1964-1/2 Ford Mustang III "Shorty" Factory Prototype
Lot No. 438
Auctioned on Saturday, March 28, 2015
Factory Concept Car
Sold for $511,500
That was especially true at Dearborn Steel Tubing Industries (commonly known as DST), the firm to which Ford contracted for limited production special cars and show vehicles during the 1960s’ “Total Performance” era. With Ford Marketing-sanctioned approval, DST decided to build a two-passenger Mustang, just to test the waters. A veteran designer that they had recently brought on-board, on a freelance basis, would draw it up.
Vincent E. Gardner came with a superb resume. A friend and longtime mentee of the legendary Classic Era designer Gordon Buehrig, he had worked alongside Buehrig at Auburn Automobile Company, helping to model the Cord 810. Later he had worked under Raymond Loewy, purportedly styling the entire line of 1956 Studebakers by himself out of a rented warehouse. Gardner was a genius, and like many geniuses was beset by mental health issues that he would never completely conquer. He was well-liked by colleagues, but also a loner who had his own ideas, stuck to them, and defended them with unusual vigor.
Gardner’s design for the two-seater Mustang required shortening the car’s wheelbase by 16 inches, accomplished with the assistance of Ford’s pilot plant at Allen Park, Michigan, using the 10th prototype Mustang chassis. This effectively removed much of the rear seat area and made the job of creating a well-proportioned design much easier. Stock Mustang bodywork from the firewall back was thrown out, replaced by a new body with completely new contours that still managed to reflect the basic lines of the factory’s fastback coupe.
The body was built of fiberglass, a material with which Gardner and DST had much experience. Under the hood was a new version of the early Mustang’s 260 V-8, bored out to 302 cubic inches and equipped with a three carburetor setup – an experimental version of what would become an iconic “muscle” powerplant. It was mated to a specially strengthened, rebuilt automatic transmission, on a chassis otherwise equipped with the independent front suspension, hypoid rear axle, and hydraulic front disc and rear drum brakes common to other early Mustangs.
Typical of his involved-till-the-bitter-end persona, Gardner was right there in the thick of it with building the Mustang III, helping to lay fiberglass and assemble panels in the DST shops. He not only designed the prototype, but helped put it together, as well. It was with considerable pride that he saw his creation accepted by Ford Motor Company brass, leading to its display as part of a traveling show tour, the Custom Car Caravan, at various Ford dealerships, and at the “Sports Cars in Review” exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum in 1965. It even appeared in Motor Trend’s June 1964 issue.
Unfortunately, Ford still had no real plans to build a two-seater Mustang, which their representatives would occasionally admit to those who saw the Mustang III at its displays. After its limited show career was over, the car affectionately known as a “shorty Mustang,” or simply as “Shorty,” was doomed to be reduced to fiberglass and steel confetti by one of Ford’s efficient crushers. No one was more upset by the idea that Vince Gardner, who, as usual, had become exceptionally attached to a work of art that his superiors would now see destroyed. Well, he must have thought, not if I can help it.
So, on May 2, 1965, Gardner stole the Mustang III from its warehouse, and walled it up in another nearby building, in a space for which he had already paid a month’s rent. What plans he had for it were never recorded, but presumably he intended to return for the car at a later date – or simply he wanted to preserve it for later generations to find. Regardless, “Shorty’s” time in its tomb numbered only six months, because Gardner never bothered to pay additional rent. Fed-up, the warehouse’s owner had the wall torn down, and when he found a Mustang behind it, he immediately notified the police.
Ford had reported the Mustang III’s theft to Aetna, with which the car had been insured. Aetna paid out after convincing themselves that the car had probably been stolen by amateurs and sent to a chop shop. Now, with the Mustang III “back from the dead” and Ford content with its money, Aetna was saddled with the prototype. One of their employees bought it, and advertised it in the December 1968 issue of Hemmings Motor News.
The car was soon purchased by its current owner, proprietor of an Ohio screen printing business and an avid automobile enthusiast. Not necessarily a “Mustang man,” he had seen the Mustang III on its trip through his area, and had been one of those disappointed when the Ford representative told him of the prototype’s doomed existence. He recognized the car in the Hemmings ad immediately, and soon had added it to his own collection.
Nonetheless, with business and other automobiles occupying its owner’s time, “Shorty” remained hidden away and was never actually restored until the early 21st century, when Bill Warner convinced the owner to return the car to life and debut it at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. Following a painstaking restoration to its original condition, the Mustang III astonished onlookers with its return from an apparent grave after four decades. It earned a slew of new magazine appearances, not to mention recognition from Ford Motor Company, which issued their own press releases regarding the “find.”
Today proudly offered for the very first time by the man who has owned it for 47 years, “Shorty” is complete with an enviable file of documentation, including newspaper and magazine appearances dating back to the 1960s, original DST and Aetna paperwork, photographs taken over the passing decades, appraisals, paperwork, and news releases, as well as comprehensive research by Mustang historian, Bob Fria. The authenticity of “Shorty” is without question. Its status as an original, Ford-sanctioned first-generation Mustang prototype, and the only one like it known in private hands, makes this amazing automobile the most important Mustang ever offered for public sale.
Imagine what the late Vince Gardner would think of that.