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HARLEY EARL vs. BILL MITCHELL


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Guest BJM

I was reading something on Bill Mitchell the other day and that got me wondering. Who had more impact and better styled cars overall - on the automotive world? Harley Earl from approx. 1927 to 1959? Or Bill Mitchell from 1936 to 1976?

I don't think there is any "right" answer but my vote would go to Mitchell.

Mitchell was a designer 1st and leader 2nd. I think Earl was the idea man who was a better leader and trained Mitchell to lead.

I would say though that Mitchell would get my vote for what was created and pushed through under his watch.

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A tough question I have also considered.

I agree Bill Mitchell was the artist of the two and had a more sophisticated sensibility. The iconic 1960s designs under his watch were probably more influential to other designers around the world than Harley Earl's more evolutionary work in the 1930s and 1940s.

BUT from a historic perspective Earl paved the way and made corporate management see that his brand of design was critical to selling more cars. He bulldozed his way over division managers to do it, and ultimately even Alfred Sloan saw that Earl's design department was a critical differentiator that made GM more successful than other car companies.

A lesson they chose to forget when Bill Mitchell retired, I might add, and a decision that left the corporation permanently weakened. Earl and Mitchell are giant figures in automotive history but I vote that Earl is still bigger because he paved the way first. Good topic, Todd C

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Harley Earl started the Styling & Color Studio so his influence cannot be diminished. The cars that Bill Mitchell had a big hand in such as the 63 StingRay and the 63 Riviera are more to my liking. One old saying that still makes me laugh was one attributed to someone on the styling staff about Mr Earl " He would wear Chrome on his clothes if he could"

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Kinda like asking an Elvis vs. The Beatles question. To each their own, a matter of preference, but In making an analogy, I would answer both this way...

If there hadn't have been a Beatles, there still would have been an Elvis. But, if there hadn't have been an Elvis, would there have been a Beatles? Or, even if the answer to the latter question could somehow be yes, they wouldh't have been the same as they turned out to be, because of the influence of Elvis directly on them in particular, and on the music scene in general and as a whole.

Same deal here regarding Earl and Mitchell. If there hadn't have a Bill Mitchell, there still would have been a Harley Earl, but if there hadn't have been a Harley Earl, the Bill Mitchell we knew would have been different, because of the Earl influence and legacy--again, as with the Elvis/Beatles analogy, Earl, like Elvis, revolutionized the entire industry--things were vastly different before either came along, and what happened afterward could not have happened, or wouldn't have happened to the same degree that it did, because of their tremendous imprint on their fields of endeavor.

So, chalk one up in the Earl camp from me!

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Each one had great designs that they either did or approved, and a few turkeys as well. IMHO the 1967 Catalina (Mitchell) and the 1958 Roadmaster (Earl) won't win any awards for style, but most of what both touched were gold.

However they did not work in a vacuum. Harley Earl began his career at GM by blatantly aping the designs of Isotta Fraschini, and Mitchell borrowed extensively from the Italian masters like Pinin Farina and Giovanni Michelotti. I am a bigger fan of their work (especially Pinin Farina's Alfa Romeo & Ferrari work) than either GM design chief, but that's just a personal preference.

They both also had resources and staff available to them to come up with their designs that other designers could only dream of. I've often wondered what Richard Teague might have achieved at Packard or AMC, or what Raymond Lowey's team could have done for Studebaker, given those enviable resources. It's a bit like wondering what Ted Williams could have accomplished if he played for the Yankees.

My personal design hero is William Lyons at Jaguar. He designed all of the sedans at Jaguar during his tenure, and most of the sports cars as well. Each one is considered a landmark design, I don't know of a single mis-step among them. This is significant to me because he was also running the company. Can you imagine a C.E.O. at GM involved enough with the product to actually be the chief designer for the company as well as running the company day-to-day? The cars would all look like Azteks. The only executive of that scale in any industry I can think of that also was among the creative staff was Desi Arnez at Desilu Studios. 10 years of that pretty well ruined Desi, William Lyons was able to hold that workload for 40 years. :cool:

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By the time Harley Earl was ready to retire from GM, they were glad to see him go. His later work was nowhere near as good as his prewar stuff.

The Y-job was gorgeous, but the 1951 LeSabre was butt ugly. The GM design staff actually had to tone down the 1958 Cadillac. The prototype had even more chrome on it than the production model had.

GM was blindsided when the 1957 Chrysler products debuted. Their products looked stodgy by comparison. Earl was gone shortly after that.

By the way, Earl supposedly detested the Cadillac tail fin when it was first proposed by his staff. When it provoked a "wow" factor, he was very quick to claim that he invented it.

