Mitchell, William L.

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William L. Mitchell

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William L. Mitchell was only the second person to hold the position of vice president in charge of General Motors Styling Section (currently GM Design Staff). He retired from GM in July 1977, capping a 42-year career, nearly 20 of them as vice president.

Bill Mitchell developed a love for automobiles and a remarkable talent for sketching them at an early age. His father was an automobile dealer for many years and young Bill's attention focused on the cars sold by his dad, as well as on the Stutzes, Mercers and Templars which his father owned at various times.

Bill Mitchell was born on July 2, 1912, in Cleveland, Ohio. He attended grade and high schools in Greenville, Pennsylvania and New York City. To broaden his horizons and allow him to develop further his inclination toward a designing career, he enrolled at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Institute of Technology. Later, he went on to New York City to study at the Art Students League. On weekends and evenings, he haunted showrooms along 57th Street and Park Avenue, admiring the great Isotta-Fraschini, Rolls Royce, Hispano-Suiza, Mercedes-Benz and Duesenberg cars that were the pacesetters of the day.

Young Mitchell then joined the Barron Collier advertising agency where he prepared layouts and advertising illustrations. It was there that he met the Collier brothers, Miles, Sam and Barron, Jr., who founded the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) — forerunner of today's Sports Car Club of America. In 1931, he became the official illustrator of the ARCA, drove and sketched races at Briarcliff and later at the Sleepy Hollow Ring, a private 0.7-mile circuit at Pocantico Hills, N.Y. Mitchell also designed the club's distinctive badge. His sketches of the cars and drivers in action were pinned up in the ARCA clubhouse. A Detroit industrialist and close friend of Harley J. Earl, who headed the General Motors Art & Colour Section, saw some of these spirited drawings and suggested that Bill Mitchell send them to Mr. Earl, who was on the lookout for talented men to staff his growing styling group at GM. The sketches were developed into a portfolio in the summer of 1935 and won the 23-year-old Mitchell a job.

He joined General Motors in December, 1935, working first on what would become model Cadillacs and LaSalles. Then, in 1936, he assisted GM Research in the design of a small, rear-engined experimental car. After working on designs for the Buick studio, Bill Mitchell was promoted to chief designer for the Cadillac Studio at the age of 26.

The first complete car designed under his supervision was the 1938 "60 Special," a smaller Cadillac which became the first "personal-luxury" car. Its trend-setting design themes, of distinct upper and lower body forms, convertible-type door glass frames and absence of a running board — a first in large quantity produced cars — gave the 60 Special a distinction that exists even today. Its design lines were softened into the "torpedo body" forms used by General Motors for nearly a decade.

In January 1942, William L. Mitchell was commissioned in the Air Arm of the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant. First with the Bureau of Aeronautics, and later with the Naval Air Training Command, he prepared flight training manuals for combat aircraft. His designer's flair put new sparkle in the manuals while explaining complicated instrument flight procedures. One of his handbooks, "Flight Through Instruments," was produced for both the Army and the Navy. After his discharge in 1945, Mitchell returned to GM Styling to resume direction of the Cadillac Studio.

In 1948, the first new GM "post-war" body was introduced and was initially shared by Oldsmobile and Cadillac. Under Mitchell's leadership with the Cadillac design, rear-end identity became an important factor in automobile design. Cadillac went on to develop the continuity of design that made it the style leader of the world and enhanced its position of esteem.

With the '66 Toronado
On May 1, 1954, Bill Mitchell was named director of styling. He was serving in that position when he was selected to head the Styling Staff upon Earl's retirement in 1958. As vice president of Styling, Mitchell forged an identity of his own. Whereas Harley Earl liked his cars heavy and round with lots of chrome, Mitchell preferred razor-sharp edges and a sheer look. He was involved with the design of all GM automobiles but Mitchell has been most personally identified with the appearance of the first Buick Riviera (1963), the Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray (1963), the Oldsmobile Toronado (1966), Cadillac Eldorado (1967), and the second generation Chevrolet Camaro (beginning in 1970). These models reflect his individual preference for cars whose performance accents their appearance.


Bill & a few of his special cars
Bill Mitchell also had a penchant for personalized cars. In fact, over the course of his stint as GM’s design chief, he built over 50 custom cars. Many of these were dolled-up production models, such as the Corvettes and Corvairs he had outfitted with special paint and interior trim for himself and his wife. Others were “dream cars” or special one-offs built for racing or show purposes. These cars include:

The organization directed by Mitchell grew far beyond the dreams of the men who established GM's "Art and Colour Section." It had acquired a complement of 90 people when Mitchell joined it, and its contemporary successor, the Design Staff, had almost 1,500 employees — engineers, modelers, technicians, craftsmen and managers— on its roster at the time of his retirement. The department grew to include expertise in every area of auto-mobile design; from human factors through color, form, materials, aerodynamics, psychology and marketing.

At the Auto Shows
In addition to designing all the automobiles, trucks and buses for General Motors, Mitchell's staff was involved with GM overseas operations responsible for Opel, Vauxhall and Holden cars and a smaller activity in South America. Never out of touch, Bill Mitchell was a familiar figure at the International Auto Shows as he tried to maintain a current awareness of world-wide developments in the industry.

After more than a decade of directing the efforts of the General Motors Design Staff, Mitchell was quick to point out that the role of the designer had changed in our society, a fact reflected in the change of name from Styling to Design.


He believed that the designer must be totally involved with the concerns of the public, relating the automobile to the complete transportation scene, to safety and environmental considerations and to the changing life styles of its purchasers. These increased responsibilities, developed over the years of his design career, he saw as exciting challenges ... challenges which he frequently posed to his fellow corporate managers and subordinates alike.



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