Interview with Gale Halderman, March 2014

Gale HaldermanGale Halderman grew up on a farm near Dayton, Ohio. He attended the Dayton Art Institute which is affiliated with Dayton University. He decided he wanted to be a car designer after taking an Industrial Design course taught by Read Viemeister, who had designed the Tucker automobile. Gale started with Ford in 1954, at age 21, and retired in 1994.

When we met Gale for the first time, it was at the farm where he grew up. His dad was in the nursery business and Gale helped his dad around the farm. Gale has converted one of the barns into sort of a Gale Halderman Showplace where he has filled the space with memories – a red 1966 red Mustang convertible, 1927 Model T, 1931 Model A, 2002 Thunderbird, Salisbury and Cushman motor scooters, two Marman motor bikes, awards, and framed pictures and graphics on the walls. Also a 1953 Farmall A tractor like his dad had.

In another room in the barn, Gale’s daughter, Karen, displays her extensive camera collection.


My biggest accomplishment was designing the first Mustang. My sketch of the driver’s side was chosen over other designs in a contest dreamed up by Lee Iacocca.


When I was in Advanced Design with Hall Sperlich, we determined how big the rear seat should be, how long the trunk should be. Had to be big enough for some groceries. Not too big. We did a couple of proposals that showed Iacocca the long hood – short deck – short hood – longer deck. We showed him different combinations. To my knowledge he never made a decision. He just looked at them and said, “Okay, good.”

Soldiers came back from Europe with visions of a two-seater, like the MG or Austin Healey. We didn’t have anything like that. Very small market for a two-seat car. Had to have a rear seat for children – and some space for adults. Make it attractive, sporty, make the driver feel proud, proud to park in your driveway. If you drove by, you’d say, "Gosh, I’d like to have one of those!" That’s the feeling we were after.

The old guys liked it. The ladies liked it – which was a surprise. The young crowd liked it. You could drive it to work, drive it to the beach. It was a tough assignment but we accomplished it.


I was in the design studio and Hal Sperlich came in and gave us the pitch on how there was a huge market that we didn’t have a car for. He asked us to help him determine what the car should be, how big the car should be – mostly how large should the seating part of it be – so we worked with him – put together different seating arrangements – even put together two full-sized cars with different proportions to see what they looked like.

Showed to Mr. Iacocca. From that input we started to put together what the car should be. Did a clay model. Did the Mustang in three weeks – day and night – two shifts.


Lee IacoccaI worked for the Fairlane committee for one day. All they wanted to know is: How long will it take you to design the car and when can you start? The Fairlane committee was kind of a joke. Sperlich will tell you that in a minute. He’d say it was a total joke. They didn’t come up with anything that Hal hadn’t already told Iacocca. But it was support. Iacocca established a committee to investigate – do we have a place to build it – do we have a market out there? That’s what the committee did. It was assurance.

I was transferred to the Ford Studio – to the 1965 Ford Galaxie program – we were working every night ‘till 11 on it. My boss was Joe Oros – he came in and said we just got an assignment – we have to do a clay model because Mr. Iacocca is trying to sell Mr. Ford on a new car – tomorrow morning at 8 we’re going to pick the design.

Then he said, “Gale, I want some ideas from you."
I said, “Joe, I don’t have time. I’m working here ‘till 11 o'clock!”
“I don’t care when you do ‘em – but at 8 AM tomorrow we’re going to decide what to do. Just the side view. We have to get the modelers working on the side view.”

I went home that night after 11 o’clock – made four or five sketches – took them in the next day – put them up with three or four others. Joe even had some sketches of his own – and we talked about what we thought the car should be. Shouldn’t look cheap. Had to look exciting. It had to be a “wow” car – nothing like it on the market. We were looking at the sketches and he selected my sketch to put on the driver’s side of the car.

He picked his sketch for the passenger side – we didn’t have a rear end and we didn’t have a front end – but they started doing the clay from these side-view sketches. I turned my design over to George, a guy who worked for me. I told George to follow the design because I’m over here working on the Galaxie. George would ask me to look at his progress and I’d put in some new lines.

One night I left about 11 o’clock – went across the hall – and there’s no rear end on the car. So I grabbed the clay modeler and I said c’mon – we’re going to put a rear end on this car. So I designed the back-end of the Mustang in one night. I worked on the roof and the rear end. We did three separate lights for the taillight but Ford decided on one light with one bulb with three lenses to save money.

