General Motors Styling 1937-1972


    Harley Earl, William Mitchell, and their talented associates made automotive dreams come true.

General Motors Styling, the wellspring of automotive design artistry that operated from 1937 until 1972, is this year's Honored Designer at Eyes on Classic Design. GM Styling became an official GM staff in 1937, but its roots can be traced to the mid-1920s. Harley Earl, a prominent West Coast custom coachbuilder was commissioned to design a special car for GM's Cadillac division. The car was the 1927 La Salle, and it was the first production automobile to be completely designed by a stylist. The elegantly styled La Salle would go on to be an overwhelming critical success, prompting GM to hire Earl to head the GM Art & Color Section.

Earl's Art & Color staff of 10 designers, along with a support group of clerks, shop workers, and assistants, originally were responsible for the surface treatment on the bodies of automobiles built by Fisher Body or Fleetwood, supplying color and trim materials (hence "Art & Color"). Under Earl, the group of stylists began to set new patterns for the appearance, shape, and form of automobiles.

From his first day at GM, Harley Earl sought to combine the efforts of the styling or creative team with those of the engineering team in order to produce more aesthetically pleasing automobiles. His efforts resulted in the Art & Color Section being given the same status as other GM operating units such as engineering, finance, personnel, and research. This recognition came in 1937 and coincided with the change in name from Art & Color Section to General Motors Styling.

In 1940, underscoring the growing importance of styling at GM, Harley Earl was promoted to a corporate vice presidency.

General Motors Styling personnel counted among their number stylists, clay sculptors, and engineers in the separate divisional styling studios, with wood an metal modelmakers to support each studio's needs. GM Styling soon became the largest staff of its kind in the industry. Its success spawned imitations: Ford, Chrysler, and Packard, to name a few, soon established their own styling sections. Former GM Styling team members frequently became leaders in these new styling teams.

Harley Earl and his colleagues developed an approach to styling that could be described as working in the future--a future that would soon become the present. This led to the production of "concept cars," futuristic executions of cars that showcased GM's engineering and styling innovations. Concept cars, in these early times at GM Styling, were called "dream cars."

The first of these concept cars, the 1938 Buick Y-Job, gave the nation a jaw-dropping look into the future of automotive design. The coal-black Y-Job featured a longer, leaner body with a low-profile grille, no running boards, front fenders that extended to the doors, hidden headlamps, and thin horizontal chrome strips that ran the length of the front fenders and rear quarters, giving the car a longer, lower look. Engineering innovations included power windows and a power-operated convertible top.

Another landmark car from GM Styling was introduced in 1938. This was the elegant Cadillac Series 60 Special designed by William Mitchell, head of the design team at the Cadillac studio. Both the Y-Job and the 60 Special will be on display at this year's Eyes on Classic Design.

World War II put a hold on GM Styling's production of dream cars for several years, but when the war ended, the GM stylists found, not surprisingly, that they had many imitators among the competition. Showcasing future technology and design trends through the medium of the concept car had become an industry-wide institution.

GM Styling one-upped the post-war competition by creating its Transportation Unlimited, a one-company auto show designed to treat the public to the new designs from GM's divisions. The exhibit opened at New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel and then moved to the old Detroit Convention Center. Twenty-six cars from the divisions were shown, and more than 600,000 people attended the two exhibitions.

By 1949 Transportation Unlimited had evolved into the famed GM Motoramas with their complex displays, elaborate Broadway-style shows, and platoons of glamorous models wearing gowns created to match the show cars. More than 125 tractor-trailer rigs were used to move the exhibits around the country, assuring that each location saw every part of the elaborate presentation. A singing group called the Motorythms provided a musical backdrop to the styling and design extravaganzas.

Though the cars garnered most of the publicity, GM Styling oversaw more than automobiles. The Frigidaire Division, under Styling's direction, created the "Kitchen of Tomorrow" for the Motorama, and entire rooms were designed by GM Styling and built for the shows by the H.B. Stubbs Company. The GM Industrial Design Department, also under Styling's direction, designed such conveyances as trains, buses, trucks, and earth-moving equipment. The dream cars, however, were unquestionably the designs that captured the public's fancy and turned the Motorama into a national institution.

