ARUNDEL, Maine – In 1954, Millinocket native Allen “Rod” Williams graced the pages of the Bangor Daily News when he was hired by Ford to help design automobiles in Detroit.
At the time, Williams was 23, fresh out of the US Navy, and had no formal design training. He was, however, an ace at painting and drawing flashy, futuristic cars.
The race moves forward nearly 70 years to today and Williams – now 94 – is back in the public eye.
A lot of his vintage car paintings are on display at the Maine Classic Car Museum in Arundel. The show opens on May 14 with a public gala reception celebrating the now legendary local industrial designer.
“His work is so beautiful and it has never been shown before,” said museum curator Karen Sigler. “We have all of his original concept drawings.”
Also on display will be two classic pieces of Americana that Williams dreamed up: a 1957 Ford Fairlane and a 1957 Ford Thunderbird.
“Do you know that little window in the back of the Thunderbird? He did that,” Sigler said.
Williams’ art and design career began far from Motor City, on the Millinocket dairy farm where he was raised by a single mother and her grandparents. Encouraged by his family, he spent hours painting barnyard flowers, imaginary airplanes and cars not yet invented.
At school, he was a poor student, often struggling to doodle and daydream.
“Stearns High School didn’t even have an art teacher at the time,” Williams said.
After high school, he tried art school in New York, but found freshman classes to be a remedial education for him. Williams couldn’t afford it either.
So he joined the US Navy to participate in the GI Bill and its educational benefits.
It didn’t take long for his superiors to recognize Williams’ exceptional artistic skills. Soon he was creating dramatic and historic oil paintings for admirals and their families. One of his works was even presented to President Harry S. Truman, who shook his hand.
“It was, ‘Wonderful son of work,’ and then on to the next guy,” Williams said, still smiling about the event.
Williams eventually ended up designing visual learning materials at a Navy education center in Boston. There he had a huge studio all to himself.
“Every night after work I drew cars until 11 o’clock,” he said.
There, a Navy reservist shined photos of Williams’ car and sent them to Mechanics Illustrated magazine, which published them widely.
“A week later I received telegrams from Ford, Chrysler and GM, offering me jobs,” he said. “I drove to Detroit, slept in my car for a few days and had interviews with all three.”
He accepted Ford’s offer but had to wait a year, until he could leave the Navy. A few days after being released in 1954, he married his hometown sweetheart, Caroline, and headed to Detroit.
Williams was featured in the BDN in July 1953, shortly before moving in 1954.
“Williams’ most radical design to date is a jet vehicle designed to go 150 miles per hour,” it read.
The story went on to describe how the jet car was supposed to roll down Maine’s turnpike in the distant year of 1970.
But Williams and his wife hated it in Detroit. The city and the hyper-competitive auto industry was too much.
“I don’t think she was ever south of Bangor at that time,” Williams said, “and it was unforgiving.”
Still, they held on for a few years as Williams helped build some of America’s most classic finned automobiles for Ford and Chrysler.
“He created icons,” said Sigler, “and set the pace for design for many years to come.”
While working in Detroit, Williams planned to return to New England, seeking freelance work whenever he returned east on vacation. raised their four children.
His company has designed many useful items such as x-ray equipment, chocolates, industrial kitchen gadgets and the original packaging for all Tom’s of Maine products. He even helped shape the look and function of Wang’s first computer.
But Williams never again designed anything as sexy as a 1950s American car, which suits him.
“Detroit was such a political rat race,” he said.
Although officially long retired, Williams now enjoys helping farm-to-table startups with logos and packaging. It’s like coming home, Williams said, from cows to cars to cows again.
Williams, always sharp and lively with excellent hearing, smiled as he got behind the wheel of the 1957 Fairlane he helped create at the museum on Friday.
“Ayuh,” he said as he posed for the photographs, “it’s satisfying to find that people still like my designs.”
The reception for Rod Williams will be held at the Maine Classic Car Museum on Route 1 in Arundel on Saturday, May 14 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20.