Hero: Bill Mitchell, the man who shaped the American dream
One of the 20th century’s most influential design heads signed off the Corvette, Riviera and Camaro among many others – and played as hard as he worked
Bill Mitchell was as large in life as he was big in stature. He was a design colossus who bestrode the American motor industry during an era when anything seemed possible. According to legend, he was a sharp dresser with a well defined sense of humour; a born raconteur and showman who had no time for the ordinary or the mundane.
This was reflected in the cars created by General Motors under Mitchell’s watch as design czar. Most were memorable for all the right reasons; the biggest of The Big Three sold 72 million automobiles shaped or signed off by him over a 19-year period, let’s not forget.
That said, according to some accounts from those who worked under him – and accounts aren’t difficult to come by – Mitchell was also boorish and bigoted, a womanising lush whose outsized ego crushed all before him.
Tellingly, there are just as many who recall a warm and generous leader of men who looked after his troops. And the truth? As with many successful men, he was a walking contradiction, beloved and besmirched in equal measure. What is beyond doubt, however, is that the man loved cars.
And how. The son of a Buick dealer, William ‘Bill’ Mitchell was born on July 2, 1912. The gifted artist began sketching automobiles in high school, before attending the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This was a period during which there were no car-design courses. There were no car-design studios, period.
Instead, Mitchell studied at the Art Students’ League in New York, before joining the Barron Collier advertising agency in the Big Apple. While working there, he became friends with the Collier brothers, Barron Jr, Miles and Sam, who were keen drivers and motor sport competitors, their exploits stretching to rallying an Auburn in Europe and founding the Automobile Racing Club of America.
When Mitchell wasn’t busy preparing layouts for promotional campaigns, he spent his time producing illustrations for the club’s publications, advertisements and suchlike.
These in turn attracted the attention of Harley Earl. In 1935, the godfather of automotive design lured Mitchell away with the promise of a position in the new General Motors Art and Colour Section, the forerunner of the styling studio as we know it. Mitchell upped sticks and moved to Detroit. He was 24.
Earl and his protégé made for a strong double act. In 1935, Mitchell was appointed chief designer within the newly created Cadillac design studio. The first car created under his leadership was the 1938 Sixty Special.
Fast-forward to the end of the decade, and the adoption of vestigial tailfins for the 1948 Cadillac Coupe de Ville wasn’t appreciated by some punters – to the point that the brand’s general manager Jack Gordon requested they be toned down for subsequent models.
Earl and Mitchell responded by making the fins increasingly higher and wilder looking – although Mitchell insisted decades down the line that he was never a fan of tailfins and lashings of chrome; that he had fought against the use of such tinsel.
Somehow, you doubt that he fought very hard, but in many ways he was biding his time. On May 1, 1954, Mitchell became General Motors director of styling under Earl, and in December ’58 he replaced his friend and mentor as chief stylist. Earl had reached pensionable age, and retirement at 65 was mandatory. The now-46-year-old Mitchell then began promoting what he called the 'Sheer Look’.
The Chevy II ‘compact’ was one of the first cars styled under his complete control, while the sensational ’63 Corvette Sting Ray borrowed much from his earlier SS racer. This Pete Brock/Larry Shinoda co-production caused a furore when unveiled. The ’64 Chevelle line, meanwhile, was clean cut and devoid of much in the way of embellishment, while the second-generation Corvair line was deliberately Italianate.
Then there was Mitchell’s particular favourite: the ’63 Buick Riviera. To paraphrase the great man himself, he originally envisaged a cross between a Ferrari and a Rolls-Royce, and openly called project XP-715 ‘the new La Salle’, as he was eager to revive Cadillac’s defunct sister-brand of old.
GM’s management wasn’t interested, however. La Salle would remain an ex-marque, as there was little enthusiasm for Mitchell’s bold new coupe among the suits.
Unbowed, he then touted the clay model to the Chevrolet and Pontiac departments. There was no interest there, either, much to Mitchell’s disgust and dismay. No matter, there was always Buick and Oldsmobile, which were rather more receptive. So much so, they began squabbling over which division should adopt this brave new world.
