George W. Walker 1896-1993
|Henry Ford walked out on Walker's first presentation, but the
ex-professional football player rose to be Ford's design chief.
So much has been written about Harley Earl of General Motors and Virgil Exner of Chrysler that the casual observer might conclude that Ford never had a styling chief with star status. That conclusion would be in severe variance with the facts. Ford indeed had such a star, and his name was George W. Walker. His design team is generally credited with the 1949 Ford, the car that can defensibly be said to have saved the company. And his design staff also produced the remarkable 1955 Ford Thunderbird and the Ford Ranchero, a hybrid coupe/pickup. George W. Walker is this year's honored designer at Eyes on Classic Design.
In 1957, a smiling, dapper George Walker appeared on the cover of Time magazine, as strong an indication of star status as the media world of the Fifties could offer. Inside the issue of November 4, readers learned Walker's unusual personal history. The perceptive among those readers also saw that Walker possessed a marketing sense well in advance of its time.
George W. Walker was born on May 22, 1896 in an apartment hotel on the south side of Chicago. His father, William Stuart Walker, was an Erie Railroad conductor, and his mother was a Quaker farm woman from Oklahoma and one-quarter Cherokee. The migratory life of a railroad family led the Walker's to Jersey City, New Jersey; Barberton, Ohio, and finally to Cleveland. Walker's irregular and fragmented schooling produced grades just as erratic. Academically, his standing was so low that one instructor predicted that Walker would never be more than a "hockey-playing bum." That prediction was not far off the mark.
Holding down a series of odd jobs, Walker began playing semi-professional football when he was 15 and kept at it until he was 27 years old. At 25, he was a $40-per-week halfback for the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company's team in Akron, and he later played for the Cleveland Panthers, then coached by the great Jim Thorpe. Many auto executives have claimed attendance at the School of Hard Knocks; George Walker did--and came away with a handful of finger fractures and a flattened nose as his diploma.
Somehow, amid the gridiron mayhem, Walker had realized that he possessed an innate sense of style and appreciation for the artistic. This led him to the Cleveland School of Art and later to the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles. He graduated from both institutions. "I wanted to keep my head and my hands in one piece and not become a bum like my teachers predicted," said Walker of the decision to leave the gridiron for the drawing board.
The same sense of style that led Walker to art school led him to straighten his battered nose, and the result was a handsome visage to go with his beefy frame (5 feet 10 inches tall, 220 pounds) and gregarious, back-slapping manner that charmed men and women alike. He worked for a time as an art director in Cleveland, doing fashion illustrations of all things, and was so successful that he decided to move to Detroit, where the world of style and the world of automobiles were beginning to converge. The family, which consisted of wife Freda and two children, moved to Michigan.
Within a few years, Walker's independent design studio had a half-dozen industrial accounts and was designing everything from radios to refrigerators. In the early Thirties, Walker succeeded in selling some chrome trim pieces that he had designed to the legendary Henry Ford, making the sale because he had the inspiration of displaying his wares on black velvet instead of a plain desk top.
In 1935, Walker spent nearly $3000 in staff time and presentation materials to prepare for Henry Ford a portfolio of futuristic automotive designs. The book containing the designs came apart in the auto mogul's hands, and the designs fell to the floor.
"Old Henry didn't say a word," Walker later recalled, "He just walked out of the room. Ford hated unfunctional things, and that book was sure unfunctional." Walker kept trying to present his designs, but it was to be a decade before he got another chance. But that meeting at Ford, in 1946 when Walker was 50 years old, sent his career soaring.
A group of Ford executives asked Walker, who had through the years continued to supply component design work to Ford, to come out to Dearborn and comment on the car that the engineering department had designed for the 1949 model year. Walker took one look at the suggested design and replied in his typical unrestrained fashion. "I told them it looked like George Walker bending over--I was fat then--and that it would never sell," Walker told Time 11 years later. In less than three months, Walker's firm had its own proposal in front of the Ford decision makers.
