How a North Korean created an iconic American car
The American magazine Road and Track has published previously unknown sketches of the Shelby Mustang GT500 sports car. They were preserved in the family of John Chun, the designer who created the appearance of this "charged" version of the Ford Mustang.
John Cheung did not become a celebrity like the star designers of the sixties – say, Tom Charda, Larry Shinoda, Klaus Lute or Paul Braque. But the cars he created have acquired a cult status, and are highly valued by collectors.
He would have remained unknown to the general public, if not for the interview. A Star Tribune reporter spoke to a retired designer at Chun Mee, a family-owned restaurant that John and his wife, Helen, opened in the tiny town of Delano, west of Minneapolis.
However, among fans of American muscle cars, rumors about the amazing Korean gradually spread. Restaurant visitors often asked when they saw a black-and-white photograph of a young Asian man with a Mustang on the wall – was he the creator of that same sports car?
Chun preferred to answer in the negative, making the guests look with surprise and find the similarity between the picture and the elderly man behind the counter. And his wife said that this brought visitors to such a delight that they asked just to touch it!
“Even from Oklahoma, New York and Florida, they came to us just to see him, " she said.
The walls of the restaurant from top to bottom were covered with photographs of cars and drawings – of course, the author’s.
The future American John Chun was born in 1928 in Korea – then the country was occupied by Japanese troops. After the defeat of the Japanese in World War II, Korea was divided into two zones of occupation. The north is Soviet, the south is American: now it is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea and the Republic of Korea, also known as South Korea.
The city where Chun’s family lived was in the north. But his father, an engineer by education, guessed where everything was going, and sent his son to study south, to Seoul – since there was no such a guarded border as it is now.
After that, the young man visited the house only once.
“We immediately realized that this was a mistake, and that I risk not going back to the south. I had to flee to Seoul,” he told his story.
When the Korean War began in 1950, Chun fought for the southerners. At the end of the fighting in 1953, it became obvious: you would have to forget about returning to your small homeland, to your family.
Following the example of a friend, Chun decided to emigrate to the United States, to California, and in 1957 he moved to Sacramento.
“First, I had to learn English, and I signed up for courses, but failed the exams. It was possible to pass only the second time, “ he said.
The teachers were impressed by his practical abilities: one day in the drawing class he quickly and easily drew a drawing of a funnel, and the teacher invited him to try his luck at the College of Art and Design. This private university in Pasadena is the alma mater of many renowned designers. Among the most famous alumni are former Ford design director Jay Mays, the author of the new BMW style Chris Bangle, the creator of the appearance of the Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Mustang Larry Shinoda, the author of all Tesla electric vehicles Franz von Holzhausen, the current Genesis brand design chief Luke Donckerwolke.
To accept a new student, the admissions committee was enough to look at the portfolio of his drawings. But you had to pay for your studies – $ 350 per semester. For this, Chun got a job as a mechanic: every day he went to college until four, and after that he worked a full shift at International Harvester. Seven years later, he became the first Korean to graduate from the Art Center.
But it turned out to be difficult to find a job according to the profile: he was older than his fellow students, and personnel officers in auto corporations considered a novice designer over the age of “30” to be too old. Ford, Chrysler and General Motors turned him down.
“I had just graduated from college and had no idea what to do. Shelby chief engineer Fred Goodell came to a job fair and hired me – I have no idea why. He didn’t even tell me what I had to do – he just told me to go to work, “ Chun told his story.
Carroll Shelby’s firm was already known for its racing Cobras with Ford V8 engines, and now received an order from Ford to create a special “charged” version of the Mustang coupe. Chun had to make the appearance of this car. Especially for the project, the company rented a hangar at the Los Angeles airport: there was both the development of cars and their assembly based on the bodies supplied from the factory in San Jose.
Now, in hindsight, it is clear how well Chun was suited for this particular job. Having a good engineering education, received in Korea, and experience as a mechanic, he did not engage in empty fantasies, but chose technologically convenient solutions.
“I instinctively understood how what I draw should be made,” Chun later explained.
The designer recalled that Carroll Shelby constantly came to see him at work:
“He always asked, do you have anything cool? He looked through my sketches, took a couple of his favorites, and said – do not worry, I will return everything back soon. And never returned. Each time I had to repeat the drawings.
But Chun did not show resentment or irritation even after half a century: on the contrary, he told that what a pleasure it was to work with Shelby, and how he accepted even the most radical ideas.
