[Editor’s Note: We always knew we wanted to have longtime commenter and contributor Leon Dixon write about his career in the auto industry for us. With the recent release of his book, “Creative Industries of Detroit: The Untold Story of Detroit’s Secret Concept Car Builder,” we finally got our wish as Leon allowed us to publish the following excerpt focused on Ford’s Mystere concept car for this week’s Hemmings In-Depth.]
A career like the one I had in the automotive industry was a fantastic experience for a number of reasons. It took me to many places around the world and to countless, unforgettable adventures. A huge bonus was the fact that I was often in the company of amazingly dedicated, bright, energetic, and talented people. Best of all, we were actually getting paid to do exactly what we loved to do. And the happy twists and turns of the automotive world never seem to end.
The locales were likewise memorable. One of those places was beautiful Hiroshima, Japan. Headquarters of Mazda Corporation where I sometimes spent several months out of each year. Ironically, it was here one night over dinner… in a German restaurant… with Americans working for a Japanese company that I learned the sad fate of one of my all-time favorite Detroit dream cars.
It was the 1980s and I was having dinner with my friend, the late auto designer, Herb Grasse. Herb was a design genius who said he penned the conversion of the Lincoln Futura into the Batmobile for Hollywood’s George Barris. Herb was an unforgettable, highly talented character with a boundless sense of humor… and a good friend.
Two of my coworkers from Mazda, Bob Hall (former journalist and spark plug behind the Miata) and Mark Jordan (Miata designer and son of famous GM designer, Chuck Jordan) were also in town at the time. This was during the development of the original Mazda Miata.
Anyway, at the time of our dinner, Herb was overseeing the design program for Ford of Australia. I believe Herb succeeded Bill Boyer (principal designer of the original Thunderbird and Mystere dream car) in this position. Ford’s Aussie models of this era were largely based on Mazdas (as were American Probe, Tracer and other FoMoCo products–and yes, I was involved in them as well). So it was only natural that Herb was based in Hiroshima. He and his wife lived for extended periods on one of the upper floors of a beautiful hotel there.
Now, Herb Grasse just loved cars, but he wasn’t always very fond of the business itself. The politics, personalities and frustrations were sometimes more than Herb could abide. And Herb was a huge prankster. After all, he was notorious to car biz insiders for his late 1960s Dodge Challenger proposal illustrations done for Chrysler.
In an expression of utter frustration while working under Chrysler’s (and Creative’s) Bill Brownlie, Herb inserted a defiantly naughty message in one E-body proposal illustration. The message was so cleverly disguised that the illustration actually made it into several magazines and even some company Mopar P.R. presentations. This was (so the story goes) until a sharp student at Art Center noticed that the flagstones under one Challenger illustration actually spelled out a message we can’t print here! Herb got in a lot of hot water over that one!So when the dinner conversation turned to concept cars I naturally expected Herb might come up with one of his screamingly funny zingers about the biz. I brought up the subject of my favorite concept–the Ford Mystere. But instead of a funny quip, Herb’s expression quickly turned very sad as he said something shocking. Of course, I kept waiting for the big, hearty laugh that was sure to follow. But there was no laugh.
Herb shook his head and responded, “Sad story. I hear via the Ford grapevine that somebody ordered it cut up.”
What? This couldn’t be! Say it wasn’t so! I was mortified and looked at Herb in shocked disbelief. But again, knowing Herb was a big prankster I figured it was all a big joke. It had to be. I waited for the laugh, but Herb was dead serious. He assured me it was no joke.
Herb continued, “it wasn’t too long ago either…it was still hanging around in the 70s. The Mystere was in pretty bad shape and they just didn’t want to save it anymore. It’s gone.”
Wow. Hearing this was almost like hearing bad news that a friend had just died in Viet Nam. I sat there feeling like a truck had just been dropped on top of me. The iconic, incredible Mystere had been destroyed. And that was that.
A Step Back in Time and Place to Detroit… to a Company Called Creative Industries
Ford Mystere was built under contract by a company known as Creative Industries of Detroit. Of course, that name always takes me back to the glory days of the Motor City. Back to the times when it was all so magical and the unreal was real. The future was all optimism–unquestionably a promise of great things to come.
And who or what was Creative Industries? A most magical Detroit entity that was the epitome of American ingenuity and an engineering/prototyping firm that fulfilled all of the automotive optimism of those times.
Creative was the same company that did President Eisenhower’s Lincoln bubble top limo. The same place that made the Ford FX-Atmos dream car. The Mercury XM-800. The Packard Balboa and Panthers. It was the Detroit company that made dreams come true for every Detroit automaker–and yet they worked in secret for all of them.
But today, this company name has largely become a phrase that may only spark hugely divergent meanings for anyone hearing it. In the relatively short period of time since Creative has disappeared from the automotive scene, the meaning of these words has–for better or worse– run the gamut. With no memory of this admittedly secretive Detroit company, the generation born after the Apollo moon landing has become convinced that “Creative Industries” is merely a generic term–a catch-all phrase. And those who believe this even have publications and the almighty internet now to back them up!
