Oh, yes, Cumberford in person sounds very much like he does on paper -- erudite and detailed, with a penchant for extended tangents on transportation history, not to mention biting criticism. When he tells the waitress at the motel diner that his coffee is lukewarm, it sounds like he's critiquing the grille on a Fisker Karma. He will apologize that his memory is not as good as it used to be, but this is usually when he's trying to recall details such as a flight itinerary from 1954. Other details, such as the names of childhood schoolteachers or the particulars of a four-wheel-drive Can-Am car of his own design, he remembers instantly.
Southern California was the epicenter of the American automotive cult in the years after World War II, and Cumberford was hardly inoculated from it. As a teenager he would take public transportation to International Motors in Hollywood to gawk at the imported sports cars on sale to Tinseltown's elite.
"I met a young mechanic there who was very nice to me. That was Phil Hill," he recalls of the future Formula 1 champion.
Still, Cumberford was hardly the typical gearhead turned car designer. For one, he didn't own a car and, in fact, wouldn't own one until he was working for GM. And while his peers were tuning their hot rods, he was more likely to be reading Mark Twain or a biography of Ettore Bugatti.
"I enjoyed Robert in high school because he was the only guy I knew who read books," recalls Mott.
Cumberford's early interest in personal transport primarily fixated on small airplanes. He graduated from high school at age sixteen, prepared to study aeronautical engineering on scholarship at Caltech. However, the conclusion of the Korean War brought fears of a decline in the aircraft industry, and his parents discouraged it.
"They thought it would be nice for me to be a preacher, a lawyer, or a doctor."
They did not get their wish. He enrolled at Art Center School, relying on subsidies from his father and his aunt and working as a box boy in a grocery store to scratch together tuition. It wasn't enough. After three semesters, he tried to get a scholarship. "Kid, you're not good enough," was the response. However, Art Center did offer to let him continue if he swept and mopped the floors after classes.