McKinley Thompson: African American Auto Designer (video)


The legendary Bronco was Ford’s first 4X4 sports utility vehicle. The SUV went on to win the Baja 1000 and is a favorite of collectors and restorers alike.

The first-generation Bronco was designed by McKinley Thompson Jr., who was the first African American designer hired at Ford Motor Company.

Born in 1922, Thompson grew up in Queens, New York.

He had a keen interest in cars from the time he was young, and later recalled seeing a silver-gray DeSoto Airflow at a stop light when he was around 12. It inspired him enough to fuel his desire to become an automobile designer.

During World War II, Thompson served in the Army Signal Corps, where he learned drafting and he also worked as an engineering layout coordinator.

After the war, that work provided for him and his growing family, but Thompson’s love of cars and his dream of being a designer persisted. In the early 1950s, he entered a design contest in Motor Trend magazine, submitting a turbine car with a reinforced plastic body, both concepts that were trending in the postwar era.

He won the contest, then went on to enroll in the transportation design department at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. After graduating with a degree in transportation design in 1956, he went to work for Ford.

His first assignment was at Ford’s advanced design studio in Dearborn, working under George Walker, vice president of Ford design. 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.

Among Thompson’s more noteworthy projects was the Bronco sports-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. One of his designs, titled “Package Proposal #5 for Bronco,” rendered July 24, 1963, influenced the design language that would become iconic attributes of the first-generation Bronco.

Bronco designer McKinley Thompson
1966 Ford Bronco in Studio

In Thompson’s proposed design, the form and function of the wheels positioned at the far corners of the body for a confident and aggressive go-anywhere stance, while the curve of the wheel arches smoothing out conveyed speed.

Thompson’s concept for an all-purpose compact two-door SUV is a theme he would return to later in life. After retiring from Ford, he worked to design and build a concept he envisioned as an affordable all-purpose vehicle named the Warrior. The small utility vehicle was based on a one-piece fiberglass body, a process Thompson dreamed of decades earlier.

Thompson, later in his career at Ford, worked on the side to create his dream car in a rented garage in Detroit from 1969 to 1979, enlisting the help of Wallace Triplett, who had also broken the color barrier as the first African American draftee to play for the Detroit Lions in 1949. Together, they built a prototype and pitched the plans to burgeoning automakers in developing nations. Thompson hoped to change these countries for the better, much the same way Henry Ford envisioned with the Model T.

Eventually, Thompson pulled the plug on the project – but not on his dreams. He retired from Ford in 1984 and moved to Arizona with his wife. He passed away on March 5, 2006.

More information on McKinley Thompson…



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