Some will tell you that “Creative Industries” is a general reference to the artistic community. Some will tell you it is a business term “coined” in recent years. Some will say it is an international designation. There is even a “wicki” definition. But it won’t tell you about the company.
Of those even aware of the automotive connection, some will tell you it was merely a small customizing shop. Still others will tell you it was a contractor shop that made MoPar wing cars. Some might even say it was a company that made Mustang wing cars. The latter two notions are mostly accurate, but should never be envisioned as isolated or encompassing definitions. “Creative Industries” was much, much more than any of these simplistic notions. In reality, Creative was perhaps the most fascinating engineering and automotive enterprise ever to emerge out of the Motor City.
Creative Industries of Detroit was a wondrous company that employed some of the most gifted hands, greatest talent and most amazing minds from the glory days of American automotive industry. From engineering to design; from wood to plastics to steel; from automobiles to aircraft–Creative Industries of Detroit did it all. They worked mostly in secret but Creative engineered and built prototypes, dream cars and even presidential cars. And they were involved in aircraft-from B-29 bombers to Sikorsky and Hughes helicopters to Boeing 757-767 to the BD-5/BD-5J (yes, like the one flown in the James Bond Octopussy movie) to the B-2. And there was more. They designed and engineered everything from caskets to ironing machines to Polaris snowmobiles to rocket launchers and spacecraft. But where Creative Industries really shined was in automobiles.
While the company eventually had many satellite locations, it was originally headquartered at 3080 East Outer Drive on Detroit’s east side. And although Creative Industries no longer exists except in a descendent form (as an ancestor of MSX International), the magic spell of Creative Industries continues to this day. Yet nobody knows how many amazing concepts and prototypes Creative built. But of all of Creative’s creations, Ford Mystere was certainly one of the most mind-bending to roll out of the Outer Drive facility.
Background on the Mystere
For the first year their new Thunderbird, Ford almost immediately received orders for over half of their projected sales. That was enough to make the big guy smile. But Ford had even more ambitious plans for a new dream car that year. It would become known as the Mystere. And they would have T-Bird’s designer, Bill Boyer as Mystere’s primary principal designer under the auspices of styling chief, Frank Hershey.
Once Ford was satisfied with the refined Bill Boyer design, it began to take shape in a full-sized clay over at the Ford styling studios in Dearborn. Like predecessor FX-Atmos, this new Ford concept would be made of fiberglass and none other than Creative Industries would also construct it. But here is where the story gets a bit confused. Some say that a plaster plug was pulled at Ford. Others say that the clay was brought to Creative and plaster molds pulled there.
However it happened, the task to build the Mystere was handed over to Creative Industries of Detroit. My friends David Margolis and Gary Hutchings of Creative were immediately attached to the project. Dave oversaw the entire project from Creative’s end while Gary was immediate supervisor, working in contact with Bill Boyer.
I first met Garriston Hutchings in the 1960s at Creative Industries. He was a brilliant hands-on kind of guy–immensely talented–who had worked on virtually every dream car project ever done at Creative in the 1950s.
Mr. Hutchings thought his name was a tad too formal, so he preferred to be called Gary. Various accounts have listed him as “Gerold” or “Hutching” but his name was as I give it to you here. Gary was always enthusiastic about cars and a wonderful, encyclopedic source of information about Creative.
I first met David Margolis in 1962, courtesy of the nuns at the Catholic high school I attended in Detroit. They sent me to Creative for a career day. I had grown up around Creative and had a relative who lived near there. So I was well familiar with the company and location.
Over time, Gary and I had a number of conversations and established an ongoing letter and long distance phone correspondence. By the time I decided to publish an article on Creative for Dean Batchelor and Car Classics magazine back in the 1970s, I had long relocated to California. But I went back numerous times to visit with Creative in Detroit. I was the first and only writer to interview Creative, David and Mr. Hutchings on the Mystere.
Gary loved the car business and only felt at his best when he was knee-deep in the creation of some new automobile or technology. He owned a rare 1954 Buick Skylark convertible long before anyone was seriously talking about collecting such cars. Gary was typical of many people I met at Creative. He (along with Hugh Olson who would arrive in 1957) was Creative’s go-to man for fiberglass and plastics. But Gary knew also his steel, he knew his paints and he was a whiz at vehicle electronics. Mr. Hutchings was there when a lot of key things happened at Creative. He actually worked on projects for Packard like Ed Macauley’s Phantom, Saga SUV/Panther and Pan American. And Dick Teague’s Balboa, Panthers and the Request. And Gary was one of the crew that resurrected the Packard Predictor when it caught fire and barbecued its wiring. Gary got Predictor operational (and kept it that way) for the auto shows.
Hutchings had worked on Ford FX-Atmos so when FoMoCo came calling about more fiberglass dream car projects, of course Gary was all too eager to help bring these cars to reality.
Back at the Outer Drive facility, a metal chassis of sorts was rigged up for Mystere in the rear shop where heavy welding took place. It was put together by another Creative staffer named William Resztak. This chassis was nothing like a typical automotive frame, but rather it was merely to support the finished car and hold the wheels.
