- Hall of Fame Inductees
For a product planner in the auto industry, success means creating a product that meets or exceeds sales and profit targets. It is very rare indeed that a product planner produces not only successful products, but creates major new product segments. Hal Sperlich, a Vice President at Ford and later the President of Chrysler, was such a planner. As chief architect of both the original Ford Mustang and the original Chrysler minivan, and as a leading advocate for small, front wheel drive vehicles in America in the early 1970s, Hal Sperlich has solidified his role as one of America’s most significant post-War automotive visionaries. In the early 1960s, America’s automakers were just beginning to embrace the idea of small cars. American small cars were underpowered, under-equipped and underappreciated, especially by the growing legions of younger buyers. A small group of planners, designers and engineers at Ford, headed by the young, newly appointed Ford Division Vice President, Lee Iacocca, and including Sperlich, Don Frey, the head of product planning, and designer Joe Oros, gathered together, calling themselves “the Fairlane Committee”.
They saw the need for a small car that would satisfy the growing appetite for smaller cars yet would be appealing to what became known as the “youth market”. Convincing Ford’s top management to proceed with such an unproven venture was not easy, but Iacocca proved up to the challenge. With reluctant approval of the project, Iacocca, Frey and Sperlich literally put their careers on the line for the project. Sperlich led the product development effort, coming up with the combination of classic proportions, style, seating for four, a family-sized trunk, good power and low costs. This combination struck a chord with an America not expecting “compact”, “exciting” and “affordable” to show up in the same car. The Mustang was an automotive home run, with a record 418,000 Mustangs sold in its first year and a major new automotive segment, the pony car segment, was born. Not since the 1949 Ford had Ford Motor Company seen such an instant sales success. With the Mustang launched, Sperlich turned his attention to new projects. He envisioned the need in America for small, fuel efficient, transverse engine front-wheel drive cars, and a small “people mover” vehicle. However, neither Sperlich nor Iacocca were able to convince senior management at Ford. Sperlich was adamant, and Ford immoveable, so, in 1977, he left Ford and joined Chrysler as a vice president and its chief product planner.
At Chrysler, Sperlich was free to explore these new forms of more efficient automotive products. He directed Chrysler’s engineering and design staffs to work virtually around the clock on a front-wheel-drive platform that carried with it a tremendous burden -- the resulting products simply had to be good enough to save the troubled company. In 1980, Chrysler unveiled the first of the “K-Cars” – the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant. The compact and functional K-Cars were precisely what the public wanted at the time – small, conservative, inexpensive and economical. Lee Iacocca, then Chrysler Chairman, who had followed Sperlich to Chrysler from Ford in 1979, later said, “The K-Car was the last train from the station. If we failed here, it was all over.” The gamble paid off and Chrysler had been saved. As important as the K cars were to Chrysler’s survival, by far the most significant product achievement for Chrysler in the 1980s was the introduction of the minivan. While at Ford, it was well known that Sperlich began work on the concept for a small people mover, called the “Mini-Max.” Senior Ford management was not receptive to the idea as it was an unproven concept. Moreover, Ford had been reluctant to invest in front drive platforms, an essential arrangement on which to base a minivan.
At Chrysler, however, the newly developed front wheel drive K platform was perfect. The front-drive, transverse engine platform meant that the vehicle cabin could be pushed forward in the vehicle. And with no driveshaft to the rear wheels, the cabin floor could be flat and low to the ground. And best yet, even though the minivan could seat seven adults, the vehicle was compact enough to fit in a standard garage, a feature Sperlich insisted upon. As Car & Driver magazine said at the time, “it’s the only American-built van that’s not a truck,” and credited Sperlich for inventing it and Iacocca for creating a quick-acting management team to get it produced in record time. To this day, the minivan is Chrysler’s best selling vehicle. Over the years, virtually every automaker has tried to emulate the Chrysler formula, with limited success. The minivan belonged to Chrysler, and the minivan concept belonged to Hal Sperlich.