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One-Off: The Mustang II Styling Exercise That Set the World on Fire
Born II Excite: The 1963 1/2 Mustang II show car was the work of marketing genius designed to excite car buyers and bridge the gap between the two-seat Mustang I and the 1965 mustang.
Detroit has always been big on debuting groovy concept cars at auto shows over the decades to gauge public response to the ideas whirling around inside the corporate think tanks. Recent examples from Ford have been the 2002 Mustang two-seater S197 concept car and the monster mash F-Series Raptor truck, which ultimately became very successful production vehicles.
Long before there was the all-new 1974 Mustang II there was the 1963 1/2 Mustang II, a one-off drivable concept car conceived by Ford Design and built by Dearborn Steel Tubing to gauge the public’s reaction to the sporty Mustang scheduled to arrive in the spring of 1964. Mustang II was a marketing tease that got car buyers excited and turned public attention toward Ford Motor Company. Ford called the new campaign “Total Performance,” spearheaded by Lee Iacocca, Ford Division General Manager and Vice President.
In the years leading up to Iacocca’s appointment as general manager there was Robert McNamara, Ford Division GM and one of Henry Ford II’s whiz kids hired into Ford right after World War II to get the company turned around after a close brush with bankruptcy. McNamara led the company and division to prosperity during the 1950s with exciting cars and trucks. However, for all of his valiant efforts, McNamara came up with utilitarian grocery getters short on style and performance, including the 1960 Falcon. (One exception was the 1955-1957 Thunderbird, which people loved, but it didn’t sell well.) Falcon was about practical function and basic transportation. It was an economical automobile designed primarily for young families, retirees, and buyers of no-frills cars.
Ford’s hot-selling compact Falcon was rather like McNamara himself, a practical engineering and numbers guy short on emotion and long on pure function and fuel economy.
When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated to the White House in 1961, he invited McNamara to join his administration as Secretary of Defense. When McNamara left Ford, Henry Ford II made a young and ambitious Ford marketing executive, Lee Iacocca, head of the Ford Division and ultimately a Ford vice president. Prior to Iacocca’s new assignment as general manager Ford had a stodgy reputation. Ford’s lineup of cars and trucks just didn’t excite, and sales were surely a reflection of public perception. Iacocca was about to change all of that with the “Total Performance” campaign.
“Total Performance” was all about infusing adrenaline into Ford Division carlines as well as creating a few new ones. Big Fords would get the optional 406ci FE big-block in 1962, then the 427 for 1963. Galaxie and Falcon would get sporty fastback rooflines midyear 1963. The new 90-degree 221/260ci Fairlane V-8 would get a larger, 4-inch bore and 289 ci along with a hot cam and a new name: 289 High Performance. Falcon would get a sporty option package called Sprint. A young buck named Carroll Shelby would come to Ford seeking these Fairlane V-8 engines for his specialty market two-seat Cobra. He would ultimately be instrumental in helping Ford bolster the Mustang’s performance image with Mustang G.T. 350. Another passion Iacocca had going on the front burner was the Sporty Ford Car Project long before it was called Mustang.
First was the two-seat Mustang concept car in 1962 with a Ford Germany OHV V-4 screamer with fully independent suspension and an awe-inspiring cockpit. At high rpm at Watkins Glen, New York, the Taunus V-4 sounded like a high-performance V-8 as it came down the straightaway. The Mustang was shaped like a bullet and handled very well, and it went fast on a racetrack. Ford rolled out the Mustang at Watkins Glen and on the national show circuit to let people know Ford was back in the performance business.
