From the time he was a kid, McKinley Thompson Jr. was never afraid to chase his dreams, and now everyone has him to thank for the Ford Bronco that the culture grew to know and love.

Thanks to Thompson’s imagination and skill, he made history as the first Black designer to be hired by Ford Motor Co., and his first assignment consisted of working at Ford’s advanced design studio in Dearborn, MI, per the Ford media website.

His love for cars first began around age 12 when he spotted a silver-gray DeSoto Airflow in Queens, NY, the neighborhood where he was raised.

“It just so happened that the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through,” Thompson recalled in a 2001 interview that was documented by The Henry Ford. “It lit that car up like a searchlight. I was never so impressed with anything in all my life. I knew that’s what I wanted to do – I wanted to be an automobile designer.”

While serving as an Army Signal Corps in World War II, Thompson learned drafting and began work as an engineering layout coordinator, but it was one fateful opportunity after the war that led him to the role he would take on at Ford.

During the early 1950s, Thompson entered a design contest in Motor Trend magazine. There, he submitted a turbine car with a reinforced plastic body, trending concepts at that time.

Ultimately, he won the contest and enrolled in the transportation design department at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA, where he graduated with a degree in transportation design in 1956.

The rest, as one would say, is history!

Thompson’s early projects featured concept sketches that would ultimately result in the Ford Mustang and the iconic Ford GT40, but his most memorable work is having a role in developing the company’s first 4×4 sports-utility vehicle, the Ford Bronco, in 1963.

“McKinley was a man who followed his dreams and wound up making history,” Ford Bronco interior designer Christopher Young said. “He 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.”

Thompson’s Bronco design, which was titled “Package Proposal #5 for Bronco” was rendered on July 24, 1963, and it wasn’t long before his work “influenced the design language that would become iconic attributes of the first-generation Bronco.”

“In Thompson’s proposed 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,” read the Ford website. 

Young shared, “I believe the hardest thing for a person like McKinley to do was working within the constraints given him to make a beautiful product. 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.”

As his time at Ford began to come to an end, Thompson started building his dream car in a rented garage in Detroit, MI, from 1969 to 1979 where he worked alongside another historic figure to come up with a prototype of the vehicle to pitch to automakers in developing nations.

His partner in crime at the time was Wallace Triplett, the first Black draftee to play for the NFL Detroit Lions in 1949, and although they eventually ended the project, it is still worthy to note that Thompson never gave up on his love for automobiles.

“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,” Young said.

In 1984 Thompson retired from Ford and moved to Arizona where he lived with his wife before passing away on March 5, 2006.