Said Gary, “It didn’t have a real suspension and Ford basically just wanted it to be strictly for looks. Dave and I were gung-ho to make it [Mystere] into a real car. And we had aircraft engineers working for the company who were just itching to put a turbine into that car and make it go. But like with the Atmos, the Ford guys turned us down and Dave said to just keep quiet about it. So we gave up. As I recall, we just welded a steel box frame to put under Mystere and we went to work from there. It was too bad, because you could just look at that thing and imagine a turbine whining out back and whooshing it off down the highway!”
There is so much irony here because Ford had already installed a Boeing gas turbine engine in an early 1955 Thunderbird. Why? If one looks at the T-bird with two giant turbine exhausts dumping raw, un-regenerated hot gases through the front fenders, one thing is obvious: it was more test mule than a finished project. But test mule for what? And why use a T-bird? Certainly the Boeing 701-powered 1955 Thunderbird gas turbine was not merely a frivolous, futile exercise. Somebody at Ford had given the turbine some serious thought–and they had gone this far with it.
And to add to this irony, Creative had always been working on numerous projects for Boeing and other aircraft companies. So Creative had engineers on staff (and some out on per diem) who surely knew their way around a gas turbine. Creative staffers had earlier suggested a way to put a turbine in the FX-Atmos. So they were more ready again to drop one in the Mystere!
Dave Margolis told me, “Our aircraft engineer guys drew up a turbine application for the Mystere. If Ford had given us the time and the green light to do it, we could have had the engine in the car. A little more time and money and we could have had it running…” But as we know today, this never happened.
Whatever the reason, Ford backed off and a real gas turbine engine never made it into the Mystere.
Nevertheless, numerous people–among them, my friend Alex Tremulis (who was working at Ford Styling at the time) and Bill Schmidt (Ford and Packard) both insisted to me that a turbine was once seriously being considered… for the Mystere.
But there was no budget and no staff at Ford to build both a dream car and turbine car all in one. So Ford had decided not to chase after GM. Meanwhile over at Chrysler, George Huebner was already doing press interviews with his fully operable 1954 Plymouth Turbine Special. Chrysler had taken a quantum leap ahead of everyone else, so at that point, the buzz about gas turbines in cars was at a fever pitch in Detroit–no matter who was doing them.
So for the time being, Ford would pause and see where the other companies went with turbines–if this new turbine thing was really going to happen or not. It made better financial sense to err on the side of caution. Until everyone knew more, the company could merely talk about automotive gas turbines and suggest that one could power this dream car. And just to hedge their bets and cover all bases, Ford P.R. people continued to indicate that a conventional engine could also be installed.
Newspaper Accounts Consistently Referred to Gas Turbine Power
Countless newspaper and magazine stories talked about a gas turbine engine in the Mystere. The headline in a feature debut story on Mystere in Popular Science magazine said, “Ford Designs A Body For A Gas Turbine”… just like that. So something had to be going on behind the scenes.
In 1957, the Bristol Daily Courier of Bristol, Pennsylvania ran a story on Mystere when it was on display in Philadelphia. The headline was, “Dream Car Can Use Turbine or Gas Engines”… So what brought that on?
A newspaper report on the 1958 Auto Show for St. Paul, Minneapolis referred to the “turbine powered Ford Mystere” and called the display “a glimpse into the future.” As late as the 1960s, the Florida St. Petersburg Times referred to the Mystere as an “engineering research vehicle” and stated that it had a gas turbine engine.
Keep in mind that as dream cars went, Mystere was already long in the tooth by the 1960s. But it was still that good to the eyes… and the turbine engine was still a promise of the wonderful things to come.
The grilled pods one Mystere’s front bumpers were claimed to be oil coolers (again… potential turbine stuff). Out back was what some folks today might call a “diffuser” but again this was thought of at the time as a rear grille to release heat and ventilate a gas turbine engine.
Anyway, the trigger was pulled for an engine, but nothing ever left the barrel. It was adios muchachos for a turbine. With no budget for a real chassis or running gear, Creative finally gave up on any self-initiated notion of making Mystere operable with a gas turbine. Ford’s people would later issue press releases that talked about turbine power, but it was merely talk of potentials and possibilities. I’m certain there were people at Ford who must have wanted this too. But it was not to be. Instead of automobiles, Ford pushed ahead with turbines in trucks–one of which was their futuristic Turbo-Titan. Creative Industries eventually put the entire training program together for Ford on this streamlined cross-country truck and trailer combo. But is just wasn’t going to happen for Mystere.
Gary Hutchings and his crew were disappointed, but they continued work on the Mystere, pulling molds and laying up sections of the body in fiberglass. According to Gary, all of this work was done over at Creative’s Mt. Elliot facility where the Dodge Granada and Packard Panther bodies had been fabricated. Hutchings and his Creative crew pressed ahead, working feverishly on Mystere. Ford (actually Frank Hershey) had set a deadline that Creative was now racing to meet.
Those Magical Floating Gauges (When’s the Last Time You Saw Anything Like Them?
One could naturally assume that with all of the systems not needing to hook up and actually function, there would have been some great reduction in electrical work needed. After all, there were no full wiring circuits and fusing. Right? Wrong. It would not quite be that easy. Mystere was a pushmobile, but it was hardly all fake. Those quad headlights as well as the big tail lights and interior gauges were 100% illuminated.