Meanwhile back in Dearborn, Iacocca was trying to get the sporty car project off the ground and became frustrated with stagnation among the ranks. He initiated intense styling competition among the three Ford studios: Ford, Mercury, and Advanced Corporate Design. Under Iacocca’s watchful eye, the three studios went to work in earnest in the summer of 1962. On a warm August day each studio rolled out its entries into Ford Design’s courtyard. There was but one clear winner, the Joseph Oros/Dave Ash/Gale Halderman clay from the Ford studio. It inspired. It evoked emotion. And it was unanimous. The Ford studio entry was going to market—and in just 18 months. Stylists, engineers, and product planners worked around the clock seven days a week to get the sporty Ford car ready for a spring 1964 launch timed with the New York World’s Fair. The pressure was enormous.
While Ford’s design and engineering people were birthing the 1965 Mustang, another effort was underway at Ford Design in the summer of 1963. They called it Mustang II, which would be built by Dearborn Steel Tubing (DST) using a Mustang engineering prototype body. It has often been said through the years that Mustang II was built on a Falcon platform; however, this has never been true. Though Mustang and Falcon share some body stampings, such as shock towers, they are different platforms and, in fact, of entirely different widths and lengths.
During the design phase, Mustang II was known inside Ford as Torino. In fact, the sporty Ford car project had several other names, including Cougar and Special Falcon. When the decision was made to call the sporty Ford car “Mustang” at the eleventh hour, Torino became “Mustang II.” Mustang II wasn’t the only concept car Ford was showboating in those days. There was the Allegro, Cougar II, Avventura, and even something slippery and sporty called Cobra II. These concept cars were the result of the imagination of all of the Ford studios doing everything possible to corral the attention of the masses.
Though Mustang II has long been called a prototype, it was more a styling exercise and sales tool than a prototype. It was a concept car and marketing experiment to gauge public response and nothing more. Mustang II was unveiled at Watkins Glen, New York, on October 6, 1963, just seven months prior to the Mustang’s introduction on April 17, 1964.
What helped Ford sell Mustangs more than anything were rumors and concept cars. When people saw the 1963 1/2 Mustang II it was an emotional pump-primer poised to sell thousands of Mustangs. It did exactly what it was intended to do—it got people and the media talking. Anticipation of Ford’s new sporty car was enormous. Friday night, April 16, 1964, Ford Mustang hit the airwaves on all three television networks with a concussion that has never been equaled since. On Saturday morning, April 17, Ford dealers from coast to coast all had at least one Mustang in their inventories. There were 22,000 orders that first day. Ford planned for 100,000 Mustangs. It wound up with 600,000 in sales the first year and more than a million units in two years. Mustang II helped Ford get there.
Ford’s Mustang II concept car faded from the spotlight and vanished into corporate oblivion in a warehouse near Dearborn at the end of the 1960s. Ultimately Mustang II was donated to the Detroit Historical Museum in the mid-1970s. Although Mustang II was quite the conversation piece for the museum, it didn’t see much attention for 21 years. It was driven occasionally to keep everything lubricated and to blow the dust off. However, in time it was forgotten and sat quietly in sad deterioration. In 1996, the Detroit Historical Museum loaned Mustang II to the Owls Head Transportation Museum in Maine, where it was lovingly returned to operational status by a team of volunteers. It was returned to the Detroit Historical Museum in 2011 as the historical piece it is today.
Because Mustang II was a one-off show car conceived and built prior to mass production, it employs nuances similar to what the public saw seven months later. However, Mustang II was a hand-built custom show car with sheetmetal and unique trim unlike anything else at the time. The fascia is hand-formed and all steel. The honeycomb grille is chrome plated like hand-built Mustang prototypes and pilot units of the era. Production cars had argent honeycomb. What isn’t steel is formed body filler to achieve Mustang II’s extraordinary aerodynamic shape.
Remarkable is Mustang II’s single galloping pony and tri-bar midship, which isn’t like the production emblems to come later in 1964. Because the Mustang name came late in the development cycle, it is likely this emblem was borrowed from the two-seat Mustang program of 1962. Mustang went from kicking up its hooves to a full gallop on the production cars, something of a metaphor when you think about how Mustang took off in 1964.
