Black Automotive History (for Black History Month)

Looking at the extraordinary black people that played a part in automotive and motor racing history

Welcome to my latest Bulletin video, and being this is Black History Month in the UK, I thought I’d look at black automotive history. The trouble is, you do have to go digging to find it, and some is perhaps more contemporary than historical, but there are significant events and people stretching right back to the earliest days of mass motoring to talk about.

Who are your automotive heroes? Enzo Ferrari? Henry Ford? Colin Chapman? Maybe even Bertha Benz? Look her up if you don’t know her – it’s an amazing story.

All of these people are incredible. But where are the black automotive heroes – or the brown ones for that matter, but you know what, let’s park that for another time – this is after all, Black History Month.

And whilst no black automotive heroes might immediately come to mind – except obviously Lewis Hamilton in the contemporary world of motor racing – more on him later – there are some other extraordinary people that you should be aware of.

Let’s start with Frederick Douglas Patterson – born 1871 and died 1932. Believe it or not, this chap was a contemporary and dare I say, even rival, of no less than Henry Ford!

Not only does Patterson have the distinction of being the first African American to play in the Ohio State University football team in 1891, but when he returned to his dad’s carriage-making business he proceeded to turn it into a car company.

Yup he made the Greenfield-Patterson automobile of 1915 –in fact he made 150 of them. The cars competed directly with the Ford Model T and sold for the same price – about $850.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to get financing for expansion. Not being able to compete with the big guys, in 1920 he moved onto making buses and trucks on Ford and GM chassis – and the Greenfield Bus Body Company continued to operate till 1939.

Imagine if he’d been able to expand! Sadly, none of his cars are known to still exist, but someone should at least build a replica in his honour I think!

Now you could argue that Patterson was the first African-American car designer too – I’d wager he was also the first black guy to set up car manufacturing in the world – and if you know otherwise, I’d love to be corrected!

But there is another man, dubbed the first African-American car designer, and that’s McKinley Thompson Jr.

Born in 1922 and died in 2006, he grew up in Queens, New York – and remembers seeing a silver-gray DeSoto Airflow when he was 12. He said he was never so impressed with anything in all his life and knew in that moment he wanted to be a car designer.

Having served in World War II as an engineer, in the early 50s he entered a design contest in Motor Trend magazine. He came up with a turbine car with a plastic body and won. That led him to enroll at a College of Design under a Ford scholarship scheme. 

You know there’s a new Ford Bronco out now, right? Well Thompson was one of the designers of the original car. He also worked on a truck, the early 1960s Thunderbird and even some of the concepts for the Mustang and the GT40.

In his spare time he went back to his original design concept idea of a plastic-bodied car, and created the Warrior concept. It was intended as a cheap and versatile vehicle for Africa and developing countries – the vehicle still exists and is part of Ford’s collection. It never went into full production sadly, but that’s not to take anything away from McKinley’s incredible achievements. 

But talking of concept cars – how about this as the first supercar by a black car designer? The Ikenga GT – mid-engined, rear-wheel drive, Chevrolet V8-powered with a ZF five-speed manual and based on a Mclaren M1B platform! One running car was actually built and it was restyled slightly three times, becoming the Mark 1, 2 and three.

It was designed by David Gittens, who was also a staff photographer at Car and Driver magazine in America from 1958 until 1964 when he married and moved to England. Three years later he started designing vehicles including a gas-powered single-seat city car, an electric city car, a three-wheeler, an expandable six-wheeler and this supercar that was made here in the UK.

What does Ikenga mean? It is a spirit often represented by a horned statue in Gittens’ ancestral Igbo culture in Nigeria and represents human achievement, accomplishment and success.

Sadly the supercar didn’t go into full production, despite being showcased at the Earls Court Motor Show in 1968 and in Harrods. A hundred or so cars were planned with prices up to $17,000 but there was only ever one, and apparently it was sold at auction in 2008 and ended up somewhere in the Middle East, but no one quite knows where.

David Gittens is desperate to find it, so if you have any information about it let me know, I can tell him, because I’ll be doing a video interview with him very soon. So standby, make sure you’re subscribing and have turned on notifications, so you don’t miss any of my videos. Especially not that one.

Of course there’s been a few black car designers since – we’ve got Ralph Gilles, head of design at Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles and Oliver Heilmer, head of design at Mini.

But the highest ranking black person in the car industry is of course Edward Welburn who was General Motors’ Vice President of Global Design, from 2003-16, following in the footsteps of people like American car design legend Harley Earl.

Welburn oversaw the development of cars like the Chevrolet Corvette and Camaro, and the Cadillac Escalade.

It’s a great story, he fell in love with cars when he was just eight-years old after seeing a Cadillac concept car at the Philadelphia Auto Show, and wrote to GM  aged 11 stating he wanted to be a car designer. The company actually wrote back to him with advice on how to fulfil his dream and in 1971 he got an internship at the car giant. The following year he joined GM full time and ended up working there for 44 years until his retirement.

