Car designer Moray Callum remembers unveiling his latest project at the 1993 Geneva Auto Show: the Aston Martin Lagonda Vignale concept, a radical, swooping four-door sedan far afield from the Le Mans-winning race cars and James Bond coupes that made the British marque famous.
A proud Callum years later would call the car a crowning achievement of his career.
But that evening, at an industry party aboard a yacht on Lake Geneva, Callum says a former boss introduced him to Robert Cumberford, a protege of the legendary Harley Earl at General Motors Corp., the man who literally invented modern-day automotive design. In the time since his work alongside Earl in the 1950s, Cumberford had built his influence through independent commissions and magazine reviews of the latest models. Callum, thrilled to meet Cumberford and familiar with his work, was keen for his verdict on the Aston.
“Robert told me it was the ugliest car he had ever seen, and had no more comment,” recalls Callum, who until recently was head of design at Ford Motor Co. Callum, a few drinks into his evening at that point, recalls insulting the critic in an outburst he’d soon come to regret. “After my tirade, we parted ways.”
Typical Cumberford: feared, outspoken and respected. For more than a century, automobiles have been key expressions of contemporary culture, but few, if any have written of their evolution with such clarity and authority as Cumberford, now an octogenarian American expat living with his wife, Francoise, for several decades in southwestern France. Firm but fair, Cumberford continues to remain by default the English-speaking world’s dean of automotive design criticism. His career spanned decades, yet his authority on the subject remains undimmed.
Cumberford wasn’t always a critic. He started his career drawing autos himself. He completed only two full cars: the Intermeccanica Italia that married Italian style with Ford V-8 motors, and the Cumberford Martinique that never made commercial production. But he contributed to dozens more. He even imagined and built a prototype Mustang station wagon and pitched it to Ford, which rejected the proposal.
Born in 1930s Highland Park, a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood, to a Scottish father who worked for the city’s Red Car trolley system and a mother from Texas, Cumberford as a child loved airplanes and drew them whenever possible. The love of mechanics soon morphed to cars, and as a teenager he focused on automotive design at Pasadena’s Art Center. He dropped out after refusing to do menial work in return for his scholarship.
Undeterred and emboldened at 19, a confident Cumberford amassed 118 of his drawings and sent the package — unsolicited — to GM’s Harley Earl. His parents pressed him to pursue other careers — medicine, law, teaching, anything. Then came a letter from GM.
“They said they would hire me for $455.50 a month. It was more than my father had ever made in his life,” Cumberford says in one of a series of telephone calls from France discussing his life, cars and more.