TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – The story of what collectors call “The Magic Skyway Mustangs” began almost exactly 53 years ago when the Mustang we all know and love was first introduced to us at the New York World’s Fair held in New York City’s Flushing Meadow Park. Most of America’s top companies spent millions of dollars on large pavilions and extravagant displays to showcase their products to the masses of the world who attended the fair, and the Ford Motor Company was no exception. Ford used the occasion of this huge, two-year event, (the Fair ran for two seasons: April 22 through October 18, 1964, and again April 21 through October 17, 1965) to draw maximum exposure to their diverse product lineup. The focal point of the Ford Pavilion was “The Magic Skyway.”
The Magic Skyway, a Disney Company-designed ride, took visitors through a world of prehistoric dinosaurs; showcased man’s early Stone Age accomplishments – such as the development of language, the ability to make fire, and the invention of the wheel; and concluded with a look at life in the distant future. Passengers on The Magic Skyway did their time-traveling in style – riding in the latest Ford Motor Company convertibles including Galaxies, Falcons, Lincolns, Comets, Park Lanes, Montereys, Thunderbirds and of course, new Mustangs! The cars rode on two separate Skyway tracks that each ran briefly through glass tunnels along the exterior of the Rotunda portion of the Pavilion before meeting up again inside the show building for the “dark” portion of the ride. These glass tunnels allowed for maximum exposure of the latest Ford automobiles to Fairgoers who routinely waited in line outside the Pavilion for up to three hours before boarding their Magic Skyway convertibles!
The 178 cars used on the Magic Skyway during the 1964 season, and the 165 replacement vehicles used during the 1965 season, looked like any regular Ford, Lincoln, or Mercury convertible from the outside, but each car had received numerous modifications before it was ready for use at the show. To handle these modifications, Ford shipped new convertibles directly from their factories to Carron and Company of Inkster, Michigan – a prototype vehicle manufacturer with a long history of working with Ford.
Prep work on the cars at Carron & Company was extensive. In the larger vehicles, engines and transmissions were removed for weight-reduction purposes, and although rumors have circulated to the contrary, the smaller cars, including the Mustangs, retained their drivetrains. Photographs recently discovered at the Ford archives, which were taken at the Fair while the cars were being “loaded” onto the track, clearly show that the small cars did, in fact, keep their engines during their time on the Skyway (more on this a little later). All cars, however – regardless if their engines had been removed or not – utilized suspension tie-down straps on both the front and rear springs to adjust the ride height of the vehicle to the exact height needed for the unique propulsion system employed on The Magic Skyway. Fuel tanks were also removed from all the cars to meet fire code rules.
Additional preparation included the installation of a four-track tape player located in the trunk with selector controls wired to the pushbuttons of the AM radio in the dash. Passengers used the radio buttons to select the ride narration language of their choice: English, German, French, or Spanish. A 12-volt battery located in each vehicle’s trunk provided power to the tape player and the other electrical systems in the cars, and the batteries themselves were recharged by friction alternators that were mounted near the right-rear wheel and driven by the tire’s turning motion as the convertibles traveled along The Magic Skyway.
Furthermore, the vehicles’ brake systems were deactivated, the steering linkages were disconnected from the steering wheels and special brackets were attached to the front frame members under the radiator supports. These brackets served as the mounting points for the hardware that attached the cars to the tracks via recessed guide slots, steering the cars along the Skyway.
Finally, a large, heavy-plywood “platen” was affixed to the bottom of each car by way of metal brackets welded to the front and rear frame rails, and rear axle housing, which thereby reduced the ground clearance of the Skyway cars to a mere 2 5/16 inches. These platens were the key elements in the Disney designed propulsion system.
Early on in the development process of the ride, Henry Ford II asked Walt Disney how he would move the cars around the track. Walt simply said, “We’ll use the booster brake drive system that we use on our Matterhorn ride and adapt it to the cars.” The booster brakes were essentially large, track-mounted drive wheels that either slowed-down or sped-up the Matterhorn bobsled cars to the proper speed necessary to complete the ride.
