Car designer builds classic success story

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 13, 2012 - 11:23 AM

On his way to Minnesota, a Korean immigrant reshaped American automotive history with his design for a legendary 1960s sports car.

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Classic car buffs come into the Chun Mee restaurant in Delano, approach the 84-year-old man standing behind the counter and ask if the rumors are true. Is he the one who designed the iconic Mustang-based Shelby Cobra in the late 1960s?

John Chun says no, points to a photograph of a man next to a 1967 Shelby, and says: "That young guy in the picture, he's the one who did it."

And then he watches with amusement as the visitors lean in for a close look at the picture and realize that they're looking at a younger version of the man standing in front of them.

Sometimes, they're in such awe "that they just want to touch him," said his wife, Helen Chun.

"They don't think I'm real," he added with a laugh. "They don't believe that I'm really the guy. Here I am, claiming to have designed a famous American car, and I'm Asian. Not only Asian, I'm from North Korea! That really gets them."

If they knew, this would get them, too: Chun designed the Bradley GT, consulted on the launch of Hyundai cars and worked for Tonka Toys, which is how he landed in Minnesota. The company was debuting a line of toy cars and wanted to hire an actual car designer to oversee the project.

His main duty now is to chat with customers at his wife's restaurant while she serves as cook/waitress/busperson/dishwasher. She teases him about "getting a job that pays," but it's also clear that she's proud of him.

"We've had people come from Oklahoma and New York and Florida just to meet him and have their picture taken with him," she said.

More visitors have found their way to the small strip-mall restaurant since the May death of Carroll Shelby, the race car driver-turned-entrepreneur whose name is on the famous cars. Chun, who had a stomach cancer scare last year, is one of the few remaining links to the original operation, "and when you get old, people realize that next time they're here, they might not have the chance to meet you," he said.

Dan Mattila, who has owned a 1968 Shelby GT500 since 1986, had heard stories that the car's designer lived in Minnesota, "but I didn't know where. Then, one day, John called me and asked if he could ride in my car in a parade."

Mattila, owner of Dan's Complete Automotive in Blaine, jumped at the opportunity. Unlike many Shelby collectors, he still drives his muscle car around town, something that pleases the car's designer to no end. Chun is not a big fan of Shelby owners who leave their cars in storage, only taking them out in order to tow them to the occasional car show.

"The car was designed to be driven," he said, "not towed."

Didn't see it coming

As Helen Chun bustled around the restaurant serving customers, John Chun launched into his life story, which is filled with the elaborate detailing of an engineer. (His recounting of the first time he saw an American includes the brand of cigarettes the guy was smoking.) Add the fact that he's one of those people who becomes your best friend the minute you meet, and it takes time to work your way through his life story. You talk, you look at pictures, you talk some more, you eat chicken wings, you talk.

And there's a lot to talk about. When Chun's small hometown "ended up being on the wrong side" when Korea was split in half, his father, also an engineer, encouraged him to go to live with an uncle in South Korea to get an education. He returned home only once after that.

"We realized right away that it was a mistake, that I might not get out [of North Korea] again," he said. "So I snuck back to Seoul. I had to escape from my own hometown."

He eventually emigrated to California at the encouragement of a friend who already was there. It was not an auspicious beginning.

"The first thing I had to do was learn English, so I signed up for a class," he said. "I flunked. I had to take it again in order to pass."

His aspirations weren't much higher the first time he sat down at his desk at the Shelby offices in a converted hangar at Los Angeles International Airport. He never dreamed that someday both he and the car he was about to design would become famous. He was just hoping not to get fired.

"I had no idea what I was doing," he said. "I'd just gotten out of college. The company's chief engineer came [to a college job fair] and hired me, and I had no idea why. He didn't even tell me what I was supposed to do. He just told me to go to work."

Ford Motor Co. wanted a high-performance spinoff of its Mustang, and it contracted with Shelby, who was building race cars, to do it. Chun's assignment was to take a Mustang chassis and create a new car around it.

He actually had an ideal background for the task. After he got an engineering degree in South Korea, he spent seven years in the United States working as an auto mechanic before getting a design degree. He not only knew the manufacturing process inside and out -- "Everything I designed, I instinctively factored in how it could be made" -- but he also could pick up a wrench and build the car himself, if necessary.

Nonetheless, the resulting product struggled to find a market, largely because of its price. "In those days, a Mustang cost $2,000, but a Shelby cost $4,000," Chun said. "It's kind of embarrassing now, but I didn't buy one. I couldn't afford it. And nobody believed that someday they would be worth $250,000."

Shelby dropped in every so often to check out his designs. "He'd say, 'You got anything hot?'" Chun recalled. "He'd look through my drawings, take a couple and say, 'Don't worry, I'll bring these right back.' He never brought any of them back. I'd always have to do them over again."

There's no frustration in his voice as he says that. On the contrary, he speaks at length about how much he enjoyed working for Shelby, who was open to just about any idea.

"He only said no to me once," Chun said. "I kept sneaking over to the racing side of the operation, and when he'd catch me there, I'd say, 'I can do both' [the racing and road cars], and he'd say, 'Go back to your office.'"

Shortly after Chun put the finishing touches on the design for the 1969 model, the company lost its lease on the hangar. Ford decided to take over production of the road car and renamed it the Shelby Mustang. The company offered Chun a job, but he opted to go to work at Chrysler's headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. Three years later, he got the call from Tonka Toys. Actually, it was lots of calls.

"They called me every day for three months at precisely 10 a.m.," he said. "Finally, their persistence prevailed."

A jack of all designs

"They told me that they had enough toy designers," he said. "They said that if I came to Minnesota, they would take care of me. And they did; they put me up in the Lafayette Club. I thought that was great until I discovered that I had to wear a three-piece suit every night to go to dinner."

He married Helen in 1977 and they settled in Mound, where they still live. After leaving Tonka Toys, he did all sorts of design work (he patented a vacuum cleaner). He also created the Bradley GT, with which shade-tree mechanics could build a car from a kit ("it was entirely a Minnesota company; we did everything right here") and served as a consultant on car designs. One of his clients was from his homeland: Korean-based Hyundai.

"Three men -- one of them the president of the company -- came to our house in Mound and said that they wanted to get into the car business," he said. "When I told them that it would cost $4 or $5 million to create a prototype, they said that was too much, and they left. They ended up going with an Italian company, which built them a car. And it was a beautiful car, but it didn't meet DOT [Department of Transportation] regulations, so you couldn't drive it.

"They called me up and asked if I could fix it. I said, 'I can, but you should have listened to me in the first place.'"

Chun, who exudes a down-to-earth common sense, downplayed his famous-car past until about year ago. He and his wife were cleaning their basement when they found some of the original artwork from his days working for Shelby. Helen Chun decided to frame it for display in the restaurant.

"Soon people were asking why we had drawings of the cars on the walls, and the word was out," he said. "Of course, at first people wouldn't believe me, but once they did, they'd call their friends and say, 'You've got to get over here!'"

The public recognition is long overdue, said Roger Sorel, director of marketing for Shelby American.

"Not only is John a great guy -- an absolutely fantastic person -- but he's part of the legacy and heritage of that car," he said. "If it weren't for people like him, we wouldn't be here today."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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