief styling jobs with Ford and Packard before a landing at General Motors in late 1956. Working on concept cars with GM design chief Bill Mitchell and Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov, Shinoda refined designs that eventually became the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray and the 1968 Corvette, patterned after Shinoda’s own Mako Shark show car.
After following Knudsen to Ford, Shinoda’s first project was working on the Boss 302 Mustang, so-named “Boss” in homage to working for Bunkie. When Knudsen was fired from Ford in late 1969, Shinoda quit.
10. Bob Tasca, Sr.: Ford Dealer/Cobra Jet “Creator”
Anyone who knows anything about Ford’s Cobra Jet 428 engine knows about the legendary drag-racing Ford mega-dealer of the ’60s, Bob Tasca Sr., owner of Tasca Ford in Providence, Rhode Island. As a street-savvy performance buff, Tasca became frustrated when the capabilities of 390-cubic-inch Mustang GTs that his dealership was selling were not up to his customers’ expectations. He was tired of losing sales to more powerful – and faster – competition, and wanted to do something about it.
His shop was busy installing Ford Racing parts on customer cars, so his mechanics had plenty of opportunity and real-world experience to experiment with cylinder head, camshaft, carburetor and intake manifold combinations to make better-than-stock power. One such combination of items from the Ford Service Parts Catalog became the basis for the 428 Cobra Jet engine that Tasca took back to Ford and begged them to produce. As a large dealer, he had Henry Ford II’s ear, and once even told Ford that he made lousy cars – earning Tasca a role as a dealer advisor and quality consultant to the company!
Initially, Ford was reluctant to spend the time, money and effort to spice up the 428 into Tasca’s Cobra Jet, even after Tasca had showed Ford engineers how his engine blew away the competition on the dragstrip. So working with grassroots racers and the media to convince Ford on the need for putting the Cobra Jet engine into production, Tasca forced Ford’s hand by building customer demand for the 428 CJ.
It’s rare, indeed, when someone from outside of Ford Motor Company can influence product decisions as strongly as Tasca had done on the Mustang. All in all, Tasca helped make Ford Mustangs better than the way the factory had originally designed them. Beyond being synonymous with Ford performance, drag racing and the 428 Cobra Jet (and later the Boss 429) engines, Tasca was also credited with coining the term, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Over the decades, his dealership did just that, and thanks to his influence at Ford, he has helped to play a major role in Mustang’s performance heritage.