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Art of Drive: Jack Telnack

Art of Drive: Jack Telnack

I first met Jack Telnack in 1984 on a private student tour of the Ford Design Centre in Dearborn, Michigan. At that time he was Director of Ford North American Design. In 1986 he was part of the management team that hired me as a designer. One year later he became the Vice President of Ford Design worldwide.

 Ford Research Centre Modelling Bridge, 1970.

Ford Research Centre Modelling Bridge, 1970.

By the time I started at Ford, Jack was well respected within the company, as well as the global automotive design industry. Back then he was the consummate gentleman, always impeccably dressed, extremely articulate, and even more down to earth. He is best known as the man who brought the aero look to Ford cars in the mid ‘80s. The soft shapes, faster windscreens, and rounded front ends were in sharp contrast to the hard-edged and boxy vehicles of the late ‘70s. The ‘83 Thunderbird, ‘85 Lincoln Mark VII, and ‘86 Taurus/Sable represented this new look and helped to boost Ford sales. The ‘86 Taurus and Sable were top sellers in the US.          

Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1937, Jack grew up during the golden era of the Motor City. He would often ride his bike past the many Ford buildings, heading straight for the test track to climb the security wall and catch a glimpse of future models or an early prototype looping the massive oval tarmac. His father was a Ford employee and would often take young Jack to see the latest displays at the Ford Rotunda. During one of those visits, Jack saw a ’41 Lincoln Continental for the first time. He explained, “I just fell in love with that car and wanted my dad to buy one. He could never quite afford one; so instead, he bought a burgundy ‘41. I said, well that's okay. At least, it's a step in the right direction." That experience and that car ignited Jack’s interest in automotive design.  When Jack was 16 he bought a ‘41 Mercury convertible to customize himself. With the help of a second hand acetylene torch purchased from a pawnshop, he channeled and sectioned the body, shaved some of the chrome trim and ran it with ‘50 Dodge rear fenders. "That car was pretty crude because I did it myself” he admitted, “but, I learned a lot about cars."  

 1972 XA Falcon Hardtop Design Illustration

1972 XA Falcon Hardtop Design Illustration

By this time, Telnack’s mind was made up. He wanted to study industrial design and pursue automotive design as a career. The Telnack family wasn't as keen. His brother-in-law who was a professor at the University of Detroit tried to encourage another direction. He advised Jack; “You don't want to be one of those kooky designers…you should study engineering at U of D.” Finally realizing Jack had no desire to study engineering, his brother-in-law set up a meeting with Ford Design Executive, Alex Tremulis. At that time, Tremulis was known for designing the Tucker Torpedo.  Jack was very excited. “Hey kid, Alex said, go to Art Center in California. Get an education. And then, come back and let’s talk.” That sealed Jack’s fate. After finishing High school, he drove the Merc from Detroit to Los Angeles and enrolled at the Art Center College of Design. During this time, he earned a Ford scholarship and was eventually hired by Ford after graduation in 1958. "I literally started in the basement and worked my way up! I mean, I was down there with all the plumbing and water dripping down the walls," he explains with a chuckle.

The 'basement' was Tremulis' pre-production studio where the newly hired designer was working on the final details of the full size 1960 Ford. A few years later, Telnack moved studios to join the ‘64 Mustang design team. "I have the distinction of designing the first wheel covers for that car," he claims with a laugh. "My corny line with that is’ ‘they must have been good because they were always stolen!” Next, he was generating early sketches for the Cougar program. Cougar was the code name for what would become the classic ‘65 Mustang fastback. "The first sketches I did weren’t exactly the final car but they had a lot of influence on the overall look," Telnack exclaims. "That was such an exciting program to be part of."

 Jack's '41 Mercury, bought at age 16.

Jack's '41 Mercury, bought at age 16.

Gene Bordinat, the Design VP, was taking notice of Jack’s talent and potential leadership skills. Bordinat was looking to send a designer to Australia to establish a design presence. Up to that point, all Falcons were styled in the Dearborn studio. When Jack was called to his manager’s office, he already knew about the opportunity in Australia. "I practically said yes as I walked through his door." When Jack's manager offered him time to think about the offer and discuss it with the family, Jack didn't need any time. "I told him there was nothing to discuss,I want to go to Australia…That’s it! In those days, I was single… I was single and cheap! I like to think I was a decent designer too, but single and cheap really figured into this equation," he says with laughter.

Bill Bourke was running Ford of Australia and initially thought Jack was too young for that responsibility. Gene’s response to Bill's concern was, ‘What the hell Bill? You’re running the whole company at 39 and you can't have a 29 year old designer?’  According to Jack when he and Bill finally met, they ‘really hit it off.’ ‘‘He turned out to be one of the best guys I ever worked for," claims Jack.  After the meeting, Jack's relocation assignment to Australia was approved. At the tender age of 29, Jack was Head of Design for Ford of Australia.

