‘Once in a Great City’ excerpt: Lee Iacocca ponies up

After arriving at Ford Motor Company a decade and a half earlier out of graduate school at Princeton, Lee Iacocca had sprinted up the marketing ranks until he had real power as the Ford Division general manager. He was a star, his rise seemingly inexorable, but he was never a (Henry II) Ford protégé. There was something about him that irritated the Deuce despite the obvious talent.

(Walter) Reuther was the respected enemy, but Iacocca was something less pleasing. Some of it might have been social and cultural. Iacocca never felt fully comfortable among Ford’s WASPy set, and associates of the Deuce could recall times when they heard Ford calling Iacocca “that g------ wop.” But mostly it was a conflict of ambition and style. Like many very rich people, Ford did not have to sell himself; Iacocca knew no other way.

“He had a lot of ability,” Ford later said of Iacocca. “Unfortunately his ability lies 99 percent in sales. But it isn’t only in selling cars — it’s selling everything. It’s selling himself, it’s selling an idea, selling anything — the Brooklyn Bridge, if you will.

“When he started to talk he could talk interminably, selling something, and he did a good job. Now if he was really wound up I think at the end he forgot what he started with, but he was still selling something at the end. It didn’t make much difference because it usually got sold.”

Iacocca could talk cars nonstop, but marketing was his most comfortable domain, and the language of dealers and advertisers his native tongue. From the time he had made his name in Ford’s mid-Atlantic region with a 56 in 56 marketing campaign — $56 a month for the 1956 Ford — he was considered the Ford favorite among ad men. HF2 could be crusty, wondering why he was spending so much money on marketing, questioning the value for the cost. There was a bit of us versus them, substance versus style in his outlook, but Iacocca looked at it from a more mutually dependent perspective.

His philosophy was encapsulated in a speech he later delivered to the American Association of Advertising Agencies called “The Four Freedoms of Advertising.” From the perspective of ad agencies, no declaration could have been more sympathetic to their cause. Iacocca’s four freedoms called for total immersion and involvement of the ad men in the process from beginning to end. Freedom of access. Freedom of involvement. Freedom to experiment. Freedom to persuade. From the time he rose to power within the Ford Division, he said, “we’ve had a formal setup to make sure our agency people are involved in the development of our products darned near as soon as we are ...”

And so it was with J. Walter Thompson and Project T-5. Bill Laurie’s team in Detroit and their creative counterparts in New York had been immersed in Iacocca’s new car from the beginning, starting with the Fairlane Inn dinner meetings and the secure work inside the Tomb in the Buhl Building. By midsummer 1963 the agency had assigned hundreds to the project. By then Laurie’s ad men had been told that key decision makers at Ford were leaning toward naming the car Torino, after the city in Italy more commonly known in the English-speaking world as Turin.

In some important ways, the name made sense. Italian fashion was considered the best in the world, Italian cars were highly regarded for their coachwork, and this Ford model evoked an imported look. Franklyn Thomas, Laurie’s deputy, recalled what happened next:

“To fire up the enthusiasm of our ‘hot project’ staff, we needed film, lots of film on the car. We asked Ford for a running prototype of the car to establish a pictorial emotion and personality platform for the product. The Ford staff agreed.”

There was only one prototype model in full operation, and a quirky model at that. It was virtually handmade, away from the assembly line, at a cost of about $200,000. No shock absorbers. Bucket seats bolted into the farthest back position. Windows that did not roll down. A right door that did not open.

On the Fourth of July weekend, Ford slipped the prototype into a closed transport van and hauled it to the Romeo Proving Grounds northeast of Detroit. A team of 25 artists, writers, and photographers from JWT were there waiting for its arrival.

“For three days and part-time nights, everybody sweated off pounds shooting secret film around the clock and around the car,” Thomas recalled. “This frantic photo safari brought in over a thousand still shots and 5,000 feet of motion picture film, all in color. We needed this film to convey to top Ford management all the excitement we knew was in this product ... to bring that product out of the garage where the client had been seeing it and put it in action in the proper environment on highway and byway.”

Was this essentially a family car or a sports car or some combination of the two? Sentiments at Ford and JWT differed on that question, so it was decided to get an early read on what the public thought. Sworn to secrecy, 52 couples with young children were brought to Ford to look at the T-5 model. At first their consensus seemed to be heavily on the side that this was a sports car, not for families.

“They loved the styling but decided it wasn’t their cup of tea,” according to Thomas. “Too impractical.”

