Jackie Ling
April 16, 2014

Midnight -- Tax day in America is officially over. If you haven’t sent your return in -- you’re officially late. And late is what we found ourselves being as we entered the loading dock of the Empire State Building. Yes, the one and only icon of the New York skyline. Bizarrely, it’s snowing. In April. Never mind it was a balmy 76 degrees just a day earlier. Ridiculous. The big flakes racing down from the black sky replace driving rain that has been pounding Gotham for the entire day. On a 1 to 10 scale, the weather is miserable.

The occasion is seemingly as strange as the weather: Ford invited us to watch behind the scenes as it recreated a uniquely American feat -- putting a Mustang atop the Empire State Building. In 1965, as a follow up to its public debut on April 17, 1964 at the World’s Fair in Flushing, NY (just across the river in Queens), Ford pulled off the publicity stunt using a 1965 Mustang Convertible. Why? Why not? Why not celebrate the Mustang’s 50th birthday by going full circle and reuniting the now two American icons.

12:40 a.m.: If you negotiate your way through 3 different elevators to get to the 86th floor as we did – you find yourself just inside the world’s highest open-air observatory. The first thing that strikes you is how small the footprint of the building is at this level – celebrities may have larger bedrooms. The lobby leading to the deck measure about 15 feet across – and half of it is filled with bins, crates, boxes, and other gear. Bright yellow metal jumps out at you – instantly we recognize fenders, bumpers, and quarter panels. It’s a hive of activity with about three dozen people making bee lines to parts and back to the deck. We’re in the right place.

The 2015 Mustang that is to be reassembled over the next few hours is actually a prototype that was sacrificed for the project. In a process that began 5 weeks ago, technicians and craftsmen from DST – the same fabrication company that helped Ford in 1965 – began studying ways to get the 2015 Mustang up to the top of the Empire State Building. Like in 1965, the height of the observation deck (1,224 feet, the tip of the mast tops out at 1,454 feet) precludes the use of a mobile crane. Likewise, the profile of the building and deck make a helicopter lift too dangerous.

It turns out the guys in 1965 had the best plan -- cut up the Mustang and send it up the elevators piece by piece. Twenty-five of them, at least the major pieces. The size of the pieces are dictated by the old elevators of the building -- with 36” wide opening and a depth of only 56 inches. All told the DST crew estimates they have to put together at least 100 different pieces to complete the Mustang. All of these parts were moved up to the 86th floor slowly, painstakingly slowly, the previous night -- with at least 23 trips up the one freight elevator that reaches the 86th floor.

Photo Gallery

View Photo Gallery

1 a.m.: On a typical evening, the Empire State Building observation deck closes to the public at 2 AM. On this night, even the hardiest of tourists wouldn’t deal with the silliness of standing on the 86th floor with sleet, 60 mph gusts of wind, and a 31 degree wind chill. Not to mention zero visibility. With the deck closed early, the crew is able to start shortly after midnight instead of 2:30 AM as planned, It’s a gain of 2 hours, but every minute is needed given the conditions. Snow is beginning to accumulate on the deck. The crew even briefly considers the worst case scenario -- building the Mustang inside the lobby of the deck. Ford’s Mike Samulski, Manager of North American Design and Fabrication is supervising the build and explains, “its not so much the temperature – with the snow and wind gusts, you have to worry about workers slipping or even fenders being blown off the building.” Good points.

When we join the crew on the deck, the “Mustang” is just several floor-pan pieces being bolted together with the assistance of a specially sub-frame that allows the car to stay together without welding everything back together (besides, what goes up must come down). And no, this Mustang will never be driven again. In fact – the engine and powertrain are left out of the project for practicality reasons. The windows and lights are wired to a battery though. And the top can be operated manually.

There’s actually a six-man DST crew that is tasked with the reassembly. There are probably a dozen more assisting as “pickers”. The process is not quite the precision and speed of a F1 pit crew, but much more advanced than say – your buddies helping you put back together your engine in the backyard. Parts are numbered and called out as they are needed – pickers work quickly to bring them out for installation.

2 a.m.: Rear-quarter sections are bolted to the Mustang. Wheels are carried out onto the deck to be installed next. It’s starting to look like a car.

The weather is finally starting to improve. The sleet and snow are gone, but the wind gusts and associated wind chill remain. There’s less than a dozen invited media gathered to document the overnight process – but initial enthusiasm has given way to numb extremities and wet clothing. Most are starting to stay in the lobby and only venture out when a major part makes its way outside. Like the front quarters and the front end. Then the doors.

