Arundel, Maine – In 1954, Millinocket native Allen “Rod” Williams made the pages of the Bangor Daily News when he was hired by Ford to help design cars in Detroit.
At the time, Williams was 23, had graduated from the US Navy and had no formal design training. However, he was adept at drawing and painting flashy futuristic cars.
Racing forward nearly 70 years to date and Williams – now 94 – is back in the public eye once again.
A collection of his old car plates will be on display at the Maine Classic Car Museum in Arundel. The exhibition opens on May 14 with a public reception celebrating the now legendary local industrial designer.
“His work is so beautiful it has never been shown before,” said curator Karen Siegler. “We all have his original concept drawings.”
Also on display will be two classic Americana collections that Williams was involved in imagining: the 1957 Ford Fairlane and the 1957 Ford Thunderbird.
“Do you know the little porthole window on the back of the Thunderbird?” Siegler said.
Williams’s career in art and design began far from Motor City, on the Millinocket dairy farm where she was raised by a single mother and grandparents. Encouraged by his family, he would spend hours drawing yard flowers, airplanes, and fictional cars that had yet to be invented.
At school, he was a poor student, who often had trouble doodling and daydreaming.
“Stearns High School didn’t have an art teacher at the time,” Williams said.
After high school, he tried art college in New York City but found the first year courses were a remedial education for him. Nor could Williams stand it.
So he joined the US Navy to get into the Military Soldier Act and its educational benefits.
It didn’t take long for his superiors to realize Williams’ exceptional technical skills. Soon he was painting dramatic and historical oil paintings of the admirals and their families. One of his works was presented to President Harry S. Truman, who shook hands with him.
It was ‘nice job, son,’ said Williams, still smiling about the event, then on to the next guy.
Williams eventually ended up designing visual educational materials at a Navy education center in Boston. There, he had a huge studio for himself.
“Every night after work, I would paint cars until 11:00,” he said.
There, a Marine reservist spotted photos of Williams’ cars and sent them to the widely published magazine Mechanics Illustrated.
“A week later, I received telegrams from Ford, Chrysler and General Motors offering me jobs,” he said. “I flew to Detroit, slept in my car for two days and interviewed all three.”
Williams appeared on BDN in July 1953, shortly before the move in ’54.
“Williams’ most extreme design to date is a jet-propelled vehicle designed to cruise at 150 mph,” the statement read.
The story went on to describe how the jet car was supposed to drive on the Main Turnpike in the distant 1970’s.
But Williams and his wife hated him in Detroit. The city and auto business were way too competitive.
“I don’t think it was ever south of Bangor at that point, and it was tough,” Williams said.
However, they stuck with it for a few years while Williams helped make some of America’s most classic, finned cars for both Ford and Chrysler.
“He created icons, and set the pace for design for many years to come,” Siegler said.
While working in Detroit, Williams made plans to return to New England, seek independent work whenever he returned east on vacation, and eventually set up his own industrial design firm in Massachusetts where he and his wife have now been married for 68 years – raising their four children.
His company designed many useful things such as X-ray equipment, chocolate, industrial kitchenware, and the original packaging of all Tom’s of Maine products. He even had a hand in creating the look and function of Wang’s first computer.
But Williams has never built anything as exciting as an American car from the 1950s, which is okay.
“Detroit was such a political rat race,” he said.
Although officially long in retirement, Williams now loves to help farm-to-table startups with logos and packaging. It’s like coming home, said Williams, from cows to cars to cows again.
Still agile and sharp, with excellent hearing, Williams smiled as he climbed behind the wheel of the 1957 Fairlane he helped create on Friday at the museum.
“Ah, it’s great to know that people still love my designs,” he said, posing for photos.
Rod Willams’ front desk is located at the Maine Classic Car Museum on Route 1 in Arundel on Saturday 14 May at 2 PM. Tickets $20.