Gary Hutchings and crew had to hand-build an almost complete automotive type wire harness–with bulbs, sockets, connecters, and fuses to power all this lighting. A wiring harness for an onboard battery system had to be devised. And then came the gauges themselves.
The full set of futuristic gauges had to look operable; and again, they also had to illuminate. But Gary and his crew quickly discovered the gauges–fake or not–would be no walk in the park. The meters were extremely difficult to construct and even more difficult to install–and still have illumination.
The gauges were highly unusual in both appearance and function. Each meter other than the speedometer was encased in a plexiglass housing that contained clear liquid. The gauges had to remain legible… and above all, they couldn’t leak or cause staining.
There was an array of eight in all (four in front of each front seat). In addition to the usual fuel, ammeter, oil pressure, coolant temperature there were also bearing temperature, tachometer, inclinometer, and altimeter indicators.
All were in clear housings with the entire instrument panel topped with a padded cap. This “padded dash” would predict Ford’s famous safety campaign of 1956 in which padded dashes were a mainstay.
My interview with Gary in the 1970s has often been repeated decades later on the Internet and even in publications –as if others interviewed him, but according to him, no one ever did. Gary’s descriptions you may read today came from my original article for Car Classics magazine, published in December, 1978. Said Gary, “I had one heck of a time getting those gauges installed. I think we installed them in an alcohol liquid–they floated, you know!”
Years later, someone who worked in Creative’s shops back then told me, “…guess we made Cunningham’s happy that day… one of our guys went in and bought ten or fifteen bottles of the stuff!” Cunningham’s was a popular old drug store chain that was well known to Detroiters from the glory days.
Creative Industries and the Magic of Pink, Black, and Iridescent White
Gary was also one who was excited about unusual, new techniques and looks in automotive paints. And Creative was a great pioneer in eye-popping paint jobs during the 1950s and 1960s. As I have mentioned, Creative did a great deal of work with experimental paints–particularly with Rinshed-Mason Company. Creative Industries was one of the first to use mother-of-pearl finishes on show cars they built. While this kind of paint finish is not a particularly unusual thing today, in the 1950s it was heart stopping! Most people had never seen a car painted this way before. So to see a car painted like this, rotating in the floodlights on a turntable was nothing less than mesmerizing.
Creative’s design and graphics division was also well up on the latest trends. Not just in automotive, but latest trends–period. They knew fashion and they new colors–both automotive and otherwise. Among others, they had advised Packard and Jim Nance’s styling team on colors. Some of this advice undoubtedly led to wild new departures like three-tone paint on the 1955-56 Caribbean series and the emergence of one color in particular.
The mid-1950s saw an explosion of pastels and grays and combos of these colors with black. But of all the combinations, pink (and all related hues) was the single must-have color–in whatever manner it could be worked in. People today have either forgotten or never knew that there was a pink and black craze that went on back then. Regardless of how people may see the color combo today, it was even considered ultra-cool to have pink-and-black clothing or anything in these colors. So Mystere was spot-on for the buzz of the day. It was so trendy that Ford took the somewhat unusual (for the time) step of taking full color press photos even though most publications back then were only picturing cars in black and white.
Big magazines like Look and Life ran photos or even essays on the pink-and-black craze. It was especially evident in both cars and clothing. There were even father-and-son outfits in these color combos. And pink itself was not some tongue-in-cheek cause for a smirk. On the contrary. It was the in color. Only a non-hip “square” would have not accepted pink on a car then.
Here’s just a hint at how important pink was in the mid-1950s. Elvis bought a pink Cadillac for his mom. In 1955, Packard had two shades of pink (Sardonyx and Rose Quartz) and amazingly fired off with two more pink shades (Scottish Heather and Flamingo) for 1956. Studebaker-Packard Corporation was going broke in 1956, yet at the last minute and in the midst of their financial woes, S-P launched (courtesy of info they got from Creative and Bill Schmidt) a whole new lighter shade of Flamingo, just to compete with the Cadillac shade of pink on the Elvis Cadillac! Anyway, the Mystere would have its very own take on the pink color combo craze. Newspapers and P.R types described the original Mystere colors as “Pearlescent Magenta and Raven Black.” Ahhh.
And just in case onlookers weren’t wowed enough on the color combo du jour, Creative found a way to include their own favorite: pearlescent white. It was Creative’s old stand-by for concept cars. Pearlescent white indeed was the color of the “meeting bar”–the sweeping roof band that housed both the claimed integral roll bar and hinging for the bubble top over the roof. Combined with the dramatic, trendy Pearlescent Magenta and Raven Black, this was the ultimate in 1950s color treatments–all in triple-tone. And true to Creative’s style, there was brushed stainless trim throughout the interior.
But tri-tone paint jobs and black & pink trendiness soon fell from favor with an overdosed American public. By 1959 when Mystere appeared in the Deseret News section of the Salt Lake Telegram, the Raven Black section of Mystere had been repainted to either pearlescent or opaque white, thus making the car now two-tone. The result was less than exciting.
