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The Pony Express Ford's Mid

Nov 24, 2023Nov 24, 2023

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 image."

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.

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.

Trail Boss

Very few people could have spearheaded such an effort, but Lunn had exactly the qualifications needed. Born and raised in England, Royston Charles Lunn began his career in 1939, aged 14, as an apprentice toolmaker. He joined the Royal Air Force when he was 18, and at 21 entered the auto industry as a designer for AC Cars. A year later in 1947, Lunn became assistant chief designer for Aston Martin and had a hand in creating the now-legendary DB2. In 1949 he moved on to become chief engineer for Jowett, where he developed a Jowett Jupiter for Le Mans and, with Marcel Becquant, won the '52 RAC Rally in a Jowett Javelin.

Two years later Lunn jumped ship for Ford of Britain, playing a major role in designing and engineering the Anglia 105E. That car's success brought him to the attention of Ford World Headquarters, and in 1958 he was enticed to the States as a special-projects supervisor. In 1963 he moved up to become manager of the newly formed Ford Advanced Vehicles (FAV) group (see Mustang I meets GT40 sidebar).

Lunn turned the scutwork of the project over to a group of eager young Ford engineers, among them Bob Negstad. Negstad had developed an early interest in front-wheel drive, and this led him onto the team that developed the FWD Ford Cardinal, an economical family car that entered production as the '62 German Ford Taunus 12M.

"We were into making lots of styling cars back then," Negstad recalls, "(and always had) lots of models in various degrees of construction. (I was) involved in research at the time, and when our group got into the Mustang project we said, 'Well, why don't we put some sort of a tube frame underneath the skin?' Then the next thing was, 'Why not put an engine in it and kinda drive it around a little bit?' This was essentially with no budget other than a wink and a nod from Gene Bordinat and Don Frey. Everybody said, 'Hey, go play, you guys.'" Other members of the development team under Lunn included Len Bailey, Chuck Mountain, and Ed Hull.

"We overextended our original assignment by many, many fold," Negstad continued, "taking this whole project on as a labor of love. We had things that we wanted to do, and there was no place to do them in that Ford environment of making world cars and FWD and practical production stuff. So we just said, 'To hell with it: let 'er rip!'

"We had a deadline that said, 'Well, you guys can do anything you want, but in 100 days we want to show this car at Watkins Glen.' One hundred days-that's important. One hundred days! That was from the time somebody said, 'We're going to make a car for Watkins Glen and Bordinat's got a clay model over there to look at."

"The surfaces and package work were done in concert with Gene's guys, and they produced a fiberglass (body for the car). We said, 'Well, we think we ought to make it out of aluminum.' They said, 'You're kidding!' We said, 'No. You've already got the plug to make (it in) fiberglass; why don't you take your fiberglass (body from it) and then reinforce the buck? After that we'll take the buck and make an aluminum body."

That sounded pretty logical at the time, but Negstad and the rest had overlooked one small detail. "(After) we brought the fiberglass buck from design over to research, we started asking people around town, 'How the hell do you make an aluminum body!?' And they all said, 'Well, basically you don't. You have to go to Italy.' And I said, 'In 100 days? We can't go to Italy!'

"So we wound up out at Troutman and Barnes in Culver City, California. They'd been making the tail sections for the Kurtis roadsters, and California Metal Shapingwas rolling their panels. They had some wonderful craftsmen there who could build something like a tail section for a champ car in two days.

"We took the plug out to California. Troutman and Barnes had California Metal Shaping roll out some panels, and while they welded them together and metal-finished the seams we proceeded to finish our design for the spaceframe out in Dearborn. We built a scale model of the frame and tested it in torsion, and said, 'Yeah, that's what we're going to do.' I hand-carried the drawings (to Culver City), and (Troutman and Barnes) fabricated the frame on the same sawhorses where they built everything else. They welded it together and wrapped the skin around the outside in record time.

"Meanwhile back in Detroit, we learned that the car was to be a showcase for Total Performance. So we said, 'Well, if it's Total Performance, then we have to do more than just talk about it. Let's make a car that sure-enough has total performance. Our building blocks at the time were the Cardinal engines and transaxles, so we figured, 'Okay, we've got some of those Cardinal/Taunus V4 powertrains kicking around here; blow the dust off one of those.' Then we didn't want front-wheel drive (but) rear-drive for performance, so we put the FWD power unit in the rear. That's how it became mid-engined."

