Hired by the automaker when he was 34 years old, the talented creative was pivotal in shaping some of the company’s most iconic models
In the ’60s, automotive design thrust exuberant sheet metal against a backdrop of social and political turbulence, with star-spangled steeds like Ford’s Bronco, Mustang, Thunderbird and GT40 searing themselves into the national psyche. Their unmistakable shapes are recognisable to generations of enthusiasts, but few are aware that the man who contributed to these icons was Brooklyn-born designer McKinley Thompson Jr. Even fewer know he is considered to be among the industry’s first Black designers, an outlier in the otherwise homogenous microcosm of Motor City in that era.
Ford designer Christopher Young, also a person of colour, likens Thompson’s experience to those of the unsung heroes in the 2016 film Hidden Figures, which profiles the team of Black female mathematicians who were pivotal during NASA’s nascent space program. Their story was unknown to many in the nation until the movie was made, and Thompson’s contributions need more illumination as well. Even Young, who is 48, was not aware of Thompson until relatively recently. “I’m sure he went through a lot,” says Young, “but I’m grateful that he pioneered the way.”
How did an ambitious Black automotive designer rise through the ranks of a largely exclusionary corporate culture? As with many super-achievers, his focus was galvanized early in life. As told to the Henry Ford museum in 2001, Thompson’s vision was forged by an unforgettable moment when, as a 12-year-old boy growing up in Queens, he spotted a 1934 Chrysler DeSoto Airflow at a stoplight. The heavens seemed to part at that moment, literally and figuratively. “There were patchy clouds in the sky, and it just so happened that the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through . . . I was never so impressed with anything in all my life. I knew that that’s what I wanted to do in life – I want[ed] to be an automobile designer.”