Largely because the competing clay models have not surfaced, some controversy surrounds the question of who deserves design credit for the 1949 Ford. This is hardly unusual. In any instance where one car is considered to be the work of one stylist, especially in a corporate environment, that attribution is at worst wrong and at best incomplete. In almost every instance where Detroit has produced a landmark design, that design has been a team effort and not an individual tour de force. This is no more or less true of George Walker's contributions than those of any other stylist or designer.
In the ensuing years, Walker and his group styled the 1950 Lincoln, the 1951 Mercury, and the 1952 Ford. The latter car's circular taillights became as much a trademark as the Cadillac tailfins of the era. Walker's group then produced the design that would once and for all cement Walker's place in Ford corporate history.
At the Paris Auto Show in 1953, Walker was looking at the low-slung Jaguars and other European sports cars with Henry Ford II, the chairman of Ford Motor Company. "Why can't we have a sports car like that?" Ford asked Walker. Walker, never a man to waste an opportunity, called Detroit, and by the time he and Ford got back to Michigan, a clay model of what would become the 1955 Thunderbird was waiting.
The Thunderbird of course established what would become a long-running series of personal-size sporty cars. While it lacked the handling attributes of the European cars--hardly Walker's fault--the Thunderbird had a clean, straight-line treatment that managed to both project a Ford family resemblance and establish a personality that was something special indeed for its time.
On May 2, 1955, in the year of his Thunderbird triumph, Ford hired George W. Walker to bear the important, if cumbersome, title of vice president and director, styling office, Ford car & truck division. Walker took with him to Ford two of the gifted designers who had worked for him for many years. These were Elwood Engel and Joseph Oros. A young Gene Bordinat, who would ultimately become the longest-serving vice president in Ford history, also worked closely with Walker.
Walker was equal to the public demands made on corporate styling chiefs. His vast office was carpeted in soft mouton, his large desk kidney-shaped. A semi-circular banquette and low, round coffee table provided meeting space. Soft music added to the atmosphere. His suits were custom made; his cologne, lavishly applied, was by Faberge. He owned 40 pairs of shoes. His flamboyance is perhaps best summed up by Walker himself, recounting what he considered his "finest moment" on a Florida vacation: "I was terrific. There I was in my white Continental, and I was wearing a pure-silk, pure-white embroidered cowboy shirt and black gabardine trousers. Beside me in the car was my jet-black Great Dane . . . You just can't do any better than that."
This flamboyance was balanced by a grasp of the marketplace that was almost eerily prescient: "The person we are designing [the American car] for is the American woman. Only one out of every three women in the U.S. drives, but we figure that 80 percent or better of all car purchases are decided on by women." The number of women drivers has risen dramatically, of course, but it was years before marketers took to heart the decision-making clout of U.S. women.
Among the "dream cars" executed by the Walker regime was a futuristic car called the X-2000. This car had an unusual feature: a vertical grille. This soon became the upright "horse collar" grille on the new Edsel, and it was nothing if not a bold styling statement. Speaking in 1957 of the Edsel, Walker said, "What we wanted was for millions of people to be able to say at once [upon seeing the car], 'That's an Edsel!'" In that desire, no one can doubt that Walker and Ford were successful.
Walker had become a Ford vice president just 20 days shy of his 59th birthday, and he served in that capacity for just over six years, retiring on June 1, 1961. He remained with the company as a consultant for another 18 months. He retired to Gulfstream, Florida, and became mayor of the town, at age 80, in 1976. He was also director of two banks and the Palm Beach County Hospital District. In the early Eighties, he designed a home--and its furniture--located on a Tucson, Arizona, golf course. He died there, at 96, on January 19, 1993.
George Walker's work, and that of his Detroit design studio, encompassed more than 3000 products--cars, watches, radios, washers, alarm clocks, dispensing machines, and more--for such clients as Peerless, Graham-Paige, Willys, Burroughs, Admiral, Kelvinator, and many others.
In a 1961 article on Walker, Motor Trend rhapsodized thus about the 1949 Ford: "Nearly every authority will classify this car as a design milestone and give to it, more than any other postwar car, credit for pumping new life into the Ford image." A fitting tribute to George W. Walker, a designer who brought unbridled enthusiasm to every task he undertook--and a man who can be said to have pumped life and energy into most everything he touched.
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