Anyway we seem to have wandered into contemporary times, and this is supposed to be about Black History Month – although it could be justifiably argued that these guys are all making history in their own way.

Still let’s go back to the early days of motoring – to 1930s America. An emerging African-American middle class were buying cars, but this was still the era of the Jim Crow laws and legally sanctioned segregation and discrimination was rife.

In fact black people were partly buying cars to avoid the indignity and insult of segregation on public transport. Unfortunately things weren’t hugely better on the road.

Driving across the expanse of America, black people could face dangers and problems such as refusal to sell them food or fuel, being harassed or attacked and even randomly arrested for no real reason. So New York City mailman, Victor Hugo Green, took it upon himself to write a book that would help these travellers – initially covering the New York area but eventually most of North America.

The Negro Motorists Green Book – more commonly just called the Green Book –of 1936, became an absolutely invaluable resource telling you what places to avoid, where you’d be accepted, and where you could eat or stay along the way.

Little known outside of the black community, it’s been described as a sort of parallel universe and ‘the bible of black travel during Jim Crow’.

Which is all kind of wonderful, but also tremendously sad and frankly appalling. Thankfully, shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which banned such discrimination, the Green Book was no longer needed and went out of publication.

You know what, every petrolhead who hasn’t already done so, dreams of going to America and doing the fabled Route 66, and I gotta confess it’s on my Bucket List too. But now I’m thinking, how cool would it be to retrace some of the Green Book routes. Have any of you ever done that? Let me know!

Of course for most of us guys, as soon as you start driving, you start to get the itch to race. Unfortunately – you’ve guessed it – black people were pretty much banned from taking part in mainstream motor sports events too back in the day in America.

Which is why one Charlie Wiggins never fulfilled his dream to race in the Indianapolis 500 – though it didn’t stop him racing I’ve got to add.

Wiggins was born in 1897 and died 1979, he went from a shoe-shine boy in front of a garage to working there as one of the mechanics, to ending up a chief mechanic in World War I.

After the war, in 1922 he moved to Indianapolis, opened his own garage and built his own race car from salvaged junkyard parts – but he was barred from racing in the Indy 500, because he was black.

So instead, teaming up with others, he created the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes, a black-only 100 mile race over a 1 mile dirt track at Indiana State Fairgrounds. 12,000 people attended the first race in 1924, and he won three championships until sadly he lost his leg in a crash at the 1936 race.

He didn’t quite retire though, making himself a prosthetic leg, he continued to build race cars for the next 40 years and didn’t give up his campaign to see a black person race at Indianapolis.

And he did get to see it.

In 1949 World War II veteran, and car mechanic, Wendell Scott, then aged 30, was caught running moonshine – illegally produced alcohol. Now that apparent misfortune would actually prove sometime of a turning point in black motor racing history.

Of course running moonshine as some of you will now, is part of the origin story of stock car racing in America!

So anyway, unable to race officially, he used to attend local stockcar races and spectate from the ‘blacks-only’ section of the stands.

In 1952 the organises decided, as something of a gimmick, to recruit a black driver for a one-time race. Funnily enough they asked the police to recommend someone, and they named Wendell Scott!

Of course he did rather well, continued stock car racing and eventually became the first licensed African-American NASCAR driver racing in the top division from 1961 to the early 70s.

They even made a film about him starring Richard Pryor in 1977, called Greased Lightening – I have got to look that one up!

Anyway people like him paved the way for the likes of Bubba Wallace who races in the NASCAR cup series today and is regarded as the most successful African American driver in the history of NASCAR.

Although let’s not forget William Theodore Ribbs Jr, or Willy T Ribbs who is the first black driver to qualify for Indy 500 in 1991, and who also competed in the Trans-Am series, Champ Car, NASCAR, even a truck series and, and… was the first black person to ever test a Formula One car in 1986, with the Brabham team. And even now at aged 65, he’s known to occasionally put on a race suit and helmet!

Ribbs never actually raced an F1 car though and bringing this monologue bang right up to the present, the strange reality is that Lewis Hamilton is the only black person to have ever raced in F1 – and boy has he shown everyone how it’s done.

With six F1 world championships – and probably picking up his seventh this year – Hamilton is not only Britain’s most successful racing driver – Sir Jackie Stewart is next with three championships – but also on the verge of equalling Michael Schumacher’s championships and surpassing his 91 race wins having already achieved a record 95 pole positions.

And yet after 13 years in F1, he’s still the only black guy to have raced at what is often regarded as the pinnacle of motorsports – I mean c’mon we’ve even had two brown guys – Karun Chandhok and Narain Karthikeyan in F1.

And what about other motor sports – where are the black and brown racing heroes?

Anyway, we’ve gone full circle and to conclude this, the point is that there are some remarkable black people in the world of cars, past and present, and frankly not enough is made of them. That should change.

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