GM & Chevrolet’s Automotive Artist
by Mark Moyer
It was a warm spring day in the northern Detroit suburb of Warren MI, 1960. The sun was reflected from the many glass buildings that comprised a huge complex known to its many employees simply as, the “Tech Center.” Roaring off Van Dyke Avenue into the main entrance, rolled a big silver motorcycle. The “biker” turned down the tree-lined entrance drive and headed into a parking lot labeled “GM EMPLOYEES ONLY.”
The bike itself was a big Harley, covered in silver-colored fiberglass and the rider was equally decked out in a silver-colored leather outfit. Before the man popped off his helmet, those looking out of the windows facing the parking lot, as well as those heading into the building, instantly knew who he was. He was the head honcho, the style guy. This was the man who was both loved and reviled, celebrated and cursed by those who worked under him, opposed him or fought with him throughout the departments and divisions of General Motors.
His name was Bill Mitchell. GM’s new Chief of Design. Early on he was viewed as both a visionary and a genius. He had inherited the keys to the kingdom from his long-time, legendary predecessor, none other than Harley J. Earl, the first Design Chief at General Motors. Now he was the one leading the charge, the one to be feared and watched, as Earl had been. Mitchell had many interesting qualities. He was outgoing, jovial and fun to talk to. He was also outspoken, opinionated, profane and pugnacious. While perhaps not as overbearing and domineering as the six-foot-four Earl had been, he definitely was cut from the same cloth. And, like his former boss, he was able to use his persuasive abilities to get the best out of the talented people he had under him. (They were probably a bit scared of him as well.)
As time would tell, Mitchell also had ideas that differed with those of “Mr. Earl”. (Nobody in the design studio ever called him “Harley”, of course.). For one thing he had an almost total dislike, when it came to designing cars, of two of the entities that were in great abundance at giant GM — market research and corporate committees. Referring to the latter, he pulled no punches (as usual), stating, “You can line up any group of cars from the past to the present and I can tell you which ones were committee designed and which ones were left to the designer.”
As for market research and its value in automotive design, Bill stated, “Frank Lloyd Wright did not go around ringing doorbells asking people what kind of houses they wanted. There is not one good-looking car I designed that market research had anything to do with.”
Mitchell also differed from the stern Earl in that he was a great storyteller. He had a great sense of humor with a big, hearty laugh thrown in. Intimidating he could be, but he could be persuasive in other ways, too.
Mitchell’s corporate battles with others within the GM bureaucracy are legendary today. He was like a verbal prizefighter, taking on all comers who would dare try to re-engineer, cut costs in, or point out sales or production difficulties with his car creations. He took it as a personal affront when anybody was willing to try to tamper with what he felt was a winning design. He was hard on his own designers, too. As he later wrote, “…a good designer has got to be creative and to be creative you have got to be dissatisfied and discontent. It makes for a terrible personality.”
Stories like the day he came down to look at a pair of clay mockups in one of the design studios are part of GM lore. As Larry Shinoda, a Chief Designer at one of the Corvette Studios told it, Mitchell took a look at one of them, cursed at it, called it a “pig” and kicked it so hard the entire back end fell off. Such was the life of a car designer in those days if a design approach wasn’t to his liking.
Of course, there were other aspects of his leadership that played well, both for GM and for the Chevrolet cars under his watch. For instance, he was neither just a car guy nor was he just a design guy. He was both — an unusual combination.
As far as automobiles went, Mitchell wanted a no-nonsense look on his creations — and he loved to drive them, too. He loved to appropriate one of his sexy, new machines and find somewhere to drive it — fast. He was a wisecracking, hard-driving, flashy-dressing guy who lived and breathed his wonderful cars and the wild, pie-in-the-sky dream and concept cars he was involved in. He was always thinking out of the box; dreaming up better designs and better ways to do them. He was an innovator, an inventor, a sculptor of beautiful auto bodies in an age of change.
Mitchell headed up the Styling Department for GM from 1958 until his retirement in 1977, working at General Motors for a total of 42 years. He had come a long way from his modest beginnings as the son of a Buick dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. Later, young Bill drew cars and ad layouts for a New York City ad agency. One of his exciting, flashy drawings ended up in the hands of — you guessed it — Harley Earl, who was in the process of putting together a team of talented artists for his new Art & Colour section at General Motors. Within one year of his hire in 1935, Mitchell was Chief Designer of the Cadillac Division. And he was off and running.
