TBT: Remembering Ford’s First African American Designer

McKinley Thompson, Jr. joined Ford Motor Company in 1956. He was the company's first African American designer. His work was influential on products such as the original Ford Bronco.

The industry’s first African American designer, who would go on to leave his mark on iconic vehicles such as the Ford Bronco, didn’t take a direct path to Ford Motor Company.

The dream of being an automobile designer never left McKinley “Mac” Thompson, Jr., who was so enamored with the appearance of a 1934 Chrysler DeSoto Airflow at the age of 12 that he was still pursuing his goal well into adulthood.

A veteran and an engineering layout coordinator for the Army Signal Corps., Thompson was 30 years old when he entered a design contest sponsored by Motor Trend magazine in 1953. His progressive entry of a turbine car made of reinforced plastic took one of the contest’s four scholarships to the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles.

After graduating in 1956, Thompson only interviewed with Ford Motor Company. After getting the job, his first assignment was in Ford’s Advanced Studio, where he created sketches of the Mustang and the futuristic Gyron concept car, though his real interest was trucks. After six months, he was transferred to the truck pre-production studio, where he helped design the Light Cab Forward.

Thompson is best known, though, for his input on the legendary Ford Bronco. His sketches had a strong influence on the design cues the rugged off-roader came to be known for.  

Thompson’s passion project became the Warrior, a rugged all-terrain vehicle intended for use in Third World nations. He anticipated the vehicle would spur business and societal development and despite Ford’s rejection of his idea in 1967, Thompson continued to pursue it on his own. He was ultimately unable to attract investors and discontinued the project in 1979, though he kept the car as a leisure vehicle, attracting attention wherever he drove it.

Later in his career, Thompson worked in the Falcon and Thunderbird studios. He also did early design work on the GT-40. He established and managed the Appearance Development Studio, where proposed design changes were modeled for review.

Just as he opened doors for other African Americans in the automotive industry, Thompson hoped to inspire children, as well. Upon his retirement in 1984, Thompson created a traveling exhibit of the history of African American designers at Ford to show them his dream job could be a possibility for them, too.

Thompson passed away in 2006 at the age of 83.

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