As a little boy, Chris Young played with model Matchbox cars and dinosaur figures. Then his mother brought home Hot Wheels, and he sat and drew for hours and hours.
“Our neighbor Mr. Fox had a Jaguar XKE, classic red with a tan interior, and his Shelby Cobra was white,” Young said. “I remember this fall day, the leaves were falling and it was like a classic Norman Rockwell painting of a little kid standing there, leaves blowing, just outside Philadelphia.”
Growing up in a mostly Jewish neighborhood, Young said his mother worked as a manager at the U.S. Postal Service while his father drove a car with tinted windows when he went to his Department of Defense job.
“I remember, as a child, the mailman came by and I told him I wanted to be a car designer,” Young said. “At the time, I wasn’t a big math person. I would rather design and draw. And the mailman said, ‘Are you sure you want to get into that? It might be really hard for you.’ He was implying not a lot of Black people do that. I said I was going to do it anyway.”
Young didn’t know at the time about the work of the late McKinley Thompson Jr., the first Black auto designer at Ford and the man who drew the first sketches of the Ford Bronco. Until recently, not many people did.
But Thompson laid a path for later generations like Young, who now is a designer, too, and who has spent three years working on the Bronco team, focusing on Bronco Sport — which makes its debut as part of the Bronco family on Monday and will be first to go on sale at the end of this year.
The unconventional launch that begins at 8 p.m. involves three separate videos airing just after the hour on ABC, ESPN and National Geographic channel as well as YouTube. It marks the return of an SUV built from 1966 to 1996.
“People are looking for something to differentiate themselves,” said Young, who started out working in automotive restoration as an Aston Martin apprentice in Connecticut that later included work on Jaguar and Porsche. “The Bronco has a rich history and it’s instantly recognizable.”
Over the past decade, he has worked on interior design for the Ford Mustang, the Lincoln Continental, Lincoln MKZ and Lincoln Navigator — which one consumer compared to “driving a La-Z-Boy down the freeway” after spending $100,000 on it.
Young, 48, of Southfield specializes in “user experience” or what’s known as UX in the industry. He looks at how people interact with vehicles, having earned bachelor’s degrees in fine arts and industrial design at what is now known as the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.
He wonders sometimes why he never learned in either specialty program that the first sketches of the original 1966 Bronco were the work of Thompson.
“These are glimpses of the past people don’t know,” Young said. “This is important, so people know everybody contributes. With all this going on with the Black Lives Matter efforts, it doesn’t mean just not being assaulted when you go out the door but also getting credit for things you’ve done.”
As it turns out, few people inside or outside the automotive industry celebrated Thompson’s role at Ford until recently.
“We found the very first design of the Bronco, and it was signed,” said Ted Ryan, Ford’s archivist and heritage brand manager. “We started googling and we were like, wait, this is a McKinley Thompson. It was a discovery. He was not the designer of the Bronco but he worked on the very first sketches. He was groundbreaking in his passion for design. He went on to work on the Mustang, Bronco, Ford trucks and the T-Bird.”
Thompson served during World War II in the Army Corps of Engineers, then won a national design competition sponsored by Motor Trend magazine that included a scholarship to the Art Center College of Design in Southern California.
The Motor Trend contest, held in 1953, was called “From Dream to Drawing Board to?”
Ford hired him in 1956 after seeing his impressive portfolio.
“Think Lincoln Continental Mark I. It was a new blood of designers. Thompson came in at the end of the big fin era, and saw a transition to Broncos and sporty cars. The world was Brown versus Board of Education, integration of popular sports with Jackie Robinson and slowly the cities were beginning to integrate,” Ryan said.
“Mac Thompson was a Ford designer who worked on the Bronco project along with other designers,” he said. “(But) he was the one who penned the first sketch that was used as the base model going forward from 1963.”
Matt Anderson, transportation curator at The Henry Ford museum, said, “McKinley Thompson absolutely broke the color barrier in Detroit in terms of getting into an automotive design studio. He joined Ford Motor Company just after Rosa Parks took a stand on the bus in Montgomery.”
That bus sat rusted in a storage shed until The Henry Ford Museum acquired it in 2001 and restored it. The bus is currently on display in Dearborn.
Thompson’s image will be part of an automotive exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts scheduled to run from mid-November to June 2021 that will spotlight 12 cars and a series of drawings from 1950 to 2020.
“Many of our important designers are underrecognized. Their work is not shown publicly. We live with their work anonymously,” said Benjamin Colman, associate curator for American Art at the DIA.
“One reason to mount a show about car design is that so many in the field have not received the public or popular recognition for the beauty of their work,” he said. “One of my goals is to emphasize how creative and experimental the design process of a car is.”
Detroit has been the heart of innovation for 150 years, said Joel Stone, senior curator at the Detroit Historical Society.
“People who have done great things have gone completely unrecognized,” he said. “Thousands of stories.”
Thompson curated an exhibit of the works of Black auto designers in 1979 “in an effort to enlighten and motivate youth on career possibilities in design,” according to materials from the Ford archive.
“He wanted to pay it forward,” Ryan said.
Thompson, who retired from Ford in 1984 and died in 2006, included among his projects “a light-duty cab-forward truck, several concept sketches for the soon-to-be Ford Mustang and the legendary Ford GT40. Thompson also worked on the futuristic space-age Ford Gyron, a two-wheeled concept car that was on display at the Century of Progress exhibit at the Ford Rotunda in 1961,” according to Ford archives.
McKinley Thompson has finally become one of the designers whose work is studied in the classroom, said car design consultant Eric Noble, a professor at Thompson’s alma mater. “He helped create one of the most iconic SUV designs ever conceived.”
People are often inspired by what they see and what they hear, and this points to how innovation happens, said Melissa Bradley, a business professor at Georgetown University. “I would imagine there are a lot of people like a Chris Young sitting in corporate America right now where they are mindful of the great burden and privilege … of continuing a legacy that made history.”
Few people realize the first traffic light was invented by a Black businessman, Garrett Morgan Sr. in 1923, she noted. Morgan, who began his career with an elementary school education as a sewing machine mechanic, patented other notable inventions.
Industry observers said lesser known visionaries like McKinley Thompson are reminiscent of Karen Johnson, the mathematician featured in the Oscar-nominated film, “Hidden Figures,” which depicted a group of Black women at NASA who played key roles in the space program.
“The automobile gave us so much, kind of like the space program,” Chris Young said. “I’m extremely lucky to be doing what I’m doing. You’re making someone happy, giving somebody a little bit of joy, like music.”
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