Buick won the toss, and revived the Riviera moniker for this achingly lovely machine in time for the big reveal at the 1963 Paris Motor Show. It was an instant hit with the press and public alike, which vindicated Mitchell’s belief in the design.
Not only that – GM followed through with cars such as the daring front-wheel-drive Oldsmobile Toronado, while the C3-generation Corvette further cemented ‘America’s only sports car’ as a performance icon.
On the flipside, there were other strong-selling cars for which Mitchell had little time. He wasn’t particularly keen on the 1967 Camaro, believing it to have been conceived in haste and styled accordingly. He infinitely preferred the 1970 1/2 style, claiming in Autocar seven years later: ‘It’s like good clothes. A woman with a good build is ageless – and this baby, it still looks good.’
The 1970s, however, would be less kind to Mitchell. His fondness for drinking, chasing the ladies and booze-fuelled japery didn’t sit well with many of the more buttoned-up board members. By the same token, he was widely viewed within the design community as being out of touch. The boat-tail Riviera was arguably the last truly spectacular production car to be signed off under his tenure.
He, like so many of his contemporaries, came unstuck by federal safety requirements and the 1973 Oil Shock. Suddenly, he didn’t have such big canvasses to play with. Sales of larger cars, which had earned millions for GM, were sagging. The General set about downsizing full- and intermediate-sized cars, much to Mitchell’s chagrin. ‘Small cars are like vodka,’ he would say. ‘Sure, people will try them out, but they won’t stay with them.’
Except ‘they’ did, even though Mitchell insisted that the decade’s new-found interest in small – or at least smaller – cars was just a fad that would pass. ‘Firstly, our people are bigger than Europeans – physically larger,’ he told Autocar when attempting to back up his assertion.
‘Secondly, we have more highways and, even though the speed limit is 55mph, people think nothing of driving 1000 miles. Then we have the responsibility of making a safe car, and I believe that having very small cars in with the great mass of cars – and there will continue to be plenty of big ones around – could create problems.’
Nevertheless, he held the line publically when discussing newly shrunken Cadillacs. He told journalist Ray Hutton: ‘You know, when Rolls-Royce brought out this smaller car – the Silver Shadow – I thought they’d lost its charisma. I had some smart remarks about a deer without antlers and so on, but did I ever know I’d be doing that one day?
'Now the Rolls-Royce people are kidding me, because our Seville is awfully close. I say that if you’re going to steal, you rob a bank not a grocery store, so I’d rather go after Rolls or Mercedes…’
In the same interview, he stated that the era of the dream car, in Mitchell parlance, was over. He had personally instigated the construction of 50 show-stoppers, many of which he retained for personal use.
The 1975 Seville was the last production car to be signed off by Mitchell in its entirety (although several 1977/’78 model lines were at least influenced by him). By then he was struggling with alcoholism and various other health issues brought about by too much fast living.
And, just like his predecessor, he was put out to pasture on turning 65. In July 1977, his place at the top table was taken by Irving Rybicki. Nevertheless, he couldn’t resist keeping his hand in, with his consultancy firm William L Mitchell Design operating from 1977 to 1984. Mitchell would also return to painting with a vengeance, his portraits of past motor-racing greats being in demand from the outset.
In later years, he became increasingly vocal about the direction General Motors was taking stylistically, claiming that the new-found obsession with aerodynamics was suffocating original design and making cars look blandly alike (the C4-generation Corvette in particular was a subject for his ire).
‘We used to think of aerodynamics at the Bonneville salt flats, but now they’re dictating regular cars’ shapes and style,’ he grumbled. Truth be told, he had a point.
Mitchell was arguably the last truly great American studio head, being inspirational and forceful in equal measure. He died of heart failure on September 12, 1988, aged 76. His reputation has been reassessed, some might say mauled, since then – but one thing is clear: he left one hell of an impression. That beats rank ordinariness any day of the week.
Images courtesy of Rota Archive