John Chun designed cars for boys of all ages, for toddlers on their knees to their dads with a need for speed.
Chun, who built his American Dream story around Shelby muscle cars and Tonka Toys, died July 6 after battling stomach cancer. The Korean native, who for the past 27 years owned and operated a restaurant in Delano with his family, was 84.
Chun immigrated to California in the 1950s. He studied in Sacramento and then Los Angeles before landing a job with Ford as a design engineer for the Mustang’s Shelby Cobra models launched by racing legend Carroll Shelby.
Working for Shelby, Chun made two highly visible contributions to the most American of 1960s muscle cars: the brand’s recoiling cobra and the spoiler on the back.
Chun designed the coveted GT350 and GT500 models, consulted on the launch of Hyundai automobiles, and worked for Tonka Toys, which is what brought him to Minnesota. The now-defunct Twin Cities-based company was debuting a line of toy cars and wanted to hire an actual car designer to oversee the project.
As Tonka’s fortunes waned, Chun and his family opened Chun Mee Restaurant in 1986 in the west metro, where Shelby memorabilia can be spotted.
It was only in recent years that Shelby’s passionate drivers and wannabe owners came to fully realize and appreciate Chun’s role with the model in the late 1960s.
Chun “was astonished about how much fuss people were making about him” whenever he traveled out of state to various events built around the Shelby brand, said Roger Sorel, who until late last year was Shelby American’s director of sales.
“Until then, he was kind of obscure,” Sorel added. “The fame actually became a topic of his concern. He said, ‘People are coming into my restaurant and asking for me.’ He was astonished that people thought that much of him.”
In an interview with the Star Tribune last summer, Chun said that Shelby fanatics who found him at the restaurant “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.”
Chun said that upon his hiring, he was directed to blend the Mustang model with the high-performance Shelby, first made for the public in 1965. They now list for sale on various websites for well over $100,000.
Shelby executives “gave me a Mustang body, and they told me to do something about it,” Chun said in a 2011 interview with the Delano Herald Journal. “Each year has a different hood, grille and lights. Different horsepower, bigger engine, different stripes. It became a hot-ticket item. Everyone wanted that.”
Features that Chun added also included a roll bar and the spoiler on the back of the Shelby Cobra, which he said was more for show, but “it makes you feel good. … It became a necessity but has no real function.”
But his most recognizable imprint on Shelby was making over the company’s skinny snake logo into one with a more menacing look, its back raised and poised to pounce.
“Ford has been using that design ever since,” he told the Herald Journal. “If I had a dime for every snake produced, I’d probably have a lot of money.”
As Shelby sales faded, Chun joined Chrysler and lived in the Detroit area, working on the Charger, Road Runner and other sporty models.
From there, he bowed to intense lobbying from Tonka and joined the toymaker.
“They called me every day for three months at precisely 10 a.m.,” Chun told the Star Tribune. “Finally, their persistence prevailed. They told me that they didn’t have enough toy designers. 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.”
From Tonka, he shifted gears into the restaurant business.
Diner Randy Roskowiak, a Delano businessman and longtime sports car collector who counts a 2010 Shelby Super Snake among his prized possessions, met Chun in the late 1980s and became a close friend.
“John wanted me to bring in some pictures [of my cars] one day,” Roskowiak recalled. “I brought in a whole box, and he’s telling me about his work for Shelby. I’m thinking this can’t possibly be real. In this small town, this would be one of the biggest pieces of news.
“It was probably the best-kept secret in Delano. He didn’t say anything to anybody. “
In late 2010, Roskowiak and Chun traveled together for a big Shelby shindig in Las Vegas, where the company has its headquarters, and Roskowiak appreciated seeing Chun get his due amid the hundreds of collectors and employees.
“He was such a humble, loving man,” Roskowiak said. “I don’t think I’ve ever known anybody in my life who was so humble.”
Chun’s survivors include his wife, Helen; son Kevin; and daughters Marsha and Linda. Services have been held.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482