For my money, Mitchell is the better designer. His work has held up better over the long haul.

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It's Earl, hands down. He invented style and colour. It's not a spelling error. It's how he used the word in his studio. Ed.

I agree...

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Well- I guess we're trying to stick to GM influence here, but Dietrich, Loewy, Stevens et al were formidable designers in their own right.

Wonder what the Ford crowd thinks vis-a-vis Bordinat/ Oros/ Engel?

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I know, sorry to go off track a bit. Actually I think both Buehrig and Dietrich did short stints @ GM, Buehrig's initial designs for what eventually became the Cord 810/812 being rejected in a GM design competition, and Dietrich, I think, was actually fired from GM early in his career but I cannot remember why off the top of my head. But I guess counting either of them is a stretch, so back on track, I think the impact of the Style and Colour department cannot be underestimated, and probably makes him among the most influential people from a designer's perspective.

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More good points on the topic, Dave@Moon is right that both Earl and Mitchell copied other designs, but then as now everybody copied everybody, all the way back to the early coachbuilders. There are few real revolutionary designs, and those (like the Airflow) have often been unpopular for being too "out there." The GM way during Earl's time was specifically to be evolutionary--evolutionary up the price ladder and from year to year and while sharing body shells.

Other than maybe the 1927 LaSalle (itself an evolution) I cannot think of any specific Earl design as influential as Mitchell's Corvair, Stingray, or Riviera. But as far as using design to influence sales, volume and profits (and brand building) Earl has no peer anywhere. And as Steve says above most 1930s and 1940s American designers either came through Earl's Art & Colour or were influenced by it. Todd C

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Kinda like asking an Elvis vs. The Beatles

Same deal here regarding Earl and Mitchell. If there hadn't have a Bill Mitchell, there still would have been a Harley Earl, but if there hadn't have been a Harley Earl, the Bill Mitchell we knew would have been different, because of the Earl influence and legacy--again, as with the Elvis/Beatles analogy, Earl, like Elvis, revolutionized the entire industry--things were vastly different before either came along, and what happened afterward could not have happened, or wouldn't have happened to the same degree that it did, because of their tremendous imprint on their fields of endeavor.

So, chalk one up in the Earl camp from me!

Very good analogy with the music. Most of the early 60's British rock bands took a good portion of music from the South called the blues and rewrote it in a language that everybody here could understand and more importantly accept.

Who is best out of the two designers is like comparing apples and oranges but in Mitchell's case Earl is a influence on his work and Earl's father and coachbuilding firm was a influence on Harley....so we all have these little building blocks that make us up as individuals.

Each guy is great and their work represents their place in their time. Does the answer depend which time period you identify with, or does that answer have nothing to do with who's better but a matter of taste looking through your time period and influence?

To know all is to forgive all, to know and understand each designers work disregarding your personal favorite (influence) is the only way to be able to look at each work objectively.

There are no winners or losers here.

D.

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Other than maybe the 1927 LaSalle (itself an evolution) I cannot think of any specific Earl design as influential as Mitchell's Corvair, Stingray, or Riviera. But as far as using design to influence sales, volume and profits (and brand building) Earl has no peer anywhere. And as Steve says above most 1930s and 1940s American designers either came through Earl's Art & Colour or were influenced by it. Todd C

Hey Todd, I can think of one off the top of my head that held it's influence for decades- P-38 tail fins, and even though it sort of changed it's form, those vertical tail lamps extend to the eighties. Think of that 1948-eighties!

D.

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Other than maybe the 1927 LaSalle (itself an evolution) I cannot think of any specific Earl design as influential as Mitchell's Corvair, Stingray, or Riviera. Todd C

Aren't we forgetting the Cadillac 60 Special? Was that not a cutting-edge design from Earl? I agree that Mitchell had more specific production cars to his credit, but once again, where would he be without Earl and Art & Colour?

Apples and oranges. Both are some of the most influential men in automotive design, ever. Which one is more important in the overall historical view? I think Earl has the slight edge on Mitchell, but Mitchell is a very close second place.

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Aren't we forgetting the Cadillac 60 Special? Was that not a cutting-edge design from Earl?

While designed during Harley Earl's reign at the top of Art & Colour, the milestone design of the 60S is usually attributed to a young Bill Mitchell.

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Hey Todd, I can think of one off the top of my head that held it's influence for decades- P-38 tail fins, and even though it sort of changed it's form, those vertical tail lamps extend to the eighties. Think of that 1948-eighties!

