Ford’s first Black designer helped pen the original Bronco

McKinley Thompson Jr. was the first African American designer hired at Ford Motor Co. after graduating in 1956 from ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. (Ford)

Young designer also contributed to concepts for a cab-forward truck, the Mustang and the legendary GT40

BY MARK MAYNARD

The endearing and enduring success of the Ford Bronco has roots in its earliest design by the first African American designer hired at Ford Motor Co. In 1956, McKinley Thompson Jr. had just graduated from ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., with a degree in transportation design.

Among Thompson’s more noteworthy projects was the Bronco SUV, an open-air 4×4 concept featuring a square, short body and high ground clearance with minimal front and rear overhangs for optimum off-road capability. One of his designs, titled “Package Proposal #5 for Bronco,” rendered July 24, 1963, influenced the design language that would become iconic attributes of the first-generation Bronco.

Early sketches by Thompson Jr. (Ford)

The original nameplate ran from 1965 to 1996, when the short-wheelbase off-roader was replaced by the much larger Expedition SUV. Now, 24 years later Ford has just unveiled its successor.

The 2021 Bronco 4X4 will be available next spring in two-door and four-door body styles, laying the foundation for a family of off-road vehicles, Ford calls “Built Wild.” Like the original, the sixth-generation Bronco, based on the Ranger pickup, will have removable doors and roof for an open-air experience. A less intense and more affordable model, the Bronco Sport, will be based on the Escape SUV architecture.

A pre-production 2021 Bronco two-door shares some off-road design cues from the first-generation 1966 Bronco. (Ford)

“We created the Bronco family to elevate every aspect of off-road adventure and equipped them with class-leading chassis hardware and exclusive technologies to raise the bar in the rugged 4×4 segment and take people further into the wild,” Jim Farley, Ford chief operating officer, said in a media statement. And at launch there will be a range of option packages, including the Sasquatch with 35-inch tires, and more than 200 factory-backed accessories.

An early Bronco clay prototype. (Ford)

Ranger roots

Based on the architecture of the midsize Ranger pickup, the Bronco will have a boxed, high-strength steel chassis that will be capable best-in-class suspension travel, Ford says, or 17 percent more front and rear over the closest competitor (the Jeep Wrangler).

There will be two engines, the standard powertrain will be a 270-horsepower, 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder with an expected 310 foot-pounds of torque. It will have a standard seven-speed manual transmission (including a crawler gear) or optional 10-speed automatic. A 325-hp, 2.7-liter twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6 will be optional, with 400 foot-pounds of torque, paired with the automatic transmission.

Pricing will start at about $30,000 and both body styles can be reserved now at Ford.com for $100.

Reservations for the Bronco First Edition — limited to 3,500 copies — filled up in less than a day, for the price of $60,800, including shipping.

Even the original Bronco debuted with a range of accessories. (Ford)

An unsung legend

Thompson Jr. is somewhat of an unsung legend, according to a media release from Ford.

His first assignment was at the company’s advanced design studio in Dearborn, working under George Walker, vice president of Ford design. Among his projects was a light-duty cab-forward truck, several concept sketches for the soon-to-be Ford Mustang and the legendary Ford GT40. Thompson also worked on the futuristic space-age Ford Gyron, a two-wheeled concept car that was on display at the Century of Progress exhibit at the Ford Rotunda in 1961.

The 1966 Bronco prototype. (Ford)

McKinley followed his dreams and wound up making history, said the current Ford Bronco interior designer Christopher Young, who also is Black. “[McKinley] not only broke through the color barrier in the world of automotive design, he helped create some of the most iconic consumer products ever — from the Ford Mustang, Thunderbird and Bronco — designs that are not only timeless but have been studied by generations of designers.”

The 1966 pickup body. (Ford)

Package Proposal #5 for Bronco

In Thompson’s proposed Bronco design, the form and function of the wheels positioned at the far corners of the body for a confident and aggressive go-anywhere stance, while the curve of the wheel arches smoothing out conveyed speed.

“I believe the hardest thing for a person like McKinley to do was working within the constraints given him to make a beautiful product,” said Young, 48. “Engineering dictates size and functionality, then manufacturing limits how it can be stamped and assembled, and finance says you have to build it for a low price.”

1966 interior with bench seat. (Ford)
And with the bucket-seat option. (Ford)

Thompson’s concept for an all-purpose compact two-door SUV is a theme he would return to later in life. After retiring from Ford, he worked to design and build a concept he envisioned as an affordable all-purpose vehicle named the Warrior. The small utility vehicle was based on a one-piece fiberglass body, a process Thompson dreamed of decades earlier.

Simple hardware but durable. (Ford)
The standard 150-hp. 170-cubic-inch inline six was derived from the Ford Falcon. In March 1966, a 200-hp 289-cubic-inch V-8 was introduced as an option. (Ford)

The warrior and the dreamer

Thompson was born in 1922 and grew up in Queens, N.Y. He had a keen interest in cars from the time he was young, and later recalled seeing a silver-gray DeSoto Airflow when he was around 12.

“It just so happened that the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through,” he said in an interview documented by The Henry Ford. “It lit that car up like a searchlight.”

Thompson recalled running toward it, but the light turned green. “I was never so impressed with anything in all my life,” he said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do — I wanted to be an automobile designer.”

Protected spare tire storage. (Ford)
Optional wheel covers. (Ford)

Thompson served in the Army Signal Corps in World War II, learning drafting and working as an engineering layout coordinator. After the war, that work provided for him and his growing family, but Thompson’s love of cars and his dream of being a designer persisted. In the early 1950s, he entered a design contest in Motor Trend magazine, submitting a turbine car with a reinforced plastic body, both concepts that were trending in the postwar era.

He won the contest, then went on to enroll in the transportation design department at ArtCenter College of Design.

Later in his Ford career, Thompson worked on the side to create his dream car in a rented garage in Detroit from 1969 to 1979, enlisting the help of Wallace Triplett, who had also broken the color barrier as the first African American draftee to play for the Detroit Lions in 1949. Together, they built a prototype and pitched the plans to burgeoning automakers in developing nations. Thompson hoped to change these countries for the better, much the same way Henry Ford envisioned with the Model T.

Eventually, Thompson pulled the plug on the project — but not on his dreams. He retired from Ford in 1984 and moved to Arizona with his wife. He passed away on March 5, 2006.

“McKinley’s influence, beyond his work on the original Bronco, helped pave the way for others like him who might not have had an opportunity to express their creative talents and live their dreams to be a part of one of America’s greatest companies,” said Young.

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