The Trailblazing McKinley Thompson Jr.: Ford’s First Black Designer

Hired in 1956, McKinley Thompson Jr. helped pen the first Bronco and was the first Black designer hired at Ford Motor Co.

It was an era that gave birth to icons at Ford Motor Co.: the 1960s. This when the company produced some of its most unforgettable vehicles: the Mustang, the Thunderbird, the GT 40, the Lincoln Continental and, of course, the Ford Bronco. 

Ford revived the Bronco with great fanfare last year, and much was made of the iconic sport-utility vehicle, which won the Baja 1000 for two consecutive years. The first generation’s shape is now widely revered and, in peak concours condition, valued at close to $100,000. 

Among the designers responsible for the vehicle was Brooklyn-born McKinley Thompson Jr., who not only helped create the first Ford 4×4 sports-utility vehicle design, he was one of the first Black car designers sin the industry.

The first glimpse of his future

Born in Queens in 1922, Thompson remembers a pivotal moment in his childhood that changed his life. In an interview with The Henry Ford, Thompson recalled an incident that happened when he was 12. 

1934 DeSoto Airflow Coupe, the car that influence McKinley Thompson to become a car designer at age 12. Photo courtesy of RM Auctions.

He was walking home from school in Queens in 1934, when he spotted a DeSoto Airflow, Chrysler’s failed attempt at producing an aerodynamic car.

“There were patchy clouds in the sky, and it just so happened that the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through. It lit that car up like a searchlight,” he said.

Running after the car, he failed to catch up to it as the stoplight turned green. But the impact was clear. “I was never so impressed with anything in all my life. I knew [then] that that’s what I wanted to do in life — I want to be an automobile designer.”

Fast forward to 1953. Thompson, now 30, a war veteran and a family man, is an engineering layout coordinator for the Army Signal Corps. But the dream of being a car designer is still in his mind. He enters a Motor Trend magazine contest, winning one of four ArtCenter College of Design scholarships with a drawing of a turbine car, made with reinforced plastic. He is the first Black person enrolled in the Transportation Design program.

A Black designer draws history

At the age of 34, Thompson’s career at Ford Motor Co. starts after graduating from ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California in 1956, with a degree in transportation design. Remarkably, he landed at the big blue oval, securing a spot in Ford’s advanced design studio in Dearborn, Michigan — a plum assignment. At the time, the studio was overseen by George Walker, vice president of Ford design.

McKinley Thompson Jr.’s sketches for the first-generation Bronco.

Despite being an outlier among those on the staff, Thompson had the chance to explore the design possibilities of cars and trucks, penning a light-duty cab-forward truck, concept sketches for the forthcoming Ford Mustang, as well as the legendary Ford GT40 — the car being built to beat Ferrari at Le Mans. Thompson also worked on the futuristic space-age Ford Gyron, a futuristic two-wheeled concept car that Ford displayed in 1961. 

“McKinley was a man who followed his dreams and wound up making history,” said Ford Bronco interior designer Christopher Young. “He not only broke through the color barrier in the world of automotive design, he helped create some of the most iconic consumer products ever — the Ford Mustang, Thunderbird and Bronco — designs that are not only timeless but have been studied by generations of designers.”

One crucial design stands above the others

The 1966 Ford Bronco, as it appeared in production.

But for Thompson, a designer, one project stands above the others, even if he didn’t realize it at the time. It’s the drawing “Package Proposal #5 for Bronco,” one he created on July 24, 1963. The sketch was one he made for the Bronco sport-utility vehicle, an open-air 4×4 concept featuring a square, short body and high ground clearance with minimal front and rear overhangs for optimum off-road capability.

It captured the essence of what would become the Ford Bronco, establishing the trucks form language, and leading the way to the first-generation production Bronco. In the rendering, the Bronco’s wheels are placed at the corners of the body, lending the concept for a confident and aggressive stance, not unlike its competitors from Jeep and International Harvester. It’s offset by curved wheel arches, which contrast with the overall boxiness of the design — which design boss Walker seemed to like. 

“I believe the hardest thing for a person like McKinley to do was working within the constraints given him to make a beautiful product,” said Young. “Engineering dictates size and functionality, then manufacturing limits how it can be stamped and assembled, and finance says you have to build it for a low price.”

Another dream car 

Johnson and The Warrior, his prototype car for developing nations.

On the side Thompson would also work om developing a car called The Warrior. Thompson built a prototype with the help of Wallace Triplett, who had also broken the color barrier as the first Black draftee to play for the Detroit Lions in 1949.

Building a prototype using a Renault R10 chassis and running gear, the pair hoped to sell it to burgeoning automakers in developing nations, changing lives for the better in countries where the car would be produced by providing jobs and thus boosting local economies. 

But it was not to be. After 10 years, in 1979, the project was put aside. Thompson retired from Ford in 1984, moving to Arizona. He would pass away in 2006.

“McKinley’s influence, beyond his work on the original Bronco, helped pave the way for others like him who might not have had an opportunity to express their creative talents and live their dreams to be a part of one of America’s greatest companies,” said Young.

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