"I wasn't quite sure exactly what I would be doing at first," Jack points out. When Jack approached Gene for more information, he quickly ordered, ‘I don't want my telephone to ring! Take care of business, handle all the problems, and stay out of trouble down there.’ That’s just what Jack did. "I didn't know what I was getting into… I had no idea that I would be implementing a brand new studio or anything," he remembers.

 Ford of Australia Research Centre Circa 1990.

Ford of Australia Research Centre Circa 1990.

Telnack established Ford of Australia's first studio in a small garage located at the Engineering Centre in Geelong. "You wouldn't believe how small this space was," Telnack recalls. He immediately began hiring designers and modelers and was able to get a surface plate from manufacturing. The very first project Telnack and his small team worked on was the front grill and tail lamp changes to the XT Falcon and Fairlane. When things really started rolling, Telnack needed more equipment. "I called Gene back in Dearborn and asked him for a full size clay modeling bridge." To Telnacks surprise, “NO PROBLEM! I will have a bridge down there in no time flat,” Gene said without hesitation.

An addition to the Dearborn studio was under construction at this time and a truckload of brand new studio bridges had just been delivered. Gene made sure that one of those bridges was put on a plane and delivered to Geelong. "The guys in Australia couldn't believe I could get a bridge that fast with the snap of my fingers," Telnack says with a laugh. “Just the fact that Gene Bordinat didn't want me to fail…he just put that baby on a plane and sent it right down. It was incredible." Once the bridge arrived, it needed to be calibrated. The modelers made contact with a local retired German engineer whose expertise was aligning and calibrating very precise machinery and measuring equipment. "This guy used to set up German launch sites for V-2 rockets during World War II," Telnack recalls. "I figured this guy must be pretty accurate. He ended up doing all our calibrating in studio."

The engineering centre was expanded in Geelong, making more space for design. By this time, Bunkie Knudsen, who was running the company gave Telnack and his team the go ahead for an all-new XA Falcon. "We had so much fun doing the two-door hard top," Telnack remembers fondly. "That was such a hot looking design…the two-door and four-door!"  Once design and the management had settled on a final proposal in Geelong, Telnack and two of his designers travelled to Dearborn to get Bunkie Knudson's final approval. Since this was long before electronic surface data and milling machines, the full size two and four door XA clay models were replicated by hand. Knudsen and the senior management team reviewed the models and approved them in the Dearborn Studio. Not long after his review, Knudson travelled to Australia. "When Bunkie paid us a visit, he said, 'You guys need a proper studio,’ Telnack explains. "Bunkie always had a real feel and appreciation for design." Plans for a brand new studio near the Ford of Australia Headquarters building in Broadmedows started shortly after Bunkie’s visit.

Already very familiar with the Dearborn studio, Telnack travelled to Ford design studios in the UK and Germany to reference the smaller facilities. "That was my baby," Telnack proclaims. "I knew exactly what we wanted, the size, layout, number of bridges, wide open space, and plenty of natural light. And it needed to be closer to management. Driving to headquarters from Geelong every week for meetings was a real pain!" Telnack’s passion for design went beyond automotive. "I've always had an interest in architecture." That interest made overseeing the design of the Broadmedows facility while maintaining the car design programs back in Geelong much easier. “Those were some of the most exciting days of my life," Telnack remembers.  

Just before the new studio was finished, Jack flew back to Detroit for business. "I ran into Dunkin Mckray in Dearborn. He was on assignment doing my same job in Europe at that time. I asked him how it was going and he asked me how it's going… and I laid it on.  “Ah Dunkin, I've got the best job in the world… Australia is great…I’m thousands of miles away from Dearborn and we are free to do our own thing!" recalls Telnack. "Next thing I know I'm called into Bordinat's office in Dearborn. ‘Well Jack, time for you to come home from Australia.’ I said really…. so who is replacing me? He said, ‘Dunkin McKray!’ Those guys were good friends from way back. Dunkin wanted to go to Australia," Telnack explains with his deep laugh. "I designed the whole studio, planned it all out including my office and never got to use it. Instead, Dunkin moved in. That was OK. It all worked out well in the end."

Yes, it did all work out well. Forty-two years later, Jack’s studio is still going strong, supporting domestic and global programs with a young, motivated, and very talented design team. The mid-century modern structure with a wide-open floor plan and floor-to-ceiling glass back wall has stood the test of time. Recently, the studio just received some cosmetic and technical upgrades that generated some local media attention:

'The Broadmeadows Research Centre has just undergone a fundamental renovation. Established in 1970 by Jack Telnack...’

This article first appeared in Fuel Magazine issue 12.

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