Designers Past and Present on the Heritage and Future of Mustang

Apr 24, 2024

On April 17, 2024, Ford celebrated 60 years of Mustang. To better understand the label’s evolution and the DNA that makes Mustang what it is, we sat down for a conversation with two designers who are intimately familiar with the brand: Ford retiree Doug Gaffka, who began work with the company in 1978 and on Mustang in 199, and Sarah Waston, current Senior Color and Materials Designer. Together, they dove into both the roots of Mustang and where they see the brand moving in the future.

As a kick-off, could you each just introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your involvement with Mustang?

Doug Gaffka: I took over Mustang, I believe, in 1996. And I kept it until I retired in 2009. So, I had the '99 Mustang, the 2005, and the 2010.

And Sarah, how about you?

Sarah Waston: I'm working on Mustang as a color material designer. I first got my introduction with Mustang with the 650. And I would say, now, I'm five years into this with Mustang, but just as a woman of color, working on Mustang, I have been in spaces where I've never thought that Mustang would take me, and it's just been a wild ride.

Given that background, what comes to mind for each of you with the 60th anniversary?

Doug: Mustang's had a fairly consistent background, in terms of development and heritage. I think that's one thing that Mustang's done well, more so than most, I'd say, probably any Ford car line, is kept it consistent.

The Mustangs I always worked on…we had one high-performance car, one Ford GT that was a performance car, and we had one that was a much tamer edition, in terms of not only the styling, but also, the performance. Whereas now, it seems that the Mustang has taken on a high-performance look and feel on each variation. So, I think that's where the biggest change I see in Mustang.

I was really fortunate in my career to have all the really cool cars for almost half of my career. I love sports cars, and I think that was a real treat for me. So, you're in there, take advantage of it, because I'm going to tell you, as stressful as Mustang can be, and you're trying to really make sure that you live up to the past, it's still the greatest project to work on at Ford Motor Company.

Sarah: When I think about Mustang and where it's been, I have a lot of key descriptors that kind of stay at top of my mind. The styling of it is tenacious. I think it is outward and bold. I think about the featuring of it, which stays progressive, and the longevity of it actually staying at the front of the design helm.

We’ve had a little bit of mixed bag, in a good way, for everyone, really. It's super-enthusiast, but it's also really palatable. And it speaks to our current culture today, where all walks of life are considered.

Do you feel the customers' wants and needs for the Mustang have evolved over the past few decades, or are evolving now?

Doug: With Mustang, I always felt market research really wasn't necessary, because not only did we know exactly what a Mustang was, but the customer knows exactly what a Mustang is.

Sarah: I think that the design foundation has been so strongly built on the styling of it that if we make a few tweaks here and there, as long as you stay true to the American muscle of this car, I don't think that you have space to go wrong.

Doug:  I'm always suspicious when the customer says, "Oh, we'll love that, too." I guess maybe I'm an old-fashioned designer. I come from the ‘70s and ‘80s, when we still used chalks and markers, but I just have strong beliefs in what the experts know.

What would you say are the key characteristics, philosophically, of designing for the Mustang? And what drew each of you to the label in the first place?

Doug: I grew up with Mustang. I was there when the '64 came out, and it has always been a car that I've admired and liked. And my father had a Mustang, and I've had several Mustangs. So, it's that kind of thing. It's just growing up in Dearborn. But let me put it this way: I didn't ask for Mustang. I was given Mustang. To be able to do Mustang was the highlight of my career. And I'm glad I finished my career on it.

Sarah: My family didn't own a Mustang. I'm actually the youngest of nine, so none of us could fit. I had an all-teal Astro van. But when I came to Ford, Mustang, for me, was just all about the cool factor. And you can't really pinpoint sometimes what really stands out. Is it the stance? Is it the color? It's everything compiled. It's the fastback styles of the ‘60s. It's the carbon fiber usage of the Shelbys or the newer models that have different stripes and different ideations and different personalities to it.

On Mustang, the styling and the cool factor of it, I think, stood out to me, and it was a program that everyone wanted to be on. So, when you got on that, you made sure that you took good care of it really and did the right things by it as a designer.

Doug: In the early development and the clay process, when we started to get a theme together, I would actually put up a big car cover over it. And you should know a Mustang when you can't see it in detail. You should be able to lay a big sheet over a Mustang and know exactly what kind of car it is. And I think they've done a good job, especially in the last few years, of continuing that on.

A lot of the time, when people think about a car, at least the lay person, and what defines it, they're thinking of the form factor and the shape of it, and Doug, like you said, being able to recognize it when it's covered up. What defines a good interior for the Mustang? What's the DNA there that really makes it synonymous with the brand?

Sarah: The first thing that always comes to mind when you think about Mustang is the authenticity. The authentic materials are really important. The suedes, the leathers, the serial badging. When the customer gets inside, they want to be feeling like it's their Mustang, it's one of one, or they are one with the Mustang, because it's a synchronicity between the driver and the material.

What I have come across, even talking with older-gen customers, is that they don't forget what their Mustang looked like.

Doug: Yeah, I agree with you 100%, Sarah. I see, each year, they're getting better and quality is getting better, the materials are higher quality materials. I'm just hoping we stay on that road.

What would you say, Doug, were the key innovations that happened with Mustang when you were working on it?

Doug: Well, in 1999, when the Mustang came out, it was on a SN-95 platform, and then, we went to a new platform, the car got bigger, heavier, longer, but we really tried to stay true to the car. And I think we brought it back more to what Mustang was. I remember getting in discussions with the press quite often on that, "Oh, the Mustang's now retro." And I said, "No, the Mustang isn't retro. It's based on the Mustang heritage. It's what the Mustang was."

Finally, they start to think about it a little bit, and they go, "Yeah, I guess you're right." And I think that's what I think one of the biggest innovations in Mustang at least in the last 20 years is that we've really brought it back to what a Mustang is and what a Mustang looks like.

How about you, Sarah? In the time that you're working on Mustang, what do you see as the big innovations happening with Mustang?

Sarah: I would say the biggest innovation that I would say stand out for me is our exterior paint color. We've got into a lot of different pigments that have so much travel and so much velocity to them. And we've been able to be way more expressive, I would say, in our color palette that way. I think a good example of that is the Blue Ember color on Dark Horse. It's very sinister when you first look at it, but the ambiguity of it and the flash of red as you get to the body side kind of creates this purple tone, which, again, it flexes the creativity and the expression of that certain vehicle or product line.

So, we've hit 60 years. Where do we go from here? In each of your opinion, what's the future of Mustang? How would you like to see the brand continue to evolve?

Doug: I would like to have it stay consistent. I'd like to see them still have high-performance cars. I think that they should move ahead with whatever technology's available.

I think Sarah's hit a lot of it with the paints and the materials, and that's half the battle. And the other half of the battle is making sure that, when the design group sees something that needs to be innovated, that the engineering group continues to progress as well. They work hand in hand, and you can't make one thing happen without the other.

Sarah: For me, as much as we are progressive with different featuring materials, I think that, in some aspects, the conservativeness is still there. I would love to see products that get really wild and untamed. I would love to see more collaborations from design or driver leaders in culture and community. I think that, when you collaborate with different groups, you get more people to buy into the Mustang name. I think that there are tons of opportunities to speak to more people, more places, and more avenues of expression.

Doug: You could keep a lot of everything that people love and still bring it into the future. They've done a good job. I think Mustang has been so consistent at Ford Motor Company.