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Bill Mitchell, GM Head of Design, Part II

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Bill MitchellQ. 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...

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