It is with profound sadness that we share the news that our friend and fellow car enthusiast James R. Powers has passed away. At age 89 Jim was one of the longest termed members of LCOC and among the last of the great Ford designers of the 1950s and ‘60s. Legend is sometimes an overused word. But in Jim’s case it is appropriate. He was right up there with Henry Ford II, Lee Iacocca, Elwood Engel, John DeLorean, Bill Lear, and Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen. And he knew them all. And many more.
Engel was the architect of the 1961 Lincoln Continental design and Knudsen became General Motors’ youngest General Manager when he took over the Pontiac Division at age 43 in the mid-1950s. Jim Powers knew Bunkie well. He dated his sister.
Like his designs, Powers was one-of-a-kind, a true original. Born in Texas in 1934, he was the eldest of three children. From an early age he showed a keen interest in both cars and aircraft, creating drawings and models from scratch using blocks of wood as a starting point. With his keen eye for shape and form he began winning design contests as a youth. Ultimately, he won a national design competition sponsored by General Motors which included a 2-week visit to Detroit as a prize and a scholarship. The visit’s highlight was a meeting with GM’s Harley Earl, the first head of design at General Motors, and perhaps best known as the father of the Corvette.
Jim used the scholarship to attend the Art Center College of Design, then as now a mecca for aspiring auto and industrial designers, now headquartered in Pasadena. While there, he continued to hone his design skills and as a 21-year-old was vigorously recruited by Alex Tremulis, Ford’s head of Advanced Design. Showing his strength of character, Jim refused to leave the Art Center before receiving his degree. Tremulis persisted and the Art Center agreed to award the degree to Jim a bit early as one of its star pupils. Thus, in 1955 Jim became the youngest member of the Ford Advanced Design Studio.
While there, Jim created a series of PR sketches of futuristic transportation for national newspapers and magazines. (See sketch photo example below) One drawing included a concept that looked much like the Theme Building at LAX. The originals hung in the Ford styling lobby and in executive offices, but ultimately made their way to exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution. He also did concepts of the Nucleon, a nuclear powered car, and the Volante, a flying car with three fans on its upper surface.
After a few years Jim was assigned to the Ford Production Studio, where he contributed to the Ford Galaxie designs of the early ‘60s and developed the design concept for the 1961 Thunderbird, this post’s cover photo. Jim’s idea featured large round taillights, pointed front fenders and some pretty significant rear fins. He said Engineering nixed the fins because they “were too expensive to produce.” But the production vehicle bears an unmistakable resemblance to his original concept.
Jim left Ford in the early ‘60s to start a design business with two partners, He eventually went out on his own in California doing both product design and advertising and promotion. Products included items as diverse as diamond solitaire engagement rings, split flip digital clock alarm radios (before LED), housings for under-dash 8 track players, wrist watches, Revell toy models such as the V-8 Engine Plastic Model Kit and, of course, auto parts such as aluminum wheels for the DeLorean, Bricklin, ’70s Ford products, and aftermarket.
Fortunately. his career was documented in our LCOC Lincoln & Continental Comments magazine and in a three-part video series entitled James Powers a Life in Design available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OeXyGf4QWY
But before leaving Ford one of his assignments directly influenced my life and those of many Lincoln owners and LCOC members. Jim became the manager of the Lincoln-Mercury Interiors Studio.
While readying my ’64 Lincoln convertible for the 2015 LCOC San Diego Western National Meet, I spent considerable time cleaning and polishing the dashboard trim and bezels and muttering under my breath how tough it was to get it done with the deep individual bezels placed so closely together. It was a radical departure from the large instrument pods of previous Lincolns. “Who would design such a system?’ I wondered out loud and later expressed my frustration to my friend Janice who attended the meet as my guest.
