Bill Mitchell 1912-1988
Art In Perpetual Motion
Bill Mitchell was a great designer because, to him, an automobile was an instrument of strong individuality and high adventures. When you "put it on" you were somebody and you really went somewhere just for the wild fun of it. With muscles or class (or both), the car was an indispensable part of life that brought joy and pride to millions of owners through the enchantment of style. Nobody played that composition with more enthusiasm that Bill Mitchell.
Every kid in school knows that you fantasize what you don't have and if you can draw it that's one step closer to reality. Bill's dad lit the flame by bringing home racy Stutz and Mercer trade-ins from his Buick agency so that Carnegie Tech's mechanical engineering college courses looked like a natural education but his passion was drawing. During summers with his mother in New York he began working at Barron Collier's advertising agency during the day and taking courses at the Art Students League at night. That's where the really good illustrators came to brush up on their technique. That fraternity opened up a whole new vista of fine art as an expression of design and drama that gave Bill an extensive vocabulary for his own work and a deep appreciation for the splendor in the paintings of great professional artists. When the opportunity came to submit some idea sketches for cars as a candidate designer to Harley Earl at General Motors in 1933, he communicated his sense of sweeping form and proportion with such polish that he was invited to join the Art & Colour Section; and he never slowed down from that point on. His spirit and success led him to become Vice President of Design from 1959 to 1977.
If one thing characterizes all of Bill's work it is vigor. Regardless of the medium, there is a bold intention in every statement that breathes vitality and excitement and that is a direct reflection of his personality. He was a non-stop entertainer and story teller with a zest for adventure reflected in every drawing and painting. Behind all of that was a laugh that kept everything in a progressive frame of reference, never static. All of Bill's design sketches and paintings have one other thing in common: the subjects are alive and in motion. The viewer automatically becomes the driver of the machine sensing its power under the enormously long hood, the extravagant flair and taper of its body form, and the dazzling grandeur of its ornamentation.
Bill always had a studio in his home. When he retired in 1977 he revived his heroes of Grand Prix racing by painting their great triumphs as he saw and felt them, In the thirties he was inspired by the paintings and drawings of Frederick Gordon Crosby. Later, he became good friends with Peter Helck, Michael Turner, and Walter Gotschke; he collected their works and shared their insights. They all were captivated by the sheer drama of cars at the limit in action and doing what cars were designed to do. The drivers were heroes and Bill was fascinated by their exploits, lifestyles, and careers as related in their biographies. He entertained the contemporary champions at GM Design and at his home, much to the great delight of his whole staff.
After Bill died in the Fall of 1988, his wife Marian generously gave his great legacy of drawings and paintings to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn so that they may be a reference in perpetuity for all aspiring designers and all who love cars.
William L. Mitchell
William L. Mitchell is thought by many to be one of the finest and most influential car designers the world has ever seen. His creations were considered among the greatest of the times and hold their prestige still today. I learned about Bill Mitchell while researching my favorite automotive form, the 1968 Corvette. I found out that he Vice President of Styling for General Motors during its production, and that the Corvette was one of his personal projects. I soon realized that not only had he created the car that has inspired me throughout my life, but that during his life he had followed in a path that closely resembles my ‘ideal’ goals—and that we share so many principles and feelings on automobiles and car design. Outlining Mitchell on a few pages of paper was very difficult to do, there were so many interesting facts and quotes that it was very hard to choose which to include. This paper first provides an insight on Mitchell’s life and beliefs involving car design, then with this information follows his career leading to the design of the 1968 Corvette and why this design is the perfect embodiment of his principles.
Bill Mitchell was born in Cleveland in 1912 and went to school in Pennsylvania and New York. All throughout his life he had admired cars, and in New York would often wander the prestigious auto showrooms- admiring classics by Stutz, Fraschini, Rolls-Royce, Hispano-Suiza, and Mercedes Benz that helped form his image of an ideal car. At first desiring to be an engineer, he attended Carnegie Tech- but he later wished to develop his artistic side and went back to New York to attend the Art Students League. Upon graduation, he received a job with Barron Collier Advertising. He was approached by the owners to illustrate for the car club they had founded (the Automobile Racing Club of America, now called the Sports Car Club of America). Mitchell spent his time both racing and painting cars and tracks, hanging his work on the clubhouse walls. This work was eventually spotted by a Detroit industrialist and friend of Harley Earl (founder of the GM styling division) who suggested that Mitchell send Earl a portfolio. In 1935 Bill Mitchell was hired into GM’s fairly new Styling division, and in 1936, at the age of 24, he was promoted to head of the Cadillac Studio. Mitchell worked under the infamous Earl for twenty years, but he never crossed paths with Earl’s ‘set’ ways- believing that his own turn would come soon enough. When Earl retired in 1958, Mitchell replaced him as Vice President of Styling and this is when his creativity could finally reach its full potential.
