If you’ve admired a late ‘60s Shelby Cobra GT, then you’ve admired the work of John Chun.
Long before he began serving Chinese food in Delano, the Korean native designed cars, including the prestigious Shelby Cobras from 1967-69
By Ryan Gueningsman
DELANO, MN Sitting across the table from 82-year-old John Chun in one of the booths at the small Chinese restaurant in Delano he owns with his wife, Helen, it’s hard to believe that Chun is the man behind one of the most popular car designs in the world.
The few who do know his story call him “Delano’s best-kept secret.”
“I’m the original Shelby Cobra designer,” Chun said proudly, yet humbly. “I designed the ‘67, ‘68, and ‘69.”
Chun, a Korean War veteran, came to the United States from Seoul, South Korea, as an engineering student in September 1957, finding his way to Sacramento, CA. Due to his of lack of knowledge of the English language, and with no tuition costs, Chun enrolled at the Sacramento Junior College.
“I stayed there about two years,” Chun said.
He described one particular project for his engineering class involving the drawing of a funnel and making a model of it.
“We had one hour to do it, and I did it in 40 minutes,” Chun recalled. “My instructor’s eyes popped out of his head.”
Chun said he was the only student in his class of 60 who was able to complete the project in the time allotted. Impressed with his talent, Chun’s instructor had some advice for the young man.
“He’s the one who recommended I go to Los Angeles to check out design college,” Chun said. He took his instructor’s advice, and headed to southern California.
“One weekend, I packed up and drove non-stop to Los Angeles and went to see that college (Art Center College of Design),” Chun recalled.
College representatives looked at Chun’s portfolio and accepted him into the school. He couldn’t afford the $350 tuition per semester, so he took a job as a mechanic at International Harvester.
“At that time, minimum wage was $1.25 per hour,” he said. He then joined the union and received $3.75 per hour.
“That gave me a boosting for attending school and living expenses,” Chun said.
School hours were from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., but at 3 p.m., he had to sneak out of school to go to work.
“No one knew,” Chun recalled with a smile. “They told me, ‘you can’t burn the candle at both ends. You either have to be a full-time student, or a full-time mechanic.’”
After International Harvester, Chun worked at a General Motors truck division shop, and had the opportunity to do work for several movie stars, including actor Robert Taylor.
“He tried to tip me and I wouldn’t accept it,” Chun said. “I told him I was just happy to fix something for him.”
It took Chun seven years of working full time and attending school full time to earn his degree, and he said it was a tough schedule, affectionately calling it “Marine boot camp.”
“They don’t leave you alone,” Chun said. “It’s such intense training and education. It teaches you patience. You never give up you get the job done. That kind of training is necessary.”
This also meant no dating and no girlfriend, he said with a smile. Out of the 60 students in his class, Chun said he was one of 13 who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in industrial design, specializing in transportation design. He was the first Korean student to graduate from ACCD.
Following his graduation, Chun had job interviews with GM, Ford, and Chrysler. He said the Ford Motor Company sent Hugh Downs, who was a commercial spokesman for the company, to interview Chun. Downs was there to boost recruiting, he added.
“It wasn’t a successful interview,” Chun recalled with a laugh. “He told me I was too old for the job.”
The next day, there was an announcement that someone from Shelby American would be coming to recruit a designer.
“It was a new company at the time,” Chun said.
Fred Goodell, who became Shelby’s chief engineer, and had been a right-hand man to the late Henry Ford, was sent to California to help with the creation of this new car, according to Chun.
“He stopped by my booth and I displayed some of my drawings,” Chun recalled, remembering that Goodell was impressed with his designs and his engineering background from Korea. This set Chun ahead of some of his fellow graduates.
“He asked if I wanted to come to work,” Chun said. “Classmates wondered how John Chun, who couldn’t even speak English well, could get a job. They were kind of envious. I’m a very lucky one. Fred Goodell gave me my responsibilities and really took care of me. He authorized everything I wanted done.”
Texas-born racer Carroll Shelby, who recently turned 88, started making a name for himself in the 1950s, driving Aston-Martins in races in Europe, taking part in the Carrera Pan Americana Mexico, and eventually being named Sports Illustrated’s driver of the year in 1957, according to Shelby’s website. He won the 24-hour Le Mans endurance race in France in 1959, and his last racing season was in 1960, with a fifth-place finish at the Los Angeles Times-Mirror Grand Prix for sports cars.
During the early 1960s, Shelby had gotten out of racing and had created the original Cobra Roadster, the fastest production car ever made at that time. It went 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds, according to the website. In 1962, Shelby American formally committed to building its new Cobra. The Cobra also saw its first race in October of that year.