Jim left a sick bed in South Pasadena to deliver his design presentation at the San Diego meet. After three strokes and hip replacement surgery, he had a number of health issues. But despite some limitations, with help from many friends and family he managed to rise above them. He gave a straightforward presentation that night using slides for illustration. Shockingly, when he arrived at the description of his work at the Interiors Studio, Jim proudly revealed he had designed the dashboard for the 1964 Lincoln! I looked at Janice and simply burst out laughing!
After getting to know him at this meet Jim and I became friends. Besides a love of cars, we shared the joys and sorrows of being Aquarians. Jim’s birthday was just one day before mine and one year he and I celebrated together at a Pasadena restaurant with our mutual friend Jim Ayres.
Eyes twinkling, he loved nothing better than sharing stories of his life and times with attentive listeners. He enjoyed needling his friends and his conservative political views were often the starting point for spirited discussions with his more liberal buddies. Jim was never far from a good time. He had a taste for good food and wine, and great design.
In 2017, some California LCOC members flew to Detroit with Jim to spend several days touring Ford’s Headquarters at nearby Dearborn and the architecture of Detroit before heading to Hickory Corners for the Lincoln Homecoming. On strict conditions of secrecy, Jim was allowed to visit the Ford Advanced Design Studio.
Jim’s personal car collection, totaled nearly 40 vehicles ranging from a Mark II to his beloved 1961 Thunderbird. He had a 1961 Lincoln and a 2005 Ford GT. His Lincoln Mark VIII became a daily driver and the Oldsmobile Toronado was a design favorite, too. He even owned the Lincoln Mark X, a prototype, which he saved from the crusher.
He had many other vehicles and was not above making modifications and design changes on some of them, when he thought they were needed. An example of the Powers touch was a red Ferrari that originally came with a large front bumper to meet U.S. EPA standards that he modified with a swoopy bumperless front end using a Toyota grille. He had over 3,000 car models and artifacts on display inside his home located above the garage in a commercial building that housed the car collection.
While in San Diego, Jim explained he had been quite a ladies man in his youth before eventually marrying the very beautiful Iris. After many years of marriage and raising a family, Iris at age 50, seeing her youth fleeting, stole away to Sorrento for a change of scene. While there, she met a wealthy young Italian who captured her heart and her marriage to Jim was doomed.
Jim became a real life Dodsworth, who was a character from a 1936 movie of the same name, whose middle-aged, but still attractive, wife kept ditching her husband for younger lovers. Eventually, Mrs. Dodsworth wanted to come back, but by then her husband, played by Walter Huston, had found happiness with Mary Astor and the marriage was over.
Jim never remarried but spent the remainder of his life with his many friends attending social events and activities wherever possible. I learned a great deal from him and will miss him immensely. He had legions of friends and associates and was a fixture at LCOC, Great Autos and other car club events over the years. It would be impossible to document them all but below is a sampling of photos of Jim at some of these activities. Our thanks to Ron Cressy and Jim Ayres for some of the photos and Stu Suede, a great friend, for the link to the video.
We extend sincere condolences and sympathy to Jim’s son Karl and his remaining family and friends.
If you have memories of Jim to share please comment on this post or contact us at email@example.com with your remembrances. We will publish all we receive.
Your comments and remembrances of Jim:
I don’t believe I ever met Mr. Powers but now feel the poorer for it. Terry Cottrell
I will always remember the time when Jim Powers and Jim Ayers rode in my 1972 Mark IV last year during the LCOC Western Nationals at Palm Springs. During the short ride in the desert, he was talking of his history with Ford and the people he had worked with at Ford. Thank you so much Jim Ayers for introducing him to me and letting him ride in my 72 Mark IV. My deepest sympathies and heartfelt condolences to the family of Jim Powers. Jim, you will be truly missed by your family, friends and myself. It’s not goodbye but so long for now. We will all miss you my friend. Halsey Posadas
Very nice article on Jim Powers. Thank you for writing it. Much of what you wrote I did not know about him. He was there in golden age of car design from the ’50’s to the ’60’s. Glenn Gordon
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