A design studio photographer took this photo of Nesbitt during his 1970 Ford interview. “T
In 1971, recent art college graduate Richard Nesbitt was working in his dream job as a designer in the Lincoln-Mercury studio. The work was basic, even for a rookie, with most of it centering on annual styling updates. Then the studio got the call from above: Lee Iacocca wanted a design competition among the Ford styling studios for a new Mustang, one that would return the pony car to its roots as a small, sporty compact rather than the almost intermediate-sized '71-'73. For then-25 year-old Nesbitt, the assignment snatched him away from boring grille updates and plopped him into the legendary world of the youthful Mustang. The Lincoln-Mercury design was picked for the '74 Mustang II. Even better, Nesbitt's sketch was eventually selected for the hardtop version.
Now 67, Nesbitt looks back on his short time at Ford with fondness. He became friends with Howard "Buck" Mook, the Lincoln-Mercury stylist who sketched the winning Mustang II design. Nesbitt and Mook both owned Mustangs at the time – a used '65 hardtop with Shelby equipment for Nesbitt and a '70 Boss 302 for Mook. Nesbitt laughs when telling the story about out-running Mook's newer Boss 302 in a best-two-out-of-three matchup. "My '65 was lighter," Nesbitt explains.
After penning the Mustang II hardtop and following the design through into clay and fiberglass, Nesbitt moved on to Ford's truck and tractor studio, where he worked on a down-sized van for use as a family vehicle. But when the fuel crisis hit in 1973, Henry Ford II canceled all new projects. Iacocca eventually took the small van idea with him to Chrysler. It became the mini-van.
The worsening economy also caught up with Nesbitt, who was laid-off along with other Ford studio designers in 1974. He found work with model company EMT for a couple years, then moved to Dallas after landing a job with Texas Instruments, a company that had found its niche with hand-held calculators and digital watches. Today, Nesbitt is semi-retired, although he still does design proposals and concept work. During the Mustang Club of America's directors summit last October, he dropped by our Dallas hotel for an interview about working on the Mustang II.
MM: How did you get into car design?
RN: Cars and car design was all I cared about when I was young. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, I'd pick up any car magazine that had anything to do with styling or design. Occasionally, Motor Trend and Road & Track ran articles about car design and they mentioned the Art Center College of Design in California. They would have articles with the students' work. So I decided that's what I wanted to do. I applied to the college while I was still in high school and went out there in the fall of 1967 on a full tuition Ford scholarship, which was a real honor. It was one of the most exciting times of my life. Stylists like Gene Bordinat and Bill Mitchell came out regularly to look at our work. I graduated in 1970 with honors.
MM: How did you end up at Ford?
RN: I interviewed there when I graduated. They made me an offer but had to rescind it because of the economy. So I was on stand-by until I started work at the Dearborn design center in the middle of 1971. My first assignment was in the Lincoln-Mercury design studio – Cougar, Comet, Montego. I really liked Ford's entire car line, especially '69 to '71, including Mustang and Cougar. But when I started work there, I saw the five mile-per-hour bumpers for '73-'74 and thought they were going to be an absolute disaster.
MM: When you arrived at Ford in 1971, was the Mustang II already underway?
RN: They had made some runs at it before, apparently with unsatisfactory results according to Iacocca. It was during the fall of 1971 when they went all-out to really nail it down.
MM: So how did you find yourself working on the all-new Mustang II?
RN: We were surprised when we got word that we were going to participate in the design of an all-new Mustang, which they hadn't started calling Mustang II yet. Iacocca had come down with an edict that nobody over 30 years old was supposed to be working on the boards or submitting proposals. I was 25 at the time so I was good with that. We put together hundreds of proposals, and Iacocca and design director Al Mueller came by to review the work. They selected a fastback design by one of our studio designers, Howard "Buck" Mook. At that point, Mook was directed to follow up with a clay model for presentation and competition with the other studios. I believe there were four or five clay proposals and they selected our design.