Donald N. Frey

March 13, 1923 – March 5, 2010

Brief Biography

Once celebrated as “Detroit’s sharpest idea man” by TIME Magazine, Donald N. Frey was widely known as the product manager who developed the fabled Ford Mustang automobile. Metallurgy and vehicular design ran in the family as Frey’s father, Edward, worked for John Deere & Company and designed the 1923 Model D. tractor. The young Frey was fascinated by creation from a young age, once making gunpowder from scratch. He started engineering school at Michigan State University before putting his education on hold to contribute his skills to the war effort. During World War II, Frey worked on the Packard V-1650 version of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine that was used in Royal Air Force fighter planes during the Battle of Britain. He later served as an officer in the US Army (1942-1946).

Frey resumed his education, this time enrolling at the University of Michigan where he received all three of his degrees. He taught for a few semesters before accepting a management position at the metallurgy department at the nearby Ford Motor Company. By 1964, he reached the positions of Vice-President and Chief Engineer. At the time, the firm was facing a significant crisis due to the failings of the Ford Edsel. This created a culture of skepticism towards the development of new vehicular models at the company. Without formal approval, Frey met with leading engineers and designers to develop a cost-efficient and attractive sports car-like coupe. The resulting product, the Ford Mustang, turned out to be a wild success, requiring only a tenth of competing models' production costs.

Frey resigned from Ford in 1968 to serve as president of the General Cable Corporation. His focus had shifted toward the development of environmentally friendly products, leading to the establishment of new copper recycling methods. Frey was appointed CEO of Bell & Howell, a manufacturer of motion picture machinery. In this position he oversaw a major technological transformation of the company, which at the time was still known for film, microfiche, and microfilm. Frey successfully campaigned for the adoption of video cassettes in Hollywood. He was instrumental in promoting the first successful CD-ROM based information system, designing part catalogues for General Motors to be distributed on CDs. During his time at Bell & Howell, Frey additionally served as a director of 20th Century Fox.

In 1998, Frey joined the industrial engineering and management sciences faculty at Northwestern University, teaching graduate courses in innovation, entrepreneurship, and information systems. He was particularly influential in Northwestern’s Master of Engineering Management program, and supervised PhD students who went on to careers in industry and academia. He developed a scholarship prize in his parents’ honor, celebrating undergraduate innovation and creativity. As he saw it, the role of innovator and educator were indivisible.

Frey was an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering and received the National Medal of Technology from President George H. W. Bush. In 2002, he was elected to the inaugural class of Institute for Operations Research and Management Sciences Fellows. 

Other Biographies

Wikipedia Entry for Donald N. Frey


University of Michigan, BS 1947

University of Michigan, MS 1949

University of Michigan, PhD 1951 


Academic Affiliations
Non-Academic Affiliations
  • U. S. Army
  • Bell & Howell 
  • Ford Motor Company
  • Packard Motors

Key Interests in OR/MS

Application Areas


Chicago Tribune (2010) Donald N. Frey, 1923-2010. March 23. (link)

New York Times (2010) Donald N. Frey, Designer of the Mustang, Dies at 86. March 28. B11. (link)

Northwestern University News Center. Donald Frey, Ford Mustang Designer, Dies at 86. Published March 24, 2010. Accessed March 19, 2015. (link)

University of Michigan College of Engineering. Material Science and Engineering News: Remembering Donald N. Frey - Designer of the Mustang. Accessed March 19, 2015. (link

Awards and Honors

National Academy of Engineering 1976

National Medal of Technology 1990

Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences Fellow 2002

Selected Publications

Egli A., Frey D. N., & Klotsch P. (1957). The automotive free-piston-turbine engine. SAE Technical Paper (No. 570051). Society of Automotive Engineers: Warrendale, PA. 

Frey D. N. (1983) Economy, Productivity, and Training: A CEO's View. National Center for Research in Vocational Education. Ohio State University: Columbus, Ohio. 

Frey D. N. (1994) The New Dynamism: Part 1. Interfaces, 24(2): 87-91. (link)

Frey D. N. (1994) The New Dynamism: Part 2. Interfaces, 24(3): 105-108. (link)

Frey D. N. (1994) The New Dynamism: Part 3. Interfaces, 24(5): 36-40. (link

Frey D. N. (2009) Innovation: What It's All About. Engineering Management Journal, 21(1): 9.