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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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
And it was undeniably powerful. Its stairway of models and prices led off into a bright future of dream cars— the prototypes in the traveling “Motorama” shows and the elaborate displays of future Wildcats and Firebirds that were even accompanied by song and dance. GM linked itself to the very idea of upward mobility and constant economic progress. Mitchell, building that stairway, embedded the aesthetic of automotive power and prestige firmly and subliminally in the American subconscious.
However, this most American of visions was a vision of Europe seen from America. In Mitchell’s head there always danced memories of the Hispano-Suizas and Isotta-Fraschinis he had glimpsed from the curbs of New York streets when he arrived there as a fifteen-year-old. And some of the details of his last cars, with their racy hips and sharp fronts, could have been details in his first romantic pastel sketches from the 1930s, all speed lines and blurs, bright and colorful on black paper.
Unabashed “styling” may never return, but within a decade of Mitchell’s exit, looks came to drive sales again. Still, Mitchell’s cars, out there in the lots, continue to evoke a golden era of American automobiles in a way no car on the road today can match.