Mitchell was often heard saying “If you don’t have gasoline in your blood, you are not a car designer.” He was a true automobile enthusiast, and his love for the car dictated his design principles. No one can explain these better than himself, when he says,
“Cars, you have to love them. You have to feel them, and you have to drive them. You have got to know them all- the histories. If you are an icebox designer- fine. They can do rockets, but an automobile? Humph! Damn few people know how to do a car! [Car designers] don’t want to know anything about icebox design. They don’t give a damn about it. They are different people entirely. That is why Raymond Loewy was not a car designer. He wanted to be.”
Mitchell believed that every car should incorporate both history and personality to be successful- and that only a car lover could merge these two aspects properly. He thought that cars should be made to represent the character of their owners, but Mitchell’s most successful designs were the ones that represented him. He liked to drive fast and dress well, so he wanted cars that appeared powerful but sleek, sharp, and slick. He believed that a car should look like it’s “going like hell just sitting still.” All of these principles shaped his designs. While most cars of the day appeared tall, gaudy, and bloated, Mitchell’s cars were low and sharp. Mitchell’s principles certainly helped his cars show more functionality over form; however, he did not consider himself anywhere close to the Bauhaus ‘pure functionality’ principles popular among other fields of design in his day. He would agree that, like Loewy, he desired to ‘get the chrome off’, but Mitchell’s desire for the car to show personality still required ‘non-functional’ decoration. He ultimately believed in creativity over theory- as one critic puts it, “far from researching simple, functional solutions, he preferred something eye-catching, something expressive of the owner’s personality.” If any of his designers would start talking about theory in trying to explain their drawings, Mitchell would become furious, later saying “I can see, but I can’t hear.” He wanted himself and his designers to admire the history of the automobile, to incorporate that in their designs. He believed in the ‘personal’ nature and character of a car’s design over its functionality. In his own designs, he wished to show his own personality through sharp edges and flowing lines that conveyed the message of speed and elegance. Lastly, Mitchell believed that no matter what, a car must show good taste. Once, when asked what exactly good taste was, he replied,
“picture two guys dressed up in a tuxedo, who are going to a nice, formal party- a very elegant affair. They both are in black tie. One fellow, he has got a dash of red in the kerchief in his pocket, and maybe a little dash of red showing out from under his sleeves. The other is standing there with his fly open and his cock hanging out! One is crude and the other is elegant.”
Obviously Bill Mitchell was quite a character, and this was his greatest strength in creating successful designs- ones that embody his very essence.
Through his strong convictions on car design, Bill Mitchell has created much advancement in the field as well as several very notable cars. Harley Earl, his predecessor, was the founder of GM’s design department (then called the ‘Art and Color division’). It was the first automobile design department ever, and so the methods that Earl developed were revolutionary and still used today by the large automobile makers. Earl believed in anonymity and a strict chain of command. Earl would convey his messages and ideas to design chiefs who would in turn assign projects to individual designers. These designs would be hung up and inspected by Earl when no one was around, and he would simply tear down the designs he didn’t like and later tell the design chiefs how to change the ones he did like. These changes were again handed down to the designers and the process would continue. Thus almost all of the designs followed Earl’s principles, and some argue that this method is successful because it gave GM an unchanging direction under one man’s vision. Mitchell understood this philosophy, and under Earl he never really tried to change anything, thinking that if he did what Earl wanted then one day he would have his turn. This was a good philosophy, as many who crossed Earl lost their jobs or were never promoted. When Mitchell became Vice President of Styling in 1958 he finally had the reigns and imposed his principles and methods onto the department. He chose to keep Earl’s anonymous structure but did understand the role of individual designers and fostered creativity. He would sponsor design competitions, and sometimes if he thought a designer was on to something he would close his eyes, ignoring his administrative role, and let the designer complete a project. He also pioneered a new method of blackboard sketching. Under Earl, full size sketches were done in watercolor, paint, colored pencils, or pen and all changes required a whole new drawing to be made. Mitchell came up with the idea of using black tape to sketch the cars, and so all changes just required moving a piece of tape. This allowed drawings to be created and modified much quicker, and was so successful that within five years of his taking over, the Chevrolet studio alone produced more new designs in one year then all of GM’s studios combined had done under Earl in his best years. Mitchell also promoted more clay modeling. Earl’s system required full drawings before a clay model could be made. Mitchell understood that some ideas just couldn’t properly be drawn, and some cars went straight to clay. He also promoted changes directly on the clay, whereas Earl required changes to be made to the drawings first. This also sped up the design process and promoted more creativity. Mitchell was also responsible for creating GM’s “advanced” studios. These studios would work three years ahead of the rest, creating models for the future. This allowed the designers to study concepts for a long time and also allowed manufacturers and engineers to modify tooling for future cars well in advance. Bill Mitchell had managed to improve the efficiency and creativity of the department that Earl created while at the same time incorporating his personal taste.