I have seen the Mystere done in three overall color schemes (all had pearl white “meeting bar”):
1.) Pearlescent magenta and black
2.) Iridescent light blue and metallic dark blue
3.) Iridescent murano pearl white and pearlescent pink
Of course, my favorite was the original color scheme.
Creative’s Aircraft Influence on the Mystere
Some accounts have implied that the steering mechanism in the Mystere was adapted from an airplane. This notion certainly seems very likely. There were those in design at Ford who were aircraft enthusiasts. But at Creative, the influence was even more pronounced. While there is no way to prove it, David Margolis once told me that Creative had made several suggestions to Ford’s people about various aspects of the Mystere. One of these had to do with the steering wheel and mechanism.
So. What were the favorite pastimes of the two big honchos at Creative–Fred Johnson and Rex Terry? Both were die-hard pilots and Mr. Johnson even had his own regional airline with twenty-five planes! And what was one of the activities of Creative Industries? Of course. Creative was always involved in aircraft design and actually designed, engineered and even manufactured numerous aircraft components. This is a little-known fact, but certainly a very important point to remember. From the B-29 to the BD-5/BD-5J to Boeing 757 and 767 to the B-2 stealth bomber… Creative was very much involved in aircraft.
Anyway, a central pivot allowed the steering to rotate to an “either-or” position. This was one of the first times when a car was instantly adaptable to driving British style with the driver sitting on the right and car oriented to driving on the left side of the road–or American-style with the driver seated left and driving to the right of the road. In other words, Mystere could be driven anywhere in the world–at least in theory.
The rectangular “steering wheel” for Mystere was more like an aircraft control yoke than a wheel. However, the top rim of Mystere’s wheel included electronic buttons to govern the automatic transmission. This was a prediction of what would appear years later in 1957 Edsels as the “Teletouch” push-button transmission in the steering hub and on 1956 Packards as the pushbutton control of their Ultramatic. Both production control systems were developed by Ford’s Autolite division in connection with Creative.
Mystere was also one of the first cars to take a single hood ornament and split it into to two trim pieces atop the fenders. This provided the driver now with a better gauge for the fender tips and made the vehicle look wider and lower. And those fender tops certainly would be wider once the industry followed Mystere and adopted four headlights rather than two. Mystere’s press releases claimed that the extra headlights were actually two sets–one for city and the other for highway driving. Quad headlights are old hat today, but when the Mystere first rolled out in 1955, four headlight beams were considered futuristic wow!
Mystere’s Ingress and Egress
Amazingly, the Creative people got it all done and working for Ford in time for the press preview. Despite the fact that it was inoperable, Mystere would look incredible up on the turntables as photographers snapped photos and floodlight drew magical glints from the curving lines and paint. Most newspapers and magazines treated Mystere as if it were a real car. And they went on to elaborate how one would enter and exit Mystere despite the fact that no such entry/exit provision existed. Some of the descriptions were quite clever.
Bristol Daily Courier newspaper reported in November of 1957, “A hinged bubble-type glass canopy forms the roof. The hinged forward section and the fixed rear section meet at the center at a steel meeting bar which also serves as a roll bar… Mystere is entered by raising the forward half of the glass bubble-type roof, hinged at the hood cowl.” Popular Science magazine said just the opposite and reported that Mystere’s bubble canopy “hinged at the back, can be pushed up 70 degrees. Passengers get in and out through half doors. The front seats swivel outward to make it easier.” In the 1960s while the Mystere was still making the rounds, St. Petersburg Times reported, “The rear canopy is fixed. The front canopy is hinged to the cowl panel and opens for passenger entrance. Simultaneously with the raising of the forward canopy, the doors open to facilitate passenger entry and exit.” Numerous news reports claimed that the Mystere doors either swung out or even folded down, but the fact is that they were merely outlines in the body. In reality and like FX-Atmos, neither Mystere’s doors nor top ever actually worked. It was all just show business.
Again, as was the case of the FX-Atmos, Dave Margolis said that Creative had wanted to make all these features operational, but there was no time and no budget. “We did make a duplicate seating mock-up of the interior for Ford…” but this has never been mentioned in any historical accounts. Some journalists claimed to have actually sat in Mystere, but this was either with the top removed and person hoisted in or possibly done in Creative’s seating mock-up. Popular Science magazine indeed shows men seated in what appears to be either the roof removed or an interior mock-up. One photo shows what looks like Bill Boyer “talking” on a telephone while seated in the rear. Another photo shows two occupants in the front seats swapping the steering controls from one side to the other.
Popular Science went on to say, “A push-button ignition switch works like a combination lock on a safe.” Had the switch gone into production, the theory was that each car would have its own unique combination number–not unlike FoMoCo’s door-mounted pushbutton keyless entry of recent years.
Operable or not, turbine or not, when it debuted to the press at the magical Ford Rotunda in later 1955, the Mystere was a mind blower. According to Dave Margolis, even the press people who thought they had seen everything were not fully prepared for the incredible Mystere. While the FX-Atmos had plenty of wow factor, it was so far out that some journalists dismissed it more or less as pure fancy. But the Mystere? Somehow it seemed more real–despite the fact that it was only a pushmobile. Whether they believed Mystere was real or not, unlike FX-Atmos, Mystere was treated as the real thing in the press–even years later.
