"I was thinking before you arrived: I'm three times your age, have thirty times your experience, and ten percent of your future." It's the sort of thing older people say all the time to young Turks, but in Robert Cumberford's measured, rumbling baritones it sounds neither haughty nor bitter. It's just the truth. It also explains why I'm sitting in the musty Best Western where Cumberford is staying for the Detroit auto show, learning about the seventy-five-year-old who has served as Automobile Magazine's design expert for as long as I've been alive.
Most of our readers know Cumberford as the man who has handed down frank -- sometimes brutally frank -- verdicts on everything from the Bugatti Type 35 to the Tata Nano. And yet, he was also a General Motors designer who contributed to the styling of first-generation Corvettes, an avid aeronautical enthusiast who's worked on nearly two dozen small planes, and even an independent car builder with a wood-fendered, BMW-powered roadster bearing his name parked in his garage in rural France. He has been referred to variously as a historian, an instructor, a professional car junkie, a grump.
"He is an intellectual automotive enthusiast. The most knowledgeable guy on design I've ever known," offers cartoonist Stan Mott, whose friendship with Cumberford began back to when both attended the same Los Angeles high school in 1950.
Cumberford himself won't deny any of these identities, and yet he clearly holds one above the others.
"I will always see myself as a designer. Greatly through AUTOMOBILE MAGAZINE, I've become well known to a wide world, but they have no real idea of what I know how to do," he says.
Cumberford has been designing as long as he remembers. He would come home from school, lie down on the floor in front of the radio, and draw. His mother was a housewife from Texas with a talent for seamstress work, his father a Scotsman who grew up in Chile and worked for L.A. Railway, which managed the city's streetcars. "Before General Motors gutted it and destroyed it," Cumberford adds, going on to relate how GM, Firestone Tire, and Standard Oil conspired to destroy the American streetcar network and replace it with buses (the great American streetcar scandal-look it up).