Donald Farr
Former Editor, Mustang Monthly
February 11, 2014
Photos By: Richard Nesbitt

In 1971, recent art college graduate Richard Nesbitt was working in his dream job as a designer in the Lincoln-Mercury studio. The work was basic, even for a rookie, with most of it centering on annual styling updates. Then the studio got the call from above: Lee Iacocca wanted a design competition among the Ford styling studios for a new Mustang, one that would return the pony car to its roots as a small, sporty compact rather than the almost intermediate-sized '71-'73. For then-25 year-old Nesbitt, the assignment snatched him away from boring grille updates and plopped him into the legendary world of the youthful Mustang. The Lincoln-Mercury design was picked for the '74 Mustang II. Even better, Nesbitt's sketch was eventually selected for the hardtop version.

Now 67, Nesbitt looks back on his short time at Ford with fondness. He became friends with Howard "Buck" Mook, the Lincoln-Mercury stylist who sketched the winning Mustang II design. Nesbitt and Mook both owned Mustangs at the time – a used '65 hardtop with Shelby equipment for Nesbitt and a '70 Boss 302 for Mook. Nesbitt laughs when telling the story about out-running Mook's newer Boss 302 in a best-two-out-of-three matchup. "My '65 was lighter," Nesbitt explains.

After penning the Mustang II hardtop and following the design through into clay and fiberglass, Nesbitt moved on to Ford's truck and tractor studio, where he worked on a down-sized van for use as a family vehicle. But when the fuel crisis hit in 1973, Henry Ford II canceled all new projects. Iacocca eventually took the small van idea with him to Chrysler. It became the mini-van.

The worsening economy also caught up with Nesbitt, who was laid-off along with other Ford studio designers in 1974. He found work with model company EMT for a couple years, then moved to Dallas after landing a job with Texas Instruments, a company that had found its niche with hand-held calculators and digital watches. Today, Nesbitt is semi-retired, although he still does design proposals and concept work. During the Mustang Club of America's directors summit last October, he dropped by our Dallas hotel for an interview about working on the Mustang II.

By January 1972, Nesbitt was working on a fiberglass model with transparent windows and real metal bright trim. “At this point, it had frameless side windows,” Nesbitt told us. “The clay had fixed side windows. I was hoping to get the frameless side window and pushed to get that on the fiberglass.”

MM: How did you get into car design?

RN: Cars and car design was all I cared about when I was young. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, I'd pick up any car magazine that had anything to do with styling or design. Occasionally, Motor Trend and Road & Track ran articles about car design and they mentioned the Art Center College of Design in California. They would have articles with the students' work. So I decided that's what I wanted to do. I applied to the college while I was still in high school and went out there in the fall of 1967 on a full tuition Ford scholarship, which was a real honor. It was one of the most exciting times of my life. Stylists like Gene Bordinat and Bill Mitchell came out regularly to look at our work. I graduated in 1970 with honors.

MM: How did you end up at Ford?

RN: I interviewed there when I graduated. They made me an offer but had to rescind it because of the economy. So I was on stand-by until I started work at the Dearborn design center in the middle of 1971. My first assignment was in the Lincoln-Mercury design studio – Cougar, Comet, Montego. I really liked Ford's entire car line, especially '69 to '71, including Mustang and Cougar. But when I started work there, I saw the five mile-per-hour bumpers for '73-'74 and thought they were going to be an absolute disaster.

In this shot of Nesbitt fiberglass hardtop, you can see the original rear end appearance, which came from Mook’s fastback design. It was eventually changed to the less radical production rear end.

MM: When you arrived at Ford in 1971, was the Mustang II already underway?

RN: They had made some runs at it before, apparently with unsatisfactory results according to Iacocca. It was during the fall of 1971 when they went all-out to really nail it down.

MM: So how did you find yourself working on the all-new Mustang II?

RN: We were surprised when we got word that we were going to participate in the design of an all-new Mustang, which they hadn't started calling Mustang II yet. Iacocca had come down with an edict that nobody over 30 years old was supposed to be working on the boards or submitting proposals. I was 25 at the time so I was good with that. We put together hundreds of proposals, and Iacocca and design director Al Mueller came by to review the work. They selected a fastback design by one of our studio designers, Howard "Buck" Mook. At that point, Mook was directed to follow up with a clay model for presentation and competition with the other studios. I believe there were four or five clay proposals and they selected our design.