As he was in charge of a large creative department that ran on a system of anonymity, it is hard to say for sure how much of a car produced during Bill’s time came out of his mind. Certainly the design principles of GM’s autos followed his own, but how much interpretation was made by other designers? Many revolutionary autos came out while Bill Mitchell was at GM, but a select handful stand out. Bill Mitchell would say that he always had one design from each GM division as ‘his own’ personal project, and so to make sure credit is given where it is due, I will only mention cars from this category. The most notable of these are the 1938 Cadillac Sixty-Special, the 1963 Corvette Stringray, the 1963 Buick Riviera, the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado, the 1970 Camaro and the 1968 Corvette. In the brief explanations of each car to follow, I will exclude the Corvettes’ as they are the focus of this paper and deserve special attention. Though he was under Earl at the time, the 1938 Cadillac was the first time Bill was given some creative license. He was given an existing Cadillac design to modify, and he immediately worked to make it more of a ‘Mitchell’ design. He lowered the hood slightly, lowered the roofline by three inches, and increased window area by 30%. He also made modifications to the grille and headlights. The result was a hard top coupe that looked like a convertible. This car is considered by many to be one of the greatest designs of it’s era and certainly a tribute to Bill and his first chance to show what he could do. The ’63 Riviera is a car Mitchell is especially proud of. On a trip to London he had been admiring Rolls-Royce’s and their sheer, elegant lines. Upon his return he expressed his desire to create something “between a Ferrari and a Rolls” The car incorporates Mitchell’s desire for sharp edges combined with a Ferrari type grill and sporty(non functional) side vents. When captured from the back, the car truly appears elegant, and from the front it conveys a no-nonsense feeling of power and speed. Many cars in the 70’s copied and ruined this shape, which is why it may not seem revolutionary to a modern viewer- but at its time there was nothing like it. The same principles are seen on the ’67 Eldorado and ’70 Camaro, however the Eldorado is meant to convey more elegance(notice how Mitchell applies the ‘razor’ sharp edges that he loves) and the Camaro more speed and power. When looked at together, these cars demonstrate Mitchell’s principles and show that he had a clear vision in his mind. Gene Garfunkle, who worked for GM Styling shortly and then went on to found a private design firm, exclaims that the Eldorado, Riviera, and Camaro are “three of the most beautiful cars ever built anywhere. I don’t think the Italians did better, and certainly not the Japanese.”
It is important to understand a designer to understand his creations, and with that behind us we focus on what both Mr. Mitchell and myself consider to be his crowning achievement—the 1960’s Corvettes. Harley Earl created the concept of the Corvette, and his 1953 creation reflected him very well. Many, including Mitchell who had helped in its development, admired the beautiful car. But Mitchell had his own direction for the car, and when he took over he immediately began development of a new model that would closer embody his personal design goals. Working after hours at home in his secret advanced design studio, Bill would create many concepts that would see production (and many that didn’t)- but the Corvette was always his favorite. With the Corvette, there is no question that the designs were Bill’s. Once approached by a young designer who said “I got something new on the Corvette to show you,” Bill replied “Aw, kid, don’t fool around. One thing I got to tell you. Don’t flatter yourself. I am the one who does the Corvettes around here.” Bill’s motivation for the new Corvette came about on a trip to Bimini. “You go look at sharks” he said, “I’ve been down to Bimini and seen them. Jesus, they are exciting to look at.” Shark’s were natures response to Bill’s design ideals. He was also fascinated with sea rays, and his Mako Shark, the prototype for the 1963 Corvette Stingray was an awesome combination of natures creatures and Bill’s desire to convey speed even when not in motion. It shows his sharp edges, his elegance, the ‘low’ look he craved, and certainly did not lack character. When asked which of his creations he thought got his design message across the best, Bill replied “the Stingray Corvette.”Later, Bill would create the Mako Shark II that would closely resemble the 1968 production model. As soon as the 1963 model was in production,
“Bill Mitchell decided to extend exploratory probes in new directions, for in that instant the earlier dreams, the Stingray racer and the varicolored Shark, became commonplace reality. It was time to forge a new dream of the Corvette for the future and, if possible, to create simultaneously a new and stimulating personal car for GM’s top stylist.”
