He’s been called the “Jackie Robinson” of car design. McKinley Thompson, Ford’s first African-American designer, was hired by the automobile manufacturing company at a time the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. He joined Ford Motor Company just after Rosa Parks took a stand on the bus in Montgomery, according to historians.
That period in American history was associated with social and political unrest, with Black people fighting against racism and segregation. None of the major automobile manufacturing companies including Chrysler, General Motors, and Ford were well-known for hiring Black talent into significant positions. And that is why Thompson’s story at Ford is astounding.
Becoming Ford’s first Black auto designer, he would be behind the first sketches of the original 1966 Bronco and go on to work on the Mustang, Ford trucks, and the T-Bird. But only a few knew about Thompson’s story until recently when Ford began the process of designing the all-new 2021 Ford Bronco.
While going through the archives for historical documentation of the model, Ford came across Thompson’s original signed and dated Bronco sketches, bringing to light his early influence on the model. “We found the very first design of the Bronco, and it was signed,” Ted Ryan, Ford’s archivist and heritage brand manager, told the Detroit Free Press. “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.”
Born on November 8, 1922, in New York City, New York, Thompson, known simply as “Mac” to colleagues and friends, was deeply interested in cars growing up. He recalled the joy he had after seeing a silver-gray DeSoto Airflow when he was around 12. “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.” Thompson said in an interview documented by The Henry Ford. “I was never so impressed with anything else in all my life. I knew that that’s what I wanted to do in life—I want[ed] to be an automobile designer.”
While not giving up on his dream, Thompson first served in the Army Signal Corps in World War II, working as an engineering layout coordinator having learned to become a professional draftsman. He held this post until 1953 when he entered a national design contest sponsored by Motor Trend magazine called “From Dream to Drawing Board to?” Contestants were to develop an automobile design that could be used for potential future automobiles. Thompson, with his love for cars, designed “a lightweight plastic car with a turbine engine and extra passenger space,” winning one of the five scholarships that were being offered.
He was thus able to attend Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, California, becoming the first African American to enroll in its Transportation Design Department. Right after completing his Bachelor’s in Industrial Design in 1956, he landed his dream job at Ford’s legendary Advanced Design Studio. “Among his projects was 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,” Ford stated.
A sketch of an open-air 4×4 concept, dated July 24, 1963, which ultimately became the Ford Bronco, has become one of Thompson’s famous works. The Brooklyn-born designer did work on the Bronco project along with other designers, however, he was the one who penned the first sketch that was used as the base model going forward from 1963, according to Ford.
Thompson went on to pen many important Ford designs before retiring from Ford in 1984. He moved to Arizona with his wife, passing away on March 5, 2006, but not without working on one of his final projects called “The Warrior”, a lightweight vehicle that he hoped would be used by developing countries. Sources say The Warrior was based on a one-piece fiberglass body; it could float and featured a removable top. Thompson however could not grab interest from investors and automakers, so he abandoned the project.
Still, he toured high schools across the U.S., inspiring young people and encouraging them to become automobile designers. In 1979, he also curated an exhibit of the works of Black auto designers “in an effort to enlighten and motivate youth on career possibilities in design,” according to Ford.
Today, though the very first Bronco designer is no more, his legacy lives on, at least in the design world. “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 – from the Ford Mustang, Thunderbird and Bronco – designs that are not only timeless but have been studied by generations of designers.”