The front fender’s “MUSTANG II” pony and tri-bar insignias from 1963 are gone today. It is unknown why. Quarter-scoop trim is similar to what came for 1966. Inside are futuristic, nonfunctioning five-dial instrumentation and molded door panels like the 1965-1966 Interior Décor Group. When you study the distinctive three-element taillight lenses they resemble what was to come in 1967 and 1969: true three-element lamps, which were cost prohibitive early on. Quad dual exhaust tips are similar to what came later for 1967-1969.
Although it’s easy to think of this car as a fluffy show car, it is actually a drivable vehicle driven aggressively on Ford’s Dearborn Test Track back in the day. Before you is a 289 High Performance V-8 backed by a T-10 four-speed transmission. On top are two four-throat Holley 4672 carburetors topped by a custom air cleaner. As we understand it, the car was updated during the 1960s, which explains the solid-letter Cobra valve covers and twin Holley induction. As you might expect with a car like this, some items original to the car have been absconded with, such as the original fuel cap, steering wheel, and front fender emblems. It is unknown where these items went nor when they disappeared.
Dearborn Steel Tubing started with a hardtop and later modified this car to a convertible roadster before it hit the show circuit late in 1963. It was then fitted with a removable hardtop, which it has now. All of the convertible mechanicals remain in the car to this day, though they are nonfunctioning. Of course you might be tempted to ask about the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN). It isn’t a conventional Ford VIN, but instead an experimental VIN of X 8902-SB-208, which we have seen before on test mules and styling prototypes. It has been written that Ford built approximately 25 engineering prototypes. Only one, X 8902-SB-208, is known to have survived.
Mustang II experienced a resurgence of interest during the Mustang’s 50th Anniversary in 2014 and even earlier still in 2004 when Mustang Historian Bob Fria managed to get the car shipped out to Los Angeles to be put on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum for the marque’s 40th Anniversary and a reunion with Lee Iacocca and the late Robert E. Petersen, founder of Petersen Publishing Company. These two gentlemen reflected on their Mustang memories from long ago, including the Mustang II concept car.
In the Mustang’s 55th year, Mustang II remains in the care and custody of the Detroit Historical Museum, where it will likely remain for generations to treasure. Ford’s Mustang II concept car is a reminder not only of this American icon’s significance to automotive history but of America’s prosperous post-war years and the positive effect we’ve had on the world.
Two Men, Two Approaches
Two of the most influential men in Ford history lead the company and Ford Division in the mid-20th century. Robert McNamara and Lee Iacocca led the company using two different yet very successful approaches. San Francisco–born McNamara was a studious character from the get-go, including his childhood status as an Eagle Scout. He was a no-nonsense, analytical, engineering, number-crunching type, void of emotion. He graduated from the University of California at Berkley and later the Harvard Business School. McNamara was methodical about everything he did, including the managing of Ford Motor Company and later the Vietnam War under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
McNamara was one of 10 whiz kids, World War II vets hired in by Henry Ford II to route Ford Motor Company out of the financial and organizational mess it was in at the time. McNamara and others ultimately led Ford to prosperity in the 1950s, beginning with the all-new 1949 Ford and following with other successful models, including the widely popular 1960 Ford Falcon. Falcon sold so well because it was a practical, easy-to-maintain car with solid dependability.
By contrast was Lee Iacocca of Allentown, Pennsylvania, who arrived at Ford the same time McNamara did in the late 1940s. However, Iacocca and McNamara had different approaches to running a car company. Where McNamara led with practical, vanilla emotion and no real passion for automobiles, Iacocca was a hard-charging car guy with intense marketing savvy. Iacocca brought that passion with him to Ford and climbed through the ranks during the 1950s. When McNamara left in 1961, Iacocca was poised for greatness and set Ford Division afire with the legendary “Total Performance” campaign, which put Ford back on the racetrack, ultimately kicking Ferrari’s posterior in 1966 at Le Mans. What’s more, his drive and passion sold a lot of automobiles at Ford and later at Chrysler.