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Mustang 'pilot cars' paved way for the pony

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Models, pre-production cars and a lot of trial
and error were all part of Ford’s development plan

Pre-production 1965 Mustang (Courtesy Ford Motor Co.)

Pre-production 1965 Mustang (Courtesy Ford Motor Co.)

By Bob Fria

The two-seat 1962 Mustang concept car and the four-seat 1963 Mustang II concept car were the first Fords to use a “Mustang” name plate. Both were designed to measure public perception for a new kind of car from Ford. Their stories are well documented in the early Mustang concept discussions in the book “Mustang Genesis” published by McFarland & Co. This story focuses on the actual creative process that produced the first four-seat Ford Mustang production cars.

The design process for the new Ford Mustang production car, then called the T-5 project, was the same that Ford Motor Co. had used for many years after World War II. First came completion of clay and fiberglass concept vehicles; then Kirksite metal-stamped prototype vehicles; and then hand-assembled pilot plant cars before the start of formal Mustang production at the Dearborn Assembly Plant.

Pilot plant vehicle chassis, referred to as “pilot cars,” were hand-assembled from the first preliminary metal stampings at the Allen Park facility just outside of Dearborn, Mich. To assemble the first prototype cars, the mechanical designs of the engineers were manufactured as actual metal stampings for the first time. Those completed stampings were hand-assembled into a pilot chassis. This was where it became clear whether the parts would actually work together in concert.

Such first-design efforts during the ’60s were not perfect the first time, and the Mustang was no exception. Meetings were held in an Allen Park meeting room adjacent to the assembled chassis where engineers and designers would critique their own specific parts and make recommendations for changes. If a part required modification, the appropriate design changes were made and a new replacement part was constructed and installed on the chassis to test its fit and performance. Changes were made to most of the parts.

1965 "Special Falcon” concept in May 1963. (Courtesy Ford Motor Co.)

1965 "Special Falcon” concept in May 1963. (Courtesy Ford Motor Co.)

Allen Park cars are documented as being assembled from September 1963 through February 1964. These pilot cars were hand-assembled chassis. There would be a pre-production run of approximately 180 to 200 “try out” or special-use cars made initially for Ford’s in-house use. Some of these vehicles were built at the Allen Park facility. The majority were assembled at the Dearborn Assembly Plant in the pre-production run of vehicles starting Feb. 10. Once the Allen Park chassis were assembled, those vehicles were either completed in full running gear, paint and trim, or were left at some unfinished level of assembly, depending on the purpose of each particular chassis. Some of the Allen Park cars were used for road testing, including suspension checks and unibody durability. Some were used for crash tests. Some were used for drivetrain and performance tests and some were used simply as study and assembly samples.

Some of these Mustangs displayed custom-leaded seams at the door jambs and trunk perimeters. That process was known as “show car preparation” and was added on some Allen Park cars. Those cars were designated for Ford special use, such as initial display cars, advertising, etc.

Many of these chassis were not initially given a vehicle identification number (VIN) so Ford would not have to pay an excise tax on a newly created vehicle. Others had Allen Park Pilot Plant identification numbers designated by the letter “S” in the VIN sequence number.

After life at Allen Park, there were a number of these pilot cars that hadn’t been destroyed in testing, and, since there would be a shortage of parts for the initial production run, these chassis’ were loaded on trucks and shipped to the main Dearborn Assembly Plant building. There they were placed in temporary storage on the second floor in what was known as the body pool. They remained there until they were needed on the main assembly line.

Ford “Cougar” concept in August 1962. (Courtesy Ford Motor Co.)

Ford “Cougar” concept in August 1962. (Courtesy Ford Motor Co.)

Those Mustangs first produced on the assembly line were known as pre-production cars. All of the pre-production Mustangs were produced before March 5, 1964. The assembly line was switched on the weekend of March 7 from pre-production to production status, and the first new production Ford Mustangs started rolling off the line on March 10.

All these cars were built alongside the Fairlane assembly line. Between this date and April 19, Mustangs built were strategically shipped to Ford dealers both nationally and internationally, to be available for the new model introduction day ceremonies choreographed by Ford. It is believed the first retail sale was a 1965 convertible documented as being sold two days before introduction day, April 17, 1964, to a customer in Illinois.

The first VIN-numbered Wimbledon White pre-production convertible resides today in The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Mich. The first VIN-numbered Caspian Blue hardtop is owned privately in Escondido, Calif. Some of the earliest pre-production Mustangs have surfaced over the years, as have a few of the earliest production-line cars. Most of the early cars are presently unaccounted for.

Production 1965 Mustang. (Courtesy Ford Motor Co.)

Production 1965 Mustang. (Courtesy Ford Motor Co.)

A national Mustang 50th birthday celebration will be held in Las Vegas and in Charlotte, N.C., beginning April 17, 2014, 50 years to the day of the first Mustang public introduction by Ford 50. (See To date, more than 9 million Mustangs have been built, and the legend continues. A healthy share of them will be at the celebrations.

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