Johnson was introduced to pottery at a community college near his Michigan home and he was smitten with the medium. After two years, he enrolled in the Eastern Michigan University where he majored in fine arts, developing a love for working with his hands that last to this day in glass-fusion and pottery clubs here in The Villages. He graduated in 1971 and was promptly drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. After a two-year tour he attend graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, earning a master’s in ceramics and sculpture. He soon discovered the scarcity of jobs for the artistically inclined.
“It’s really hard to get into a corporate design studio,” he lamented. “The doors are sealed.”
He also found it was impossible to find a teaching position at the college level and was not interested in teaching high school students.
Then he was introduced to the Center for Creativity in Interlochen, Michigan. At the time it was expanding its art program to match its world-renowned music program. Although this was at the high school level, Johnson said it was a cut above with very dedicated students.
While he loved his work there, the person he replaced temporarily returned from sabbatical and he was job hunting again. He returned to Ann Arbor, opened a studio, then discovered the opportunity in automotive clay modeling. He met the instructor, who was teaching a one-year class resulting in a certificate as a clay automotive modeler.
At the time Johnson had plenty of certification. What he needed was a job.
As it turned out the instructor was also a recruiter, secretly looking for talented people for Ford Motor Company. Johnson signed up for the class, and, after six months, was hired by Ford so he finished the course with night classes. He was hired as a contract modeler and waited for a permanent position to open up. As a contract modeler, Johnson was always looking to improve his position to that of a full-time employee and eliminate the uncertainty of a project-based existence that would be terminated at its completion. When an opportunity came up to work for General Motors Design Center in Thousand Oaks, California, he made the move. But it was another contract job, and his family was still back in Michigan. Next door were the BMW designers, and he dropped by to chat and was offered a permanent job. He went back to GM to leverage the offer and was convinced to take another contract position at the GM plant in Warren, Michigan, where he was reunited with his family.
Eventually, Ford was able to lure him back with more money and the possibility of a permanent position. GM couldn’t match it so Ford got the bulk of the remaining years of his career — 20 in all.
At Ford, he worked directly with a designer building clay models of concept cars five years or more into the future.
“We were developing new ideas,” he explained. “Sometimes they put them into production, sometimes they don’t.”
One of his first projects for Ford was the Bronco. He worked with designers to downsize the SUV. His last and favorite project was the Ford Fusion because he was involved in it from the beginning to the end.
The first step is the creation of a 40% scale model that begins without a name. If that’s approved, the next step is a full-scale model. Once the model is finished, a material is applied that makes it look like a finished vehicle. It’s colored silver, in order to avoid any influence colors have.
“I’d walk around the vehicle model with the designer and we’d talk about it,” he explained. “This is where I could influence the design by making suggestions.”
Eventually, when the model receives the ultimate approval, it gets a name and goes into production.
Johnson describes the Ford Design Center as a humongous hobby shop. The facility is home to talented people of every discipline, who are employed to create anything that can be imagined.
In the beginning, Johnson did everything by hand but modern technology has now led to the use of automated milling machines that are able to perform much of the sculpting process.
When he retired from Ford after a run that was two decades long, he called up his contact at GM and worked another 16 months before deciding he was done with cars of clay.
Although he refers to the work he did on the Fusion as his favorite modeling project, when it came time to buy a car be bought a Mustang.
“After I retired, we built a place in the Michigan woods that was very nice. But then we discovered The Villages, and we’re very happy here,” he said.