From Dream to Reality
So many of the Mystere features ended up on production cars. Here are just a few. It would inspire the design on 1955 through 1957 Fords. Those “oil cooler” pods out on the front bumper apparently inspired the parking light/turn signals of the 1956 Fords. The basket-handle “meeting bar” roll bar assembly certainly inspired the original 1955-56 Ford Crown Victoria models–especially those with the optional Skyliner tinted transparent roof panel. And–dare I say it–the Porsche Targa would later bear more than just a little resemblance and utility to the Mystere canopy roof and built-in roll bar. The 1958 Thunderbird would owe a lot to the Mystere’s four-passenger bucket seat interior. The 1961-63 T-bird followed with even more Mystere interior features. And we have already mentioned the electronic push-button controls for the transmission. Finally, Mystere’s height was the same as 1955 Thunderbird.
The phone with microphone for the driver was way ahead and not only predicted phones in cars, but also the latest hands-free safety operation of recent years. And of course, even TV has indeed made its way into the rear of automobiles today.
The exterior side sweep trim of Mystere was found in variations from 1955 through the beautiful 1957 Fords and Thunderbirds. The rocket-like turbine exhausts and tail lights topped by fins were eventually everywhere. From FIAT 8V to 1961-63 Thunderbird, to the almighty 1959 Cadillac (early renderings of Mystere even bore ironic, predicting resemblance to 1959 Cadillac turn signal/parking light/fog light assemblies). And just about everybody had quad headlights in the USA by 1958.
Mystere’s Futuristic Features
• Gas turbine engine (proposed)
• Special gauges: bearing temperature, fuel, oil pressure, tachometer, inclinometer, altimeter
• Hands-free radio-telephone with microphone in steering wheel
• Push-button ignition switch operated like combination lock
• Clear bubble canopy
• Quad headlights
• Roll bar
• Either-Or steering (left-hand or right-hand) with rectangular steering wheel
• Electronic push-button transmission selector mounted on steering wheel
• Front and rear swivel bucket seats with armrests
• Rear mounted television in center console
• Front and rear radio-audio system
• Roof-mounted air conditioning and “flow-through” ventilation
• Overhead console with aircraft-type switches/controls
• Floating gauges
• Rear-mounted “rabbit ears” dual antenna array
• Side quarter intake scoops for turbine engine
• Rear diffuser to release engine heat
• Oil coolers mounted in front bumper
• Tri-tone paint colors
• Height = 52 inches, wheelbase =121 inches, width = 80 inches
Finally a “rabbit ears” antenna array was mounted on the rear deck. This was considered very futuristic and modern at the time. Many people were beginning to buy similar-looking antennas for their television at home.
In short, the Ford Mystere had it all. Bubble top; the trendiest colors; the most futuristic look and features. But despite its wild popularity, incredible looks and features, Mystere was still a pushmobile.
Eventually, the fantasy finally was out-run by the reality.
What Happened to Mystere when the Show Floodlights Dimmed?
In the end, we now know what eventually happened to Mystere. But this intriguing concept had an unusually long show life for an early concept–especially being a pushmobile. Mystere was still making the rounds in the 1960s claimed to be an “engineering research vehicle.” It was still in newspapers such as the St. Petersburg Times in the 1970s. And over the years, the car morphed into multiple color schemes. Several publications claimed that Mystere had cost Ford in excess of $225,000 (1950s dollars) to build. So with that kind of money invested, it would seem that Mystere would be a permanent fixture on the automotive scene.
According the David Margolis, Creative was called upon once again to do some refreshening work on Mystere, but Dave (as usual) did not specify what that work was. But I do know that by 1959 the black areas of the car were repainted white–and that was a bad move. From time to time, photos of Mystere turn up on the Internet today in this underwhelming color scheme. Looking at these images leaves little wonder why Ford eventually turned its attention away from Mystere. After that, Mystere’s trail became increasingly obscure. Whatever happened, appreciation for the Mystere had somehow begun to wane as the years went by.
As with all show cars, the life of such a vehicle is only as long as both the public and the corporate heads see it as valuable. After that? Who knows? Once such a concept car drops off of the corporate radar, bad things usually begin to happen. Double that equation if said concept is a pushmobile. Unfortunately, Mystere fell under all of these headings. It was rumored that by the 1970s Mystere was dusty and damaged–ignominiously pushed from one storage spot to another in Dearborn. The unforgettable dream car had unfortunately become forgotten.
Mysteres You Probably Never Knew
The Mystere name lived long enough to make it to yet another one-off car. Eventually the name was applied to an entire series of production cars. These production cars were Canada’s version of the Mazda MX-6 coupe which yes, were officially dubbed “Mystere.” This all came about as a result of a one-off MX-6 convertible. This convertible was originally planned as a factory-built model.
