African-American Transportation History: McKinley Thompson, Automobile Designer

In 1956, McKinley Thompson became the first African-American car designer for a major automobile manufacturer when the Ford Motor Company hired him. Thompson, who was born in New York City in 1922, recalled that his choice of career first took shape when he was only 12 years old. He noticed one day how sunlight broke through some clouds to shine upon an automobile not too far from him. “I was never so impressed with anything else in all my life,” he explained during a 2001 interview. Thompson decided then and there that he wanted to be a car designer.

After graduating from high school in 1940, Thompson became a professional draftsman. Another crucial step towards reaching this career goal took place when he joined the U.S. Army during World War II. He served as an engineering design layout coordinator for the Signal Corps, a position which he held until 1953.  That same year, he took part in a national competition for designs that could be used for future automobiles. The competition was sponsored by Motor Trend magazine, and Thompson’s submission — a lightweight plastic automobile featuring a turbine engine and larger-than-average passenger space — earned him one of five scholarships being offered by the magazine.

The scholarship enabled Thompson to attend the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. He became the first African-American to enroll in the institution’s highly regarded transportation design department. After earning his bachelor’s degree in industrial design, Thompson went to work at the Ford Motor Company’s design center. Thompson, who was able to work there with few if any artistic restrictions, soon developed various unique concepts for cars. One of the more memorable vehicles that he helped design was the 1961 Ford Gyron, a three-wheeled, two-passenger show car resembling an airplane.

Thompson steadily moved up the ranks at the Ford Motor Company, becoming manager of its appearance development and feasibility design modeling department in 1976. He retired from the company in 1984. Thompson died in 2006 at the age of 83.

For more information on McKinley Thompson, please check out

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