The DST crew is supervised by manager Mike Krohn. Despite the conditions, their spirits and demeanor don’t betray them. They are determined -- and not afraid to ask media to step aside in the interest of the mission. We are happy to comply.

3 a.m.: Just about three--hours into the build and the front end is installed – the 2015 Mustang is all-new of course, but the face is still distinctively Mustang. The A pillar comes out of the lobby as a U-shaped hoop. A call is made for the windshield. Tail lights are installed. Bolts are all organized by zip-close sandwich bags. The sound of hand-powered ratcheting intermixes with the buzz of the occasional power toot – and they both fight the roar of the wind as it whips around the tower.

Then the sound of a helicopter captures our attention. While the sound or sight of a helicopter is common in NYC (former Mayor Bloomberg’s helicopter was a frequent sight), a copter in the air in these conditions and at this hour is rare – and alarming. Building security is heard on the radios questioning the presence of the helicopter – a reminder of the post-9/11 security awareness that the 1965 feat probably didn’t have to contend with. No worries here though – the chopper was hired by Ford to help document the build. Props to that pilot.

Photo Gallery

View Photo Gallery

4 a.m.: The unofficial timer we are running almost hits four hours when the hood come out of the building. It predictably sets off a frenzy among the photographers and videographers that remain. The whole scene is still surreal. The hood features a giant embossed Mustang logo underneath, which a Ford spokesman points out will not be visible in production cars because of insulation -- we’re guessing that this will be one of the first “deletes” owners will make. As the craftsmen line up and bolt on the hood, numerous adjustments are made to the fenders and the front end in an attempt to line up all the parts as best as possible. Likewise, there’s a lot of excitement when the dashboard is installed.

DST, like Ford, is a company with a long automotive history. And like Ford, there are multi-generational families who have worked for DST. In fact, DST body tech Dan Cochrane worked on the 2015 Empire State Building Mustang project, just like his dad -- mechanic Claude Cochrane, did 49 years earlier.

5 a.m.: -- We’re on the final stretch. Just like in the reality car-overhaul shows, the excitement begins to build as the last pieces are lined up. Interior trim pieces are installed one piece at a time. A portable vacuum is pulled out to clean up the interior.

Amazingly, the night has gone by relatively quickly. A partly cloudy, but dry, sky occasionally reveals an almost full moon. The beauty of looking at NYC from atop its second tallest building (the new World Trade Center officially surpassed it last year) is becoming clear. We’re distracted long enough to take a few obligatory personal Instagram/Facebook/Twitter shots. The last pieces of the car are -- fittingly -- the seats and they are carried out one by one. A little after 5 AM, the last bolts are tightened and some loose bits are secured. We’re given an opportunity to take a few more shots of the completed car under the moonlight before we’re asked to retreat to the 58th floor, where a lounge is being built to host a Mustang 50th birthday bash later tonight. The clean-up begins before we even reach the elevators – the crews have to clear the lobby and building staff have to prep the area for an “official unveiling” photo op with Bill Ford at 7AM and then shortly after, business open at 8 AM.

6:30 a.m.: The sun is already high in the air to the east of the building, and coming fast. The lobby, free from the clutter and equipment, and splashed with sunlight is a different place. The final photo op is as chaotic as the build at its height; the overnight media (including us) is overrun by a fresh group of photogs and TV crews -- and the 30 something strong paparazzi are all competing for a spot in front of the Mustang the size of your living room.

7 a.m.: Or a little after, Bill Ford arrives on the 86th floor with a small entourage of executives in tow. He is joined by Empire State Building executives including Anthony E. Malkin, CEO of building owner Empire State Realty Trust. The great-grandson of Henry Ford has an easy charisma – cameras like him, as much as they do a sparking yellow 2015 Mustang GT convertible. Less than 20 minutes and a few photo scrums later, the whole process is over. The deck is cleared for live feeds and the Mustang sits pretty under the now clear skies. The completed Mustang will greet Empire State Building observatory visitors for the next 42 hours – at 2 a.m. on April 18th, the whole process will begin anew in reverse.

It’s a truly audacious stunt. But its uniquely American - you can’t imagine either roles of the building and car being played by others. Throw in some fireworks and a BBQ on the deck and the picture would be complete. So, don’t ask why. It’s pointless. Because they can. Because ‘merica. Because Mustang.

Photo Gallery

View Photo Gallery

Editor's note: This story was originally featured at our sister publication Motor Trend.