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A Sixties Tour of General Motors Innovative Styling Section

By Hampton C. Wayt:

In the mid-1960s, if you were a young boy or girl interested in becoming a car designer at General Motors, you might have written to them asking for some information on career opportunities. And if you did so, you might well have received a promotional slide set housed in a blue cardstock cover in reply. Embossed with the General Motors Styling Section symbol, the set consists of twelve different images of GM Styling’s facilities at the corporation’s Warren, Michigan Tech Center campus—each image individually captioned on the paper mount.

  • The lead photo shows the General Motors Technical Center in Warren Michigan, it covers an area of 335 acres with 16 staff buildings placed in a campus-like setting of water, trees and lawns.

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  •                                                  General Motors Styling Section promotional slide set.

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  •                       Some of the contents of the General Motors Styling Section promotional slide set.

Examining the contents closely, it is fascinating to note the imagery and messages the set contains. The majority focus on the Styling division’s buildings, rather than to aspects of the design process. From Bill Mitchell’s (formerly Harley Earl’s) executive office replete with scale models of the first three Firebirds, all the way to the cafeteria with its “superlative industrial cuisine,” the scenes were chosen to present Styling as “an inspiring atmosphere for artistic endeavor,” as the accompanying text states.

 General Motors Innovative Cadillac Styling Section Warren MI 1963

  • Separate studios are maintained by the Styling Staff for each car division client. Plastic light panels cover the entire ceiling for proper indoor lighting. Cadillac studio image centers on a ’63 convertible.

Naturally, a trip through GM styling would not be complete without some cars. A photograph of the Cadillac studio centers on a ’63 convertible surrounded by drawings, full size clay models and Harry Bertoia “Diamond” chairs fabricated by Knoll. Future VP of Styling Chuck Jordan can be seen on the far right speaking with a couple of designers, while on the left a sculptor works on a facelift design. Can any of our readers identify these individuals?

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  •  Adjacent to the Styling Auditorium, enclosed by a high brick wall and a border of tall trees for privacy, is an outdoor viewing yard where advance designs can be evaluated in natural daylight.

Other images feature some well-known concept cars. The “outdoor viewing yard” places both the Corvette Stingray racer and Shark prototypes in front of the Styling Auditorium’s stately dome. Inside the auditorium itself is one of the 1954 Oldsmobile F88 show cars in red (as opposed to its better-known gold incarnation).

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  • Finished designs are recorded on paper in the Styling Staff’s Engineering Drafting Department by highly-skilled surface development experts, who carefully prepare precise full-size drawings.

The original text from the inside of the cover for the General Motors Styling Section promotional slide set follows:

“The Styling Buildings at the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, house the world’s foremost design organization in pleasant surroundings conducive to creative activity. Three main units comprise the Styling group: Administration Building, Studio-Shop Building, and Viewing Auditorium.”

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  • The Styling Color Studio is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows for optimum light balance. Designers select colors from 4,000 choices displayed at left.

“Pre-assembled steel curtain walls are combined with colored ceramic bricks and expansive windows in a pattern of functional beauty. Completely air-conditioned throughout, every studio, office and shop offers an inspiring atmosphere for artistic endeavor.”

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  • The interior of the Styling Auditorium has a viewing dais around the main floor. A self-supporting roof structure eliminates all pillars, posts and other viewing obstructions.

“Here, 1200 specialists, including 150 designers, plus experts in engineering, glass, plastics, paint, colors, and clay models, work to create designs for all Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac automobiles. Chevrolet and GMC trucks and buses, Euclid earth movers, Electo-Motive locomotives and rail vehicles, Frigidaire household appliances, and military and experimental vehicles. In addition, industrial shows, World’s Fairs, exhibits and graphic displays of all sorts are designed by these Styling experts, who also provide a variety of other industrial design services to General Motors staff and divisions.”

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  • Surrounding the Styling Color Studio is an outdoor roof garden. Artificial heat warms the soil and melts snow in the wintertime.

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  • The office of the Styling Vice President has fluted cherry wood walls capped with aluminum. Recessed ceiling lights are clustered over work and conference areas.

So, what do you think? Do the images live up to the promotional hype of the descriptions and captions, which you have read? Would they have “inspired” you to pursue your dream of becoming a car designer? Let us know your thoughts.

Editor’s note: I am pleased to welcome Hampton C. Wayt to the pages of The Old Motor. Hampton has been working in the automotive history field full-time for 15 years and has personally met a large number of automobile designers and viewed their collections. He has co-curated an automotive design art exhibit with Leslie Kendall at the Petersen Automotive Museum called “Driving Through Futures Past.” He is a highly-trained historian with a master’s degree in design history from the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

We look forward to learning more about the design process and streamlining from its start in the early 1900s and on through the fifties with him.

