- 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
The combination of sleekness and aggressive power that resulted seems right for its era from today’s perspective— “exuberant and reckless in its use of space,” as Ron Hill described it. Mitchell’s cars were of a time when America’s confidence hung on the brink of arrogance. The country was at its peak of power and prestige, and so was Detroit. The president of Ford, Robert McNamara, had taken his Whiz Kids to run the Pentagon for Jack Kennedy. What was good for Detroit would be good for America.
But by the middle of the decade, the Whiz Kids had landed us in Vietnam, the imports and the Naderites were already swimming aggressively around the great cruisers of Detroit, and Kennedy had been succeeded by a President who had much in common with Mitchell. Both were gruff, emotional, coarse, and grandiose, men of big dreams conceived in the thirties that they tried to realize in the sixties, when the world had become a very different place.
One critic finds in Mitchell’s efforts to evoke the spirit of the cars of the twenties and thirties a classicism that reassured Americans in the face of growing economic and social change. But that change was affecting Detroit too. Already by the beginning of the sixties a growing and vocal minority of buyers were choosing cars that seemed to have no styling at all. No longer could cars simply grow more glamorous and more powerful.
Or larger. Size suddenly stopped mattering. Old money, the culture critic Vance Packard speculated, moved to new status symbols when big Cadillacs became available to everyone. Populuxe—American luxury for the masses—sent the wealthy looking to Europe, to Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz.
When Mitchell took over, the system seemed set to roll on forever. In 1954 Earl had explained himself in a piece for The Saturday Evening Post , unabashedly admitting that he aspired to create discontent with old models, that he hoped buyers would feel the need to acquire a new car every single year.
But Vance Packard was only the most visible of a group of social critics of advertising and consumer manipulation. In 1959, when tail fins reached their apogee, Packard charged in his best-selling book The Status Seekers that cars were no longer primarily about transportation. They were designed to take you not just to the office or picnic, but—borrowing a phrase from E. B. White—to “higher status and exquisite delirium.”
Mitchell’s final years at GM were difficult. By 1972 styling had become a bad word, and many of Detroit’s studios had changed to “design departments.” After the energy crisis of 1973 and the rise in Japanese imports, styling became less important than quality, durability, and economy. Mitchell, like everyone, had a hard time adapting. In the face of downsizing, which went against everything he believed, both his resistance and his efforts to adapt were exemplary of the contorted and divided response of the whole American auto industry at the time.
When he retired in 1977, he was not allowed, as Earl had heen, to choose a successor. Some of the tradition survived in the flair of GM designers such as Jerry Palmer, who did Chevrolet Camaros. But today the head of GM design, Wayne Cherry, is a far from puhlic figure and little known even in Detroit, although Jack Telnack of Ford and Tom Gale of Chrysler remain highly visible and vocal.
In retirement Mitchell returned to painting, producing scenes of historic auto races that possessed not a tenth the artistry of his automobile designs, and he tinkered with a fleet of customized cars and motorcycles, including a vintage Mercedes SSK racer. In one photo from those years he appears almost pathetic: a gnomish figure in a silver racing suit astride a motorcycle.
He made fun of the aero look introduced with the Ford Taurus, but its most recent model, which appeared last year, aims for the sense of well-toned muscle that many of Mitchell’s cars had, and Chrysler’s recent cab-forward aesthetic returns the focus to length and aggressiveness.
Mitchell’s legacy at its best represents a great American popular art, exemplary of the culture it grew out of. But it was also about selling an ersatz compound of racing excitement and European elegance to the man on Main Street who knew no better. Yet if Detroit styling admittedly manufactured discontent and planned obsolescence, to Mitchell it also engendered dreams and constant innovation.