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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
The fin crisis marked Mitchell’s ascension, which became official only in 1958. He had been quiet and politic during the two decades he lived in Earl’s shadow, functioning as a kind of prime minister for the king of styling, and when he first took over the top job, he projected himself as a sort of downsized, updated, and humanized version of Earl. But soon he began to change things, carefully and subtly.
Among the designers who worked under Mitchell were Chuck Jordan, who remembers him above all as “a wild guy,” and Ron Hill, who recalls his terrible temper but says he was less feared than Earl had been: “Earl was much more pugnacious. Mitchell was a better designer and a more tasteful individual.”
Entering a studio, he would yell, swear, joke, and turn on the radio to get new ideas flowing. But then late at night he would come back and quietly study the drawings and models by himself. He pursued his own special projects—the Corvette, the Mako Shark—in a private basement studio. His chief love was for sports and racing cars. Among the Corvettes his Sting Ray model is a classic. “It was pretty hard to get him to look at a bread-and-butter sedan,” says Ron Hill.
The 1963 Buick Riviera, for which Mitchell shares credit with the designer Ned Nickles, may be his masterpiece, however. It was inspired, the story goes, one night at the Geneva auto show, after an evening sparkling with champagne, when Mitchell stepped out the front door of the grand Hotel Richmond, the most glorious in the staid Swiss city, and saw a Rolls-Royce. This epiphany produced a “personal luxury car,” not a sports car but a full-size coupe for the dashing well-off man on the town—a vision of himself. Mitchell initially wanted to call it LaSalle, after the small Cadillac that had been the first fruit of Earl’s work in the late twenties, but Riviera had the right tone. Like so many car names of that era—Monza, Biarritz, Monte Carlo, Le Mans—it suggested a hazy vision of exotic Europe, a Europe of races and prestige marques and resorts, a Europe, a cynic might say, viewed from the small-town main street of Mitchell’s father’s Buick dealership.
Mitchell, well known as Earl’s protégé, shrewdly made himself into a skilled politician within GM, as he maneuvered to do in the old studio system. He promoted a group of designers called the Young Turks. A photograph shows his staff in 1965 in the Eero Saarinen-designed Tech Center in Warren, Michigan. The designers, among them Chuck Jordan, Dave Holls, Bill Porter, and Irv Rybicki, look corporate in dress and demeanor; it was left to their boss to affect the bright colors and flashy tailoring that in Detroit signaled creativity. They were like Robert McNamara’s Whiz Kids over at Ford: young, full of corporate enthusiasm, eager to be efficient.
Mitchell encouraged some freedom among these younger designers, even when they looked less to London for their “tailor” than to Milan and Pininfarina. Perhaps their outstanding accomplishment was the second-generation Corvair, done primarily by Ron Hill, which appeared as a 1966 model after the compact’s handling problems had been remedied. By the end of the sixties, the chamfered-body Italian influence had come to accent sheerness in such muscular long cars as the 1968 Chevelle.
But Mitchell remained the boss and the arbiter. He never warmed to the idea of consumer testing, arguing that it always demanded a choice between vanilla and chocolate when strawberry might be what was really wanted. He held supreme the power of individual taste—as long as he was ultimately that individual.
Mitchell’s taste had its limits, though. His was an odd combination of the aristocratic and the crass. A designer who worked for him recalled a long drive they took together in the 1960s. At one point Mitchell pulled off at a motel, rented a room, and went inside. The colleague was unloading the luggage when Mitchell re-emerged and asked, “What the hell are you doing?”
“Aren’t we staying here?”
“Christ, no,” Mitchell said. “I just wanted to take a s—.”
Harley Earl had punished uppity marketing managers simply by giving them a model year’s worth of ugly cars. But the unprecedented power he had enjoyed, thanks to his closeness to Sloan, had begun to weaken as Sloan stepped back from day-to-day management and the company became more bureaucratic. Mitchell had to take on charismatic and ambitious interlopers like John DeLorean, a manager who dressed like a designer and had ideas about how cars should look. DeLorean had the clever notion of dropping a big engine into the mild Pontiac Tempest to create the GTO, the beginning of the muscle-car fascination.