We had no sketches for the front. I thought why don’t we do sort of a Ferrari mouth front end – and I described it to the modelers and they did it. They were great. Sculptures. Outstanding designers in their own right.


Iacocca had set-up a competition between design departments. There were about five or six cars. All put together in the courtyard. And Iacocca came and looked at them. Walked around with Hal Sperlich. We were standing back while they were walking around. And they selected the car we designed which made us feel pretty good – and they selected the side that I designed and Iacocca really liked it and he said, "I think we got the car. I’m going to call Mr. Ford, show it to him. And if he says we’re not going to do it – the program is dead.”

Lee called Mr. Ford. Mr. Ford came over. Iacocca said, “Here’s the car I want to show you.” Mr. Ford said, “I like it. But I’m not going to approve it. All I’m going to tell you is – don’t stop.” And he left the meeting and Lee turned and said, “We got it.” And that’s the beginning of the Mustang.

So we called it Cougar up until almost production. We had a cat in the grille. There were various names kicked around. Torino and T5. Sid Olsen was with our ad agency, J. Walter Thompson. He loved the wild horse of the American plains angle. I’m sure he was the one who convinced Lee to call it Mustang.


Lee was famous for twirling his cigar when he liked something. The faster he twirled, the more he liked it. We would watch and see how he twirled his cigar. If he didn’t twirl his cigar we knew we weren’t winning. When he came to our design, he started twirling.

Iacocca was a great leader. I loved to work with him. He loved design. In his spare time he would come over and just walk around our studios. Take his coat off – chat. You would pay money to hear Iacocca talk to dealers – he could really crank ‘em up. Any time you left a meeting with Iacocca, you couldn’t wait to get back to work. He was that impressive. Just like a coach.


We didn’t see any problem. They worked very professionally together. I think in the beginning they were close but they just had a working relationship. I don’t think they saw each other too often. And I think they probably saw each other at the Design Center more than any other place.


Henry Ford IIWe saw Mr. Ford about once every two weeks. He’d come over for meetings. He knew what he liked and what he didn’t like. He’d express his opinion. He didn’t always agree with us and we’d go back and change it. He was easy to work with. He knew everybody by name, and once he knew your name he’d never forgot it. Made me feel good when he’d walk in and say, “Hi Gale.”

Iacocca’s biggest challenge was to convince Mr. Ford there was a huge market, the Baby Boomers, and we didn’t have a car for them. But we believed the Mustang was the car if we get the ok. We knew it would sell but not to the degree that it did sell. No one thought it would sell to the extent that it did – but all believed in it.

Not much different than any other car program we had. You try – a car, a van, a truck – you start out with the same ground rules – make it exciting, unique, you want it to look expensive, you want it to look good. So the ground rules weren’t different from vehicle to vehicle – and the Mustang didn’t have any different ground rules – only that it couldn’t look cheap – not like a Pinto or Falcon or something like that.

I think we did the Mustang program for $50 million but I’m not sure. Normal would be at least twice that. Mr. Ford was concerned. He can’t afford to have two failures in a short amount of time. I understood his concern.

There was no window in engineering to do the car. So Hal Sperlich had the idea to use the Falcon platform. That cut the time in half. That was major. Never could have done it if we didn’t use the Falcon platform.

Hal Sperlich is the father of the Mustang. If it hadn’t been for Hal it would never have happened. He convinced Iacocca about the market, and he convinced Iacocca we could sell that market with an exciting product. He believed we could do it. He convinced people who really weren’t behind the program. That was about 1962.

I was given the responsibility to make it feasible, make sure it met all the legal aspects. In my first meeting with the engineers, they came up with a list of about 64 places on the car where we didn’t meet the Ford standards. And I had to go through all 64 working with them and deciding what to do. I changed some things and they gave up some things. They knew if they didn’t agree with me I would get Mr. Sperlich or Mr. Iacocca to come and look at it and they knew which way they would vote. Working with the engineers was not bad because they liked the car. And if they liked a car, it was much easier for them to give and take with me. The spirit was positive.


We thought the car should have a fastback and we knew that product planning and Mr. Ford would say No. No. No. No. We’re not going to do that. So we designed it in secrecy. We did it in clay. I can’t tell you who designed it. We cast in fiberglass. Had it painted candy apple red. Took it into the courtyard and covered it up. And the next time Lee Iacocca came in for a design review, we said Mr. Iacocca we have something to show you. We walked over and took the cover off of it. Lee walked around, the cigar started to twirl. When I saw that I knew we had him. And he said, “We gotta do it. We gotta do it.”