The Magic Skyway cars were propelled around the two, 2,300-foot long tracks by way of nearly 1,300 of these 16-inch, electrically-driven rubber wheels partially set into the floor of the ride area. As the drive wheels spun, they would simply roll against the bottom of the platen on the underside of the cars, and propel the cars forward along the track. These motor-driven wheels worked most efficiently if the cars on the track were all the same weight. Therefore, the small cars retained their drivetrains in an attempt to equalize their weight with the large cars. The previously mentioned suspension tie-down straps allowed for exact adjustment of the platen height relative to the drive wheels in the floor of the track area. A car traveling The Magic Skyway would have two to four rotating drive wheels in contact with the platen at all times.
This minimal ground clearance caused trouble in shipping the cars to the Fair, so special vans from Corrigan Moving Company of Dearborn were employed to transport the Skyway cars, four at a time, from Inkster to New York. Because of the platens, the cars were simply too low to be driven on and off the trucks in a traditional manner, so a special hydraulic lift was used at the Ford Pavilion to load and unload the vehicles.
In late 1963, Ford realized they would need some of their new Mustangs for the Fair and that they were going to be working under an extreme time constraint to get some Mustang convertibles ready in time to be part of the opening of The Magic Skyway ride – which was a little more than six months away!
The first production Mustangs were scheduled for assembly at the Dearborn Assembly Plant on March 9, 1964. However, there was a group – between 150-180 – of pre-production Mustangs which were built prior to that date. The first set of 12 Skyway Mustangs for the 1964 season were a part of this initial pre-production run. These very early Mustangs all have an indicated door-tag build date of March 5, 1964; although they were probably assembled well before then. The 1964 season Magic Skyway Mustangs were assigned VIN numbers from 5F08F100003 through 5F08F100014; all have DSO’s of 840027.
The first-season Skyway Mustangs were all identically equipped with 260 V-8 engines, automatic transmissions, rocker panel moldings, and knock-off spinner wheel covers. All of the 178 Skyway cars were keyed alike, allowing one key to be used on any of the vehicles. These cars also received Ford’s “show car” treatment, which meant all of the welded body seams were leaded-over to a smooth finish so that none of the usual spot-welds would be visible. Ironically, due to the fact that these Mustangs were pre-production models, some of the body panels didn’t fit quite right. Evidence found on Mustangs 5F08F100004 and 5F08F100006 suggests that a sledge hammer was likely used to flatten the top of the rear wheel housing in an attempt to allow the convertible top to stow properly in the “down” position!
Upon completion of the prep work, these Mustangs were shipped from Inkster in four different groups over a two-week period. The first Skyway Mustang, a Guardsman Blue convertible with VIN 5F08F100009, was sent to New York on March 19, 1964. The second group, including Mustangs 5F08F100006, 5F08F100010, 5F08F100011, and 5F08F100014, was shipped on March 24. The third load, consisting of Mustangs 5F08F100005, 5F08F100012, and 5F08F100013, departed two days later, and the final batch of first-season Skyway Mustangs, 5F08F100003, 5F08F100004, 5F08F100007, and 5F08F100008, headed to the Fair on April 1, 1964. Upon arrival in New York, they were immediately set up on The Magic Skyway, joining the other new convertibles that had already arrived at the Ford Pavilion – in some cases many months earlier.