In February 1963, Shelby-American arrived at Daytona for its first international competition, and in December 1963, the Cobra won the USRRC (United States Road Racing Championship). In June 1964, the Cobras and Shelby American won the biggest race of all in Europe, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Cobra was fourth overall and first in GT, defeating Ferrari.
Chun said Henry Ford was so impressed by Shelby that Ford offered Shelby the Mustang body if he could come up with a high-performance sports car.
“That’s how it all got started,” Chun said. The first Shelby Mustang GT350 race cars and street cars were built in 1965.
Getting down to it
Chun said he is the designer of the 1967, 1968, and 1969 GT350/500 models.
“They gave me a Mustang body, and they told me to do something about it. Each year has a different hood, grill, and lights,” Chun said. “Different horsepower, bigger engine, different stripes. It became a hot-ticket item. Everyone wanted that. Those cars, if you find one today, the price tag is very high.”
He said, over the course of his years with the company, he did many different concepts and drawings for the top executives to look at.
“You don’t do only one,” Chun said. “They would pick one and you go from there. I had a pretty good idea with the way I had to go.”
In 1966, production began on the 1967 line at LAX (Los Angeles International Airport), and in November of the same year, the first of the 1967 Shelby GT350s and GT500s were delivered to dealers nationwide, according to Shelby’s website.
“They leased that space (at the airport) for quite a while, and it was quite a sight,” Chun said. “You could see a sea of Mustang bodies while planes were taking off and landing.”
When Chun was working, he said he’d receive visits from Shelby, who Chun said would come in and grab some incomplete drawings of Chun’s to take and show to others.
“He always promised he’d bring them back, but he never did,” Chun said with a laugh.
Chun said he also was responsible for putting in the roll bar, and also the “spoiler” on the back of the Cobra. Chun said the spoiler was more for show, but also held down the wind.
“It makes you feel good,” Chun said. “Everybody’s more-or-less copied the idea. It became a necessity, but has no real function. Being a car designer, you have to dream about many different concepts. You have no guarantee it’s going to fly. You do sketches, put them on the studio wall, and have people come in, and you’d go with what people looked at the most. Fred Goodell gave me some ideas, but I had to generate a lot on my own.”
In September 1967, production of 1968 Shelby Mustang moved to Ionia, MI, and the A.O. Smith Company, with Chun deciding to follow along.
“After the lease was up in LA, I was done,” Chun said. “Fred Goodell hinted, why don’t I come to Michigan.”
So, Chun thought about it and decided to make the move to the small Michigan town.
In June 1968, the ‘69 Shelby GTs were finalized, and production began in November. In September 1969, the Shelby Mustang project ended as sales slowed, according to the website. The leftover ‘69 models were updated to ‘70 specifications and production ended.
Chun, by this time, found himself in high demand. He interviewed with Ford Motor Company and Chrysler. At the advice of his first wife, Daisy, Chun said he accepted a position with Chrysler because it offered slightly more money.
“I could have moved up fast at Ford, but my honest opinion was that Chrysler needed help, so I went to help them,” Chun said.
He worked in Highland Park, MI, and worked on the Charger, the Plymouth Road Runner, and other models.
That famous snake logo that’s his, too
Chun said he also designed a revised Cobra logo that is still being used by the company today.
“When I came to Shelby, they had a logo. It was a skinny snake not that exciting. I didn’t like it,” Chun said. “I made the suggestion we should come up with a different kind of snake, a better-looking snake, so they said ‘why don’t you develop one,’ so I went to work.”
He said he studied encyclopedias to learn more about the snake’s patterns.
“It took about six months and they OK’d it,” Chun said. “Since then, Ford has been using that snake ever since. That’s my original design. If I had a dime for every snake produced, I’d probably have a lot of money. That’s the way the current Cobra snake was born.”
From big toys to little toys
He was laid off from Chrysler, and was offered a job at Tonka Toys in Mound, which is what led him to Minnesota. He had also considered going back to California when his employment with Chrysler ended.
“I said, I don’t want to monkey around with small toy cars,” Chun recalled with a laugh. “I didn’t intend to come to Minnesota. They said they’d take care of me. I thought I made a mistake, but I’m still here.”
Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chun worked for Tonka Toys, and then started his own consulting firm, Trans Industries, in Mound. He has been active in the Mound/Westonka Rotary since the 1980s, and has also served as a church elder over the years.
A member of the Society of Automotive Engineers, Chun also did work on the Bradley Automotive GTII kit car, and did additional design/engineering work for a projector, a vacuum, an oil filter, and a recoil starting system.
