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Bill Mitchell, General Motors Head of Design, Part I

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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.


Bill MitchellFew 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.

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