37 responses to “A Sixties Tour of General Motors Innovative Styling Section

  1. I lived in Geneva, Switzerland, for 35 years. Chuck Jordan and I both collected toy cars (he liked Ferraris; I liked Cadillacs). We exchanged letters (no Email in those days) as well as toys and auto photos and literature. I was NOT aware of Chuck’s job. During a vacation tour of the USA in June-July 1978, my wife, our 2 young children and I had occasion to visited the Design Center in Warren, MI. When I gave my name at the reception; it seemed to ring a bell. Next thing I knew, we were being ushered up to Chuck’s vast executive suite; there, he had sandwiches and soft drinks brought up (it was past noon and the kids were becoming “antsy”). We had bought and were driving an RV (Dodge) at the time; it needed an ignition lock to meet Swiss DMV requirements; Chuck contacted his counterpart at Chrysler (through his “buddy”, Dick Teague?); I took the RV to the Chrysler compound (Chuck had to wait at the gate in his custom 1978 Firebird station wagon”!) where the Dodge got an upgrade … at no cost! In the afternoon, while Gita and the children were being entertained by members of Chuck’s team, he graciously gave me a personal tour of the Center. That night he let us park on his property in Grosse Pointe and next day we were entertained at his home. Unforgettable moments!

    • You were very fortunate to have a friend like Chuck great memories that are priceless especially how he took care of your ignition switch change over thank you for sharing

  2. I forgot to mention that we were received next day by Dave Holls (in the midst of preparations for his daughter ‘s wedding that very day!) and, later, Dick Teague (Chrysler), on his vast property.

    These were 2 days we will never forget!

    • Yann,

      That’s a wonderful story. Thank you so much for sharing!

      I, too, had a couple of memorable visits with Chuck at his California home. Did you ever see his collection? One bay of the garage was designed for an RV (i.e. massive), and the length of an entire wall was lined with cabinets full of Ferrari models.

  3. Thank you for this insightful look at becoming a designer.

    During my school years, I wanted very much to become an automobile designer until I was told that I probably didn’t have enough math or art credits to pursue this line. Also, many educators in my school had no idea how to help me. These days it appears that it’s much easier to become a car designer.

    • Gagagarage: Sorry to hear about your disappointment trying to get a job as a car designer. No one at the High School level in the ’60’s even knew what a car designer did. Math had nothing to do with becoming a designer, but art and creativity certainly did.
      It is no easier to become a car designer today than it ever was. Art, and creativity are still important, and a degree in Product Design/Transportation Design/Industrial Design is still a requirement. It’s easier to get a job in the NFL as a rookie football player than it is to become a professional car designer.
      Having spent 33 yrs at GM Design and now teaching at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, it’s just as difficult today as it ever was to become a professional car designer.

    • Not sure about that. You still need a degree in design. Art Center in Pasadena is one of the leading schools in transportation design. I believe that you need a good portfolio of work to even be accepted there.

      • Its not that hard to get into Art Center College today. Its extremely costly these days and all you really need is a lot of money. I graduated from there in 1972.

    • I would guess that thanks to the internet it is easier to learn about a profession such as car design. When I was in school, no one knew what industrial/car design was either, and this wasn’t that long ago. When I described to them what I wanted to do, they told me to go into mechanical engineering!

      I only learned what Industrial Design was AFTER I finished school and was unable to return. But on the bright side, I love preserving the history.

    • Consider yourself luck you did not go into engineering design of any kind. I have been in electronic design for 35 years. If engineering desgin people have not lost there job 5-10 times over that years, they were very lucky. If you did lose your job but you go back into design, your new position required more work, and less pay. I’ve been very fortunate to have avoided a lot of this. Add to this all the issues with constant change, CAD, and new technology, and generally speaking corporate HELL, this is an area where few people have survive. SO, Consider yourself luck!

  4. Gagagarage: sorry to learn of your experience trying to become a car designer. I too was faced with similar issues as no one at the High School level even knew what a car designer was in the ’60’s. Math had nothing to do with landing a job as a designer, but art and creative talent did.
    I can tell you however, it is not easier to become a designer today than it was in years past. It still requires 4 yrs of College trained in Industrial Design/ Product Design/Transportation Design.It is easier to get a job in the NFL as a rookie football player than it is to become a car designer these days.
    Having spent 33 yrs at GM Design and now teaching at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, i know first hand how difficult it was and still is to become a professional car designer.

