Rod Williams worked in Detroit in the 1950s, when cars were works of art.

Which was a good thing for Williams, of Biddeford, since he’s an artist. It was his job to take concepts and ideas from designers and translate them into color illustrations of what the new models might look like. The designs he worked on, for Chrysler and Ford, were full of eye-catching details, from gleaming chrome bumpers to sharp-angled tail fins.

“I think back in the ’50s, after World War II, the car companies were looking to capture the imaginations of all the people who hadn’t been able to get new cars for years,” said Williams, 91. “They were looking for something that was flashy and would grab your eye.”

Fifteen of Williams’ illustrations will be part of an exhibition titled “Rod Williams Retrospective: A Maine Son in Detroit,” which opens Saturday at the Maine Classic Car Museum in Arundel and will be on view until the end of the year. Williams will be on hand to meet and talk to people at an opening reception from 2-4 p.m. Saturday.

Williams grew up in Millinocket and left for art school in New York City after high school. Out of money after one semester, he joined the Navy in 1950 so he could use the GI Bill of Rights later to continue art school. In the Navy, he was assigned to paint portraits of Navy ships to hang in admiral’s offices.

He also used his artistic ability to woo a girl from back home whom he was sweet on – Carolyn Ruth. He wrote her some 40 letters that were in envelopes covered with his artwork. Using ink and watercolors, he created scenes of the places his ship had gone, mostly Cuba and around the Caribbean. He said he’d had too many other girls dump him, so he wanted to do something to make sure Carolyn would remember him. She did. They got married in 1954.

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A Plymouth design illustration by Biddeford artist Rod Williams, from the 1950s, will be part of an exhibit at the Maine Classic Car Museum in Arundel. Image courtesy of Rod Williams

Also in the Navy, he began drawing cars, for fun. An officer saw the car sketches and sent them to Cars magazine. The magazine did a story on Williams and his art titled “Dream Car Sailor,” which got the attention of Detroit automakers. When he got out of the Navy in 1954, he was offered a job at Ford.

At Ford, he worked on iconic models like the Thunderbird and the Fairlane; while at Chrysler his design proposals included versions of the New Yorker, the Country Squire and the DeSoto. He worked on some 300 designs all together, as part of a team.

Williams worked from a summary of concepts or ideas that were to be incorporated into a design. He’d make sketches first and later a full color illustration. Management would review the sketches by him and others, and the ones they thought might work would then be made into clay models to see what they looked like in three dimensions.

“The whole process was fun and challenging,” said Williams. “Sometimes they wanted some changes because a design was getting old and sometimes they wanted something completely new.”

Rod Williams’ work for Ford and Chrysler will be on view at the Maine Classic Car Museum in Arundel. Photo by Karen Sigler

By the end of the 1950s, though, Williams and his wife were missing New England and Maine. They moved to the Boston area and started their own business, creating art for businesses and marketing campaigns. One of their clients in the 1970s was Tom’s of Maine, maker of natural products. The Williamses moved back to Maine in 1999. Williams officially retired in 2004 but has continued to do design work for some Maine companies, including Kate’s Homemade Butter.

Some of Williams’ illustrations that will be on display include a gleaming red and black Plymouth convertible, with tail fins and two features that look sort of like jet engines jutting out of the chrome front grill. There’s also a sleek DeSoto four-door sedan that has no barrier between the front and rear door windows, so with the windows down, there is just one open space over the two doors. Another is a blue and white Ford Parklane station wagon, with rounded tail lights, tail fins and wheel wells in the rear.

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The Maine Classic Car Museum is a relatively new venue, having opened in July of 2019 before closing again for five months when the pandemic hit. It displays about 50 cars at a time from the 200-car collection of Miles Prentice, a lawyer and businessman who has a home in Maine and spends winters in Florida.

Prentice wanted a way to share his love of classic cars and his collection with others, so he partnered with Motorland, a classic car dealership on Route 1 in Arundel where he had been a customer, said Karen Sigler, the museum’s curator. The museum building is located right next to Motorland, creating a one-stop destination for a wide range of car buffs, from potential buyers to people who just want to look.

The collection includes U.S. and European cars, from touring cars of the 1930s and ’40s to sports cars, campers and convertibles. One of the more unusual cars at the museum is a Tucker, one of less than 50 surviving models made in the late 1940s by maverick car designer Preston Tucker. The futuristic car and its eccentric maker inspired the 1988 movie “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” starring Jeff Bridges.

“Miles has a love of cars and their stories and as his collection grew he really wanted to share that,” said Sigler.

The Maine Classic Car Museum in Arundel is opening an exhibit of illustrations by Biddeford resident Rod Williams, who worked for Chrysler and Ford in the 1950s. Image courtesy of Rod Williams


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