MM: At that point, the new Mustang was scheduled only as a fastback, correct?

RN: That was surprising because Mustangs always had three body styles, but for some reason they were limiting this proposal to either a notchback or a fastback but not both. They liked the fastback proposal and selected that one. It was clinic reviewed with positive results. But when they went to San Francisco to get a final clinic decision, the participants were enthusiastic but there was also a strong indication that they wanted to see a notchback as well, especially women. So they decided that they did indeed need to get back to working on a notchback proposal in addition to the fastback.

MM: How did you end up designing the hardtop?

RN: Our studio was given the assignment to put together a proposal based on the approved fastback, and they selected a design I had done. At that point, I got one of the fastback clay models and we removed the top. I directed the clay model as a coupe that had fixed window frames. From that version, we went into fiberglass, which was a very finished looking model – clear plastic back windows and actual metal trim. Iacocca was very enthusiastic about it at that point. Not long after, however, Iacocca decided he wanted a strong, miniature Thunderbird character for the coupe. They revised my roofline into a stiffer, more upright design with a larger quarter window. I personally thought the car lost a lot at that point. But that was their decision.

MM: The early sketches and clays show a "dip" in the top of the doors. Why did that change?

RN: The scooped door area was part of Mook's original proposal. We preferred the car that way. In the Mustang booklet, Al Mueller said (reading from book), "Mr. Iacocca felt, however, that our car was a little too radical. The beltline, which we had lowered considerably, had to come up higher, and he wanted the car to have the distinctive touches that would readily identify it as a second generation Mustang." They took a lot of the excitement out of the original proposal and it suffered for that.

MM: Were you concerned that Mustang was getting away from its performance car heritage?

Buck Mook followed the fastback design through to production, including the Mach 1 version. If you look closely, you can see a centerline that indicates this clay was two-sided.

RN: From the indications we had from product planning, it was actually pretty exciting in that it was going to be an American version of the Capri. We thought that seemed like a great idea. But when Iacocca decided to go with more of the Thunderbird flavor, it seemed to lose a lot from the enthusiast point of view. And we missed the idea of a performance car. There were some really great cars out in the parking lot – Boss 351s and cars like that - and it was hard to believe that they were going to disappear.

MM: Where you surprised when the Mustang II became a sales success? Ford sold 385,992 for '74, which ranks number four in all-time best Mustang sales years.

RN: Iacocca's Thunderbird idea turned out to be a very good decision, by default more than anything, because when the '74 Mustang II was released, the initial reaction was not what Ford hoped it would be. People liked the idea that the car was being downsized but they didn't feel it was a spiritual successor to the original. Then the Yom Kippur war in late 1973 changed everything. The cost of gas wasn't just going up, there was no gas available in parts of the country for several weeks. Ford had Pintos and Mavericks but they were pretty basic cars, whereas the Mustang II was a more upscale compact. There wasn't another car on the market like the Mustang II, which was plush and luxurious. It turned out to be a winning combination for people who needed better fuel economy but didn't want to give up comfort. So unlike the original Mustang that was based on a very strong enthusiast response, the Mustang II was more than ever the right car at the right time for reasons that no one could have possibly imagined when we were working on it.

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MM: It's interesting that the '74 Mustang II is the only Mustang ever offered without a V-8.

RN: We couldn't believe that the Mustang II wouldn't have a V-8, and at the time we were doing it there was really no plan for it, although the 302 was eventually offered in 1975. The mandate was that it was going to be a V-6 or a four-cylinder to follow the Mercury Capri formula. Interestingly, Mustang IIs built in Mexico were available with the 302 using the original '74 front end, not the revised front end for the V-8 that they did here for '75.

MM: You must be very proud of your involvement with the Mustang II.

RN: I am proud. Buck Mook and I got to be really good friends. We were both really serious car enthusiasts. It was hard to believe that we were participating - especially for him because his design had been chosen - on a car with that kind of legacy. For me, having just started at Ford – a little more than a year before I'd been a student in college – and now I was working on a new Mustang. And it wasn't just a Mustang redesign, it was an all-new Mustang, the first all-new Mustang since the original.