As I have mentioned previously, I consider this design my favorite automotive form. It was Mitchell’s ultimate dream car that had finally become a reality. Even when the 1968 Corvette came out, Mitchell constantly changed the Mako Shark II (which he kept) to suit his tastes. He was never satisfied, and as soon as he had built one dream he would dream up another. I, however, find his ’68 model closely resembles the form of my dream car. Its long hood screams power. Its curves embody the forms of nature taken from the shark and the female body, placing them on the road in a truly elegant form. The car seems to me the ultimate of ‘good taste’ that Mitchell wanted to create. And as a personal creation of Bill Mitchell—who believed a car’s character reflects its producer and its driver, this car represents its creator and in doing so gave me respect for the man even before I knew who he was.
Many say that Bill’s best creations came about in the mid to late 60’s, and in that time Ford and Chrysler remained one full design cycle behind General Motors. But suddenly in the 70’s things went downhill for everyone, including Mitchell. This is not because his design principles had changed, but because the automotive industry itself had changed. New fuel consumption standards required smaller, more efficient cars. The 1972 bumper law required every car to have front and rear impact bumpers that would prevent any deformation at 2.5mph impacts or less. Suddenly designers were being told what to do, and rather than starting from scratch they had to design a car around an ugly set of bumpers imposed on them by people who knew nothing about car design! With such a sudden change, there was not much room for creativity—there was barely enough time to conform to the standards. Cars soon became ugly, look-alike boxes and would remain so for over a decade. In 1978 Bill Mitchell retired and was replaced by Irv Rybicki, who closely followed the Bauhaus ideals of form follows function. Most cars of the 1980’s proved what Mitchell had thought all along, that this principle doesn’t work with cars- that cars need to have personality. Commenting on the cars GM was producing in the mid 80’s, Mitchell exclaimed:
“They are all the same: boxes. We have to come back to some identity in the cars… My God! I would not want to buy a suit like another guy. I wouldn’t want a hat like somebody else. People want something when it goes by: ‘Jesus! What was that? [These new cars] I don’t know what the hell they are. I am a designer. I’ve been in the business forty years, and I don’t know… They all look alike. I have to read the emblems to know what the hell they are.”
In last decade manufactures have been recovering from this monotony. But even today no large manufacturer produces cars as characteristic as those created by William Mitchell and those before him. Mitchell lived in the heyday of the automobile age and was one of the last great designers in the field. I consider Mitchell’s Corvettes to be his crowning achievement, and some of the last cars to show such a large amount of character and personality. I praise Harley Earl for creating the first design department, and I credit Mitchell for improving this process and applying his principles, which I agree with admire so much. Through my research I discovered that it is very hard to succeed in the field of automotive design, but I plan to try. I am becoming the engineer that designers love to hate, even coincidentally attending the same college that Mitchell himself attended. I hope that in my work as an automotive engineer I can move closer and closer to the designers and one day create the car of my dreams- which I assure you will have a strong resemblance to the ’68 Corvette. The Corvette has driven my life and I live to drive the Corvette. That is exactly what William Mitchell wanted his car to do.
An interesting comment by Mitchell on this phenomenon explains his feelings on the legislation “The reason, you see, is that those cliff dwellers didn’t like cars. The inspiration for automobiles never came from New York. I lived in New York. [Ralph] Nader is a cliff dweller. He walks to work. I could give him a ride and give him a stroke. I have got some very powerful cars… In California they love cars.”
© 1989 C. Edson Armi - The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities
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C. Edson Armi - The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities
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