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This is the 22nd Volume in the series Memorial Tributes compiled by the National Academy of Engineering as a personal remembrance of the lives and outstanding achievements of its members and international members. These volumes are intended to stand as an enduring record of the many contributions of engineers and engineering to the benefit of humankind. In most cases, the authors of the tributes are contemporaries or colleagues who had personal knowledge of the interests and the engineering accomplishments of the deceased. Through its members and international members, the ...
This is the 22nd Volume in the series Memorial Tributes compiled by the National Academy of Engineering as a personal remembrance of the lives and outstanding achievements of its members and international members. These volumes are intended to stand as an enduring record of the many contributions of engineers and engineering to the benefit of humankind. In most cases, the authors of the tributes are contemporaries or colleagues who had personal knowledge of the interests and the engineering accomplishments of the deceased. Through its members and international members, the Academy carries out the responsibilities for which it was established in 1964.
Under the charter of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering was formed as a parallel organization of outstanding engineers. Members are elected on the basis of significant contributions to engineering theory and practice and to the literature of engineering or on the basis of demonstrated unusual accomplishments in the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology. The National Academies share a responsibility to advise the federal government on matters of science and technology. The expertise and credibility that the National Academy of Engineering brings to that task stem directly from the abilities, interests, and achievements of our members and international members, our colleagues and friends, whose special gifts we remember in this book.
BY JULIO M. OTTINO
DONALD NELSON FREY, the engineer who led the design and development of the Ford Mustang, died March 5, 2010, in Evanston, Illinois. He was 86.
Don’s career took several turns—from an officer in the US Army to vice president for Ford Motor Company, CEO of Bell & Howell, and professor at Northwestern University. Whether it was creating a new product or redesigning a company, Don became known as the go-to man for innovation.
It seemed a career as an engineer was inevitable for Don— he was born March 13, 1923, to Edward Muir Luken Frey and Margaret Bryden (née Nelson) Frey, alumni of the School of Mines and Metallurgy at the University of Missouri. His father was chief metallurgist at a John Deere plant in Waterloo, Iowa, where Don and his brother Stuart grew up.
Don earned a scholarship to Michigan State, where he studied metallurgical engineering. After a brief stint during World War II as a gun control instructor, he transferred to the University of Michigan and earned his bachelor’s degree in metallurgy (1947), master’s in systems engineering (1949), and PhD in metallurgical engineering (1950).
He started out in academia as a professor at Michigan that same year, but thought he wasn’t ready for that position yet.
“At the age of 28, I was only a few years older than the kids I was teaching, and maybe one chapter ahead in the book,” he recalled. “It seemed to me that the real engineering professor would be someone who practiced in the real world, then came back to teach.”
When the Ford Motor Company offered him a job at its new research laboratory, Don first turned it down. The recruiter wouldn’t give up, however, and when he asked Don what it would take to get him, Don responded with the biggest salary he could think of—$10,000 (the average US family income at the time was about $4,200). Ford agreed, and Don set off on a track that would eventually lead him to change the industry.
He worked in the lab for six years before becoming director of the Research Office, where he was involved in finding an alternative to the piston engine (a solution, it turned out, was elusive). In 1957 he transferred to be executive engineer in the Car-product Engineering Office, where he quickly went from a position that made sure all the parts fit together to product planning manager for the entire division. “The guy who gets the job done is the guy who gets promoted,” he later said.
It was in this position that Don made one of his few professional missteps: the 1961 Thunderbird, which, in his own words, was “noisy, it was shaky, it was a dog.” But the gaffe made way for his ultimate professional accomplishment.
In early 1961 Don got the idea to create a new kind of sports car, which Ford hadn’t done in more than five years. He later gave his children credit for the idea. “I clearly remember sitting around the dining room table and my kids saying, ‘Dad, your cars stink. They’re terrible. There’s no pizzazz.’”
He charged Ford designers with creating a fresh two-seater design, but Lee Iacocca, then general manager of the Ford division, said the car needed a backseat for the kids and a dog. So began the two men’s partnership, which gained importance when it came to convincing Henry Ford to produce their new vehicle, dubbed the Mustang. Against them was a market research study that said the company would sell only 86,000 Mustangs in the first year. Don and Iacocca thought otherwise. “In a case like this, the judgment has to come from your gut,”