Among the many who worked on the MX-6 convertible were myself, Mark Jordan and Gary Smythe (a former Creative Industries engineer and Mazda Advanced Engineering Manager). While the internal Mazda code name for this beautiful convertible was simply “Denver,” one of the names I suggested early on was (you guessed it) Mystere. The completed convertible was built but never shown to the public–at least not in the USA. Much of the reason was internal politics and little more. The MX-6 convertible was a very excellent and viable automobile that came within a gnat’s hair of production.
Whatever the reasons, the MX-6 convertible project was indeed shown only once officially–at an auto show in Canada. As the honey-gold metallic convertible spun and glistened on a turntable, it proudly wore special license plates that said “MYSTERE.” I have one of these plates to this day along with the video production that I wrote.
When the show was over, the Mazda Mystere convertible disappeared back to the dark confines of what was then a garage under the R&D Center in Irvine, California. There the Denver MX-6 convertible would be kept mostly hidden. Years later, people unfamiliar with the highly confidential project began to refer to this car as a “concept.” This despite the fact that this MX-6 convertible was only intended as a fully-operable engineering feasibility vehicle. The fate of this misunderstood engineering feasibility car is unknown after all these years. And those who were key figures in the project are long gone from the company. But there were a lot of us who buried our hearts and souls into the Mystere that would never be.
Chimpanzees and Creative’s Mystere-Inspired Juvenile Car
Little did anyone know, but Mystere would influence yet another area of Creative Industries enterprises. This was the manufacturing of motorized juvenile cars. Prior to and during the time that Creative was building the Mystere, they were also under contract to build several small motorized cars for various customers. At least two such cars would end up at the famous Detroit Zoo in 1953 to be used by an equally famous chimpanzee there.
During the 1950s, the Detroit Zoo had a hugely popular chimpanzee show (you couldn’t have a TV show, movie or stage show in those days without chimpanzees in it–even Ronald Reagan had a Vegas show with chimps). Regardless of the implications as seen today, in the 1950s the chimp show was the hit of the Detroit Zoo. Kids all over the Motor City area begged their parents to go see the chimpanzees that drove cars.
The star of the show was named, Jo Mendi. This chimp was world famous and was not really just one chimp, but a lineage of chimpanzees given this name. Originally out of New York at least by the 1930s, the Joe Mendi (with an “e”) act was world famous for the Chimp smoking cigars, driving a car–even changing a flat tire! So eventually the act and Jo (supposedly one of the long line of descendants) ended up at the Detroit Zoo. Where else would a chimp who drove a car go to live in those days but the Motor City?
Anyway Creative built at least two cars for Jo, his girlfriend Rosie and the other chimps to use at the Detroit Zoo. Creative’s General Manager, Rex A. Terry donated these cars to the zoo on behalf of Creative.
These amazing little cars featured electric headlights and tail lights and were powered by Briggs & Stratton motors. They had accelerator and brake pedals, inflatable tires–even a parking brake. There were chrome bumpers and a beautiful little split windshield. For reasons unknown now, a Dodge hood ornament from a full-sized automobile was installed on the hoods of these cars.
At least the very first two of the juvenile cars for the chimps were constructed out of aluminum. But along the way, Rex Terry instructed Dave Margolis to set aside an extra chassis like the ones built for the Jo Mendi cars. This chassis would be used to carry a different body (apparently one of several) made of fiberglass. The new body would be a gasoline-powered motorized miniature car for Rex’s daughter, Pamela. This new version would be sleek and modern… and it would be inspired by none other than the greatest dream car ever: the Ford Mystere.
The Creative employee who actually constructed these cars was William Resztak–who loved doing this kind of work. Bill was a highly skilled staffer who also worked on lots of Creative projects and was the key man who worked on President Eisenhower’s bubble top Lincoln limo. Bill’s resume also included the Ford FX-Atmos, Packard Balboa, Dodge Granada, Packard Panthers, Packard Request and of the greatest of all concepts till then, the Ford Mystere. Among other things, Bill also constructed Mystere’s chassis.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Bill was a prolific genius who (among his many other creations) built electric and gasoline-powered juvenile cars. Many of Bill’s little cars were miniatures of real automobiles like MG or Plymouth. But others were pure custom creations. Some were made of aluminum. but increasingly, others were bodied in the wondrous new material we know today as fiberglass.
These little cars were so incredibly well done that the Briggs family (of Briggs Auto Body fame and the Detroit Tigers baseball team) asked Bill to construct some for the Briggs children. Nearly everybody who saw one of Bill’s juvenile cars wanted one.
As for design, the body of the Jo Mendi cars was the basis for Pamela Terry’s little new fiberglass car. It was modernized in appearance yet basically the same underneath as the aluminum cars. The flat style split windshield of the Mendi car was deleted in favor of a modern wrap-around windshield (a mid-1950s must-have!). The same bumpers, wheels, tires and hubcaps were carried over. The same Darrin-esque “dip” on the trailing end of the door was retained from the Jo Mendi car. However, the bulging rear fenders were eliminated along with the side-mounted tail lights. The new rear fenders would be flush with the body and would include mock tail fins. The Mendi car tail lights were then repositioned at the rear of the tail fins and pointed downward, resulting in a kind of moderne hooded look.
