Profile: Automotive Design Editor Robert Cumberford

A. J. Mueller

"That must have been hard work," I interject, as our waitress brings a fresh pot of coffee.

Cumberford sniffs. "I had to drop out."

It was at that point, out of school and still too young to get a decent job, that Cumberford "accidentally" started a six-decade (and counting) career in automotive journalism. He had drawn, for the amusement of his friends, a picture of a pogo stick styled like a Jaguar in the scratchboard style that was popular in car magazines of the day. One of his friends had the initiative to show that piece to John Bond, who had just bought Road & Track. Bond liked it and wondered if Cumberford could write a "review" to go along with the images. He did, and so began his journalism career in late 1953, at the age of eighteen, with a review of his "Poguar."

"But I was a designer first," adds Cumberford, pointing out two cars of his design that predate his work at Road & Track-the Parkinson Jaguar Special and the Ken Miles Flying Shingle, both of which have survived to the present day. It may be a technical point, but it's a distinction that matters in his mind. Still, no one would have blamed him if, at that point, he had focused on what looked like a promising writing career.

Except Cumberford wanted to be a professional designer. And not just any designer, but a General Motors designer working on future Chevrolets. Keep in mind this was 1953, when GM was at the absolute height of its prestige and power. Cumberford might as well have stated that he wanted to be a starting pitcher for the New York Yankees. At the advice of another Art Center friend, Bob Gurr (best known for penning the whimsical Autopia race cars at Disneyland), he started drawing against an alarm clock. "It's just a question of getting ideas out as fast as possible. That's what they really wanted in Detroit." First five minutes, then three minutes. When the alarm rang, he'd stop and start another drawing. He sent 118 of those drawings and wrote a letter (he had someone type it for him, as he'd not yet learned how) to Harley Earl at General Motors in Detroit.

I just finished your article on the '52 Continental R-type. Again, you disappointed me. Did you really think it was a higher priority for us to see a photo of you and a photo of the gas filler-door than a picture of the interior and a picture of the shifter? You're not really a car guy, are you??

New Car Research

Find vehicle reviews, photos & pricing

our instagram

get Automobile Magazine

Subscribe to the magazine and save up to 84% off the newsstand price


new cars

Read Related Articles