Tailfins, hmm....Don, you are correct that I overlooked tailfins. Seems like a small item but indeed they were very widely copied all over the world AND for a very long time, as you point out. HOW could I forget? Good point, Todd C

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Tailfins, hmm....Don, you are correct that I overlooked tailfins. Seems like a small item but indeed they were very widely copied all over the world AND for a very long time, as you point out. HOW could I forget? Good point, Todd C

Hey Todd, here is a interesting tidbit. The tailfins first appear on the 48 Cadillac and they are inspired by the P-38 Lightning. Even though the P-38 was a very good plane of WW2 it was a old design. Originally put to paper in 1936 it flew in January 1939 for the first time.

Here is another; ever notice the the fresh air scoops under the headlamps of the 49-50 some 51 Oldsmobiles? Taken right off another old 1930's design that first flew in 1939, the P-40. The opening in the cowl for the radiators. I'm surprised the hot rodders of the day didn't paint shark mouths on their 49-50 88's.

The 1959 Cadillac front running/turn signal lamps look just like the twin intakes of those two sets of four J-57 turbojets of the B-52. On the same note the 59 Cadillac has a front fender to rear fender bend right through the body to exit to the rear reflector/back up lamp--a feature most people overlook because of the tall fin with rear lamps. That downward fuselage shape just described looks just like the line of the intake to engine, to the exhaust bend in the airframe of a F-8 Crusader or it's baby cousin the A-7 Corsair 2.

D.

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I always liked the clean lines of Mitchell.. The 1964 Pontiac Grand Prix is my favorite...

The Grand Prix is a Jack Humbert design. Jack was head of Pontiac styling starting in March 1959. Who can forget Chuck Jordans 1966 Olds Toronado.

D.

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David North did the Toronado; Jordan did the '67 Eldorado.

When your the design manager "it's your car"

Chuck Jordan, Automotive Futurist, Remembered at Concours

By LARRY EDSALL

Larry Edsall

The Buick Centurion concept, designed by Chuck Jordan for the 1956 General Motors Motorama show, displayed at the Concours d’Élégance of America this past weekend.

PLYMOUTH, Mich. — Near the end of my last telephone interview with Chuck Jordan, the retired head of design for General Motors, he suggested I travel to his home to, as he put it, “collect the stories” before old-timers like him died, taking their tales with them.

About a year after our conversation, the man who spent more than half of his 83 years designing cars for G.M. was dead, and I never availed myself of his invitation.

Last weekend provided ample time for stories, however, as the Concours d’Élégance of America here paid tribute to cars Mr. Jordan personally designed or strongly influenced. The tribute included a panel discussion by people who worked alongside him during his remarkable tenure.

The collaboration of concours officials and General Motors was secured to assemble a special display here called Ten Important Automobile Designs Honoring Chuck Jordan. The vehicles ranged in vintage from the 1956 Buick Centurion concept car, which a young Mr. Jordan designed for the G.M. Motorama show, to the 1995 Oldsmobile Aurora.

Don Wood, a retired designer for G.M., brought a sketch Mr. Jordan executed in 1954 or ’55 of a seamless-sided pickup truck, this at a time when the rear wheels of most trucks were covered by large external fenders. His sketch not only influenced truck styling, the designers said, but the Chevrolet Corvair and many subsequent cars.

Jordan was only 30 years old in 1957 when he was appointed to lead the Cadillac design studio. He later became head of exterior design for G.M., then of design for G.M. of Europe and returned to Michigan as director of design — essentially, second only to the vice president of design. From 1986 until his retirement in 1992, Mr. Jordan was G.M.’s design chief.

The assembled speakers were keen to expand the discussion of his accomplishments to include his involvement as a design manager in the creation of cars like the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado and how that car and its blistered fenders still influenced vehicles around the world today. They recalled how close G.M. came to shutting down its sagging Cadillac division until the 1992 Seville and Eldorado rekindled sales, and discussed the significance of the 1988 Cadillac Voyage and 1992 Corvette Sting Ray III concepts.

And they talked about Mr. Jordan, how he stressed the importance of proportion, how he pushed for designs that weren’t square and angular but emitted a subtle beauty born of simplicity.

As Roger Hughet, another retired G.M. designer said in summary, “Chuck Jordan wanted shape, not cardboard cars.”

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Chuck Jordan did design the Chevrolet pickups that made their debut in the spring of 1955 so he probably did the design about 1952-53. Raymond Loewy got the credit for the '53 Studebaker but I don't think it was his design. The best I can conclude reading about him is that he designed furniture and such items and the employees working under him designed the cars. At any point, the Express Coupe pickups and the 1950's coupes were Studebaker only major design successes.

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