Then they were asked to guess the price. Their estimates came in at least $700 above the planned sticker price, with most guesses more than $1,000 too high. When informed of the price, these same couples “walked back for another look and began rationalizing about how practical the car would be after all.”

With Torino as the working name, and a vault of photographs and video from the test run at Romeo to work with, JWT’s creative staff started concocting newspaper and magazine ads.


Scusi, Signori, may I introduce my Torino. Inspired by Italy’s great road cars but straight from Detroit. Bucket seats of GT design. I could have floor mounted 3 speed shift. I could have ...

What price is this eleganza de Italia? Only 1,478,000 lire.

(There it was, 48 years before the Chrysler ad with Eminem and the Diego Rivera mural and the Joe Louis fist and the black choir at the Fox Theater, a first iteration of “Imported from Detroit.”)

Another ad:


It looks like one of the great Italian road cars — with a price to match — but don’t be misled. Torino is built in Detroit — a small luxury car that also happens to be small in price. Its style may speak with an Italian accent, but it is pure American in the way it translates economy into pleasure, savings into comfort, thrift into luxury.

All destined for the dustbin of advertising history.

In his later remembrances, Lee Iacocca might have taken a certain satisfaction in recounting how the Torino name was ditched, considering his less than bosomy relationship with HF2. As the Torino campaign was being prepared, Iacocca received a call from one of Ford’s public relations men, who told him they would have to pick another name for the car because the Deuce was “in the midst of divorce and keeping company with Cristina Vettore Austin, an Italian jet-set divorcee he had met at a party in Paris. Some of his underlings felt that giving the car an Italian name would lead to bad publicity and gossip that would embarrass the boss.”

At JWT, John Conley, one of the forward planners in the Tomb, was a resident expert on brand names, the ad man who had helped Ford come up with the name Falcon. Now, with Torino off the boards, he went to the Detroit Public Library and spent several hours poring through books in search of something suitable. He emerged with Bronco, Puma, Colt, Cheetah, Cougar, and Mustang. Back where they had started. A prototype sports car that Iacocca and his team had conceived two years earlier — a twoseater, but in the lineage that led to the T-5 — was named Mustang 1. That earlier version was meant to evoke the warplane; now the image was of a wild horse.

Singing group Martha and the Vandellas of Detroit’s Motown Records pose in a Mustang being assembled on June 15, 1965, at the Ford Rouge plant.

In making the case to Iacocca, Laurie and Conley and the J. Walter Thompson men said “Mustang” “had the excitement of wide open spaces and was American as hell.”

There is a story told by Walter Murphy, the Ford Division’s in-house public relations man, about how Iacocca sold the name to HF2: On the night before Iacocca was to make another key sales pitch on the new car, he met one last time with the planning group at the Fairlane Inn.

“What I need are some fresh grabbers for my meeting tomorrow with Henry at the Glass House,” Murphy recalled Iacocca saying. Some suggested he lead off with the new name. Others suggested he should emphasize that the car would “kick GM’s Monza square in the balls.” At that point Iacocca closed his research binder and declared that he had figured out his pitch.

The next morning, in Murphy’s account, Ford was “stretched out in his leather chair, fingers clasped upon his expanding belly.” “What have you got, Lee?” he asked. Partway through his pitch, Iacocca came to the line that had crossed his mind at the planning meeting, a line that made him close his binder and say he was ready.

“Now this little pony car, the Mustang, would give an orgasm to anyone under 30,” he said.

Ford “sat upright, as if jabbed by a needle.” “What was that you said, Lee?”

Iacocca repeated the orgasm line.

“No, not that crap,” Ford said. “What did you call the car?”

“It’s the Mustang, Mr. Ford.”

It is wise to consider the reliability of that account in the context of who was telling it: a lifelong public relations man. But it sounded like Iacocca and it sounded like Ford. So did another version told by Donald Frey, the product planning manager, who remembered Ford telling him before the meeting, “Frey, I’m tired of your f------ car. I’m going to approve it ... and it’s your ass if it doesn’t sell well.”

From “Once in a Great City,” by David Maraniss. Copyright © 2015 by David Maraniss. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.

‘Once in

a Great City’

Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss spent his early childhood in Detroit and returned to research “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story.” This latest effort by the best-selling author, released Tuesday, offers a deep dive into the sociological underpinnings of the city between 1962-63.

In this excerpt from the chapter “The Vast Magnitude,” Maraniss, 66, shows the interplay between Ford division General Manager Lee Iacocca, his CEO Henry Ford II and ad agency J. Walter Thompson as they worked on what would become the Mustang, that icon of stylish mid-’60s youth culture.

Susan Whitall