The Designer’s Story: Bill Mitchell
Unlike the other ‘Designer’s Story’ features I’ve recently written for Petrolicious, this is a much more American tale. William L. ‘Bill’ Mitchell spent the entirety of his 42-year career in automobile design at General Motors, eventually becoming Vice President of Design, a position he held for 19 years until his retirement in 1977, with his design stewardship at General Motors becoming known as the ‘Bill Mitchell era’.
Mitchell is ultimately responsible for creating and influencing the design of over 72.5 million automobiles produced by GM, including such landmark vehicles as the Oldsmobile Toronado, the 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special, the 1949 Cadillac Coupe DeVille, the 1955-57 Chevrolet Bel Air, the 1963-65 and 1966-67 Buick Riviera, the 1963-76 Corvette Stingray, the 1975-79 Cadillac Seville, and the 1970-81 Chevrolet Camaro.
Much has been written about Mitchell’s hard-living, alcoholism, womanizing and sexist views, seemingly living up to every car-executive cliché of the era. It’s even been documented that after a party at GM designer George Moon’s home, the next morning the police and fire department were called to get Mitchell down from 50 feet up in a tree. Another time, he and Oldsmobile design director, Art Ross, got stuck trying to drive a horse-drawn carriage they’d stolen in Central Park into the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton hotel. Despite these documented character flaws, dubious leisure pursuits and often questionable views and policies, it’s important that we keep sight of his work as a designer.
He was born on July 2, 1912, in Cleveland, Ohio, as the the son of a Buick dealer who developed a talent for sketching automobiles at an early age. He attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and later studied at the Art Students’ League in New York which aptly prepared him for the dual principles of car design: function and form. After finishing art school, Mitchell joined the NYC-based Barron Collier Advertising where he prepared layouts and advertising illustrations, which included the North American advertisements for MG cars. While working at the agency, Mitchell met brothers Barron Collier, Jr., Miles Collier, and Sam Collier, who had founded the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) (a forerunner of the Sports Car Club of America) in 1931. Mitchell became the official illustrator of the club and his sketches for the club grabbed the attention of Harley Earl, who recruited him as part of his new division, ‘General Motors Art & Colour Section’ in 1935.
Mitchell’s career quickly progressed and the following year, 1936, Earl appointed Mitchell as the Chief Designer in the then-newly created Cadillac design studio. On May 1, 1954, Mitchell became General Motors Director of Styling under Harley Earl and four years later in December of 1958, Earl reached GM’s mandatory retirement age of 65 and thus retired from his position as chief stylist. The 46-year-old Mitchell succeeded him as General Motors Vice President, Styling Section, and was set out to break from the styling cues used under Harley Earl, eliminating much of the chrome excess, fat fins, and similar signature marks. In the ’60s, Mitchell promoted what he called the ‘sheer look’, a more aerodynamic, ‘shoulderless’ drop off from a car’s windows to its sides.
According to popular story, Mitchell got the idea for the Buick Riviera whilst in Paris; Mitchell gave GM designers the assignment of combining Rolls Royce and Ferrari styling cues to create the classic 1963 Model.
An encounter with a shark while snorkeling in the Bahamas was allegedly the inspiration for Mitchell’s Corvette Shark show car, his SS racer, and the production 1963 Corvette Stingray, largely penned by Larry Shinoda under direction from Mitchell.
Mitchell’s fondness for split-rear windows as featured on the 1957 Buick Special (triptych) and 1963 Corvette Stingray coupe wasn’t shared by his fellow stylists or the buying public, with both cars dropping the feature after public resistance.
The energy crisis in 1973 and ’74 garnered demand for smaller cars in place of the larger cars that had been GM’s bread-and-butter profit formula for decades, Mitchell oversaw the styling and design efforts of GM’s downsized full-sized and intermediate-sized cars, which were introduced in 1977 and 1978, respectively. These were some of the last designs that Mitchell would lead, all based on themes first developed on his 1975 Cadillac Seville. However, when it came to compact and subcompact cars, Mitchell—who often struggled with alcoholism—reflected that “Small cars are like vodka. Sure people will try them out but they won’t stay with them.”
Much like his predecessor, Mitchell also reached GM’s mandatory retirement age at 65, stepping down as chief stylist in July 1977 following his 65th birthday. After his retirement, Mitchell founded his own design consultancy firm, William L. Mitchell Design from 1977 to 1984, where he was a vocal critic of the new fourth-generation Corvette’s styling, referring to it as ‘bland’. Compared with his work on the Stingray, I think everyone can unanimously agree that he was quite astute with his verdict.
Bill Mitchell died at the age of 76 from heart failure at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, on September 12, 1988
Stingray photography was taken by Laurent Nivalle for Petrolicious. Click here to see the full photo shoot.
Click here to read our design study on the Oldsmobile Toronado (image via oldcarbrochures.com). Buick Riviera image via oldcarmanualproject.com.