The Benefits of Bearing Down: My Career in Car Design

The Benefits of Bearing Down: My Career in Car Design

I was a car designer with Ford and Chrysler in the 1950s, a time of powerful, classic cars. What made my employment as a designer unique is that I was a 23-year-old farm boy from Millinocket with no formal art training, and in the U.S. Navy, at the time Ford hired me. I still had a year before my enlistment discharge a year later in June 1954. I began work at Ford just a few weeks later. At that time Ford, GM, Chrysler, and American Motors all had a hiring policy that required new designer applicants to be art or design school graduates. How did I manage to slip between the cracks? 

Back to the past. I was just a typical young car nut in my high school teens, and I was good at drawing, so I did just that, doing drawings of cars . . . mostly my own designs.  After graduating from high school, I wanted to continue in art and design as a professional career, but I could not afford to go to art school. However, when the Korean war broke out, the GI Bill benefits were re-instated.  I joined the Navy to obtain the college benefits upon my discharge in 1954.  

Unfortunately, I never got to use or need the benefits.  Ford Motor Company had made me a design job offer while I was still in the Navy. This unusual situation took place because a national car magazine published some of my car designs in an article titled “Dream Car Sailor.” During my Navy enlistment, I had continued designing cars in my spare time. This was the totally unexpected, surprising result of that spacetime activity. 

I began employment with Ford in July 1954, just two weeks after my Navy discharge. I began work in their Advanced Design Studio, which was composed of a dozen or more newly employed design school graduates.  However, I was not a design school graduate, the only one without that qualification. It was an exceptional opportunity, but it presented many challenges to my novice art and design talent. I quickly realized I was “behind the eight ball,” so to speak, and that it would be a daunting task to succeed, compete, and advance in the situation I found myself. 

The answer was to bear down and continue the love and perseverance for designing cars that had gotten me to this point.  I was determined to defy any doubts that I could succeed. Bear down. I did just that, working every evening in a small suburban Detroit apartment with my new young wife, both of us from the small town of Millinocket, Maine.  In a matter of just a few months, I was the one in my group who was getting the favorable comments and attention. In just four months I was promoted from the Advanced Studio to the top Ford Production Design Studio, well in advance of my design-school counterparts. In less than a year I found myself as one of the leading (and youngest) designers in this small group of highly experienced professionals. 

I spent the next three years at Ford working on the ʼ56, ʼ57 and ʼ58 models of the Parkland and Fairlane station wagons, sedans, and Thunderbird.  Despite the immeasurable experience I had gained at Ford and my enjoyment in working there, I then decided to make a change to Chrysler because of management changes. I began designing at Chrysler for the Plymouth and Chrysler divisions.  

And soon, my young Millinocket wife and I made another change, leaving Detroit. By ʼ59, even while making a very good salary and experiencing success, I began considering moving back to the New England area and starting my own industrial design business.  

I did just that in 1960, starting AR Williams & Associates in Lynnfield, Massachusetts. It was another challenging chapter in our life. I was starting over from scratch with an office in the basement of our home . . . now with three children and a fourth on the way . . . and my wife in another added role, as my administrative assistant.  It was “bare down” time again but with much more at stake.  

Within a few months I had several clients, and I soon had more work than I could do alone. I was able to rent a small office in the next year, and hire my first employee, then a second and third.  My design business became very successful and grew to six designers. The company won over 50 national and international design awards before I sold the business to a long-time client, Tom’s of Maine, in 2000 and moved back to Maine. 

For more information, see the Motorland Classic Car Museum in Arundel. It is planning an exhibit of Rod Williams’s ʼ50s car designs. They are located at 2564 Portland Road, (US Route 1), Arundel, Maine 04046. Call the Museum at 207-494-1940. Summer and Fall 2021 hours: Open Daily 10-5. Admission: $12 per person (Children under 7 free). 

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Rod Williams

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