McKinley Thompson Jr., an African American industrial designer, was born and raised in New York City. He knew the road he wanted to travel in life one day in October 1934. He was returning home from school in Queens when he spotted a silver-grey Chrysler DeSoto Airflow (like this 1934 model in our collections) pulling up to a traffic signal. Mr. Thompson, then just a young boy of 12, was about a half a block away. Reliving the moment for The Henry Ford in an oral history interview in 2001, Mr. Thompson recalled many of the details: “There were patchy clouds in the sky, and it just so happened that the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through. It lit that car up like a searchlight.” He began running towards it, but the light turned green. Though the car drove off before he could get a closer look, the impact had been made. “I was never so impressed with anything in all my life. I knew [then] that that’s what I wanted to do in life—I want[ed] to be an automobile designer.” At the time, there hadn’t been a single African American car stylist.
By 1953, Mr. Thompson was a war veteran with a family and a career as an engineering layout coordinator for the Army Signal Corps. He had reached his thirtieth birthday and could have easily settled into a comfortable existence. But he still wanted to be an automobile designer—a life goal he never lost sight of. He decided to enter a contest sponsored by Motor Trend magazine, with four winners each receiving an Art Center College of Design scholarship. His turbine car, which would incorporate reinforced plastic (an unusual choice of material at the time), won him a scholarship. He started at the Art Center in Los Angeles that same year, and was the first African American enrolled in their prestigious Transportation Design department. After graduating in 1956, he interviewed for an automotive design position with just one automaker: Ford Motor Company. He got the job.
Mr. Thompson didn’t just land the position he had dreamed of since the day that shining car caught his eye; he made history by becoming the first African American automobile designer.
He started at Ford’s Advanced Studio, where designers worked free from creative restrictions. On his first day, he was told by the Vice President of Ford Design, George Walker, “You can go as far as your talent will take you.” Mr. Thompson’s early design work included the Light Cab Forward truck, and he contributed sketches for the Mustang and the futuristic Gyron concept car. He also envisioned a forward-thinking project that had the potential to change the world.
In 1965, Mr. Thompson took his innovative idea to Ford: an all-terrain vehicle for the Third World that would have economic and social consequences. He understood that rising countries needed good transportation, and that a vehicle had to satisfy the needs of the population. He knew that like the Model T, his car should be relatively easy to build and maintain, and that production costs must be kept to a bare minimum. But Mr. Thompson’s vision extended beyond this vehicle. He anticipated his auto plants—located in the developing nations that would use car—bringing jobs, better roads and eventual economic independence to host countries. He believed automobile manufacturing would “help develop the economy as it did in the United States.”
The name he chose for the automobile that would make this grand plan possible was “the Warrior.” The car was actually intended to be the first in a series of vehicles, including a half-ton pickup truck, a six-passenger bus (an early version of the minivan), as well as boats and containers (buoys, pontoons, etc.). They would be constructed using a strong space age plastic material produced by Uniroyal called Royalex.
Though Ford was very supportive, the company ultimately passed on the project in 1967. Mr. Thompson still believed the car could succeed, and he recruited friends to invest in or assist with developing the vehicle for the African market. One of those friends and investors was Wally Triplett, who had broken a barrier of his own in 1949 as the first African American to play in the National Football League (for the Detroit Lions).
Mr. Thompson rented a garage on Detroit’s west side and went about building the Warrior. Still working at Ford during the day, he spent at least six hours a night—plus weekends—on the vehicle. “My family was very good about that. My wife knew how badly I wanted to do this,” he recalled. Mr. Triplett assisted, and was the only other individual involved in its construction.
The prototype was modeled on the Renault R-10, a small four-door sedan. Indeed, the Warrior’s chassis came directly from a disassembled R-10. Base mechanical components, including the engine, were also incorporated. Renault already had a distribution system overseas, providing a ready-made parts supplier for Mr. Thompson’s customers. Mr. Thompson and Mr. Triplett designed and built the tools to form the sections of the body, which were then sent off to Uniroyal, who molded the Royalex plastic.
While major work on the Warrior was complete by 1969, it’s likely that modifications were made to the vehicle through the mid-1970s while continued attempts were made to turn the vision into reality.
The partners talked of building the car in Detroit themselves, but were denied a bank loan; Mr. Triplett believes race played a role. African nations were courted, but instability on the continent derailed those opportunities. As for Ford Motor Company, the automaker—like others—didn’t believe the car would sell in large enough numbers to warrant the investment. Mr. Thompson eventually stopped looking for funding, closing up shop on the Warrior in 1979. Still, he kept in touch with his project’s supporters, in the event something came up, but alas, “nothing ever came of it.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Thompson never lost faith in the Warrior, and kept the car as a leisure vehicle. He took it off-road in Northern Michigan’s sand dunes, and drove the car on family vacations. He even used it for running errands, usually attracting a fair amount of attention. Though the Warrior was never mass-produced, Mr. Thompson’s many years of driving the prototype proved it was a sound vehicle. The car got a respectable 35-40 miles per gallon on the highway and 25-27 in the city. Maximum speed was 75-80 mph. The Warrior is now a part of The Henry Ford collection.
The Warrior project was ahead of its time in design and philosophy. The use of plastic, so common today, was revolutionary at the time. Mr. Thompson’s larger economic prophecy was partially fulfilled in 1995 when the URI, an all-terrain vehicle designed for African topography, was manufactured in the small town of Witvlei, Namibia. The URI plant became Witvlei’s largest employer, providing economic stability to the area.
After retiring, Mr. Thompson put together a traveling exhibit of the history of the African American designers at Ford. He wanted to show African American kids that his dream job was a career option for them, too. He traveled with the exhibit, standing next to it at malls and museums, happily fielding questions from curious visitors.
Sadly, Mr. Thompson suffered from Parkinson’s disease later in life. McKinley Thompson Jr. passed away in 2006 at the age of 83.
McKinley Thompson, undated. (Photograph courtesy of Terry Keefe.)
“I regret I wasn’t able to get it going,” he lamented to The Henry Ford regarding the Warrior, a project in which he had invested so much work and faith. But he was quick to add that “God has blessed a certain number of people in the world with talent and ability and I’ve always felt that those people that have that blessing—creativity and imagination—owe it to the rest of the population to make life as good as it can be. It was rewarding to me to know that I was trying to make that kind of an effort. I felt good about that.”
Bart Bealmear is a research support specialist in the Archives & Library at The Henry Ford.
Learn more about the Warrior automobile, McKinley Thompson, and Wally Triplett with these sources:
Archives materials available in the BFRC Reading Room:
Oral History Interview with McKinley W. Thompson Regarding the 1974 Warrior Concept Car (2001.162.2)
Wally Triplett Collection (2004.40.0). Includes the photograph album, “White Paper to Wheels” and an oral history with Mr. Triplett (2004.40.1)
“Design Pioneers: Vanguards of Progress, Part II,” Isdesignet, September 1996. Archives Vertical File, African-American Workers – Inventions