Sculptor of original ’64 Mustang found purpose in clay

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Giuliano Zuccato was one of six clay design modelers who crafted the original 1964 Mustang, whose original model year cars and descendants will be among this year’s Dream Cruisers. But he might never have picked up sculpting tools if not for a life-threatening illness.

As a young man Giuliano Zuccato took up sculpting with a bar of soap when an illness left him able to move only his arms for months.

Zuccato immigrated from Italy to Canada in 1952, when he was 19. Shortly after, he contracted tuberculosis of the bone and was forced to spend 18 months in a full body cast, immobile except for his arms.

“I had some pretty bad times,” said Zuccato, now 83. “I thought I was losing my mind. It was hell, but things got better when I started sculpting.”

After whittling a profile of Abraham Lincoln in a bar of soap, Zuccato’s doctors suggested he try clay modeling to pass the time. It worked.

Zuccato sculpted the bust of a man in self-hardening clay while flat on his back and staring at a ceiling mirror so he could see what his arms were doing. After that, he was hooked into a career that saw him shape the first pony car — a sensation then, and popular ever since — as well as other cars such as the Ford GT that swept to victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.

“It was like destiny,” Zuccato said. “The sickness brought me to car design.”

Zuccato already was skilled with his hands. He comes from a long line of Italian mosaicists and woodworkers, and he built furniture until he left Italy. After leaving the hospital he continued sculpting. He moved to Detroit and worked for a short time designing costume heads for the J.L. Hudson Thanksgiving Day Parade before Ford Motor Co. hired him in 1957 as a car designer, even with no automobile experience.

“Only in America,” he said.

In 1962, Zuccato and his team were put to work on a secret project that was code-named “Allegro.”

“We simply didn’t know anything — we were just the hands,” Zuccato said. “To us it was just another clay model.”

He and his team worked a minimum of 13 hours a day — sometimes 24 hours straight — crafting the car that would becoming the Mustang. Zuccato shaped the clay with knives and other hand-made tools. Executives, including CEO Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca, vice president of the Ford Division, would check with them and competing teams weekly, to see what design they liked best.

Giuliano Zuccato, now 83, holds of photo of himself, at right, and a colleague working on a project.

“The competition was fierce,” Zuccato said. “Careers could soar or be flattened and you would never hear about the guy again.”

Executives chose his team’s work after team member Gale Halderman sketched the winning theme late one night on a piece of paper.

“You create something and you really don’t know what (Ford’s) going to do with it,” Zuccato said. “It turned out everybody liked it and they sold a million in the first 18 months.”

In the half-century since its introduction, the Mustang has become a classic. It accounts for 40 percent of Ford’s total merchandise business. There are 300 Mustang licensees worldwide that produce everything from pinball machines to Shinola watches and Puma shoes.

Mustang clubs exist throughout the world, and thousands of enthusiasts continue to drive every model from the car’s 51-year existence.

“The magic of the Mustang is that it’s young, spirited, joyful. It’s a sense of freedom,” Zuccato said. “That look is as fresh today as it was 50 years ago. You can go around that Mustang from every possible angle and you get a pleasant look.”

Following his role on the Mustang, Zuccato continued to work at Ford as a design modeler until retiring in 1988.

He continued sculpting as a hobby — including a piece for the Detroit Opera House — and pursued his love of opera by hosting concerts in his spacious Northville home. On Sept. 8, he’ll premiere a documentary he created about his role in crafting the Mustang. It can be purchased online at his website, www.concepts-international.com.

“I still have the fire in the belly,” he said. “I put new challenges in front of myself and I will never stop evolving.

“I’m not going to sit around on the bench and wait for death.”