- Historic Sites
Designer of the American Dream
Bill Mitchell’s imaginings brought you the cars of Detroit’s ultimate classic era
November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
His philosophy was simple, even simplistic, and contained in a series of pithy apothegms, many of them derived from Earl. “I like to have them look like they are going like hell just sitting still,” he told the auto-design historian C. Edson Armi in 1988. He favored the shark over the grouper, he said, the greyhound over the bulldog. He held that “a deer without antlers is just a big rabbit” and that a man will keep a baseball in his hand longer than a billiard ball because the seams hold his interest.
His cardinal aesthetic virtue was “flair,” a concept as precious to Detroit as the sublime was to the romantic poets or the minimal to sixties painters. “We’re in the emotion business,” proclaimed Chuck Jordan, one of his brightest designers. Mitchell frequently reminded his subordinates that what ultimately mattered was the overall feeling of a car. He believed in the aggressive—the knife-edge—and his two proudest products were the Corvette Sting Ray and the Mako Shark show car. His temper had a sharp edge too. He would burst into a studio spilling loud, obscene rants, yet he relaxed and decentralized General Motors’ tyrannical studio system—the rooms where cars were modeled in clay were actually called design studios—which Harley Earl had built. Mitchell gave more creativity to his staff, and like a gruff football coach, he berated some of those he thought his best designers. He admired individual talent, and despite his scalding bluster, he was a romantic.
The son of a Pennsylvania Buick dealer, Mitchell moved to New York in 1927, when he was fifteen, and began work as an office boy with the Barron Collier ad agency, which had a number of automotive clients. He took up amateur road racing on weekends and started drawing and painting at the Art Students League. He sketched skyscrapers, locomotives and ships, men lounging on corners as seen from his apartment at Forty-ninth Street and Seventh Avenue—not bad treatments, in the mode of the Ashcan school. But most of all, cars drew his eye, especially the exotic ones he saw in front of the big hotels. At work at the ad agency he painted rakish Packards and other models, and he eventually landed the job of illustrating the publications of the Automobile Racing Club of America.
An insurance executive named Walter Carey saw Mitchell’s work and suggested he talk to Harley Earl at GM. His sketchbook—packed with bright pastels on black paper of imaginary cars with pairs of hooded and goggled drivers—instantly caught Earl’s eye. He hired Mitchell in December 1935 and made him head of the Cadillac studio within a year.
Earl had brought Hollywood to Detroit. In Los Angeles he had lived next door to Cecil B. De Mille. He had designed chariots for the movies and custom car bodies for their stars. Then Alfred Sloan called him to Detroit.
Sloan had conceived of fighting Henry Ford’s ideal of a single car for Everyman with the opposite: many different cars to suit many different people. In pursuit of “a car for every price and purpose,” he hired Earl in 1927 to create GM’s Art and Color Section. Color was a fine antidote to Model T black, but art, in Detroit, was still dubious.
Rarely, then or later, would any designer achieve such power in a major corporation as did Earl. He became a vice-president with the authority to veto engineers, sales-people, and others. He maintained close personal relationships with the Fisher brothers of Fisher body and with Sloan himself, with whom he went sailing for a month each summer. He had charisma and personal force. And he was a bully. A huge character with a stutter, he sat like Sidney Greenstreet in a canvas director’s chair, ordering his minions about. He could not draw well, so he would describe what he wanted until a clever young designer managed to sketch it to his satisfaction.
Mitchell was just twenty-five when Earl put him in charge of the Cadillac studio. His first product was the Sixty Special, with sharp fenders and a grille like a trimly fitted cummerbund. He spent the war years in the Navy and then came back to Cadillac.
Mitchell took over in the middle of a crisis. By the mid-fifties, despite his reputation as the tail-fin man, Earl was being outfinned by sleeker, faster, more modern-looking Chryslers. They were the work of Virgil Exner, who had worked under Earl designing Pontiacs in the thirties. Exner rode high with “Flite Sweep” styling and “the forward look.”
When the 1955 Chryslers began showing up looking as exciting and up to date as boomerang-shaped drive-in signs and Stratocaster electric guitars, it was immediately evident that GM’s rival offerings would be a disaster. Earl was on vacation, and his designers hurried to their studios and threw out the planned 1958s in favor of whole new concepts. When he returned, Earl agreed they had been right. It was the end of his complete control, a kind of bloodless coup. But the result would take the public years to see.