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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Sic Transit

He Was a Driving Force in Car Design

April 26, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thursday will be Strother MacMinn Day at the Art Center College of Design. Disciples and friends will wander among cars he adored, hear jazz that was a parallel passion, and admire a four-decade gallery of his drawings. They will recall and revere the gentle wisdom of a free-thinking instructor when a campus street is named for this designer, unknown beyond his arcane realm.

It's an odd obscurity for an Art Center teacher whose inspirations brushed three generations of Americans and just about all their cars. And who mentored overseas students from Europe and Asia who sent back little coupes, luxury sedans, trucks and sports cars that haunted, then spooked, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

Strother Carey MacMinn died in January after a series of strokes. He was 79, never married but survived by more than half of the world's automotive designers, who were students during his half century at Art Center.

"He was the unsung hero of car design," says former student Chuck Pelly, equally unheralded despite having shaped Plymouth's Voyager and Disneyland's monorail. "He absolutely set the guidelines for automotive design."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 29, 1998 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Memorial Service--A tribute to car designer Strother MacMinn takes place today at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The day listed in a Sunday story on the tribute was incorrect.

Adds Ron Hill, chairman of the Art Center's transportation department and former head of the GM studio that produced the Chevrolet Corvair and Pontiac Fiero: "This was the man who defined and articulated the art and responsibility of automotive design for most of us whose lives he touched."

And here's MacMinn on MacMinn, by posthumous epigram: "My teaching is a relationship that opens doors for students. . . . I never call anyone my student, I call them a student. . . . Don't be afraid of anything but your own ignorance."

MacMinn's apprenticeship was among custom coach builders of the '30s and at the elbow of Franklin Hershey, who would design the 1955 Ford Thunderbird, and Harley Earl, father of tail fins.

Farm tractors. Airliner cabins. Even a flying car for Consolidated Aircraft. All were touched by designer MacMinn. Yet his memorial is 50 years of believers, not a few mechanical creations.

Design chiefs Jack Telnack of Ford, Tom Peters of General Motors, Neil Walling of Chrysler, Richard Soderberg of Porsche, and Willie Davidson, the name after the hyphen of Harley-Davidson, attended MacMinn's classes. So did those who shaped the Mazda Miata, the New Beetle, the Mercedes-Benz ML320, Nissan Sentra and Porsche Boxster.

MacMinn was an automotive historian with a major in early coach building. In 1973, he counseled Toyota's creation of a Newport Beach design facility, the first of almost two dozen industry studios in Southern California. He photographed antique cars, wrote magazine critiques about exotic cars and judged classic cars at the elegant Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.

All this will be remembered at Thursday's celebration of a man, his moment and his sketch pads. Plus, say planners, just a few kind words, good food, good drink, good jazz and good car conversation among friends.

Friends of Mac who escaped an official invitation, said an Art Center spokeswoman, are welcome to attend. In lieu of admission, a donation to the Strother MacMinn Endowed Scholarship Fund would be nice.

MacMinn, incidentally, always sent 40% of his retirement stipend to his own scholarship fund. In his will, Mac left his Pasadena house to the school. For student housing, of course.

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