"No" he said to me only once. I used to hang out in the racing section of the hangar all the time, and when he caught me there, I suggested doing both road and racing cars at the same time. He answered – mind your own business, go to the office, “ Chun shared his impressions of Shelby.
Chun’s first job was a 1967 Shelby Mustang GT350 and GT500, and later he worked on 1968 and 1969 models.
Mustangs with the GT350 index were equipped with a high-speed V8 4.7 engine with a capacity of over 300 hp, but then it was replaced by a simpler engine with a volume of 5 liters, and at the end even 5.8 liters. The GT500 version was equipped with a seven-liter V8 engine that developed about 335 horsepower.
Chun, with small functional details, gave the cars a character that distinguished them from ordinary Mustangs. The main features are a ducktail rear spoiler, a fiberglass hood with a pair of slots, as well as air intakes on the sidewalls behind the doors.
And he also owns the characteristic emblems of Shelby with the image of a cobra. Of course, the name Cobra itself, as well as the figure of the attacking snake, was invented long before John Chun appeared in the company – around 1962. But the designer rethought and completely redesigned the logo.
He was convinced that the cobra in the existing emblem did not radiate enough threat. For six months, Chun studied all kinds of encyclopedias, albums and reference books to understand what a real wild snake looks like. And he painted and painted and painted. What he ended up with is familiar to any fan of American cars: his drawing is both concise and detailed, and the snake’s chosen pose is menace incarnate.
Shortly after Chun completed the exterior of the 1969 model year car, the contract between Shelby and Ford was terminated, the company closed production and laid off most of its employees.
John was offered a job at Ford’s design division, but chose to work at Chrysler. Now a designer with experience and serial cars in the portfolio was easily hired. There he managed to work out the appearance of the "muscle cars" Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Road Runner, but after only three years he was lured by the toy manufacturer Tonka Toys from Minnesota.
The company was just about to start producing toy cars, and they needed a designer with experience in the automotive industry.
“For three months they called me every day at exactly ten in the morning. In the end, their perseverance paid off.”
So he and his wife settled for the rest of their lives in the tiny town of Mound in Minnesota. A series of the most popular Tonka toy trucks is just the work of John.
After toys, John worked on various small projects in the field of industrial design: for example, he created the design of vacuum cleaners for Whirlpool, painted the exterior of the Bradley GT kit car.
With his background, he could well leave a mark on the Korean auto industry, which in those years was just moving away from a simple licensed assembly of foreign cars. And once it almost happened: people from Hyundai turned to him for advice.
“Three came to me in Mound – among them the president of the company() . They said they were going to start producing their own cars. () I said that the creation of the first prototype will cost 4-5 million dollars. But they decided it was too expensive and ended up ordering the car from Italian Italdesign. It turned out well, but the car did not meet the requirements of the DOT (Department of Transportation), so it could not be sold in the USA, “ the designer shared with Star Tribune readers.
“Then they called me to ask if I could fix the car, fit it to American rules ,” Chun recalled, ” I replied that I could, just had to listen to me from the very beginning!”
Hyundai’s first standalone model, a small Pony hatchback powered by Mitsubishi units, was never sold in the US. The company entered the American market only with the next compact Excel model in 1985.
In the photos, John Cheung poses with a 1968 Shelby GT500. But he never had his own Shelby:
“When I worked for Shelby, a regular Mustang cost $2,000, and a Shelby cost exactly twice as much. Then I just could not afford such a car. No one could have imagined that someday they would cost $250,000.”
The car in the pictures belongs to collector Dan Mattila. The auto repair shop owner and avid collector heard that the former Shelby designer lived somewhere in Minnesota, but had no idea where—until John Cheung himself called him asking him to drive his car to the vintage tech parade.
The career of our hero cannot be called super-successful – he did not work in the auto industry for long, and created only one well-known car (or two, if you count models of different years). But what! And isn’t it a miracle that a North Korean refugee who at first barely spoke English made it all the way?
John Cheung died of cancer in 2013 at the age of 84, having raised three children, one of whom also became a designer: Kevin Cheung also graduated from college in Pasadena, worked in the California studio of Toyota, Polaris and Chrysler Corporation, where he was engaged in the exterior of Jeep cars. John Chun’s tombstone is engraved with the very familiar logo with a cobra ready to attack.