Mixed Breed

As with the Mustang I's relationship to Ford's later production car, it's very tempting to overestimate the significance of the showcar's mid-engined layout. While the mid-engined revolution had just finished sweeping GP racing at the time and was moving on to sports cars and Indy, the Mustang I's engine placement was chosen as much for convenience as anything else.

When Lunn delivered a paper on the car to the Society of Automotive Engineers in January 1963, he began by describing the two powertrains initially considered. One was based on the inline Four from the British Ford Cortina, which would have dictated a front-mounted engine, rear-wheel drive, and a 4-speed transmission. Oddly enough this would also have given it a shorter wheelbase and shorter overall length, along with a predictable slight forward weight bias (53/47%). But the front engine would also have meant a taller hood, and thus greater frontal area.

The Cardinal/Taunus midship V4, meanwhile, also presented a few problems. True, putting the engine in back meant less drag due to frontal area, but now the weight bias shifted to an unfamiliar 47/53% and questions of engine cooling had to be dealt with. A radiator up front didn't make much sense, so to keep the hood low the team decided to put small radiators on either side of the power package. The size and placement of the intakes were determined by testing models in a miniature windtunnel: The team found that just by chance a positive-pressure area existed behind the doors, so that's where the radiators ended up.

Engine size determined that if the Mustang I were to be raced it would compete in the 1500cc class, so Lunn decided that as long as they were at it, the car might as well be made to comply with all the appropriate SCCA and FIA regulations. Troutman and Barnes welded up the runner's spaceframe using 1-inch-o.d. 4130 steel tubing with a wall thickness of .064 inch. The frame had an integral rollbar hidden in the basket handle behind the cockpit, and all powertrain and suspension mounts were welded right to the frame.

The construction was what Lunn called "semi-unitized." By that he meant that the handformed aluminum skin, made from .060 sheet and blind-riveted to the spaceframe, lent strength to the overall structure. For maximum rigidity the outer skins, cockpit surfaces, cowl, toeboards, and bellypan all formed one seamless whole. The seat pans, wheelhouses, and headlamp buckets were also blended into the body.

The seats were interesting because they were fixed directly to the floor; the pedals and steering column were adjustable. The accelerator, clutch, and brake hung from a stamped member that slid four inches fore and aft and rose up as it moved forward, " provide a more comfortable height for smaller feet, particularly women's," Lunn noted. He also pointed out that the slider could be motorized in future applications.

The Fast Roundup

Lunn's crew also modified the 1.5-liter Taunus V4. For street use this engine put out 89 bhp @ 6500 rpm and 89 lbs.-ft. of torque @ 3800. The competition version delivered 109 horses @ 6500 revs and 99 lbs.-ft. @ 5200 rpm thanks to a high-lift cam, stronger valve springs, a twin-choke Weber carb on a special manifold, dual headers and exhausts, a less restrictive aircleaner, and a more efficient distributor. Compression was 11.0:1. Due to inherent secondary vibrations, both versions of the V4 used a balance shaft.

The Taunus' all-synchro 4-speed transaxle was left pretty much alone, but it did get new axle flanges and shot-peened gears. The team also installed a heavier clutch and set aside ratios for both 3.30 and 3.56 final-drive gears. Top gear in the 4-speed was a direct 1:1.

Considering the time frame involved and the people responsible for constructing the car, it's no surprise that its suspension followed regular race-car practices. Up front were two tubular, handwelded wishbones per side and plenty of adjustability for caster and camber changes, a standard practice both for racing cars and Ford's running prototypes. (The inboard attachment pivots of the lower A-arms, for example, had three height positions.) Three sets of variable-rate springs were made along with different-sized stabilizer bars and adjustable tubular shocks inside the coil springs to guarantee a highly tunable suspension. Even the spring seats were adjustable for a 1.25-inch variation in overall ride height.

According to Negstad, the Mustang I was also notable for making use of Ford's earliest computer-aided suspension-design technology. Charles Edward (Chuck) Carrig and a partner were just starting to write a usable suspension-simulation program in FORTRAN at the time, so much of the theoretical suspension work for the car was done in Ford's neo-natal computer department. Negstad also recalls the development team raiding the British Ford Consul parts bin for other front-end items, notably the balljoints and brakes. In short, "The Mustang I was a composite of many of the projects we were working on at the time."

