New car manufacturers go to great lengths to keep new models out of the public eye until the time is right. Hype and suspense are as much a part of the introduction process as the vehicle itself, kind of like a modern-day gender reveal, automotive-style.
Automakers camouflage their prototype vehicles even when operating them on private testing grounds to fool the paparazzi and make extensive use of focus groups, all very secretively, to make a splash with the media and consumers when the big day arrives.
It wasn’t always this way or this extreme. There was a time when a film clip of the latest car design rolling across a black-and-white television screen and dubbed with a baritone voice was about as high-tech as real-life Mad Men could muster. Manufacturers wanted to tempt the public with what was to come offering a teaser to whet the consumer’s appetite for the newest must-have Detroit masterpiece.
So it was in 1964, when Ford introduced the Mustang, a car that in one form or another has been around longer than me.
The Mustang was the brainchild of Lee Iaccoca, who ironically, would later be remembered as the man who saved Chrysler with the K-car and Caravan minivan.
As vice president and general manager of Ford, Iaccoca envisioned a four-seat sporty car with bucket seats and floor-mounted shift, small and economically priced but with an emphasis on performance, a class that would become the American pony car.
With an 18-month gestation period and a shoestring budget, most of the mechanicals for the Mustang were sourced from the compact Ford Falcon economy car, including much of the suspension and drivetrain.
Various interior, exterior and engine options were available, and initially the two-door hardtop and convertible were joined by a fastback body style.
Ford foisted the Mustang on the public with multi-media advertising as it made its way through development, culminating in 180 pre-production cars assembled at Ford’s Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich., and distributed to dealers around North America.
The first of these cars, serial No. 1, ended up at George Parsons Ford in St. John’s, Newfoundland, because it took longer to get the car to eastern Canada than other dealerships in the States. The second car went to the Yukon. Ford wanted to be sure every dealer had a new Mustang on display when the official launch took place.
Parsons Ford proudly placed the brand-new convertible out by the street for maximum visibility despite the cold and snowy spring weather. On April 16, 1964, at 9:30 p.m., on the day before the official roll-out, consumers viewed the Mustang simultaneously on ABC, CBS and NBC, and on April 17, Ford showrooms were packed with prospective Mustang owners.
Ford hoped to sell 100,000 Mustangs in the first year, but on the first weekend 22,000 were sold and after the first year, the total sold came in at more than 418,000.
The bigwigs at Ford, thrilled with the success of their pony car, went back to the staff at Parsons Ford looking for serial No. 1 to memorialize at the Henry Ford museum, but unfortunately an enterprising young salesman named Harry Phillips had sold it days before it was even available.
Turns out that a 33-year-old Eastern Provincial Airlines pilot, Capt. Stanley Tucker, saw the car on April 14 and had to have it.
Phillips happened to be standing by the door when Tucker walked in and said he wanted that car, and Phillips said it was the easiest sale he ever made.
It looks like Harry Phillips didn’t get the memo about selling the display car, but for a period of three days, Stanley Tucker was the only person in the world who owned a Ford Mustang complete with pre-production imperfections and all.
The boys at Ford tracked him down and offered to buy back that first Mustang, but Tucker said no deal.
Still persistent, Ford corporate kept trying to get its hands on serial No. 1 over the next two years as the young Canadian racked up about 10,000 miles on it.
Finally, as the popular car’s production soared, Ford offered Tucker the millionth Mustang with any specifications he wanted.
The seasoned pilot drew a huge “X” on the option sheet to check off every available extra, declining only the high-performance 289 V-8 engine because it carried a shorter warranty period.
In 1966, Lee Iaccoca himself handed over the keys to the new Silver Frost Mustang convertible to Capt. Tucker.
Tucker (owner of two significant Mustangs) passed away in 2008.
Harry Phillips, who remained in the car business, spending his career selling mostly Fords, retired in 1995.
But in a twist of fate, he probably saved Mustang No. 1 by selling it since it was industry standard to destroy prototype and pre-production cars back then rather than keep them or sell them to the public.
Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 299 Main St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.