History was made on Thursday, July 20, as leaders in the automotive industry gathered at the historic Fillmore Theater to honor trailblazers whose contributions have left an indelible mark.
Among the esteemed honorees was the late McKinley W. Thompson Jr., a visionary pioneer and one of the first Black industrial designers in the country. His posthumous induction into the prestigious Automotive Hall of Fame was a befitting acknowledgment of his groundbreaking achievements in the realm of automotive design.
The Automotive Hall of Fame, widely regarded as the most esteemed accolade in the automotive industry, reserves its prestigious induction for remarkable individuals who have forged, molded, and revolutionized the automotive and mobility market.
Surrounded by fellow industry professionals, past awardees, and loving families, the ceremony served as a heartfelt celebration of the remarkable life and enduring legacy of the men and women who forever revolutionized the field of transportation and mobility.
Thompson was the lone Black inductee in a class of six 2023 inductees, including General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Simicon Co. founder Fred T. Bauer, famed motorsports driver Juan Manuel Fanigo, former Honda Motor Company executive Takeo Fujisawa, and “Mr. Hot Wheels” Larry Wood.
Born in 1922 and raised in Queens, New York, Thompson’s fascination with automobiles began at a young age. As a child, he would sketch and draw cars, dreaming of one day shaping the vehicles that captured his imagination. His passion for design drove him to pursue a formal education in transportation design, and in 1956, he earned a degree from the prestigious ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California.
Thompson’s groundbreaking journey into the automotive world started when he became the first African American designer to be hired at the renowned Ford Motor Company. Joining the company’s legendary Advance Design Studio, he embarked on a career that would span an impressive 28 years. Thompson’s tenure at Ford was marked by his extraordinary talent, innovation, and dedication, and he played a significant role in shaping some of the most iconic vehicles in automotive history.
Throughout his career, Thompson influenced and designed automotive brands. His keen eye and artistic prowess lent themselves to the sleek design of the Ford Thunderbird, the timeless appeal of the Ford Mustang, and the bold presence of the Ford Warrior concept, which became one of his most iconic works.
“His mind was constantly thinking in terms of how to approach a good idea and to make it work – make it happen. He wasn’t just thinking of a small group of people. He was thinking about a worldly vehicle that he designed that could impact the nation.” said Bob Tate, Automotive Hall of Fame Historian.
One of his most notable contributions came with the first-generation Ford Bronco, a beloved off-road vehicle that captured the hearts of adventure-seekers worldwide. Thompson’s artistic vision and design expertise were pivotal in shaping the Bronco’s rugged and distinctive appearance, earning it a permanent place in automotive folklore. He is universally recognized for naming the iconic vehicle and completing more than 50 percent of the final design work that went into shaping the Bronco.
Not only did Thompson excel in design, though, but he also broke down barriers in the automotive industry, becoming a trailblazer for African Americans in the field. He served as an inspiration and a role model for aspiring designers from diverse backgrounds, proving that talent and determination could overcome any obstacles.
During the acceptance speech made in his honor, his younger sister Colette Thompson spoke of his vital role in diversifying the automotive industry.
“My brother wanted the world to connect because connection allows the spread of knowledge and unlost places that seemed off limits. He saw the importance of unlocking places that seemed off limits. Tom was the first Black designer at Ford Motor Company,” she said. “When he walked through those doors of Ford Design Studio, my brother unlocked that space for that young black boy or girl in class drawing cars, unaware of the power that pencil holds for them. That pencil right now is being held by the next game changing designer of the next generation of cars. That’s what my brother would’ve wanted his legacy to do. To allow accessibility to all.”
Thompson’s family beamed with pride as they witnessed the night dedicated to honoring him. Among them, his daughter Wendi Burt, her eyes glistening with tears of joy, fondly reminisced about the time she spent with her father, speaking about his brilliance and the extraordinary creations he brought to life. She revealed that she cherishes his old drawings, and they are destined to be showcased in an upcoming book that will beautifully capture the story of his remarkable life.
“I always thought he was a genius, but he was my father. This has been a great opportunity to learn about his contributions and what he meant to other people. I saw him help a lot of people,” Burt said. “He put a lot of people through school and got a lot of people employment through Ford. His legacy lives on through the lives he touched and the opportunities he created.”
The family fondly recalled how Thompson would lovingly construct cars, bikes, and race car tracks for them, creating memories that will be missed dearly. His significant presence within the family was something they will hold close to their hearts, always holding closely the moments spent together with him.
When asked about whether anyone in the family possesses similar skills as Thompson, his grandson Anthony Burt offered a simple yet profound response: “No. He was truly one of a kind.”
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