Car Culture / Cars / History / People / Relics

Vince Gardner and the Two-Seater Mustang

The world of custom cars is fascinating. Sometimes history is well-preserved. Other times, as with a shortened, two-seater Mustang that resurfaced a couple years ago, it must be peeled back layer-by-layer. Often, the full and true story (mired in years of  fable, or even corporate secrecy), can never be realized.

This unique 1964/65 Mustang caught my attention when the folks at The Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance recently announced that in 2013 it would be headlining “What Were They Thinking?”, a class for significant, interesting cars that don’t fit into any traditional category.

By the early 1960’s, Detroit auto manufacturers were keenly aware of the importance of customizing. The preceding decade had seen the hobby grow from niche nonconformity  to mainstream acceptance. Cars were being driven off the lot straight to the shops of Barris, Winfield, Starbird, and countless others to be chopped, shaved, sectioned, and sprayed in candy colors.

Riding the wave, in the fall of 1962, Ford launched a traveling show called The Custom Car Caravan. Early on, the shows relied upon cars built in-house. As the Caravan grew, more customs were needed, so Ford began accepting privately-created cars based on production models.

Enter South Bend, Indiana-born Vincent Gardner. A talented and driven designer, Gardner announced his arrival by winning the Fisher Body Craftsman Guild, a national auto design competition, while he was still in high school.

Vince landed a job at Auburn Automobile Company, and was part of the small design team that produced the beautiful Cord 810. He later moved to Studebaker and worked under Raymond Loewy, design pioneer of the streamline era. In 1951, Gardner struck out on his own, and in 1963, he began partnering with Dearborn Steel Tubing, a respected Detroit parts builder that was also commissioned by Ford to build prototype vehicles and custom cars.

It was during this time that Vince Gardner conceived  a two-seater, fastback-style Mustang. By most accounts, the design was not commissioned or assisted by Ford. Nor was it a concept or prototype. It was simply Gardner’s own vision of a restyled pony car.

The Mustang began life as one of ten pre-production 1965 chassis. Working with his associates at Dearborn, Vince shortened the wheelbase a full sixteen inches. The team also assisted Gardner in the requisite bodywork, drawing from their previous experience with customs like the famed Thunderbird Italien. The car ran a standard 260ci V-8, though the mill was bored to 302. The “shorty” Mustang quickly caught Ford’s attention and, because it was based on a factory chassis and powerplant, was adopted into the Custom Car Caravan circuit.

Bill Snyder, an attendee at one of those shows, recalled his first encounter with the diminutive Mustang. “I loved it,” he said, and vowed to put one in his garage. “No dice,” was the reply from the attendant Ford rep. This car  would never be produced, and might even meet a worse fate in exile or destruction.

Legend has it that Vince Gardner feared the same, absconded with the car, and walled it up inside an Inkster, Michigan warehouse. Vince, so the story goes, didn’t attempt to sell or further publicize the car, but also failed to pay rent at the warehouse. The hidden Mustang was found a few months later, after the insurance claim had already been paid. An executive at the insurance company bought it, and eventually put it up for sale.

In spite of the years that had passed since his first, wide-eyed encounter with the one-of-a-kind Mustang, Bill Snyder recognized it instantly in the pages of a car collector publication. It should be no surprise that he snatched up his dream car without delay and brought it to his home in Ohio.

The car has since undergone a complete restoration, and will make its anticipated reappearance at Amelia Island in March of this year.

It’s always fun to uncover an interesting car story. It reminds us that these machines have life, moving with us through space and time, collecting and creating history. I’m sure there’s more to this particular tale… If you can add to the legend, be sure to leave a comment.

Have fun in your garage!

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  1. bill snyder says:

    The story you wrote, mostly it would appear, from material in the October 2007 issue of COLLECTIBLE AUTOMOBILE is fascinating but some of it is not true. Yes I own the car. I first saw it at a dealer in Ohio when it was on the Ford tour in 1965. It is a factory preproduction chassis number 5S08F-100009. These vehicals were not meant to be sold to the public! Vince Gardner never owned the car! Ford engineerong did the modifications to chassis and motor!Dearborn Steel tube built the body which Vince did design and may have helped to build. How do I know this?? The car became the property of Aetna insurance company after it was recovered from where it had been stored by Vince who took it from the Ford Caravan. I bought it in 1969 after an employee of the insurance co bought it and offered it for sale. Along with the car I received a great deal of correspondance related to the theft, and recovery of the vehical as well as a copy of the check paid to Dearborn to cover their costs in building the body. The letters to various entities written by the people at Dearborn as well as the Automobile Theft bureau in regard to the theft of the car are quite specific in noting Ford’s involvment, Dearborn’s invovement and Vince Gardner’s involvement. I do intend to present the full story in an appropriate publication where all of the material can be included in its original form.

    • Thank you for your reply, Bill! I researched the story from a number of sources, but it quickly became clear that the history was hazy. Many sources contradicted each other, so I settled on reporting what the majority said, while still noting that much of the story was “legend”. This is what makes this kind of stuff so interesting… the unraveling of the truth. It’s wonderful that the car’s in your hands and will be preserved… I look forward to reading your full account!

  2. Ed Dawes says:

    I like the looks of that… Don’t much like Domestic ( American ) vehicles .. but I do like a small handfull, and this is one of them. Reminds me a little of the Javelin 2 seater they made for a short time.

  3. Great story. I am glad I followed the thread and got Bill Sydner’s “true” story. I love this car and would have bought it in a heartbeat! I’ve always believed there should have a 2 seat Mustang (and still do). I was hoping they would build the 2 seat Mercury Messenger in 2003. It would have been very similar. Someone at Factory Five Racing should put that Mustang 2 seat body on their MK4 Roadster (Cobra) frame!

  4. Shelly Lupul, What the h3!! are you talkin’ about?

    Mike and Bill, Thanks for the brief history lesson. I never knew about this car until today! Yes, it would have been fun if Ford produced this little fast back, but I’m sure there are many other ‘design mules’ that should have been put into production.
    Thanks again

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  6. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the great discussion of “Shorty”. As of yesterday, Shorty has a new, proud owner:



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