His son, Kevin, went on to follow his father’s footsteps, graduating from the ACCD’s Pasadena campus. Kevin Chun also became a car designer, working for Toyota. He now has a new position with Polaris, designing utility vehicles.
“My dad told me I had no reason to fail,” Kevin Chun said. “He came here not speaking English, no student loans . . . I thought about what he told me, and I pushed myself. The struggles I go through now are nothing compared to that. My dad has always been very supportive of the creative direction.”
Daughter Marsha Chun has also shown her creative talents and is a fashion designer in New York.
John Chun was hired as a contract engineer for Whirlpool Corporation in the mid-1980s and when that ended, he and his wife, Helen, began looking at other business options.
Twenty-five years of Chun Mee brings Chun full circle
The couple took over a small Asian restaurant in Delano in the Country Mall in 1986, and Chun Mee will celebrate its 25th anniversary this March.
Fond memories of his past remain on the walls of his restaurant including an autographed print from Shelby, a collage of pictures from a Shelby event Chun attended, and a print of one of Chun’s original drawings.
Chun was able to go to Shelby American headquarters in Las Vegas last winter, thanks to Delano businessman Randy Roskowiak. Chun said Roskowiak had ordered a car from Shelby American and wanted to see it in production, and offered to take Chun and his son, Kevin Chun, with him.
Over the years, Roskowiak had learned that John Chun, someone he had been a loyal customer of for years, had been behind the original designs.
“We enjoy eating there,” Roskowiak said of Chun Mee. “I was kind of blown away when I found out John was one of Carroll Shelby’s original designers. He told me about all the things he had done and what his past history was. I couldn’t believe it. Then he brought in his scrapbook that was about 4 inches thick. I thought, ‘my gosh, this guy is for real. This is the best-kept secret in Delano.’”
The Chuns and Roskowiak were able to watch test driving at the racetrack, check out the Shelby Museum, attend a dinner banquet in honor of Shelby’s birthday, and also meet a lot of Shelby staff members, including Roger Sorel of the company’s sales/marketing department.
“I have a great relationship with him,” Sorel said of Chun. “He introduced himself, and I just became . . . he’s a great, great man. He told us all that he did. If it wasn’t for people like him back then, we wouldn’t be here today enjoying doing what we do for a living. It really came full circle.”
While there, Chun had been admiring a jacket in the gift shop. Sorel got wind of that and presented the jacket to Chun as a gift of appreciation.
“He was in tears,” Sorel said. “We kind of embraced him into our family.”
“It was a jacket you couldn’t buy,” Roskowiak added. “Roger put it on John, and it just about brought everybody to tears.”
“It’s the ideal jacket for Minnesota,” Chun said with a smile.
Roskowiak said, when they were in Las Vegas, Shelby American executives had John and Kevin hop on a golf cart and took them to one of the back warehouses.
“They were working on a car they hadn’t revealed yet at the time,” Roskowiak said. “It was the 45th anniversary edition of the GT350. None of us could see it. They (Shelby executives) wanted their opinion if they would have changed anything. Kevin actually did tell them one or two things to change. The public had never seen that car before. That’s a really hot item right now.”
Roskowiak said, at the banquet, Chun was recognized as being in attendance, and when people found out, he was approached with autograph requests.
“He was just taken away,” Roskowiak said. “They treated you if you were family. It was just really awesome. Anyone who had been there when John worked there they all knew who John was.”
Chun said he is hoping to attend the 13th annual employee reunion this May at Willow Springs International Motorsports Park in Rosamond, CA.
Chun recently completed radiation for stage-four cancer in his stomach, but said he feels good. He’s not sure how much he’ll be working at Chun Mee anymore, but said he wants to stay active.
Shelby, himself, called Chun several weeks ago to wish Chun well and catch up with his former employee.
“Those people back then got to design cars. Now, they graduate from the Art Center and they design door handles, bumpers, and they’re very disappointed,” Shelby told the Delano Herald Journal. “John was lucky enough to get to work on a whole car.”
Both Chun and Shelby said that, at the time the cars were being designed and manufactured, they had no idea the legend they were creating.
“The ‘68 is probably the most popular model of all of them, and the ‘67 probably brings the most money, and he got to work on both of them,” Shelby said, adding he’s not sure why the 1968 became one of the most popular models.
“You never know that until 30-40 years later,” he explained. He admitted he didn’t particularly care for the ‘68, at first.
“It wasn’t my favorite car,” he said, “but it turned out to be.”
“It is probably one of the most popular cars ever made,” Roskowiak said. “Here I come to find out the guy who designed them is right here in Delano.”
“No other American-produced car is worth that much,” Chun said humbly. “Whatever I did must have been the right thing.”