Mustang Fastback

So we talked about it. I told Mr. Oros I thought the roofline should be a little longer, all the way to the end of the car. And he said no, I think it should be shorter, stop before the trunk. He’s the boss so we made it shorter. But the next time around we made it longer. I also wanted to make the mouth bigger. But he didn’t. But if you noticed on the ’67 I made the mouth larger and he said, “Yeah, that looks good.”


We couldn’t believe it. Great loss to the company. I think Mr. Ford realized he lost the company. The company became Iacocca’s. Jealousy, Ego.


I think you have to be a little bit of a dreamer. And you have to be careful. If you notice there are a lot of ugly looking cars because the designers try to do too much. Try to put too much on one car. I think you can try to do something unique on a car that hasn’t been seen before if you only work on one area of the car. If you start working on more than one area, you’ve got an ugly automobile. You see them all the time.

2015 GT

Beautiful car. The question we always had on every new Mustang is: how much of the original cues should we keep, and how much new area should we introduce? The new 2015 is a beautiful automobile. But I would personally like to see a couple of the old cues back on the car. The scoop on the side is a major one. The front end, grill shape. The roof. The fastback roof that we had which was a fast line with a solid area behind it.

The theme of the Mustang taillights was always a bank of three lights. And we did it over the years in different ways. And I think they retained that. Did a very contemporary version of it. I like it.


You listen to everybody. We get a lot of suggestions from the dealers, from the owners, from the clubs. They all tell you what they want to change and what they don’t want to change. Mustang club members – they voice their opinion a lot. Of course they didn’t want their car to be changed too much. And we listen.


Well the Mustang I was a two-seater that was done 2½ years before the production Mustang was even considered. So it had absolutely no relation to the Mustang production car. That’s not what a lot of the books say or the writers write about, but it had no relationship. The name never came from that car. The Mustang I was named after the fighter plane. And the Mustang production car was named after horses.

Mustang I Concept Car


Some of the Jack Roush cars are fabulous. I knew Jack Roush when he was a schoolteacher. Roush has about 3,000 people working for him. Probably the biggest name in NASCAR racing. Most of his modifications are in the engine compartment. He does a little bit of exterior changing, but not a lot.


The Mustang II, which was built off the Pinto platform, was Iacocca’s way of getting the car smaller again. When Bucky Knudsen came to Ford from GM, he wanted to make the car larger. He thought the market would improve. Appeal to a larger market if the car was just a little bit bigger. I worked on that ’71, which was the first one. I tried to take 10 inches off of it and failed. Now that we couldn’t do it. Knudsen just didn’t want to do it.

Mustang II

That’s a problem when you let market research influence your thinking. You listen and everyone says they’d like it bigger. Bigger seat. Little more trunk and bigger this and that and before you know it you’ve moved into a different market. Any research can tell you the good and the bad, but it’s the market that tells you if you have a winner.


To my knowledge it went very smoothly. I was at the line with a small group watching the first 15 being built. The fourth one going down the line was for Mr. Ford. And I’ll never forget that. He got a black coupe.


It’s a feeling I’ve felt with many other cars. You first design a clay and take it though the engineering phase, you see the prototypes and you drive the prototypes, and you see it come off the assembly line you say, Yep, that’s quite an accomplishment. And it’s even better when you see it on the highway.


We had some indicators that told us it was going to be a popular car. The engineers liked it. The test drivers liked it. The prototype builders liked it. And it was easy because they wanted to make it as good as we wanted it to be. So we had an indication that it was going to be a pretty good car. It was going to be a winner. But not to the degree that it sold. No one knew it was going to be a smash. And we sold 22,000, 23,000 on the first day. That was unbelievable. We were elated. Fabulous.


I don’t ever remember Mr. Iacocca congratulating us for the Mustang. He never really gave too many accolades on cars. I think it surprised him too. Well his job was on the line. Mr. Ford told him if it didn’t sell, you’re gone. So he had a lot on the line.


You never know where the market’s going to go in three years. You think it’s going to move one way and it goes the other way. Even colors. A simple thing as colors can be good or bad for a car line, and it changes year to year. Suddenly silver becomes very popular. And at one time you couldn’t sell silver. And now it becomes the number one color. It’s crazy. And different areas of the country like different colors. So anyway, predicting the market three years out is not an easy task. It’s a gamble.

And of course designers try to do something unique and totally different, and the marketing people would see it differently. And then the finance people see it in another totally different way [laughs]. Finance always has a big influence on the product.


