The Ford Mustang Was Conceived By…Shhhh…
by Trebor Crunchog & T. Tom Meshingear
Yes, the most successful new car of all time, the Mustang, was thought up, preliminarily dimensioned, presented to management… and brutally rejected in 1956. It came from Studio X at the General Motors Tech Center in Warren, not from Dearborn, where Ford profited mightily from the idea.
Here’s a brief timeline. In 1955–56, Robert Cumberford, then 20 years old, was working in the Chevrolet Studio. One day studio head Clare MacKichen told him to go to Body Studio 5 to work on the next (C-2) Corvette under the direction of Chuck Jordan, who had made a reputation for himself with a front wheel drive Motorama show vehicle, the GMC “L’Universelle” panel truck. It was an unpleasant assignment, even for a sports car enthusiast like Cumberford, because there was no studio staff, just Jordan and himself. Jordan spent most of his time outside the studio, polishing apples and working on company politics, so it was lonely work.
In those days, GM stylists made sketches and put them up on vertical drawing boards. The boss would remove things he didn’t like, fold them up and put them in the shredder bag, thereby giving indirect guidance to studio designers. In the Chevrolet or other brand studios, with at least five or six stylists each, that worked fine. Jordan didn’t draw in the studio, but he did bring in drawings from home, sketches done on his kid’s blue-lined notebook paper. “I just can’t stop thinking about this project and work on it at home,” he explained.
One day while taking a look at those drawings, Cumberford noticed that some were really rough copies of some of his own sketches which had been removed. Giving that observation some thought, he said nothing, but began making sure that every other sketch he did included some feature that he knew, after almost two years at GM Styling, that at least one member of Harley Earl’s “Design Committee,” a four or five man cabal of “Yes” Men, heartily disliked. Those he posted, usually 8–10 per day. But every other drawing he put aside in his taboret. A prolific sketch artist, Cumberford only did black and white pencil sketches, no color, no renderings at all, so half his daily output still was adequate to satisfy Jordan.
After a while all of Jordan’s ever-renewing copies and all of Cumberford’s posted originals were almost certain to distress Earl and his followers. One day, Earl and his group entered the studio with Jordan. Earl looked at everything, clearly dismayed by what he saw. “Well, now, Chuck, uh, what if we, uh, took a little of this front end and a little of that over there, and well, uh…”
Lower level personnel were never supposed to directly address Earl, but working up his courage, Cumberford fumbled out of his taboret a sketch very much like what Earl was asking about. “Like this, Mister Earl?” Startled, Earl snapped, “What’s your name, you?”
“Bob Cumberford, sir.”
“Well, Bhwab, you have any more drawings in that drawer?”
“Well, why aren’t they up on the wall, Bhwab?” he asked in a menacing tone.
“Oh, I take my direction from Mr. Jordan, sir, and you can see over there on the left the things he likes.”
Nothing more was said, and Earl, the Committee, and of course Jordan left the studio.
The next day, when Cumberford came to work, the pistol-toting guard in the loading dock where the working staff entered from the parking lot said “You. Don’t go to Jordan’s studio, go see MacKichan.
“Morning, Mac. You wanted to see me?”
“Jesus Christ, what did you do to Charlie?” Mackichan and Jordan were serious rivals on the slippery pole toward the top, and Mac always used the soft diminutive Charlie instead of the harder, more masculine ‘Chuck’ favored by Jordan, just to annoy him.
“Me sir? Nothing sir. I just did my job.”
“Well, you know where Mister Earl’s temporary office was?”
“Yes, I do.”
“You’re going to be in there with a kid from the drafting room, and you’re going to do the Corvette project by yourself.”
The “kid from the drafting room” was then 26-year-old Anatole “Tony” Lapine, later to become the chief designer at Porsche A.G. Cumberford had a photostat of the IBM-typed words “STUDIO X” blown up to sign size and posted it on an inner door, invisible from the hallway. It wasn’t an official studio, although the title remained in use at GM Design at least through the Ed Welburn period, more than six decades later.
Work continued on the C-2 Corvette, based on the 1955 Oldsmobile Golden Rocket Motorama dream car, with full-scale clay models executed in the Chevrolet Studio instead of in Jordan’s body studio. Design input came from Studio X, with direct model supervision by MacKichan.
Life in Studio X was a dream. Zora Arkus-Duntov, chief engineer for the Corvette, dropped by frequently to chat in Russian with Lapine. Both had Russian mothers and loved the language. One day when the two young X-men came into their workplace they found a D-Type Jaguar sitting in the middle of the space. Harley Earl was going to go racing. So the SS project was on, and it was unimaginable fun for two twenty-somethings. It was hard to believe that they were getting paid to play like this. The only fly in the ointment lay in the fact that only 700-some Corvettes had been made in the 1955 model year, and at least half of them remained unsold in Chevrolet dealerships around the country. There was serious discussion at higher levels of simply stopping the whole Corvette program.
What to do? Cumberford drove a Porsche 356 1500 Super, Lapine a Jaguar XK-120. Lapine was already engaged to the woman he would later marry, but Cumberford was dating… when he could find a young woman whose parents would allow their daughter to go out with a man in a two-seat car. So, the two began to plot a 2+2 Corvette as a solution to the pre-“pill” Fifties dating problem, and to the Corvette cancellation risk. Lapine did a 1:1 layout, establishing 108 inches as the shortest feasible wheelbase for such a car, and Cumberford engaged his old friend from high school days in Los Angeles, Stan Mott, who was also employed by GM Styling, to join in after-hours conversations about the idea.
