ARUNDEL, Maine — You run into a lot of automotive enthusiasts at the Maine Classic Car Museum, so it’s not surprising to see a man in front of a drawing of an elegant 1950s American car discussing its aesthetic appeal.
“The bumper, the taillights, the treatment on the side, the treatment on the windows,” he said, pointing to details in several of the stylish exterior features. Then comes the kicker: “That was all my idea.”
Rod Williams isn’t boasting. From 1954 to 1960, he worked in Detroit as a designer, first for Ford, then Chrysler.
It was a remarkable leap for a young man who grew up in Millinocket during the Depression, had no industrial design education, and had entered the military to get a college education under the G.I. Bill. When he arrived at Ford two weeks after being discharged from the Navy, he found himself in a roomful of designers whose training and experience easily surpassed his own.
“I felt like I was really behind the eight ball,” he recalled. “These other people had gone to college for three, four years.”
Hard work ended up being a great equalizer. So did raw talent. Williams turned out beautiful designs, some of whose features were adopted in classic models such as the Ford Fairlane and Thunderbird.
Williams, who is 93 and living in Biddeford, is delighted that many of his designs are now on display at the Maine Classic Car Museum in Arundel. Interestingly, though, he was never a big fan of the tail-finned, chrome-studded, attention-getting automobiles coming out of Detroit when he worked there in the ‘50s.
“They were a little too flashy, a little artificial,” he said. “I wanted things to be cleaner, simpler forms.”