Bill Mitchell: Head of General Motors Design Staff
Bill Mitchell was the Head of Design at GM as well as GM's Vice President. He was Harley J. Earl's successor and had a tremendous influence on the design of the Corvette. Below is an interview with him that was published in Automotive News.
Few people have ever characterized Detroit as being a hotbed of scintillating personalities. So, it is kind of refreshing to run across a guy like Bill Mitchell.
But, then, General Motors designers always have been a breed apart from the rest of the auto world...
When Mitchell stepped down as head of the GM Design Staff, the industry marked the end of an era. The man's influence will be felt well into the 1980's, however, as GM introduces a succession of new products that have been developed under his watchful eye.
It has been during Mitchell's tenure that GM really has become the styling leader in the U.S., first with cars like the Riviera and the Grand Prix, later with the Cutlass Supreme and most recently with the new Chevrolet Caprice. The best is yet to come, he claims, what with GM redoing all of its car lines-making them leaner, tauter, trimmer for maximum efficiency.
Mitchell was unique among his peers in several respects. For one thing, he enjoyed a degree of autonomy that is not shared by his colleagues at Ford, Chrysler, and American Motors.
Perhaps more noteworthy is the fact that he was only the second design boss in GM history. For that reason, it is difficult not compare him with his predecessor, the late Harley J. Earl, who launched GM's Art & Color Section 50 years ago.
Mitchell capped a 40 year career with the corporation when he retired in July. He worked closely with Harley Earl for more than 20 years before he was named vice-president in charge of the GM Design Staff on December 1st., 1958, shortly after Earl retired.
The stories about Mitchell rival those about Earl. He has been portrayed as being colorful, arrogant, outspoken, profane, dictatorial and talented, among other things. Probably a little of each is true. More than anything else, Bill Mitchell is a car nut.
....The official biography on William L. Mitchell says he "developed a love for automobiles and a remarkable talent for sketching them at an early age."
That's not too far off the mark. Mitchell was born July 2, 1912, in Cleveland and attended school in Greenville, Pa., and New York City. His father was a Buick dealer and owned several exotic makes, including a Stutz, a Mercer, and a Templar.
"I was drawing cars when I was eight, nine years old", Mitchell remembers. "Still got my scrapbook, too."
When he was in his teens, his parents, hoping he would draw something besides automobiles, sent him to Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. Soon after that, he was off to New York to study at the Art Students League. It was there that his love affair with the car took root and flowered.
Mitchell was hired by the Barron Collier advertising agency as an illustrator and layout man. Eventually, his sketches found their way to Detroit and the desk of Harley Earl, who was assembling a team of young stylists at General Motors. Earl asked to see more.
Mitchell, then 23 years old, whipped up a portfolio and sent it back to Earl, who brought him into the fold on Dec. 10, 1935. By the next fall, Mitchell was chief designer at Cadillac.
It was the start of an impressive career, which Mitchell described in the following interview with AUTOMOTIVE NEWS:
Q. ARE THINGS MUCH DIFFERENT NOW AT GM THAN WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED?
A. You go back to the old days when I first came here. A designer was sort of a necessary evil. Even though Harley Earl was six foot four, it was a battle. Engineers felt that we were nothing but decorators. They laid everything out, and then we wrapped the tin around it.
Today, the product policy committee meets in our conference room, not at Engineering Staff. And here is where we decide how much a car is going to weight, how big it is going to be, how many people it will seat, and how much it is going to cost.
You put the people in and move the drivetrains around. We have got to know about drivetrains, chassis, suspensions, engines, because you package the car around the people in the system.
When I started, there were less than 100 people under Earl, including probably 15 or 20 designers. Now, they have almost 1700 people. They have many more engineers than you would realize, because you have got to have an engineer as a defense attorney to keep the prospectors away.
Q. WHAT WAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP LIKE WITH HARLEY EARL?
A. Well, my father was a Buick dealer, and I loved Buick. I competed with Frank Hershey on the '38 Buick. It was the start of catwalk cooling, where the nose didn't have any grille. It was in the catwalks. I really beat him out. They put a room for me in the back, picked a modeler, and I hired a couple of designers.
After I beat him, I was hoping I would get the Buick studio. Some things go together here. (Virgil) Exner, who was older than I was, had done the Pontiac and was one of the Top designers when I came here. He and I were the only two men who could draw perspective. I came out of advertising, and Exner came out of an advertising studio in Indiana. I liked him a lot.
Raymond Loewy made Exner an offer to take over Studebaker design. When he left, he took a young guy with him who had just been given the Cadillac studio. So rather than give me Buick, they gave me Cadillac, which broke my heart. However, it was the best move because Cadillac was the only car Earl ever gave a damn about. He wouldn't fix up Pontiacs or the others, just LaSalles and Cadillacs.
