Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: John M. Chun, Automobile Designer

As a longtime American citizen, Korean-born John M. Chun carved out an enviable niche for himself as an automobile designer. His innovative products ranged from toy cars to actual high-performance automobiles.

Chun started out life in present-day North Korea in 1928. He moved to South Korea in 1953 after active fighting in the Korean War came to an end with the signing of an armistice. Four years later, Chun immigrated to the United States and settled in the vicinity of Sacramento, California.

While Chun held a degree in engineering from his native country, he quickly realized that it had little if any use in the U.S. job market. He initially enrolled at Sacramento Junior College to further pursue his studies in engineering and then, based on his strong talent for sketching designs, transferred to the Art Center College of Design (ACCD) in Los Angeles. Chun earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial design (with a specialty in transportation design) from ACCD and was eventually hired by Shelby American’s chief engineer Fred Goodell. Chun’s assignments for the company involved developing concept sketches for the Shelby Mustang GT 350 and GT500 models as well as the Shelby AC Cobra sports car throughout the late 1960s.

Along with helping to make these popular automobiles a reality, Chun redesigned the company’s logo so that its cobra had a more authentic and attention-grabbing appearance. This logo has since taken on an iconic status and it is still used by the company today.

By 1969, Chun had established himself as a leading automobile designer. He briefly worked for the Chrysler Corporation, designing such automobiles as the Dodge Charger and Plymouth Road Runner, and then accepted a position with Tonka Toys. The Minnesota-based company was preparing to introduce a new line of toy cars at the time and seeking a well-qualified automobile designer for the effort. Chun worked for Tonka Toys for several years.

In more recent decades, Chun gained an even larger measure of fame for his creative work and in particular the automobiles he designed for Shelby American. At the time of Chun’s death in 2013, a company spokesman commented that the characteristically modest Chun “was astonished about how much fuss people were making about him” whenever he attended events showcasing those still-popular automobiles.

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