DEARBORN – Harry Phillips didn’t sell many Ford Mustangs in his time on the sales staff at a Newfoundland dealership, but he did sell arguably the most important one. Phillips sold the very first Mustang ever built in eastern Canada in 1964 – but until just recently, he had not seen the now iconic car since it left the lot amidst a whole lot of drama that ensued.
The car, a preproduction model intended for promotional purposes and not for sale, had been parked along the road at the dealer. Dealership personnel had not been made aware of the arrangement, so when Capt. Stanley Tucker, an airline pilot, demanded he be sold the car about three days ahead of the April 17, 1964 release date, Phillips obliged. After placing a down payment, Tucker took possession of it several days later.
And that was the last time that Phillips, who shortly thereafter transitioned to the dealership’s used car manager, saw the very first Mustang ever built, until recently, when a grassroots campaign stirred interest in bringing him to Dearborn.
Phillips, now 84, was reunited with that first Mustang at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where it has been on display since the 1980s. He made the nearly five-hour trip from St. John’s, Newfoundland, along with his daughter, granddaughter and nephew.
When Phillips saw the Wimbledon White Mustang convertible for the first time, he realized that the car, still with its Newfoundland license plate affixed to the front bumper, looked exactly as it did when Tucker drove it off the lot more than 55 years ago. “It brought back a lot of memories,” said Phillips. “It was just the way I saw it then – a new car.”
‘The easiest sale I ever made’
The highly anticipated Mustang had been situated adjacent to a busy road to get the most exposure, and Capt. Tucker was among those eagerly awaiting its arrival. But dealership personnel had been unaware of Mustang VIN 1’s planned return to Dearborn, so when Tucker made the first offer, Phillips promised the car to him. He said it was the easiest sale he had ever made. Gail Wise, a schoolteacher from Chicago, is credited with making the first retail Mustang purchase.
Phillips said Tucker must have been doing a lot of reading up on the new Mustang. “‘I want it,’” Phillips recalled him saying. “Me, being a salesman, I said yes, but I couldn’t give it to him because we had to have it on the lot for introduction day. He wanted to make sure he would get it, so I told him to make a deposit. He did, knowing he couldn’t take it right away, but he was satisfied. He wasn’t allowed to drive it or take it outside. He knew a lot about Mustangs. He used to come in every day, have a chat and go on his way.”
The car was then moved indoors and Capt. Tucker eventually paid the remainder of the sale price, which totaled approximately $4,300, as Phillips recalled. Soon, Mustang sales were booming, and the dealership struggled to keep pony cars in stock.
Phillips said the new Mustang was the car back then. “There was nothing to compete with it and it was good price-wise,” he said.
Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford, said that it was initially a mystery to Dearborn how the Newfoundland dealership could break the sale release date. Once Ford management finally realized a miscommunication was involved, the company tried in vain to get the car back, but Capt. Tucker proved to be a skilled negotiator.
“He wouldn’t give it to them,” said Phillips. “I guess he knew somewhere down the road Ford was going to want it back.”
Two years later, Capt. Tucker was eventually persuaded to exchange the very first Mustang for the 1 millionth Mustang built. That well-optioned car was said to even have a black-and-white TV installed. “The story I’ve heard is they gave him the option sheet and he just put a big X on the whole thing,” said Anderson.
How Harry got to Henry
Propelled by a social media campaign created by his granddaughter – “Send Harry to Henry,” a play on the title of the film “When Harry Met Sally” – Phillips recently made the approximately 2,200-mile trip to Dearborn.
“I didn’t really think this would ever happen,” said Stephanie Mealey, who first learned of her grandfather’s place in automotive history about 10 years ago. “When this first started, we were just hoping for some kind of formal recognition.”
The visit also included a stop at the Rouge complex, where the first Mustang was built, and a ride in a Model T at Greenfield Village. At the Henry Ford, Phillips joined Anderson at the display and, for a few minutes, he shared the same seat as Capt. Tucker had occupied. With roughly 10,000 miles on the odometer, Mustang VIN 1 is in excellent condition. Phillips was awed.
“It’s really special to see the way he lit up after he got through the barrier and got to sit behind the wheel,” said Anderson. “A lot of the people who were involved with some of our cars are just not around anymore, so to have someone who was there when it was sold, for me, is special, too.”
A place in Mustang history
Phillips’ place in history, once only known to Mustang enthusiasts, has spread far and wide thanks to his journey. But while he’s appreciative of the passion and generosity that brought him to the Motor City, Phillips insists he doesn’t consider himself to be integral to the story of the Ford Mustang.
At the time of the Tucker transaction, Phillips was a 29-year-old father of four driving a Country Squire station wagon, a free vehicle from the dealership. Though he himself has never owned a Mustang, he has always admired the pony car and the loyalty it inspires.
“People who own them treat their cars special,” said Phillips. “They won’t even let them out in the rain or bring them to a show if it’s wet outside, and they put them away in the winter. I don’t know of any other car club in St. John’s that is like the Mustang club. It is the biggest car group.”