Mott was primed for the project. After two and a half years of “decorating the whales” he was ready for a go-for-broke-project; to “design a valid car or get out” as he put it at the time. He was working in Body Studio 2, but had previously spent a year in the Oldsmobile Studio, where Earl’s base car for the next Corvette had come from. The three ‘conspirators’ then brought one Arthur B. “Barney” Clark into their secret little after-hours team. Clark was involved and interested because he wrote most of the advertising copy for Corvettes at the Campbell-Ewald advertising agency that had done all Chevrolet advertising for decades and didn’t want to lose that gig.
The first step was to send out letters asking a dozen influential people in the world of special cars — people like Briggs Cunningham of Le Mans racing fame, John R. Bond of Road & Track magazine and others of equal prominence — whether they thought a four-passenger sports car was viable. Every single person asked responded, and all were positive about the idea.
In the middle Fifties cowboy movies and TV series were extremely popular, so the clandestine team thought there ought to be a Western theme to the new car, and they came up with a list of model names that included many used later for a wide variety of products from all over the industry: Palomino, Scout, Pinto, Bronco, and of course the favored Mustang, both for the wild horses and the wonderful WW II fighter plane that had been designed and built by the General Motors North American Aviation division, using the GM Allison V-12 engine. A Corvette Mustang would be an ideal showroom companion to the two-seater.
Armed with all the documentation, Clark was asked to write an evocative description. He did, although had the young guys thought a bit about it, they might have tempered some of his thoughts, like “style it and forget it,” hardly a phrase to please Harley Earl. Nonetheless, on November 16, 1956 Cumberford sent that document to Earl, with a note saying he thought Earl would be interested.
Interested? What he was, was furious. The Engineering Policy Committee determined what GM would build, not some smart-ass kids (one of whom, Lapine was smart enough to quietly dissociate himself from the whole affair, leaving only Cumberford and Mott to account for their actions). Clark, working outside of GM’s direct employ, was ignored, as was the entire Mustang proposal. When, with Clark’s participation five or six years later, Ford started to work on what was the most successful new car of all time, GM had to scramble to come up with the Camaro more than a decade after the concept had been developed and presented (and totally rejected) within its own walls.
How did Lido Iacocca become “the Father of the Mustang?” Barney Clark went to work for Ford’s advertising agency, met a product planner named Don Frey, told him about “his” idea, showed Frey the paper Earl had refused to consider, and Frey in turn took the concept as his own idea to the head of the Ford Division of the Ford Motor Company, Iacocca, who in turn appropriated the idea as his creation.
Incidentally, the car Lapine got into production at Porsche, the 928, has almost exactly the mechanical layout the Studio X team and Zora Arkus-Duntov had worked out twenty years earlier for the Corvette, complete with rear-mounted gearbox. The Corvette did finally achieve that layout in production — thirty years after it was proposed in Studio X.
Meanwhile, what did Earl do with the egregiously offending Cumberford and Mott? Three days after presenting Barney Clark’s “Four-Seater Argument,” Earl ordered them to appear at his office. But only Mott was allowed in Earl’s inner sanctum, Cumberford having nixed his entry by signing his initials on the transmittal page of the “Four-Seater Argument”. Earl sternly lectured Mott that young fellas do not dictate company policy. However, after admitting that his two sons were “Just a couple of garden variety boys”, he said he admired Cumberford and Mott’s initiative and grudgingly gave them a second chance; they could have a project to design the 1961 Buick Special.
Their “studio” was a corner in Buick Studio. Buick styling chief Ned Nichols and his entourage of designers, board men, and clay modelers, considered them unclean for having defied the corporation’s hierarchy. Cumberford and Mott responded by blocking off their corner of the big room with full size mobile drawing boards. They went to work, initially on historical research. They found that each successive model of the Special since the Forties had been “longer, lower, wider” in advertising, with a single exception in the early Fifties when nothing was mentioned and the car was actually shorter, taller, and narrower for a single year. The “bad boys” attempted to collect blueprints of all the major B body changes since WWII, thereby having solid historical reference to help prove their much shorter and narrower (but lower still) 1961 Buick design was valid. They were told GM had no blueprint record of any body changes.
They produced stacks of design sketches, but after a month, they were expelled from their corner of Buick Studio into an even smaller corner of Body Studio 1. They settled on a final design that used the small aluminum V-8 Le Sabre/XP-300 engine with its supercharger removed, and had their pointed-fender shape reproduced as a quarter-scale clay model. To celebrate its completion they glued a notice on the Body Studio 1 lavatory wall mirror that “All employees must wash hands before returning to work.” The clay modelers really grumbled about it, but all washed their hands before returning to throw the brown goo around.
Meanwhile, upstairs, Earl was no longer amused. The mere idea of a smaller car outraged him, and the project was stopped because “we gave you a golden opportunity and you threw it back in our faces.” Cumberford and Mott were assigned to punitive tasks they refused, so on February 19,1957, Earl directed Bill Taylor, ex-FBI agent and top security man in the GM Styling Section, to terminate Cumberford’s and Mott’s employment, telling them that they’d never work in the industry again. Shortly thereafter, Mott and Cumberford created the world famous Cyclops II.
Eight years later the Ford Mustang was introduced at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Cumberford was on hand, taking time off from his successful Cumberford Design International company. He met and chatted with Henry Ford II, but refrained from telling Ford that his all new Mustang was conceived eight years previously in the General Motors Tech Center.
Mott showed up at the Fair, too—exhibiting the gokart that he spent three years driving around the world.
But all this is just between us, alright? Cumberford and Mott wouldn’t want to upset any one’s certainty about who invented the key car of the Sixties.
Copyright © Trebor Crunchog & T. Tom Meshingear 2017
Mott and Cumberford in GM Body Studio 1, back in January 18, 1957, with a quarter scale clay model of their 1961 Buick Special design proposal.