For the 1965 season, Ford replaced all of The Magic Skyway cars that were used during the first season of the Fair. One hundred seventy-six brand-new convertibles were ordered in late 1964, and again, 12 of these cars were Mustangs. All of the second-season Mustangs had six-cylinder engines, automatic transmissions, knock-off spinner wheel covers, and rocker panel moldings. They also received the same “show car” treatment that had been done to the 1964 cars. These cars were all built in a single lot, DSO 842011, with sequential VIN numbers starting with 5F08T383375. The indicated door-tag build dates for the second batch of cars are from January and February 1965. Curiously, 5F08T383386 has a door-tag date of “15B” – February 15, 1965 – but this cannot be the actual build date of this very special car because it and four other Mustangs had already been prepped and shipped to New York for installation on The Magic Skyway by that date. It is safe to assume that most of these second-season cars were probably assembled sometime in mid-January of 1965.
Shortly after assembly at Ford’s Dearborn Assembly Plant, these dozen 1965 cars were sent to Carron and Company, where 11 of them were soon transformed into Magic Skyway Mustangs, just as the 1964-season cars had been only nine months earlier. It is interesting to note that of the 176 second-season cars that were sent to Carron and Company for conversion, 11 of them were never sent to the Fair in New York. For whatever reason, some of the cars were converted and never shipped, while others were partially converted and never shipped, and some – including Mustang VIN 5F08T383383 (a Caspian Blue convertible) – sat in Carron’s storage lot for over a year. It was never touched! It is The Magic Skyway Mustang that never was!
The second-season cars that were sent to the Fair did, however, receive slightly different treatment at Carron. In 1965, the cars received modified platens and attachment hardware, new suspension tie-downs, and redesigned guide pins to assure a smoother ride along The Magic Skyway route. Also, due to higher than expected vandalism of the cars in 1964, Ford asked that certain changes be made to cut down on these losses. In the first season, riders routinely took heater control parts, radio knobs and other small items as souvenirs. Therefore, the 1965 cars went through a “pilfer-proofing” regime that the first-season cars did not, which included removal of gearshift levers, sun visors, turn-signal levers, accelerator pedals and arms, emergency brake control systems, light switches, deactivation of air-vent control knobs, securing of wiring under the dash, and deactivation of inner door controls. The second-season cars also were fitted with large chrome “auxiliary protective rear bumpers” which the 1964 cars had received midway through the first season to cut down on the damage caused by the cars constantly bumping into each other on the Skyway. Additionally, these cars were delivered to Carron & Company without radio antennas or seat belts.
The 1965 Mustangs were shipped to the Fair with other Ford Motor Company vehicles, as they were not the “rush” orders that the first season-cars had been. The first of the second-season Mustangs, #5F08T383375, left Inkster on January 23, 1965, along with a Galaxie 500, a Mercury Park Lane, and a Falcon Futura; and the last of the Mustangs to be shipped to New York, 5F08T383380, departed on May 22, 1965, with two Galaxie 500s and a Falcon Futura – more than a month after the Fair had begun its second season!
Due to the extreme treatment to which these vehicles were subjected, Ford had an on-site bump and paint shop to repair the frequent collision damage. Working through the night, employees made numerous repairs to the vehicles including bodywork and painting, replacement of worn-out and damaged interiors, replacement of stolen parts and generally keeping the cars as presentable and clean as possible.
Also, since the ride cars couldn’t be stopped without shutting down half of The Magic Skyway ride during the course of their 14-hour workday, cars that developed problems along the way were repaired on the fly in a small maintenance area located between the passenger unloading and loading areas. As an example, a car that developed a slow leak in a tire received a quick “pump-up” as the car passed through the vehicle maintenance area. Workers also quickly wiped down the interior of the vehicles and removed any candy wrappers or other items left by departing riders. Soon, each of the gleaming cars re-emerged back into the ride loading area, ready for its next cargo of anxious visitors.
By Ford’s own accounting, almost 15 million people visited the Ford Pavilion in the two years that these cars were at work ferrying people around the nearly half-mile long track! Each of the Skyway cars carried over 40,000 people during their lives as ride vehicles, while traveling nearly 5,000 miles in the cozy confines of the Ford Pavilion over a six-month period. These vehicles did what they were meant to do, which was to increase awareness of Ford’s products and create a positive image for the company.