The rear suspension echoed the front, though of course without a steering mechanism. The driveshafts had inboard pot joints and single Cardan outer joints, and the rear hubs used double-row ball bearings with stamped seals. Brakes all around came from the British Ford Consul, the fronts being 9.5-inch discs and the rears 9.0-inch drums. Wheels were light 13x5-inch "wobbly-web" mags from a Lotus 23.

Put to the Whip

"Race"-ready, the Mustang I was 154 inches long, had a 90-inch wheelbase, and with 13 gallons of fuel aboard weighed a mere 1544 pounds. "It can be argued," said Lunn in his SAE paper, "that the spaceframe and aluminum skin are a major factor in achieving this weight. The design, however, with its built-in seat pans and integral inner skin, does lend itself to a lightweight, unitized steel or semi-unitized plastic body construction." Lunn estimated a windshield, top, and bumpers would add just 68 pounds. At that, the vehicle would have been competitive with the MGs and TRs of the day.

Of course there was never any intent of actually putting the car into production, even on a small scale. Its mission was simply to help boost Ford's Total Performance image until real production and racing vehicles could pick up the slack. Even so, according to Negstad, "It turned out to be a delightful little car, very light, and it set a whole new standard in performance. The lap times on the handling course, the slalom numbers, braking, and on and on. It was a little firecracker, and it bespoke Total Performance.

"When the car went to Watkins Glen, they hired Dan Gurney to drive it. He not only drove it but put in a couple of laps that were very competitive. GM had brought their Monza showcar: It was a 1/2-inch-thick fiberglass pusharound that (just) sat there on display with a lot of balloons and ribbons and people in straw hats standing around it, while the Mustang circled the track at very competitive lap times. People saw that and said, YES!"

Gurney remembers the car well: "It was an exciting concept; it touched the future in a way, or at least what we saw as the future at that time. (But) as I remember it the concept was more exciting than the actual driving. It certainly was not a finished, give-it-to-anyone-to-try sort of vehicle, but the car had a lot of promise. It mostly said, 'Look, Ford has a lot of courage.'"

As mentioned before, where the Mustang I truly made its mark was in identifying talent that would be used again for the GT40 under Roy Lunn at FAV. In an article by Paul Lienert that appeared in the Detroit Free Press, Lunn shed some light on how he came to start all over again with another mid-engined sports car so quickly. "When we decided to go racing in a big way in '62," he told Lienert, "there were two ways to go. You could buy a leading contender or go it alone with a new effort. We tried the first way with Ferrari (but) then he backed out and it all blew up.... There was nothing to do but...get our own GT off the ground."

Even though the lessons of a tube-frame, V4 showcar had little application to a semi-monocoque, V8-powered GT intended for Le Mans, many of the earlier car's styling cues did influence the prototype GT40. Also, the lessons it taught Ford about computer-aided suspension design would be utilized again and again. Says Negstad, "When I did the 427 Cobra, which was one of my next major projects, that car was done the same way, using the computer to design the points. All that computer work became essential as we went on; the whole Ford racing program relied on this technology, and of course it spread like wildfire.... That was an early attempt to develop some confidence in computer-aided design, and it started in that little car all those years ago."

Old Paint

Ford showed the Mustang I again at Laguna Seca in late-October '62 and then made a movie about it at Daytona where, driven by Negstad, it lapped the high banks with NASCAR president Bill France looking on. Then the car did the show circuit in Europe, after which it was turned over to the Continent's motoring press. The Europeans wrung it out for nearly a year, and it returned to the States in pretty sad shape, full of dents, dings, scars, chipped paint, and various mechanical maladies.

At that point Ford ordered the Mustang I destroyed-S.O.P. for prototypes past their prime. But the people who created the driver couldn't bear to carry the sentence out. Instead, they hid the car in a trailer until they could think up a better solution. The ruse went on for years; whenever someone asked, "Hey...what's that trailer doing out there?", an engineer would quietly hitch it up and move it someplace else. Finally, in 1974, space was found in a storage area of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.

On the occasion of Gene Bordinat's retirement in 1980, the engineers who created the Mustang I took it out of mothballs, restored it, and made it the centerpiece of the outgoing design VP's farewell party. After that the Ford Motor Company officially donated the car to the museum, which is where it can be seen to this day, nameplate, horsey badge, side scoops, and all.