The Incredible True Story Behind The Designer Of The Original Ford Bronco

When a 12-year-old McKinley Thompson, Jr., saw a silver DeSoto Airflow in October of 1934, he knew he wanted to be an automobile designer. Thompson may have found his life's calling, but he had no idea just how far his love for futuristic themes and vehicular dreams would take him.

Most automobile enthusiasts know the names of Ferdinand Porsche, Henry Ford, and Carrol Shelby. Most of those same car lovers probably have no idea who McKinley Thompson, Jr., is, yet they should. Ford Motor Company recognizes Thompson as not only the first African American designer hired at Ford but the first African American auto designer in the car industry as a whole. Quite an accomplishment, given the turbulent political and racial climate of the 1950s.

According to the Henry Ford organization, Thompson was drawn to... well, drawing at an early age. He took commercial art courses while in high school and, after graduating in 1940, completed a course in drafting. His first paying job was as a draftsman with the National Youth Administration. He moved on from there and worked as an engineering design layout coordinator for the Army Signal Corps and was subsequently drafted into the Army Corps of Engineers when World War II began. He worked for the Signal Corps until 1953, when in March of that year he came across a copy of Motor Trend magazine that would change his life forever.

The Bronco jumps off the page into legend

Inside that issue of Motor Trend was a contest giving five winners a full-ride four-year scholarship to the Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles. At the time, it was one of the most prestigious and well-respected industrial design schools in the country. The contest required people to write an essay about what they thought automotive design trends would be over the next ten years and provide drawings, photos, or models of cars to support their ideas. Thompson's love of cars and the future paid off, and his submission garnered him one of those scholarships.

Thompson graduated from the Art Center School of Design with a degree in transportation design in 1956 and was soon after hired by Ford. At the advanced design studio in Dearborn, Michigan, he worked on a light-duty cab-forward truck and drew several concept sketches for the yet-to-be-released Ford Mustang, the renowned GT40, and the Thunderbird. According to The Henry Ford, he even worked on some wildly futuristic designs, like the Gyron, a two-wheeled concept gyrocar introduced at the Century of Progress exhibit at the Ford Rotunda in 1961, an actual flying car, and a nuclear-powered multi-trailered semi-truck.

But what Thompson is most famous for is his contributions to the legendary Ford Bronco. In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Ted Ryan — Ford's archivist and heritage brand manager — said Thompson wasn't the actual designer of the Bronco, "but he worked on the very first sketches." In one design Thompson drew in July of 1963 called "Package Proposal #5 for Bronco," the recognizable attributes of the first-generation Bronco can clearly be seen.

McKinley Thompson, Jr.'s impact on the car industry is legendary indeed.