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National Academy of Engineering, Volume 22
Tribute Author
Membership Directory
PublisherNational Academies Press
ReleasedOctober 18, 2019
Copyright2019
ISBN 978-0-309-49640-7
Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 22

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  • DONALD N. FREY 1923–2010

    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,”          

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