William “Bill” L. Mitchell, GM’s Second VP of Styling – An Automobile Quarterly Profile by Strother MacMinn

 

A short while ago, in a recent CC post the thought was raised that we are now living in a time of boring automotive sameness, now  trapped in the equivalent of the “styling doldrums” so to speak, awaiting a new direction similar to the beginning of the 1960’s when the advanced clean lines of the 1961 Lincoln Continental  lead the way into a new styling language.

It is likely worthwhile to briefly look back to what actually makes styling trends, and that is usually a visionary artist leading the stylistic direction that a corporate bureaucracy will follow in order to make profits.  The styling of a product stirs the imagination of a customer’s emotional side and often matters more than the engineering excellence of the product in opening up the customers wallet for purchase.  In this case the inherent beauty has a way of exciting the soul and emotions of a customer in a way that mechanical parts don’t excite for most people.  Styling beauty can evoke emotion, then desire.

So let’s look at the history of one of the great American automotive styling legends, William L. Mitchell, “the” Bill Mitchell (1912-1988 born in Cleveland, Ohio) to glimpse and maybe to learn how his spark of artistic genius developed, and to see what might be necessary for a new styling direction to develop.

The article you are about to read about Mitchell was written by Strother MacMinn (1919-1998) who grew up in Pasadena, California, became a boyhood friend of Frank Hershey who later worked for the Walter M. Murphy Body Company of Pasadena, California, opening in 1920 on Pasadena’s auto row.  Murphy Body built approximately 125 Duesenberg bodies with simple refined taste, additionally built bodies for Lincoln under Edsel’s Ford’s guidance, and, as we saw previously, styled and built aluminum intensive bodies for the Peerless Motor Company, of Cleveland, Ohio.

Frank Q. Hershey (1907-1997), an older boyhood friend of the young boy Strother, had ties to Henry Leland, founder of both Cadillac and, then later, Lincoln.  Henry Leland personally taught Frank Hershey’s mother to drive.  As a teenager, Frank Hershey obsessed with drawing cars, and then transferred that passion and enthusiasm to Strother.

Frank Hershey was hired by Murphy when he graduated from college at age 20 (1927), and designed a flamboyant 3 toned dual phaeton for the Cord L29, delighting Everett Cord and leading to his successful career at Murphy designing for Cord, Auburn, and Duesenberg, Lincoln, and Peerless.  When Frank moved on to the GM Art and Color Section he helped MacMinn at age 17 in 1936 to get his first job in the Buick Studio, introducing him to Bill Mitchell, then 24 years of age.  Mitchell was 24 when he was made Cadillac’s Chief Designer by Harley Earl.  Strother MacMinn experienced those early dynamic years of his career with Earl and Mitchell.

In 1937 Harley Earl assigned MacMinn, then 18, to a new studio to develop the Opel Kapitan.  MacMinn left GM for service during WW2, returned after the war to work with industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss.  In 1948 he began teaching at the Art Center College of Design. Pasadena, California where he taught over the next fifty years.  Approximately half of the world’s auto stylists have graduated from the Art Center College of Design.  So Pasadena has been a center point of automotive styling since 1920.

In the late 1950’s Road & Track’s publishing editor, John Bond, urged development of a modern Le Mans Sports Car.  Strother MacMinn. then about 40 years of age, rose to the challenge of designing, styling, and actually building a drivable sports car featured on the cover of R&T in August 1960.

 

McMinn saw it all, and he wrote this article about William (Bill) L. Mitchell for Automobile Quarterly, published second quarter 1988, in Volume 26, number 2.  So what we have is an eminent industrial designer’s view on Bill Mitchell whom he knew when they were both young men at the beginning of their automotive styling careers.

So enjoy reading about Bill Mitchell who had a passion about automotive art and driving–both of which Mitchell felt were essentials for a successful stylist.  The real question for the age is whether profound deep corporate control can allow creativity like that of Mitchell’s and Earl’s to flourish again.