McKinley Thompson Jr. at drafting table

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.