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Chase Morsey, “The Man Who Saved the V-8,” dead at 96

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Chase Morsey photo via Bob Fria.

His knees shook as he sat waiting outside Henry Ford II’s office. Chase Morsey, then 29 years old and less than a year into his time at Ford Motor Company, knew he was right – his research backed it up – but he still had to make his case in front of The Deuce, the man whose name was on the building, and the man who could inadvertently destroy Ford Motor Company if he didn’t listen to what Morsey had to say.

Fortunately, for everybody involved, Ford decided then and there that the V-8 would remain in the Ford lineup. Morsey’s research, which would become his biggest strength while at Ford, held up, and he would go on to play pivotal roles not only in the success of the Thunderbird but also the genesis of the Mustang, two defining legacies for the retired auto executive who died late last month at the age of 96.

Though, like the famed Whiz Kids, Morsey came to Ford with a background in statistical analysis with the Army Air Force, he started at Ford a year later as a trainee. What he lacked in authority at Ford, however, he made up with enthusiasm for Blue Oval products – since the 1930s he’d owned only Ford V-8 automobiles – and so when he discovered, shortly after joining the company, that Ford planned to discontinue the V-8 for the 1952 model year, leaving only a six-cylinder engine to power Ford’s passenger cars, he expressed his dismay to his supervisor.

As he told the story in his book, The Man Who Saved the V-8, Morsey not only didn’t like the idea because he liked the product, but he also felt that it would lead to a drastic drop-off in sales for Ford, so he proposed surveying all the Ford dealers to take their temperature on the potential change, compiled the results (overwhelmingly negative), and made his pitch to Henry Ford II. The V-8 remained.

That experience, according to author Bob Fria, helped boost Morsey up the corporate ladder over the next few years. “He was just thankful his research went well, but he was always a good researcher, and that gave him some stature at Ford.”

According to tales Morsey told Fria, he was soon assigned to the Competitive Analysis Department, which at the time was Ford’s spy program, tasked with climbing the fences at GM’s Proving Grounds in Arizona to get photos of GM’s secret projects. By the early to mid-Fifties, he was put to work developing the marketing for the Thunderbird, and later on in the decade he did the same for the Edsel.

So when Lee Iaccoca formed and convened the Fairlane Committee in the early 1960s, he turned to Morsey, then head of Ford car marketing, for his expertise in marketing and market research. “He did his research, and he found that the demographics of car buyers were changing,” Fria said. “At the time, everybody had known of the baby boomers, sure, but nobody had thought deeply about the issue of that group of people getting married and having kids and that they should target that group.”

As Fria wrote in Mustang Genesis: The Creation of the Pony Car:

He anticipated buyers between the ages of 18 and 34 would account for more than half of the projected new car sales for the upcoming decade. Additionally, car styling for the ’60s would have to reflect the tastes of these new young buyers, not of the older generations. Young people had definite ideas about what they wanted in styling and performance.

With Morsey’s research in hand, Iaccoca could prove that a market existed for a sporty, Falcon-based four-seater – the car that would become the Mustang – and as a result got the go-ahead to develop it. Morsey was rewarded with a new assignment: Iaccoca put him in charge of marketing for the Mustang and its launch campaign, which included the famed “Six and the Single Girl” magazine ad as well as the one-off Tiffany Gold Medal Award for Excellence in American Design bestowed on the Mustang. Fria said that campaign is now considered “the most successful ad program ever put together by a car manufacturer in the United States.”

Morsey remained with Ford until the late 1960s, when he took the chief financial officer position at RCA. He later owned his own Ford dealership in Phoenix and started Morsey Oil Company before retiring to Bel Air, California.

According to Fria, he was one of the last remaining members of the Fairlane Committee. Of that group, only Iaccoca and Hal Sperlich survive Morsey.