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Donald N. Frey, Designer of the Mustang, Dies at 86


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Donald N. Frey, Designer of the Mustang, Dies at 86


Published: March 28, 2010

Donald N. Frey, the engineer who spearheaded the design and development of the Mustang, the spunky, stylish, affordably priced “pony car” that the Ford Motor Company rolled out in the mid-1960s in one of the most successful car introductions in automotive history, died March 5 in Evanston, Ill., where he lived. He was 86.

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Art Shay

Donald N. Frey with a 1966 Mustang convertible. The car was so popular that he was often besieged by autograph hunters.

The cause was a stroke, his son Christopher said.

Though much of the Mustang was borrowed from other Ford vehicles, including a Falcon chassis, the car developed an identity all its own for a younger generation in search of new looks and experiences. It was designed to appeal to both men and women, had a dash of elegance copied from European sports cars, and featured a galloping steed in the middle of its grille that buyers thought was, well, really cool.

Steve McQueen was almost upstaged by the souped-up Mustang he drove in the movie “Bullitt.”

Mr. Frey and his team created the car — from approval by top management to the showroom — in just 18 months, and expectations were modest when it was introduced on April 17, 1964, at the New York World’s Fair. Ford figured it would sell 80,000 Mustangs in its first year. It sold more than a million in its first two years.

Mr. Frey (pronounced fry) would go on to other achievements. He was chairman and chief executive of the Bell & Howell Company, recipient of the National Medal of Technology and a member of the executive board of the World Bank. He was proudest, he said, of helping to introduce safety improvements like disc brakes and radial tires to Ford cars.

But to automotive cognoscenti and just plain car lovers, the Mustang was his defining accomplishment. At gatherings of Mustang enthusiasts, Mr. Frey was often besieged by autograph hunters in the manner of a rock star.

As Ford’s assistant general manager and chief engineer, Mr. Frey worked closely on the Mustang project with Lee A. Iacocca, then general manager of the Ford division. Mr. Frey is credited with coming up with the initial Mustang prototype, a mid-engine two-seater roadster unveiled in 1962. He later led all design and engineering work. (Other designers, led by Joe Oros, later added back seats and other features.)

Mr. Frey pursued the project even though Henry Ford II, the president of the company, had turned it down four times, partly because Ford’s new Edsel had just failed so spectacularly. Lacking an official go-ahead, Mr. Frey met with Mr. Iacocca and other engineers and designers in a motel at night and in a storage room by day.

“The whole project was bootlegged,” Mr. Frey told USA Today in 2004. “There was no official approval of this thing. We had to do it on a shoestring.”

When Mr. Ford finally approved the project, he looked directly at Mr. Frey and told him in several unprintable words that he would be fired if the Mustang was not successful, according to Mr. Frey, who recounted the episode in 2004 in an interview with Northwestern, the alumni magazine of Northwestern University, where Mr. Frey taught engineering for 20 years, until 2008.

When Ford promoted Mr. Frey to vice president of North American vehicle product development in 1967, Time magazine called him “Detroit’s sharpest idea man.”

In his book “Mustang: An American Classic” (2009), Mike Mueller quotes Mr. Frey as saying the inspiration for the Mustang came from watching Chevrolet’s successful strategy for improving sales of the compact car Corvair. “I guess in desperation they put bucket seats in the thing, called it the Monza, and it started to sell,” Mr. Frey said.

But he told Northwestern that the spark had come from his children. “Dad, your cars stink,” he remembered them saying at the dinner table. “There’s no pizzazz.”

In addition to his son Christopher, Mr. Frey is survived by his fourth wife, Kay Everly, from whom he was separated; another son, Donald Jr.; three daughters, Margaret Walton, Catherine McNair and Elizabeth Sullivan; a brother, Stuart, who was also a top executive at Ford; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Donald Nelson Frey was born on March 13, 1923, in St. Louis and grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, where his father was chief metallurgist for a John Deere plant. He attended Michigan State University for two years, then left to serve in the Army in World War II. After his discharge, he earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in metallurgy from the University of Michigan.

He stayed to teach at Michigan but later left to manage Ford’s metallurgy department in its laboratory, hoping to acquire real-world engineering experience, as he told The New York Times in 1965.

Mr. Frey left Ford in 1968 to become president of the General Cable Corporation. In the 1970s and ’80s he was chairman of Bell & Howell. He divested it of less profitable operations like mail-handling equipment and nurtured its profitable videotape division.

Meanwhile, the Mustang gained weight and horsepower before being downsized just in time for the 1970s spike in gas prices. In 1979 it got bigger again and then went through yet more redesigns. Its popularity oscillated, too, but the original boom was never equaled.

At his death Mr. Frey owned an original Mustang, his son Christopher said, adding that he liked to drive it fast.



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