I got very close with Earl because the first one I got into was the Cadillac Sixty Special, which was going to be a LaSalle. I did that with him looking over my shoulder. It was the first car without running boards, and the first car without belt moldings. It was really the first hardtop, and the first car with a deck and not just a little trunk on it.
Naturally, Earl spent more time on Cadillac than anything because he was a consultant for Cadillac for a couple of years before Sloan hired him to do the whole job. He just worked for Cadillac on a retainer.
Q. WERE YOU AS INTIMIDATED BY EARL AS SOME OF THE OTHER GUYS WERE?
A. Yeah, I had great respect for him. He was a big man. In the early days, he was a rough boy. He could really holler. The Fisher brothers...Earl would really let them know what the he thought. He would scare the hell out of anybody.
He never worked me over too bad. Oh, a couple of times, but we must have had the same chemistry because we got along well. I seemed to know what he wanted and didn't stumble too much. I had seen him chew some guys out so bad that they had to go to psychiatrists.
Q. HOW MUCH DID EARL INFLUENCE YOUR WORK OVER THE YEARS?
A. Our tastes differed. I look back, and I admire the man because he started all this.
He had a tendency to make fat, rounded heavy things. I think it was because he was a big man. I like sharp, razor edges in contrast to his rounded deals. When they threw the reins over to me, it didn't take me long to get back into a sheer look.
Earl was heavy on chrome although I don't blame him. In those days, sales people had a lot to say. The more chrome, the better the car. The cheap car had nothing. The first time that we really proved that people like cars without chrome was the Riviera. At that time, Pontiac couldn't get in on that body so we made the Grand Prix. While it wasn't a custom body, it had the same lack of chrome.
In those days, the Europeans called it Detroit iron. They said we put chrome on with trowels, and 1958 was the end of that era. Those were the big "chrome" cars.
Q. CHROME AND FINS....
A. 1959 was the fins. Back to back, the worst car we ever did!
Q. AS HEAD OF DESIGN FOR THE WORLD'S LARGEST AUTO MAKER, HAVE YOU HAD TO WORK UNDER ANY SPECIAL RESTRAINTS?
A. I realize this; you can sell a limited amount of anything. You can make a special car that you like, but it is priced so they can't sell. While I say I don't give a damn about costs, I'm mature enough, and I've been around long enough that I have to look at the buyer's viewpoint. "Would I pay that much money for that?" You can't make a $10,000 Chevrolet. Well, pretty soon we're going to be there.
Q. WHAT DO YOU SEE IN THE FUTURE FOR THE DESIGN BUSINESS?
A. When all this bumper and safety stuff started, friends of mine told me--"Boy, you're going to be out of a job." Well, we've worked more overtime, worked longer hours, and done more design than we ever did.
The designer becomes more important every hour. Why? Because the mileages all have to be the same; the horsepower's going to have to be the same. The only difference between Ford, Chrysler and GM is going to be the looks.
You can't campaign safety. You can't say, "I have a safer car." They have all got to be the same, not just General Motors, but everyone. The mileage is on everybody's back. The styling is going to be the difference; if you make a funny car like the Pacer, no way are people going to buy that Easter Egg!
Q. OUTSIDE OF GM, ARE THERE ANY CARS ON THE ROAD TODAY THAT TURN YOU ON?
A. At home recently, I had a Jaguar, a Rolls Royce, and a new Ferrari, a GTB. I think Farina's stuff is still great except that big $90,000 job. I said, "You must have been sick or something because that's no good."
I think the Jaguar sedan is still one of the best looking sedans in the world. That coupe that they just did is a mess. It looks like 10 people did it, and they all got their own way. I think the new Porsche is good looking.
Q. IS THE BUSINESS OF DESIGNING CARS AS MUCH FUN AS IT USED TO BE? IS THE MAGIC STILL THERE?
A. We have gone through some tough programs. I know before (James) Roche retired and this bumper thing hit us, we were having a hell of a time getting done. He saw me later at the Proving Ground, and he couldn't get over that we really made 'em good looking. We fought like hell through that series and then, thank God, we still had the Eldorados and Toronados.
After the 30's, with the long hoods and the Cadillac 12s and 16s, the real classic cars, we went into a dumpy age of warty looking cars.
The Riviera started it again, thank God. The old Sixty Special really was a forerunner of this. It was a special Cadillac. Really, it was like the Riviera, and the A specials--Grand Prix, Monte Carlo, the Camaro, Firebird and the Corvettes.
I think in my era we saved it. We got the love back into it. All of a sudden, the corporation found that's what sells. Nobody wants Vanilla. You can't sell a dumb, square car!
