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Frey fathered iconic Fords

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Frey fathered iconic Fords



Don Frey didn't know when he was beaten, so he almost never was.

Frey, one of the fathers of the Ford Mustang, died March 5 in Evanston, Ill., where he'd taught engineering at Northwestern University since 1988. He was 86.

In 1962, Frey was a promising young Ford executive who put his job on the line because he believed in the Mustang and the revolutionary idea that Americans would buy a small car.

"The company didn't want to (build) it," Frey told me at a celebration of the Mustang's 40th anniversary in 2004. "We got turned down by the finance people the first four times" he pitched the car to Ford's product planning committee.

The company was still stinging from the embarrassingly expensive and public failure of its Edsel brand. Ford, particularly the autocratic Henry Ford II, was not in a risk-taking mood.

Frey put one of his best young lieutenants, Harold Sperlich, in charge of building a case for the Mustang.

Sperlich, who would go on to create another icon with the Chrysler minivan in the 1980s, took the pedestrian chassis of a Ford Falcon into the engineering center and came out with the Mustang, a car sized to combine the flair of a British roadster with a practical rear seat and usable trunk.

The oft-repeated story that engineers and designers developed the Mustang in secret and on their own time is a myth, Sperlich says.

Henry Ford II grudgingly approved the car the fifth time Frey brought it to the committee.

"He told me it was my ass if it didn't sell," Frey told me.

It sold. The Mustang racked up a million deliveries in its first two years. The entire project cost $75 million, and the car accounted for two-thirds of Ford's worldwide profit in 1964, by Frey's estimate. Ford has sold a total of 8.4 million Mustangs.

Frey was part of a youth movement that would lead Ford in the 1960s. They caught the Baby Boom's demographic wave and rode it to success.

Frey and Lee Iacocca, who went on to become Ford president and later chairman of Chrysler, saw the Mustang's potential. Henry Ford and other older executives missed it.

"We were just ordinary guys trying to do our job well, fighting the Ford Motor Co. bureaucracy all the way, like always," Frey said.

Youth was in the air in '62, Sperlich says. John F. Kennedy was president, vital young executives like Frey and Iacocca were leading Ford and the time was ripe for change.

"Iacocca liked people who were pro-opportunity, people who had ideas and would pursue them. Don was that kind of guy," Sperlich said.

Frey was also involved in the Ferrari Program, secret negotiations that nearly led to a merger of Ford and Ferrari. Enzo Ferrari reportedly realized that would mean the end of his company and vetoed the deal.

Frey responded by creating a small team to build the GT40, the legendary sports car that whipped Ferrari in the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race.

If you can't buy 'em, beat 'em. A second landmark car was born.

Frey might have become president of Ford, but Iacocca was destined for that job. In 1968, Frey left Ford to run General Cable. Frey raised the company's value, sold it to a private investor and moved to Chicago. In his third career there, he led Bell & Howell's transformation from a producer of 8mm projectors and film strips to a modern information-technology company.

At Northwestern, Frey was known as the "professor of reality" because he used his experience in industry to keep students grounded.

"Don could take theory and show students how it worked in the real world," said Northwestern professor Bill White. "He was a larger-than-life guy with wonderful experiences from industry and the ability to link them to the process of innovation.

"He had a sincere interest in young people and helping them start their careers."



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