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AACA Museum to present Mustang designer Gale Halderman with its Automotive Heritage Award

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Photo courtesy AACA Museum.

And he called it… the Cougar. Okay, so Gale Halderman might have swung and missed on the name of Ford’s sporty compact four-seater, but the design he sketched for what would become the Mustang proved a home run and helped secure his legacy among Ford fans, a legacy that the AACA Museum will celebrate this fall by presenting him with the museum’s Automotive Heritage Award.

Photo courtesy Ford.

Halderman’s career, of course, didn’t start or end with the Mustang. An Ohio native and Dayton Art Institute graduate, he didn’t decide to pursue automotive design until after he took an industrial design course with Read Viemeister, who led the Lippincott team that contributed to Alex Tremulis’s reworking of the Tucker’s design. As Halderman told the Automotive Design Oral History Project in 1985, he actually got a job offer from Gene Bordinat at Ford two months before graduating due in no small part to his passion for auto design.

Though initially assigned to the Lincoln-Mercury studio in 1955, he never spent a day in the studio as a designer. Instead, he was immediately transferred to Tremulis’s advanced studio. According to Jim and Cheryl Farrell’s “Ford Design Department Concepts and Showcars 1932-1961,” Halderman then bounced around over the next few months from the Ford studio to the Ford pre-production studio to the truck studio and then back to the Ford studio.

His first big project was design work on the 1957 Fords, including on the retractable hardtops, as well as on the Mystere concept car. Within a few years, he’d collaborate with Don DeLaRossa on the Ford Falcon and contribute to the design of the 1961 Thunderbird before eventually returning to the corporate advanced studio – this time under Elwood Engel – where he contributed to the design of the Levacar, the Gyron, the Unitron, and the Astrion.

As the Farrells wrote, Halderman admired Engel’s design ability, and Engel apparently felt the same way about Halderman: In November 1961, not long after Halderman was transferred again to the Ford studio, Engel left Ford for Chrysler and asked Halderman to join him as assistant design director. Halderman nearly took the job, but instead chose to remain at Ford.

Image courtesy Ford.

In the Ford studio, he worked on the 1964 and 1965 full-size Fords and got promoted to design manager. Then in July 1962, his boss, studio manager Joe Oros, approached him with another assignment: Come up with an entry for the Lee Iaccoca-announced competition among the studios to create the sporty personal car that arose out of the Fairlane Committee meetings. As Bob Fria wrote in “Mustang Genesis: the Creation of the Pony Car,”

Halderman protested, not having the time to work on yet another project. Oros insisted…

The only time Halderman had to work on the design was at home, as he was bust at work running back and forth between studios to check on the progress of the ’65 Ford car designs. “The five sketches I did on my kitchen table at 10:30 one weekend night were posted in the morning for the 8 a.m. meeting on the wall of the Styling Studio along with those of the Dave Ash team and Joe Oros.” Three of the Halderman sketches relied on the side air scoop in the quarter panel and two used the hop-up style quarter panel… Oros was generally not in agreement with typical Ash-directed designs as the two didn’t see eye-to-eye on many styling issues, according to Halderman.

As the sketches were reviewed by the three men, Oros decided on the one that Halderman had done and decreed, “That’s the one we’re going to build,” Halderman told me.

The clay model, which Halderman dubbed Cougar, that resulted from Halderman’s sketch eventually incorporated some of Ash’s design elements and won approval from Iaccoca and Henry Ford II before going on to win the inter-studio competition and become the basis for the production 1965 Mustang.

Photo courtesy Ford.

As the design progressed, Halderman also had a hand in the design of the galloping horse logo and in March of 1964 Halderman watched as the very first Mustangs rolled off the assembly line. Eventually he took on all Mustang design work, overseeing every design change through the 1971-1973 generation, and was promoted to the head of the Ford design studio after Oros’s promotion to chief designer at Ford of Europe.

In 1968, Halderman went through another rapid series of job title changes, first replacing John Najjar in the truck studio and then replacing Buzz Grisinger as the head of the Lincoln-Mercury studio. In the latter, he oversaw the designs of the Lincoln Continentals Mark VI, VII, and VIII before retiring in 1994. According to Fria, Halderman on three more occasions declined to leave Ford for Chrysler after invitations from Iaccoca and Hal Sperlich.

Since retiring, he has returned to the family farm he grew up on and assembled a small museum in which he’s installed a 1965 Mustang convertible and walls full of his design sketches and renderings. Halderman has also been inducted into the Mustang Club of America’s Mustang Hall of Fame in 2004 and was presented with a Lee Iaccoca Award in 2014.

This year’s Automotive Heritage Award – the second after the AACA Museum gave its inaugural award to bobby Rahal last year – will go to Halderman during the AACA Museum’s Night at the Museum, which will take place October 10. Not coincidentally, the AACA Museum’s current Mustang-themed exhibit will close October 14. For more information, visit