Upon completion of their tasks, these special cars were sent back to Carron and Company in the same enclosed vans that brought them to New York. They were stripped of their special Skyway mechanics, reassembled, repainted, reupholstered and generally cleaned up. As the cars were reassembled, all of the pilfer-proofed items were reinstalled, as were the engines and transmissions in the larger cars. The fuel tanks were also reinstalled in all vehicles. Interestingly, the fuel tank from 5F08T383376, marked with a black permanent marker, was found installed in 5F08T383386. Apparently, whatever fuel tank was handy was simply reinstalled into whatever car they happened to be working on at the time.
By all accounts, the Skyway cars were in really rough shape when the fair was over. Bob Gurr, one of the Disney Imagineers who designed the Skyway ride, said that he thought Ford “was nuts for trying to salvage all those ride cars for resale . . . they were pretty ratty at the end of the Fair.” Luckily, they were salvaged and were soon put up for sale at the Ford Motor Company employee resale lot in Dearborn. There, the cars were sold to Ford employees simply looking for a good deal on a used car – not necessarily realizing the unique history of their new purchase.
We currently know of only four surviving Skyway Mustangs: 5F08F100004 and 5F08F100006 from the 1964 season, and 5F08T383378 and 5F08T383386 from the 1965 season.
Car 5F08F100004 is a Raven Black convertible currently owned by Dr. John L. Mansell of New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. Mansell attended the World's Fair in 1964 and vividly remembers all four different colors of Mustangs on The Magic Skyway. Unfortunately, he was late arriving at the Fair (due to a speeding ticket, no-less) and did not get in line early enough to actually ride in one of the cars.
By 1964, he had already made connections with the Ford Motor Company manager responsible for pool car disbursement, and a few months after the 1964 Fair season ended, Mansell contacted this manager to see if one of the cars might become available. It just so happened that the manager was personally driving one!
Mansell was in the middle of building a house at the time and was short on cash, so he convinced his father-in-law to go with him to Dearborn to buy the car in June of 1965 for $2,475. The father-in-law then proceeded to drive the car on an extended trip to California and back before Mansell was finally able to buy it back from him in December of 1965 with around 20,000 miles on the odometer – and for a discounted price of $2,200.
From that point, the car became his wife's daily-driver during summer months, and his kids all have fantastic stories of riding in the car as youngsters. The Mustang was put into storage in 1978 with about 77,000 miles on the odometer, and it continued to sit until May 2009 when Dr. Mansell’s son, Lee, convinced him to bring it out again. Prior to removing the car from storage, the Doctor even made a comment that, “after almost 31 years in storage, the tires were stuck to the concrete and might have to be removed from the car to break them free!” Fortunately, it only needed minimal mechanical work and fresh gasoline to get the 260 cubic-inch V-8 fired up, and the car moving again.
Dr. Mansell’s Mustang was featured in the October 2009 issue of Mustang Monthly, plus has made appearances at various car shows on the east coast over the past several years – and was one of the feature vehicles shown at Mustang’s 50th Birthday Celebration in Charlotte, NC, in April of 2014.
Car 5F08F100006 is a Wimbledon White Skyway Mustang that was found neglected in a Georgia junkyard in the late 1970’s. How it ended up there is anyone’s guess, although one theory is that the car made its way south by way of the nearby Robins Air Force Base. Perhaps one of the servicemen or women who were transferred to the base had brought their Mustang with them. This car has seen some hard times, including front-end damage that landed it in the junkyard in the first place, as well as a subsequent fire. Luckily, it is now in the process of a complete restoration by its current owner, Allan Shepley of Byron, Georgia. The remaining 10 Skyway Mustangs from the 1964 season of the World’s Fair are presently unaccounted for.