We sold mirrors and antennas and everything was extra. The base car was pretty sparse. So options were a big deal. Most cars I understand sold $1000 worth of options. And that’s where we made the money.


I ordered a Falcon chassis. I had a fiberglass Mustang body on it – just got it finished in the studio – and this fellow, Tom I think, came in from the Ford Division and he said, "Gale, can I borrow that car?" I said I guess so. So I give it to him telling him it had to be back Monday. Monday came, no car. So I call. Tom, where’s my car? He said they had bad weather. Can you give me a couple more days? I said okay but get it right back after you’re done. That car was the one they used in that first commercial with the horses running. And they used it in that introduction film they made. That was my fiberglass car. It was a hardtop. Started out white. They cut the top off, made a convertible out of it. Changed the color. I think they painted it red. That was my studio car. You had to climb through the window to drive it. No seat. Sit on a box. And you know, I never got the car back. Never did.


Carroll Shelby sold himself to Iacocca. He convinced Lee he could make Mustang a hotter car. We designed all the Shelby Mustangs. Carroll would come and he would walk around and say, "Mm-hmm, that’s good." Walk out. He was an interesting guy to work with, talk to. Lots of people think he designed them but he didn’t design them at all. He was a mechanical guy. And a former racecar driver so he knew what he was doing.

The two stripes is a racing motif – I think we put them on. We had stripes going down to the bottom of the rocker – right off the bat. So I don’t think that was a Shelby thing. We put them on Shelby cars.


My favorite Mustang is the original one, naturally. I found mine in Springfield, Ohio. All restored. Six-cylinder engine. Base car. Doesn’t even have power steering. Manual. But it was in such good shape I couldn‘t turn it down. Base car. We were building a lot of sixes – we didn’t have the capacity for the eights. The six worked fine. Maybe not off the line. But it was great.

1966 Convertible front end


These were the last sketches I did for the company. I got promoted and didn’t have to do sketches anymore. [Laughs]


Very gratifying. Successful. To be part of it – fantastic. At the time though, it didn’t mean much. It was my job. We did a lot of cars. So it was just another car at the time.


That’s true. Absolutely true. It even had a Falcon instrument panel. No one noticed it. It wasn’t a factor.


I was put in charge of trucks. I did vans. Small cars. Luxury cars. Marquis. Lincolns. The secret to my job was that I could decide which design we would to do, but I would make sure the designer thought he picked it. If the designer thought it was his decision, it made a big difference in his involvement.

Speechwriter for Lee. Nice guy. He’d come around smoking his pipe. He’d come in by himself and say, show me around Gale.

Great guy. A brilliant product planner. Outspoken and being outspoken cost him his job. Hal would come in every day with a stack of ideas – one was an outstanding idea – and the rest were not. Iacocca would go through that and say we got one – we’re going to do that. Hal was a brain. Exciting guy to work with. Became president of Chrysler.

Don Fry was very smart. He was Iacocca’s right-hand man. Very loyal supporter. Iacocca would approve and Fry would make it happen. At a design review, I’d sit in the back row with Fry and Iacocca and Ford would sit in the front row.

He hired me. I worked with Gene very closely for years. We’d have coffee everyday in my office. He was chief designer of the Lincoln/Mercury studio.

Great designer. Worked for Walker before Ford Motor Co. He was better at picking the right design for the right time than anyone I ever worked with. He just seemed to know what was right.


Couple of years. Back then. We did the Mustang in 21 months. We worked many all nighters. Two shifts. Modeling the car in clay. The clay modelers had to have direction. Putting tape on. Lines on the car. Clay models would get painted. Wood platform. Dummy seats. Half a steering wheel.


It sold because it had great appeal. It was exciting. It was different. No other car had those qualities for the price. Combination of a lot of things. Came as a convertible, hardtop, and fastback. Something to appeal to everyone. It was popular to be seen in one.


Ford’s a great company. Always has been. Mr. Ford had racehorses in Europe. He asked me to design a jockey uniform. I knew nothing about jockey uniforms so, like any good designer, I went to the library and did research. I learned everything I could about jockeys. Came up with three or four good designs. I got them ready. Mr. Ford was coming over to pick. I waited. Secretary said he just called, and said he can’t make it and for me to pick the one I like the best. So I did and sent it to Europe.

Months went by. Never heard a word. Then I saw Mr. Ford, he came over and said, “Gale, thanks for your design. That horse is doing very well.” To have Henry Ford II personally give you a thank you is pretty nice.

1966 Convertible back end



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