Great American Designers
The men who put style in steel
Every mass-production car manufacturer has an army of stylists sculpting new models to match an image that hopefully will appeal to the public. There is simply too much that has to be designed for one person to pen the entire car by himself, so teams of stylists toil under the watchful eye of the head of the styling department.
This approach for the American auto industry began in the 1920s by General Motors, which broke new ground when it invented the concept of "planned obsolescence." The trick to getting buyers to purchase a new car every few years was to make them desire the latest model (whether they really needed it or not). GM decided this could be done with styling, and the legacy of that decision would be felt throughout the industry. What follows is a short list of the most influential car designers of the 20th century.
The Harley Earl Era
In 1925, GM executives met to discuss how to take on the established Ford Motor Company. One idea was to continually refine the basic product (like Ford had done with the Model T). Another was to introduce new models every year that would, at least cosmetically, stand out from the previous models. GM chose the latter approach, and two years later company president Alfred Sloan started GM's Art and Color Section with newly hired Harley Earl at the helm. Earl was known for styling special car bodies for Hollywood movie stars.
His first GM project was the 1927 LaSalle, a new model that fit between a Buick and a Cadillac. It was a pleasing design, more European than American in execution. Earl, an immaculate dresser who stood an imposing six-foot, four inches, did not labor at the drawing table himself, preferring to instruct (and browbeat) his staff of stylists and artists until they produced something he liked. Earl also insisted on sculpting full-scale clay models that were analyzed and presented to management for approval.
To gauge the public's reaction to new styling themes in advance, Earl organized the Motorama series of car shows, where GM could show off concept vehicles featuring innovations that were being considered for future production models. In addition to being an excellent marketing tool, the Motoramas also garnered reams of publicity with their "cars of the future."
Earl headed GM styling from 1927 until his retirement in 1959. During that time he oversaw the styling of some of the icons of American automotive history. The first Corvette, the 1959 "tail fin" Cadillac, the famed 1955 to 1957 Chevrolets (including that king of the station wagons, the Nomad) and the rare and valuable 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham Coupe. His landmark show cars include the striking Y-Job, the Le Sabre with the first wraparound windshield and the aircraft-inspired Firebird series of turbine-powered show cars. Styling cues that would be forever linked to the Earl years were the wraparound windshield, massive use of chrome plating and jet-fighter tail fins.
The Artist of the Avanti
Raymond Loewy, a Frenchman who immigrated to America in 1919, was one of the pivotal characters in American industrial design, responsible for styling such disparate products as Greyhound buses, copier machines, streamlined locomotives, the Lucky Strike cigarette pack and the Coldspot refrigerator. His automotive accomplishments are few but important. Like Earl, Loewy did not personally style automobiles. His design firm had offices in America and Europe manned by a staff of talented designers who were usually cloaked in anonymity (both to protect them from corporate raiders and to keep the limelight focused on Mr. Loewy).
The first Loewy automotive design was a rakish new Hupmobile in 1932. In 1938 he turned his attention to Studebaker, streamlining their stodgy sedans and bestowing a more modern look. He is best known for three distinctive Studebaker models, the 1947 Commander, the 1953 Commander coupe (still known today as the "Loewy coupe") and the timeless Avanti. Although Loewy also built prototypes on Lincoln, Jaguar, Cadillac, BMW and Lancia chassis, the Avanti was his team's masterpiece.
Virgil M. Exner's Excitement
The General Motors Art and Color Section served as a training ground for a generation of top stylists. One of the best was Virgil Exner, who started at Pontiac but defected to Raymond Loewy Associates in 1938 to work on the Studebaker account. He was the anonymous designer of the 1947 Starlight coupe and was instrumental in Loewy retaining the account. He was hired away by Chrysler in 1949, though, as the company's new Head of Advanced Styling. He immediately set to building a series of show cars to shake up the bland Chrysler image.
Exner's first production models came out in 1955 as part of an all-new "Forward Look" shared by Chrysler products. The 1955 Imperial was a handsome shape and Exner followed it with the Chrysler 300, a Hemi-powered future classic. In 1957 Exner carried his modernization program to an extreme with low, wedgy bodies with tall, tall tailfins. Exner left Chrysler in the early 1960s and founded his own design firm, where he penned the successful revitalization of the Stutz.
William Mitchell and the Mako
It wasn't easy being Harley Earl's protege at GM, but William Mitchell not only survived but prospered. In 1958 he followed Earl into the top styling job at GM and left his imprint on such future classics as the Corvette Sting Ray, Camaro and 1963 Buick Riviera. Perhaps the most famous show car of his era was the Mako Shark, which presaged the 1968 Corvette. Like Earl he was not a hands-on designer, but directed his team to do its best.
What a Duesy!
Gordon Buehrig was yet another GM Art and Color grad who moved on to great things. In 1927 he was one of the first designers hired by Earl. A year later he left to become Chief Body Designer for Stutz, where his first job was to create bodies for the company's racing team. But shortly thereafter he moved to the prestigious Duesenberg firm where he penned special body designs for rich customers to have built by custom body shops. His designs, executed by firms like Murphy, Brunn and Rollston, are today among the most valuable collector cars on the planet.
When Duesenberg began to falter financially, Buehrig briefly rejoined GM, but then returned to Duesy to create the Auburn 851 Speedster and the Cord 810, both landmark designs in American styling. They were lovely cars but Duesenberg's fortunes were on the wane and Buehrig was soon out the door. He landed at Ford in 1949 where he designed the popular Ranchwagon and the lovely Continental Mark II. He also found time to invent the T-Top and helped with the development of the Cord 8/10 replica.
Throwing the Javelin
Dick Teague had worked briefly for Kaiser before joining the GM Art and Color Section in 1948. He worked as an apprentice stylist for the Cadillac advanced design group before leaving in 1951 for the Chief Stylist job at Packard. But Packard was in trouble and Teague's best designs were frequently outside their budgets. In 1957, Packard went bust and Teague alighted at Chrysler, where he briefly was Chief Stylist before leaving after a power struggle with Virgil Exner.
Teague's best work was done for American Motors, who hired him in 1959 and made him a Vice President in 1964. His most famous designs were the AMX/3 show car and the much-admired AMX and Javelin sports models.
There are, of course, many other great stylists, but these were the first wave of Americans who transformed the automobile from a utilitarian appliance to enduring objects of art.
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