Of course, Mitchell will always be most closely associated with one particular car– the Corvette. Take the Sting Ray, for instance. Many did. But Bill Mitchell had his hand in all of the GM car styling, not just the ‘Vette. Under his watchful eye, General Motors cars in general evolved from wide, round, chrome-laden behemoths to sleeker, cleaner, more performance-oriented road machines. And he had the clout to do so. As Mitchell put it in an interview in Automotive News, “You go back to the old days when I first came here. A designer was sort of a necessary evil. Even though Harley Earl was six foot four, it was a battle. Engineers felt that we were nothing but decorators. They laid everything out and then we wrapped the tin around it.
Today, the Product Policy Committee meets in our conference room, not at Engineering Staff. And here is where we decide how much a car is going to weigh, how big it is going to be, how many people it will seat and how much it is going to cost.”
Once Mitchell was handed the keys to the design studio in December 1958, the changes began. The Chevrolet Division and its cars felt the effects of the new head guy at once. The first lineup under his watch was the almost finless, conservative and more modern-looking ’60. It represented a complete swing of the pendulum from the finny (many would say, excessively so) styles that came before it. Mitchell’s car tastes, as he explained it, were quite different from those of his former boss: “[Harley Earl] had a tendency to make fat, rounded, heavy things. I think it was because he was a big man. I like sharp, razor edges in contrast to his rounded deals. When they threw the reins over to me, it didn’t take me long to get back into a sheer look.
Earl was heavy on chrome, although I don’t blame him. In those days, sales people had a lot to say. The more chrome, the better the car. The cheap car had nothing. The first time that we really proved that people like cars without chrome was the Riviera. At that time, Pontiac couldn’t get in on that body, so we made the Grand Prix. While it wasn’t a custom body, it had the same lack of chrome. In those days, the Europeans called it “Detroit iron”. They said we put chrome on with trowels and 1958 was the end of that era. Those were the big ‘chrome’ cars.”
It’s also interesting to note that Mitchell was thinking ahead of the other car builders in his first designs. Chrysler’s 1960 lineup looked just as ornamented and finned as ever. Even its newly restyled Imperial and New Yorker models were showing dramatic sharp-edged fins with boomerang-shaped taillights adding to the drama. Moreover, it had huge wraparound “cat’s eye” headlight treatments (sound familiar, Chevy lovers?) which looked out of place on the body. The body shape itself had a clean, sharp look, but with all that clutter and those fins, it was definitely not the way that cars would be appearing in just a few years hence. It was in many ways a monument to the look of excess and ornamentation that had begun to characterize all of the Detroit cars in the late ’50s. And this ’60 lineup wasn’t done by some Harley Earl wannabe — Chrysler’s Vice President of Design was none other than Virgil M. Exner, another legend in the automotive community. Well, even Babe Ruth struck out more times than he ever got on base. Guess everybody’s entitled to a few mistakes.
Mitchell’s first Chevrolet was the 1960, but his first wondrous new car was the ’63 Buick Riviera, a beautiful, elegant, almost chrome-less car that had just the right combination of curves and sharp edges. Other beauties, besides the Corvettes that were his hallmark, were his ’67 Cadillac Eldorado, the new Camaro of the same year, and, later on, the Chevy Caprice and Olds Cutlass Supreme. He led General Motors from the fifties into the eighties and his clean, razor-sharp, elegant designs are timeless masterpieces of car design even viewed through the eyes of today.
What everybody who knew Bill Mitchell remembers most about him, even more than the cars he created and dreamed of, was his energy and vitality. His sketches and paintings always reflect movement and lots of action. Looking at them, you can feel the power of the automobiles and the fun of driving them that he felt. He is purported to have once claimed that a car should look like “it’s going like hell, just sitting still.” As he was working on many of his drawings, there is little doubt that he was, at the same time, thinking about screaming to work on his Harley-Davidson or trying out his latest “Motoramic” automotive creation on the test track or down Woodward Avenue.
He was one-of-a-kind. An artist who used the automobile as his canvas. He’s gone today, but his great car designs and drawings live on forever.
Cars of the Sizzling Sixties, Publications Int’l. Ltd., 2002 Great Cars of the Sixties, Editors of Consumer Guide, Publications Int’l. Ltd., 1985 GM: The First 75 Years of Transportation Products, Automotive Quarterly, Inc. and General Motors, 1983 America on Wheels, Frank Coffey and Joseph Layden, PBS, 1996 Chrome Dreams: Automobile Styling Since 1893, Paul C. Wilson, Chilton Book Co, 1976 Corvette: America’s Sports Car, Randy Leffingwell, MBI, 1997 Corvettes: The Cars That Created the Legend, Dennis Adler, Krause Publications, 1996
www.corvetteactioncenter.com www.corvettemuseum.com www.cardesignnews.com