Q. IT'S GETTING PRETTY GRIM NOW WITH THE GOVERNMENT AND ENERGY PROBLEMS.
A. Now we have , and you'll see them, we have a new Riviera, a new Toronado and a new Eldorado. We've got a new Camaro, a new Firebird, and the Corvette--when it comes out. We have a new Regal, a new Cutlass Supreme. We're going to have all those shorter. Hell, the new Eldorado will be two fee shorter.
Q. DO YOU LAMENT THE PASSING OF THE BIG CADILLAC AND CARS LIKE THAT?
A. Michelangelo can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. You can't make a six-footer in five-six, but we've done a hell of a job on the new Eldorado, Toronado and Riviera. They're lower, lighter.
Our new Corvette will be lighter, smaller, so it's just a limitation. There's no way you are going to do a little people mover and make it good, unless it's a coupe. It's tough. It's a sad thing.
I'm no engineer or scientist or anything, but I read quite a bit. You wonder how much politics is in this fuel shortage. Everywhere, there's a bunch of damn car haters.
Q. DO THE INDUSTRY PEOPLE ALL AGREE WITH YOUR ASSESSMENT OF THE SITUATION?
A. Oh, yes, they're all trying to shove subways up their ass and all that stuff. Millions of dollars, and nobody's going to get in 'em. Who wants to get crowded into a cattle car? People like their privacy.
The automobile's here to stay, and they like good looking cars. Then there's a bunch of bastards--that takes in a lot of people, including the government--that don't like automobiles.
Q. HOW DO YOU FOLLOW UP AN ACT LIKE THIS?
A. I'm going into consulting. I've got my office going right now, being furnished, big as this. According to General Motors retirement rules, I can't do anything that General Motors does. I can do farm equipment, I can do appliances, I can get into God knows what. And, I've been in this.
I ran Earl's business for four years. I got out of the Navy, and in 1949, he came to me. He was starting a business--the offices are right down the road: Ford & Earl. He got an approval from Sloan as long as they don't do anything competitive with GM.
He offered me a deal to run it, and I did. I got Clark Equipment, Parker Pen, Westinghouse....He gave me a hell of a deal; he gave me 10 percent of gross. I was making more money that I made for a few years after I came back. It did give me an opportunity to go out and contact people, sell them, and run a group of designers.
I don't want to get back into designing. I don't want to get up in the morning and go down to work. But consulting....
Judgement and taste. You've got to tell somebody which is the best, what to do, what NOT to do. And these conglomerates--the top man can't know a little about everything. I think there's going to be an opportunity--I've been approached by enough of them to know.
I don't want to sit on my ass. I want to get out. I like to travel, and I've got friends all over the country. You feel better when you're doing something.
Q. ARE YOU ALLOWED TO DO ANY CONSULTING WORK FOR GM?
A. No. You know it's quite a change. It's just that I would like to move out of Detroit.. I would like to do other things. If I hadn't had that experience, I couldn't say that. A fountain pen is interesting. I don't like furniture, but products, household products, shoes, clothes, men's clothes, things like that.
Q. WERE YOU HARLEY EARL'S CHOICE TO SUCCEED HIM?
A. Well, it isn't that way now, I have something to say, but it will be up to the committee. We've got three damn good guys. It's going to be a tough decision. They're different, each one of 'em, and each one's good. Don't worry, whichever guy gets it, he'll love it. He'll do it his way.
In my day, it was a little different. Earl had an in with Sloan. I was picked, and I knew about it. A lot of things have changed since then.
Q. ANY PARTING SHOTS AT THE INDUSTRY OR ANY OF YOUR PET TARGETS?
A. No. I'm trying to get the chief designer of Mercedes over before I go. He's a new man. I found out through our designers at Opel that the things I said, their designers liked because they would like to change the car. Mercedes had an ad once saying they didn't have designers. I said well, you didn't need to tell anybody that, you could see it. Fine car, engineering wise, could look a lot sleeker. Hell, I would rather have that old gullwing any day.
I think that the challenges for a designer are going to be tougher and tougher. It is going to call for a lot of talent because people still like nice cars. The one that looks the best is the one that's going to sell.
Q. IF YOU WERE 21 YEARS OLD RIGHT NOW, WOULD YOU BE GETTING INTO DESIGN?
A. Not having gone through it, I wouldn't know. Harley Earl told me something I will never forget. We were down at Daytona, and I was 46 years old. Earl said, "Bill, I'm retired now. You're a young man, and you're going to have a terrific life. Everybody loves an automobile."
You go through life, and no furniture designer, no clothes designer, no glass designer has got the charisma that a car designer has. People will maybe want to tell you what's wrong with their car. But, God, the women--everybody--they love automobiles!
You got a hot car, boy, they love you. To think I can't leave and take 20 of them with me. I'd just want the Corvette, an Eldorado, and a wagon...