Profile: Automotive Design Editor Robert Cumberford

A. J. Mueller

And then he waited. He worked briefly at an apple-packing plant in northern California and, when that didn't work out (he wound up throwing a bag of rock salt at his foreman, "a real prick"), set to building a car from junkyard parts that he could drive to Detroit. Because, after all, he was "absolutely and morally certain" that General Motors would hire him. Finally, after some weeks, Cumberford's mother sought to bring him down to earth.

"She said, 'You've got to plan to go back to school in the fall and study something sensible, because you really ought to realize that General Motors is not going to hire an eighteen-year-old boy to design cars,' " Cumberford recalls. What happened next, even allowing for a bit of embellishment over the ensuing fifty-seven years, is straight out of Harry Potter.

"As we're sitting there, on a wall on the front edge of the lawn, the mailman came along and swerved across the road with a big package for me, which contained my drawings and a letter. The letter said, 'We are pleased to offer you a position as a junior stylist at GM styling section. We will pay you 455 dollars and 50 cents a month.' "

So, off he went to Detroit in September of 1954 at the age of nineteen, wearing his only suit and "a really ugly tie."

Much has changed since 1954, but a heady job and a lot of money were as intoxicating to a teenager then as they would be today. He bought a Volkswagen Beetle and then traded up for a Porsche 356 1500 Super coupe, which he and Mott, who was also at General Motors, drove flat-out to Watkins Glen (they wrote up that adventure for Sports Car Illustrated). He managed to get behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz 300SL and tore around GM's new Warren Technical Center, ignoring the plaintive screams of GM's future, now late, head designer, Chuck Jordan.

Despite being a self-described "smart-ass kid," Cumberford rose quickly. Within two years, he moved from designing the two-tone paint on the base 150 in Chevrolet's old, rat-infested studio in Detroit to working on Motorama cars and then Corvette designs at the Tech Center under Jordan. It was at that point that he took his career into his own hands by showing his designs directly to the great Harley Earl.

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??

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