The styling of the body on this new car would be an amalgam inspired by early images of 1955 Thunderbird (it was proposed with the chrome sweep and side spears) and by the fabulous Mystere. The headlights were restyled to have the look of the swept hooded brim of the early production Thunderbirds. But like Mystere, where the sweep of the hooded headlight flowed back into the front fender, likewise it flowed into the front fender of this little car. And the thin horizontal bars on the front of Mystere? Translated into a little grille also made of thin horizontal bars. The center crease of Mystere’s hood? That was translated over to the little car too.
New Mystere-like sweeping side trim would also be a kind of stealth send-up of the Creative offset “V” logo. But this trim line had other features. Additionally, the thick moulding sweep along the side made up for body rigidity lost when the bulge of the rear fenders was removed. In fact, the new Mystere trim sweep on the side of Pamela’s little motorized car was not merely cosmetic but also functioned now as a side impact brace. A built-in safety feature!
Powered by a Briggs & Stratton gasoline motor, this little car was fully drivable with brakes and electric lighting. The front cross member of this chassis had little a red rectangular metal tag riveted on. It said “Creative Industries of Detroit” with a number along the bottom.
Whatever Happened to the Juvi Mystere?
It is unknown just how many juvenile “Mysteres” were built by Creative or where they all went. But I do know where the most special of these little cars ended up.
As time passed and Pamela matured and grew taller, she began telling her dad that she wanted a horse. But where would Rex Terry find a horse in the Detroit area in the 1950s? Fortunately Rex’s friend, Don Mitchell (of Mitchell-Bentley over in Owosso) and his wife, Metta, bred and raised horses as a hobby. They had a lovely farm they called “Donmetta” where their prized horses pranced and grazed in the fields. Don’s daughter, Sue, was often featured at shows with one of her prize-winning horses.
So naturally Rex put in a call to Don about a horse for Pamela. By coincidence, it just so happened that the go-kart craze had hit America and Don’s granddaughter, Kristi, was pining away for a little car like the one Pamela had. Well, the upshot of this was that the two powerhouse car biz men traded to make the little girls in their lives smile. Pamela’s little car went to Don Mitchell where it was re-trimmed for his granddaughter. Meanwhile, a beautiful horse came back for Rex’s daughter. And all was right with the world.
Pamela’s car was renamed “Kristi’s car” and was painted silver-gray and medium blue. Like the Jo Mendi car, a real automotive hood ornament was eventually added. A logo from a brass-era Mitchell car was also been affixed to the rear quarters. Finally a little wooden license plate was positioned on the rear that said “Kristi” in script. And then, the years rolled by.
It was late 2014 when I caught up to the little Creative “Mystere.” I inspected the Kristi car at the Mitchell auction. And sure enough, the little red plate saying Creative Industries of Detroit was still on the chassis. But after the auction, this little car quickly dropped out of sight and was last rumored to be living in Florida.The story could very well have ended here. But thankfully, there was more to come.
With my leads exhausted, I gave all of the information I had to Pamela and her daughter, Nicole. Of course, once Nicole realized the little car still existed, she was relentless in her pursuit. Amazingly, Nicole struck paydirt. The little car had ended up with yet another auction company, but luckily, Nicole managed to work out a deal to purchase the car and return it home. Part of the deal included having the car repainted and reupholstered.
Once restoration work was completed, the little Creative “Mystere” was shipped back to Michigan just in time to be a surprise birthday gift. So the little Mystere was reunited with its tearful original owner, Pamela. The motorized juvenile car that once made a little girl smile in the 1950s now made her smile once again as a proud mom today. And all was well–at least in this regard–with the automotive world.
Sometimes it seems that the planets align in automotive history. And here is just one more example. As a most ironic coincidence, James Resztak, son the Bill Resztak who built the “mini-Mysteres” at Creative Industries heard about a little motorized juvenile car that some people were calling a 1955-56 Ford. It was sitting in a Detroit area pawn shop.
Within only a few days of this writing, Jim decided to go check on the car and make an offer. As luck would have it, the little car was indeed still at the store and Jim managed to buy it.
Turns out this little motorized car is yet another Creative Industries “mini-Mystere.” While the body appears to be exactly like the other Creative car made for Pamela Terry, this one is electric rather than gasoline powered. So. Was it one of the original Creative cars? Opening the hood and searching the front valence under the grille indeed revealed a painted-over Creative Industries ID tag. But the biggest reason to smile came next.
Upon inspecting the bottom floorboard of the car, Jim noticed some hand-written lettering. To his great surprise, the lettering spelled out his father’s name in Polish. Bill Resztak had signed his little masterpiece back in the 1950s in a way that his son would recognize in 2017. And now this little Mystere is also back home! What are the odds?
So the fabulous Ford Mystere dream car is long gone, but at least two of the little junior cars it inspired live on and live well. Creative Industries of Detroit may also be gone forever, perhaps forgotten by some. But the spirit of Creative lives on in the things the company made; it remains alive in the hearts and minds of the people it continues to touch. What greater legacy could there ever be?
[Leon Dixon’s “Creative Industries of Detroit: The Untold Story of Detroit’s Secret Concept Car Builder,” is available on Amazon and through other popular booksellers.]