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 75 years of General Motors Design: Bill Mitchell - The Car Guy
  by Jon Winding-Sørensen


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1959 Cadillac Eldorado

Bill Mitchell with 1959 Corvette Stingray and 1962 Mako Shark concepts

1963 Buick Riviera

1967 Cadillac Eldorado

The 2003 Eyes on Design Automotive Exhibit will feature 300 concept and production vehicles from some of the world's most renowned vintage automobile collectors and restorers.

This will be the first time the GM Tech Center has been open to the general public. The three-day charity event, whose proceeds benefit the Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology (DIO), begins June 20 and culminates June 22 with the Eyes on Design Automotive Exhibit. GM has donated a 2004 Chevrolet SSR as a raffle prize, with proceeds to benefit the DIO. Tickets are $100 each and available by calling 1-800-869-9833.

A complete schedule and tickets for all events can be obtained by calling Eyes on Design at (313) 824 EYES (3937). Tickets can also be purchased online. For more information visit:

June 09, 2003 - This year’s Eyes on Design Automotive Design Exhibition will take place on June 22 at the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. More than 125 concept cars and trucks, representing the very best efforts of GM, Ford, DaimlerChrysler and other automakers, will be on hand as GM celebrates the accomplishments of the past 75 years and its role in identifying the strategic importance of design.

The event will open with a brunch presentation by Wayne Cherry, GM's fifth head of design, who will retire this autumn. Car Design News expects that the name of the sixth will be announced during the presentations, and will, in the weeks leading up to the anniversary, celebrate the five men who have carried GMs very distinct design torch, and have contributed to a remarkable consistency. Second man with the responsibility for GM Design was Bill Mitchell.

In later interviews Bill Mitchell said that he just prepared himself for Harley Earls retirement. He hated all the chrome, he hated the fat fins, he hated the excesses – he said. And still he is credited with some of the wilder American designs through the ages. On the 1959 model program Mitchell urged his designers to “go as far out as you can go” and he was the one who wanted to “outfin the Chryslers”. But he also talked about the Sheer look and of Flair, and with the 1963 Buick Riviera and later the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado he introduced the origami look in cars, inspired by some coachbuilt, razor edged Rolls-Royces he had seen. I am sure he would have approved of some of the Simon Cox concept Cadillacs.

Bill Mitchell was not a car designer when he submitted some of his car sketches to Harley Earl in 1933. He started on engineering studies at Carnegie Tech, inspired by the trade-ins his father brought home from his Buick dealership, well-engineered cars like Stutz, Rolls-Royce, Hispano-Suiza, Isotta-Fraschini, but their well designed bodywork must have inspired him for during summer he worked at Barron Collier Advertising and attended Art Students League to refine his formidable drawing skills. The owners of the ad agency were among the founders of what is to day the Sports Car Club of America, and Mitchell spent much of his time racing and drawing racing-cars and drivers, exhibiting the paintings in the clubhouse.

There they were spotted by a friend of Harley Earl, Mitchell created a portfolio of car sketches, sweeping lines, very 3D – and in 1935 he became an employee at GMs Art and Colour Section. Six months later, aged 24,he was promoted head of Cadillac studio. One of his first designs showed a coupé that looked like a drophead, it did not last long until he removed the B-pillar too, and “invented” the fixed head coupé.

Harley Earl retired in December 1958, after more than 30 years of service, and Mitchell had already for a long time known that he was to be the next Vice President, Design. Big changes were introduced, many had their roots in the fact that the new boss was a designer too, not just an overseer of designers. For instance he introduced tape drawings, eliminating water colour, paint, coloured pencils or pens – initial drawings could be produced and modified much quicker. After five years as head, the Chevrolet studio alone produced more designs in one year than all the studios had done together under Earl’s most productive times. But on the other hand, Mitchell was accused of having a “Cartoon artist sensitivity”.

But he knew what he wanted. There were traces of function overriding form, but not in the ultimate Bauhaus sense. More prominent was “sleek, sharp and slick”. A car should look like “it’s going like hell, just sitting still”. Most famous is his Corvette Stingray, inspired by sharks he observed during a visit to the Bahamas. And even if it was okay to imitate an animal, you had to be a car designer to do it. A designer of refrigerators might be good at designing rockets, but he would never be able to design a car. Therefore he never regarded Raymond Loewy as a car designer, for instance. You had to have gas in your veins to design cars.

Bill Mitchell was a great advocate of “dream” cars, and he was the one who put advanced design (and engineering) into a system, with the establishment of advanced design centres. He also allowed his designers a great deal of creative freedom, overseas inspiration was welcomed, many of his leading designers went to Europe to work in Great Britain or Germany, Henry Haga even spent months at Pininfarina when they made one of his concepts into a real display car. Mitchell himself understood the European “Clean and Simple” design. He praised the Cisitalia at the Museum of Modern art, describing the body as “being slipped over the chassis like a dust cover over a book”.

The Seventies hit him, and other designers of the old school, hard. Suddenly we had oil crises, safety and environmental matters began to dictate design parameters. Shrinking was the order of the day. In 1977 he retired, and he never saw eye to eye with the cars that appeared after his time. “They all look alike. I’m a designer. I have been for forty years. But I don’t know what these things are” he said about the ca. 1980 GM crop. But he was still the flamboyant dresser, the stylish hat-wearer, the raconteur and entertainer, a wealth of anecdotes, wisdom and wisecracks.

As a retiree he revived his old craft and interests and started painting his racing heroes – still the car guy. He made great friends with Peter Helck, Walter Gotschke, Michael Turner and many of the other great painters of automobiles. And this extrovert ex-design-boss at GM was up among the best. The collection of his own and other’s drawings and paintings were donated to the Henry Ford Museum after his death in 1988 and is a valuable part of the important and impressive history of American car design.

Related stories: Eyes on Design Car Show 2002


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Last updated: Wed, Jun 11, 2003