Gale Halderman, the man whose sketch birthed the Ford Mustang, dies

Gale Halderman, the farm boy who rose through the ranks at Ford and whose sketch is credited for birthing the iconic Ford Mustang still sold 56 years later, has died. The Tipp City, Ohio, native passed away Wednesday at a local hospital after a battle with liver cancer. He was 87.

Halderman spent the entirety of his roughly 40-year career at Ford, having been hired on initially in the Lincoln-Mercury studio but quickly transferred to Ford’s production studio. It was there, during a design competition for a new 2+2 sports car, that he came up with the sketch, reportedly drawn as one of several at home on his porch, that became the legendary Mustang.

“He was so revered throughout the Mustang community,” Jimmy Dinsmore, the family spokesman and author of ‘Mustang by Design: Gale Halderman and the Creation of Ford’s Iconic Pony Car,” told the Dayton Daily News. “When Lee Iacocca passed away last year, Gale was the last of the Mustang legends still with us. In some regards, this is the end of the golden era of the Mustang’s beginnings.”

Halderman is credited as the originator of the signature side scoop that featured on the original Mustang and still defines the car today. They were originally intended to be functional, ducting air to cool the brakes. But that would have reportedly added $5 to the cost of every car — the equivalent of about $42 today — so they became purely decorative instead.

In an interview with Consumer Guide, Halderman talked about how the Mustang project had its genesis in “a little electric-car proposal” that involved two designers each doing their own riffs on one side of a clay model that then became separate clay models and, eventually, fiberglass versions. They attracted the interest of Iacocca, then the Ford Division general manager, and engineer and special product advisor Hal Sperlich, who encouraged them to reopen the design process for a sports car that would become the Mustang. Halderman said he was eventually ordered to produce some sketches, despite being busy working on a full-size production 1965 Ford, and created five or six at home. One of them would be picked for a full-size clay model.

Halderman credited Chief Designer Joe Oros for giving the Mustang its fastback profile. “There was a lot of discussion about whether the roofline should come back all the way, or if it should leave a little bustle back, which is what Joe strongly wanted,” he said. “But we all felt that for Mustang to be seen as a really sporty car, it had to have a fastback model. We did it in secret. No one, including Sperlich or Iacocca, saw it until it was finished. We cast it in fiberglass, painted it bright red, and then showed it to Iacocca. He said, ‘We’ve got to do it!’”

He went on: “There were so many things the engineers said we shouldn’t be doing, but they didn’t want to change them either. There was so much enthusiasm right from the beginning. Even the drivers at the test track loved it. We would go there for meetings, and the crowds of people around it were huge. That was totally unusual, so we suspected the Mustang was going to be a hit.”

Halderman’s sketch was also combined with elements of the Lincoln Mark II by Charlie Phaneuf, the head of Ford’s pre-production studio, according to the book “A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design” by Michael Lamm and Dave Holls. Halderman was at the time the head of the production studio, and he balanced the task of reconciling the many requested design changes — reportedly 77 or 78, depending on whose version you read —from Ford engineering with the approved design concept.

Halderman also played a role in developing the galloping horse Mustang logo and oversaw every styling change in the pony car through the 1971-73 models, according to Automotive News.

Last year, when Iacocca passed away, Halderman told Ford Performance that the former executive changed the way he designed cars. “I used to only draw cars that I thought were pretty,” he said. “But Lee got me to thinking what kinds of designs would draw people in — what would sell. He got me to figure out how to design cars that would be universally loved by the public and pleasing to their eyes and not just in the eyes of the designer.”

A member of the Mustang Hall of Fame, Halderman also won MotorTrend’s Car of the Year award for the 1990 Lincoln Town Car. Among the other vehicles he oversaw as director of the Ford design studio were the Lincoln Mark VI and Mark VIII, and the 1980 and ’95 Continental.

“While we are saddened to hear about one of our former team members, Gale Halderman’s career at Ford included many projects, including contributions on the original Mustang Team. Our thoughts are with his family,” Ford Performance said in a statement.

Halderman graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Dayton and earned an industrial design degree from the Dayton Art Institute, where he studied art with comedian Jonathan Winters. In a 1985 interview with The Henry Ford museum, he recalled not knowing whether to pursue commercial art or car design. He opted for the latter because it was “more intriguing, more a challenge and something that I can spend my lifetime doing and be satisfied with it.” He left school two months before graduating to take a job at Ford as a designer for Lincoln-Mercury.

He opened the Gale Halderman Museum in a barn on his family farm in Tipp City after he retired from Ford in 1994.