  5. Holy Cow!
    Must have been like working at the “64 World’s Fair.
    “Presenting the World of Tommorow”
    Does GM still use that place?

    • Yes they do. In fact, a few months ago they announced an expansion to the campus that puts a building over the reflecting pool.

  6. August ,15 1964 I hired in at Fisher Body Engineering across the tracks from Styling at the GM tech center . I was 17 years old and a starting freshman at General Motors Institute in Flint,Michigan . Six weeks work and six weeks school and in five years got a Mechanical Engineering degree and good co-op experience . The money earned at work paid for my tuition , room and board , and a red 1963 split widow Corvette that stayed up with traffic on Woodward Ave. most evenings . Styling told us what they wanted the cars to look like ,but Fisher Body did most of the body design and engineering to make it real .

    • Daren,good to hear that the TC is still thought of as a great place to work.
      I spent over 30 years at Styling then Design Staff and felt every morning I
      Was entering a fantastic plac ce. I seeyou are a sculptor . As studio chief
      I thought you guys could make,or brake a design. Say Helo to Ed Welburn
      For me,great guy,he was my asst. in Oldsmobile studio,

  7. I enjoyed revisiting Styling at the Tech Center and remembering when we moved in. The only thing I didn’t recall was the large engineering drafting room.

    Is it possible that this was in one of the Division or Fisher Body facilities nearby?

    • Hi Norm, That was the large drafting room on the second floor south, below was the Wood Shop. This area was later converted to Buick, Cadillac and Body Development Studios and Fabrication was moved to a new building constructed south of the Design building. Drafting was moved downstairs to the Wood Shop area and I renamed it SPE for Surface and Prototype Engineering.

  8. I don’t know why, but the first thing I noticed about the image of draftsmen above was that they all are left-handed. I imagine either the negative was flipped or southpaws really are more creative.

    I’m impressed how elegant (for the era) the design areas are. I guess it helps to surround one’s self with beauty when seeking automotive inspiration.

    • Good eye Mr. Ringo. Humorously, I re-checked the slide and it was scanned properly. So, someone at GM reversed the image accidentally (I assume).

      • The slide could be reversed on purpose. Easy to think someone believed the diagonals of the composition worked better on that angle (upper left to lower right). Or could it be all the designers switched their watches to their right hand to play a prank on the photo editor?

  9. I am a clay sculptor at General Motors and I am reading this article from inside that very building. We call it the Design Center now, though I feel that styling is still more appropriate.

    I love to walk\drive around the campus and take in how truly magnificent this place must have been at the time it was conceived. Even though it is getting on in years, the crew here has done a fantastic job of preserving the place.

    It’s so cool to see photos of the place from back then.

  10. I studied mechanical engineering technology because I too wished to work at GM. Had two interviews with the recruiters at college. I told them I wanted to design cars and they looked at me like I was asking for a miracle. They said they were recruiting plant inspectors and a few weeks later I got the rejection letters. Maybe someday!

    Al Byers
    Pittsburgh, PA

  11. I’m quite little disappointed to find the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen not credited here.

    Saarinen died relatively young and for a time was almost written out of history (architecture pundits sadly follow fashion too strenuously in my book). Happily nowadays his work enthusiastically reappraised.

    He was responsible for an astonishing breadth of work and ‘styles’, the TWA terminal being the most endearing to me, but its worth a peek at ‘List of works by Eero Saarinen’ on wiki.

    Also worth a search is ‘saarinen’ coupled with ‘ezra stoller’ his photographer.

    RA, London

    • Hello Mr. Armiger,

      Thank you for mentioning Eero. Yes, his name deserves recognition here. And while we’re at it, I will also point out the Eames Eiffel chairs in the Color Studio.

      Best Regards,
      Hampton

      • Also the eminently suited Harry Bertoia wire ‘diamond’ chairs by Knoll
        Damn those guys were good back then!

    • Hi Pam, I was there in the mid 60’s working in production Cadillac (exterior) with Stan Parker & Wayne Kady and also in Advanced Buick with Jerry Hirshberg. My maiden name was Joan Klatil. Now I go by Joan Klatil Creamer. Could we have passed in the halls?

  12. It’s wonderful to see these images — I wish there were more!

    For those still working in or with connections to the Design Center: I’ve seen online a photo of the multi-element Gwen Lux sculpture “Power and Direction” installed on the 2nd floor black brick wall enclosing the suspended stairway (the end opposite the top of the stairs. Is her sculpture still there? If not, any information on what became of it?

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