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STYLE : STYLEMAKER : One for the Road

February 09, 1992|PRESTON LERNER

Automobile design has become so complex in recent years that it's virtually impossible for a stylist to put his personal stamp on a car. Unless, that is, his name happens to be Strother MacMinn--in which case, there's a little bit of him in virtually every car on the road.

A prolific designer, writer and historian, MacMinn might best be described as a modern sage. Since 1948, he's taught transportation design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, the alma mater of roughly a third of the automotive designers in the country. Among those who have taken his classes are the stylists credited with such disparate triumphs as the Studebaker Avanti, Ford Taurus and Mazda Miata.

"I never call anyone my student. I call him a student," MacMinn says sharply when it's suggested that he has mentored three generations of designers. "My obligation is to develop and refine the students' aptitude, to give them the latitude of control so that their talent can surface completely. I don't tell them what's right and what's wrong. I just make suggestions about where to look."

With his quirky, almost spiritual approach to design, Mac--as he's universally known--strives to instill in students a conviction that design must be au courant without being trendy, classic without being cliched. Long before it was popular, he preached the form-follows-function ethic, and now that former students are in positions of authority, it's no coincidence that this philosophy dominates the design world.

MacMinn himself didn't attend college. He went to work at General Motors as an 18-year-old Wunderkind in the famed Art & Colour Section created by Harley Earl, father of the tail fin. Stultified by the Detroit bureaucracy, MacMinn quit shortly after World War II. "If I'd stayed," he says, " I would have turned into a vegetable."

Back home in Pasadena, he worked for Henry Dreyfuss (Earl's celebrated counterpart in industrial design), fashioned a prototype for a flying car and, by serendipity, landed a job at Art Center. Since then, he's been an automotive Renaissance man, writing for magazines such as Road & Track; judging car shows, including the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance; and designing elegant new custom bodies for classic cars.

In 1973, Toyota sought MacMinn's help in establishing a satellite design studio (now located in Newport Beach) in Southern California--a move since imitated by other major automakers. He accepted the job, but only after getting permission to continue teaching.

Now 73 and semi-retired, MacMinn remains as influential as ever. "I still learn from the guy," says Ford design chief Jack Telnack, the man behind the Taurus. "He's inspired so many of us--that will be his legacy. They say that teachers reach out and touch the future. Mac doesn't merely touch it; he shapes it."

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