ARUNDEL, Maine — In 1954, Millinocket native Allen “Rod” Williams made the pages of the Bangor Daily News when he got hired by Ford to help design automobiles in Detroit.
At the time, Williams was 23 years old, fresh out of the U.S. Navy and had zero formal design training. He was, however, a whiz at painting and drawing flashy, futuristic cars.
Racing forward nearly 70 years to today and Williams — now 94 — is back in the public eye again.
A batch of his vintage car paintings are going on display at the Maine Classic Car Museum in Arundel. The show opens May 14 with a gala public reception celebrating the now locally legendary industrial designer.
“His work is so beautiful and it hasn’t ever been shown before,” said museum curator Karen Sigler. “We have all his original concept drawings.”
Also on display will be two classic hunks of Americana that Williams had a hand in envisioning: A 1957 Ford Fairlane and a 1957 Ford Thunderbird.
“You know that little porthole window on the back of the Thunderbird? He did that,” Sigler said.
Williams’ art and design career started far from Motor City, on the Millinocket dairy farm where he was raised by a single mother and his grandparents. Encouraged by his family, he’d spend hours painting the barnyard flowers, airplanes and imaginary cars not yet invented.
In school, he was a poor student, often in trouble for doodling and daydreaming.
“Stearns High School didn’t even have an art teacher at the time,” Williams said.
After high school, he tried an art college in New York City but found the first year courses amounted to remedial education for him. Williams also couldn’t afford it.
So he joined the U.S. Navy to get in on the G.I. Bill and its educational benefits.
It didn’t take long for his superiors to recognize Williams’ exceptional art skills. Soon, he was creating dramatic, historical 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, ‘Beautiful job son,’ 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’d draw cars until 11 o’clock,” he said.
There, a Navy reservist took a shine to Williams’ car pictures and sent them to Mechanics Illustrated magazine which published them in a large spread.
“A week later, I had telegrams from Ford, Chrysler and GM, offering me jobs,” he said. “I drove to Detroit, slept in my car for a couple days and had interviews with all three.”
He took Ford’s offer but had to wait a year, until he could get out of the Navy. Within days of being discharged in 1954, he married his hometown sweetheart, Caroline, and headed for Detroit.
Williams was featured in the BDN in July 1953, shortly before making the move in ’54.
“Williams’ most radical design so far is a jet-propelled vehicle designed to cruise at 150 miles per hour,” it read.
The story went on to describe how the jet car was meant to go on the Maine Turnpike in the far off year of 1970.
But both Williams and his wife hated it in Detroit. The city and the hyper-competitive car business were too much.
“I don’t think she’d ever been south of Bangor at that point,” Williams said, “and it was cutthroat.”
Still, they stuck it out for a few years while Williams helped craft some of America’s most classic, tail-finned automobiles for both Ford and Chrysler.
“He created icons,” Sigler said, “and set the design pace for a lot of years to come.”
While working in Detroit, Williams laid plans for getting back to New England, scouting for freelance work whenever he came back east on vacation.Eventually, he set up his own industrial design firm in Massachusetts where he and his wife — now married 68 years — raised their four children.
His firm designed many useful things like x-ray equipment, chocolates, industrial kitchen gadgets and the original packaging for all Tom’s of Maine products. He even had a hand in coming up with the look and function of Wang’s first computer.
But Williams never again designed anything as sexy as a 1950s American car, which is OK with him.
“Detroit was such a political rat race,” he said.
Though long since officially retired, Williams now likes helping farm-to-table startup companies with logos and packaging. It feels like going back home, Williams said, from cows, to cars, to cows again.
Williams, still spry and sharp, with excellent hearing, smiled as he climbed behind the wheel of the 1957 Fairlane he helped create on Friday at the museum.
“Ayuh,” he said, striking a pose for photographs, “it’s satisfying to find out people still like my designs.”
The reception for Rod Willams is at the Maine Classic Car Museum on Route 1 in Arundel on Saturday May 14 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20.