Skyway Mustang 5F08T383386 is a Wimbledon White car that was found in a garage in Detroit in 1978 by its current owners, Al & Gary Schweitzer of Traverse City, Michigan. At the time of its discovery, the car had only 35,622 miles on it and was totally original except for the battery. It even had the original tires and convertible top! The original owner, a Ford employee, informed the Schweitzers that he had purchased this car as a Christmas present for his wife. He recalls picking the car up from the Ford employee resale “B” lot on December 23, 1965, and keeping the car hidden on a neighbor’s driveway until Christmas morning. The original owner of #383386 was well aware that he had a Magic Skyway ride car; he had specifically sought out a white Mustang convertible when he had heard that these cars were available.
Shortly after purchasing the car, the Schweitzers completely disassembled it – anticipating a quick restoration in time for the 1979 Mustang Club of America Grand National Show. But time and circumstances got in the way, and the Mustang sat untouched from 1979 until 2007 when its full restoration finally began. The restoration was documented by Mustang Monthly and was completed in August 2015.
Car 5F08T383378 is a Raven Black Skyway Mustang that had been sitting in a garage in Inkster, Michigan, since 1979 before it was listed for sale on craigslist in Detroit in August of 2013. It was originally purchased from the Ford employee resale lot in late 1965 by a Ford employee who drove the car daily to his job at the Research and Engineering center in Dearborn. He was no doubt aware of the fact that he, too, had a Magic Skyway Mustang – why else would he have kept it stored away for nearly 35 years after he stopped driving it? Unfortunately, he passed away before he was able to do anything special with the car. As the owner of 5F08T383386, Gary Schweitzer of Traverse City, Michigan, immediately recognized 383378 as something special, and purchased the car sight-unseen. It is now awaiting its turn for a full restoration.
There had been a rumor floating around the Mustang community for many years that all of the Mustangs used for both seasons of The Magic Skyway Ride were Wimbledon White. In fact, the DSO paperwork for these special cars indicates that Ford did intend to use all white Mustangs on The Magic Skyway in 1964, but somewhere between ordering and production, the plan was changed. We now know that these Mustangs came in four different colors each season. Documentation, and photos from the Fair, prove that there were three Wimbledon White, three Raven Black, three Rangoon Red, and three Guardsman Blue Mustangs used during the 1964 season. When the Fair reopened in April of 1965, Ford again used 12 new Mustangs – three Wimbledon White, three Raven Black, three Poppy Red, and three Caspian Blue Mustangs (though as mentioned above, one of the 1965 Caspian Blue cars was never actually shipped to the Fair).
Other than the four known Mustang Skyway survivors, there are three documented Ford Thunderbirds and a 1964 Mercury Park Lane that also rode The Magic Skyway – and there are probably a few more Falcons, Comets and Galaxies out there somewhere too, just waiting to be discovered. However, due to the fact that all of these cars were resold in Dearborn, most of them, sadly, upon losing their unique Skyway identity, have probably rusted away due to the harsh Michigan winters with its accompanying road salt.
The vast majority of the 354 (or 343, depending upon how you count them) former Skyway cars ended their days in total obscurity – a stark contrast to their early days of ferrying happy Fairgoers through that special ride so many years ago. So the next time you visit a Mustang show, a junkyard, or simply see a 1964½ or 1965 Mustang convertible for sale on the side of the road, take a minute to check the VIN, the DSO, or simply look for some funny metal brackets welded underneath. You may just find one of the 20 yet-to-be-discovered Magic Skyway Mustangs!
Editor’s Note: This history was first published in the October 2007 issue of the MCA’s Mustang Times magazine, and had been updated in June of 2016 after the two additional Magic Skyway Mustangs had surfaced. The authors wish to give special thanks to: Terry Hoover, Linda Skolarus and Carol Whittaker at the Benson Ford Research Center; Bill Cotter at worldsfairphotos.com; Daniel Brooks; Bill Young at nywf64.com; Paul F. Anderson; Robert H. Gurr; Jim Smart; Allan Shepley; Randy Treadway; Wayne Bretl.