At the Motorama shows GM Styling showed concept cars that were destined to become legends among car lovers. These included the 1951 LeSabre, 1951 XP-300, 1952 Corvette prototype, turbine-powered Firebirds I, II, and III, Buick Wildcats I, II, and III, the 1954 Bonneville Special, 1956 Buick Centurion, and 1956 Pontiac Club de Mer among many others. Firebirds I and III, the LeSabre "laboratory on wheels," and the Cadillac Cyclone are among the concept cars to be displayed at Eyes on Classic Design.

The last Motorama took place in 1961, the shows having become too costly a way to obtain public reaction to GM's advanced vehicles. More than 10 million people attended the Motoramas during their 12-year run. The level of showmanship that characterized the GM Motoramas will likely never be surpassed.

On December 1, 1958, having served General Motors for 31 years, Harley Earl retired from his position as GM Styling Vice President. William Mitchell succeeded Earl and would become the second of only two men to serve as head of GM Styling.

Mitchell went to work at GM in 1935 and within six months became Chief Designer of the Cadillac Studio. As noted above, he designed the 1938 Cadillac 60 Special, and he is also credited with the creation of the first pillarless hardtop designs in the industry. Influenced by World War II aircraft, notably the Lockheed P-38 twin-fuselaged fighter, Mitchell made tail fins a part of the design of the 1948 Cadillac, setting off a styling trend that would last for more than a decade. The tail fins grew taller and longer as the years passed, reaching their zenith with the 22-inch fins on the 1959 Cadillacs. Both Earl and Mitchell have been accorded the title of "Father of the Tail Fin."

In 1949, the first hardtops appeared from the GM Styling studios. The new design, which eliminated the center (or B-pillar) roof support, was introduced on Buick, Cadillac, and Oldsmobile models and was soon copied throughout the industry.

Under Mitchell's direction, GM Styling moved away from the styling excesses of the 1950s and toward the sharp-edged cars that were his passion. Mitchell did, however, share his predecessor's love of concept cars. These enthusiasms came together in the Mako Shark and Manta Ray, both experimental Corvettes. Features of both soon showed up on production Corvettes.

Mitchell's leadership meant that more and more production vehicles took center stage at many GM studios, bringing the traditional dream cars several steps closer to reality. Stunning vehicles such as the 1963 Buick Riviera and Corvette Stingray, 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado, 1967 Eldorado, and the 1970 1/2 Camaro took shape under the guidance of Mitchell's youthful studio chiefs whose average age, was approximately 30.

Though many designers, including the current GM Design vice president Wayne Cherry and his predecessors Chuck Jordan and Irv Rybicki, rose through the ranks at GM, a number of GM Styling alumni sought their fortunes elsewhere: Richard Teague at American Motors, John Tjaarda and Gene Bordinat at Ford, and Gordon Buehrig who designed the Cord 810.

In 1972, reflecting the importance of combining engineering and design, GM Styling was renamed Design Staff. This was followed in 1992 by another name change, to Design Center.

GM Styling's many significant design and styling achievements during the years 1937-1972 included the first production car without running boards (the 1938 Cadillac 60 Special), the first curved-glass rear window, wrap-around bumpers, wrap-around windshields the ubiquitous tail fin, the hardtop, and the first fiberglass-bodied production car, the Chevrolet Corvette. For these milestones and for its many other accomplishments, the 1937-1972 GM Styling team has been selected as the recipient of the Honored Designer designation for the 1996 Eyes on Classic Design.

"Harley Earl and William Mitchell are two of the most widely recognized and respected figures in the world of automotive design," says Jerry Jusco, general chairman for Eyes on Classic Design. "In a year when we're celebrating 100 years of the American automobile, it's only fitting to recognize the teams that brought so many wonderful designs to market during the 35-year span of General Motors Styling."

The recognition of GM Styling as this year's Honored Designer marks the first time that an entire styling team from General Motors has been so honored. In 1989, William Mitchell was the Eyes on the Classics Honored Designer, and Harley Earl received like recognition in 1991.

 

   

For more information please read:

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Michael Lamm and Dave Holls - A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design

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Stephen Bayley - Harley Earl (Design Heroes Series)

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Serge Bellu - 500 Fantastic Cars: A Century of the World Concept Cars

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