Designer of the American Dream


THEY SIT LIKE RUINED VILLAS IN THE distant reaches of mall parking lots, in inner-city neighborhoods and backcountry towns, dressed no longer in bright colors but in gray patches and orange primer, the last Chevelles and Biscaynes, GTOs and Sting Rays, the dying echoes of the stylistic opera of Bill Mitchell. Their torsos long and taut, their hips tight but tense like a sprinter’s calves, their fronts raking forward at an angle, their corners bulging with implied power, these cars survive from the distant side of a cultural watershed. They come from a world before the victory of imports and downsizing. For many, they are the last real American cars.

William L. Mitchell, the head of General Motors design from 1958 to 1977, was responsible for the look of some seventy-two million automobiles, a volume of product that Ralph Lauren or Raymond Loewy would be proud of and a mass of visual impact on the landscape that was inescapable for anyone who lived in the United States during those decades. He can be considered a major cultural figure.

An auto company’s design chief occupies a strange position, with huge power but little recognition outside his industry, the most important individual in a collective pursuit, more like a producer of films than a director. Mitchell exerted power like a Hollywood mogul at a time when the car was one of the country’s prime national artifacts. Detroit mass-produced dreams, and it had as fundamental an influence on the American imagination as the movies did.

Harley Earl, who hired Mitchell and ran GM design before him, invented the profession of the Detroit styling chief. Beginning with the 1927 LaSalle, Earl took the personalized creativity of the custom coachbuilders and adapted it to the assembly line. He turned couture into prât-á-porter , bringing luxury to the middle classes. “Populuxe” the social historian Thomas Hine would call it half a century later.

Earl may have invented styling, but Mitchell institutionalized it. Like the skilled politician who succeeds the charismatic founder of a nation or a company, he made the process systematic. But the look he introduced was what he was proudest of.

“I wanted to put the crease in the trousers,” he liked to boast. He called his styling—his design language, as it would be called today, his rhetoric of power and excitement, which helped keep General Motors the engine of the American economy in the sixties—“London tailoring.” It was “the sheer look,” and it took off the tail fins and heavy chrome of the fifties. Harley Earl was big, six-four, and so were his cars. Mitchell was short and glistening bald, with an incendiary temper, and that showed in his products.

The look was a consistent one too—from the Cadillac Sixty Special, a “personal luxury car” of 1938 to the 1963 Riviera and those last Chevelle muscle cars, now driven by teenagers who weren’t even born when they were built. “We’re not dressmakers,” Mitchell said, but he was wrong. Tailoring remained his chief metaphor for automobile styling throughout his career.

His understanding of London tailoring, however, was not exactly Savile Row. His personal wardrobe ran to bright open-collared suits that matched his personal collection of cars, special editions of vehicles he had designed in hues like baby blue and canary yellow. It was Mitchell’s declared goal to outfit every individual as expressively with a car as with a suit of clothing.

There were other ways in which car styling and fashion resembled each other. Styling changed annually and kept form very far away from function. It was supposed to help customers express their individuality and emotion, while finally expressing the designer’s. And it was a form of show business that often seemed to move in step with Hollywood. Ultimately it brought art, or something like it, to the assembly line.

“I LIKE to have them look like they are going like hell just sitting still,” he said. His cardinal aesthetic virtue was “flair.”

MITCHELL WAS EARL’S PROTÉGÉ DURING the late forties and early fifties, years when airplanes—specifically, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter with its twin tail—were inspiring the tail fin. When Mitchell took over at GM in 1958, he got rid of the tail fins and initiated a change from the baggy-legged zoot-suit cars of the fifties to the sheer, sleek, powerful ones of the sixties—a change as fundamental as that from the Romanesque to the Gothic.

The sheer look—sharp-edged and sleek-backed—aimed at creating what Mitchell called “fleet-looking” cars. Every September, at the end of the high, bright summers of the sixties, Bill Mitchell’s cars would appear in the newspaper ads full-page, laid out like fine suits in department store ads, “arriving this week!” at the dealerships.