Joseph Dennis recently posted a CC Capsule on the C4 generation Corvette, which prompted discussions on the relative merits of that car’s design. General Motor’s Design Chief at the time was Irv Rybicki, who presided over the bleakest period ever for GM styling. Whether or not you are a fan of the C4 Corvette, it was arguably one of the better styling jobs to emerge from GM during that dark era. But was it the best?
First, the timing parameters. Rybicki was appointed as the Vice President of Design in August 1977, just the third person to ever hold that title. The first was the legendary Harley Earl, who led GM (and the entire industry) to showcase style as a selling tool.
Earl’s successor was the equally talented Bill Mitchell, whose taste and temperament were outsized, leading to some of the most beautiful mass market cars ever produced.
Chuck Jordan was as brash and gifted as GM’s first two design bosses, and particularly since he had shown real flair with small car styling during his stint with Opel–a critical need in the energy conscious era, he would have been the logical successor to Mitchell for the late 1970s and beyond. In fact, Jordan would ultimately get the top design job in October 1986, but only after it was too late and GM’s design leadership had been squandered.
So what happened in between August 1977 and October 1986, you ask?
General Motors had decided that they no longer wanted a strong willed Design Chief who was ready, willing and able to battle with Finance, Engineering, Manufacturing and divisional General Managers to protect and showcase trendsetting styling. Rather, GM’s top leadership decided that after Earl and Mitchell they didn’t have the stomach for round three with Jordan. So they opted for “go along to get along” Rybicki, who was the consummate corporate player, always “there” at the right time and place, but arguably never really leading anything. When accountants would demand cost cuts, Rybicki apparently nodded “yes.” When Engineering and Manufacturing wanted commonality and easy-to-execute solutions no matter what they looked like, Rybicki seemingly shrugged. When executives decreed that a mere badge could turn a Chevrolet into a Cadillac (Cimmaron), Rybicki was right there.
With all the corporate group think and lowest common denominator designs, were there any styling bright spots during Rybicki’s tenure? Which cars could be counted as the result of his leadership?
Let’s start with the cars that can’t be included. Some of the attractive GM designs of the early 1980s, like the 1980 aero reskins of the B- and C-Body full-sizers, had been underway in the Mitchell era, as this design study from 1974 will attest. The same was arguably true for the 1981 A-Special coupe reskins.
The decently differentiated X-Bodies that launched in the Spring of 1979 were also mostly locked and loaded prior to August 1977.
Ditto the 1979 E-Bodies that arrived in the Fall of 1978.
Even the F-Body Camaro/Firebird for 1982 was apparently mostly a Mitchell-era creation that was simply late to market (it was originally planned for the 1980 model year). This design concept hails from late 1976, and certainly hints at the final design direction that would later appear.
So what does that leave? Well here’s the roster:
The scintillating 1982 J-Cars, one for every U.S. division!
The highly differentiated FWD A-Bodies for 1982. These were so good GM opted to keep certain variants in production with minimal changes for 14 years!
Besides the C4 Corvette, another Rybicki era “sporty car” was the 1984 P-Body Fiero.
The sleek, flowing FWD C-Bodies for 1985.
And their sisters-under-the-skin H-Bodies, that starting arriving for 1986.
The impressive 1985 N-Bodies, all set to redefine “personal luxury” and convince Yuppies to abandon their Hondas and Toyotas.
And who could forget the downsized 1986 E-Bodies? Clearly the luxury flagship coupe of the world’s largest car maker!
Along with the related K-Body ’86 Seville as the flagship sedan aiming right at the heart of those Mercedes 300E prospects….
The ’88 L-Body Corsica/Beretta was essentially round 2 of the N-Body and exclusive for Chevrolet, after someone finally realized that perhaps the vertical backlight “formal look” just *might* have been getting stale after 12 years…
The culmination of the Rybicki era was the GM10 W-Body coupes that launched for 1988. Differentiated skins were back with a vengeance, layered over identical platforms all with the same underwhelming old-school OHV V6.
On the truck front there was the square, clean cut ’82 Chevrolet S-10 and GMC S-15, while 1983 brought their SUV counterparts, the S-10 Blazer and S-15 Jimmy.
Then there was the traditional van made “mini,” the 1985 Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari clone.
For 1988, the all-important full-size C/K pickup trucks were totally revamped for the first time since 1973.
Hang on, you say, I’m leaving out some great choices, like the 1987 Cadillac Allante. Uh no, that was designed by Pinninfarina.
No, no, no, there was the 1988 Reatta too! Well, that design is credited to Chuck Jordan, developed even before he had been appointed Design Chief for the corporation.
So there you have it. Those are the Rybicki choices (jump in if I’ve missed any, they are all so memorable it is hard to keep track!). For me, the pick as the best of his reign would be the 1988 Pontiac Grand Prix. At least it looked modern and aerodynamic while still retaining Pontiac styling cues. And it looked sufficiently different from its platform mates in the best GM tradition from the company’s styling heyday.
So that’s my pick, what’s yours?