BILL MITCHELL – THE PASSIONATE DESIGN MAESTRO.
DateTUESDAY, APRIL 7, 2020 AT 08:42AM
Editor-in-Chief's Note: Hard on the heels of my April 1st column, which seemed to bring a welcome - albeit momentary - relief for everyone, the ugly reality of the terrible times we live in returned with a thud. As you know, the city of Detroit has been decimated by COVID-19. Just this Tuesday (April 7) it was announced that 734 employees in our local Henry Ford Health System have tested positive for the virus, and 1500 employees of the Beaumont Health System have symptoms of COVID-19. Almost 19,000 cases of the virus have been reported in the state of Michigan, with the death toll reaching 845 as of today (those numbers are going up by the hour). Livelihoods have been erased, thousands of jobs have been lost, and the consequences of this pandemic are growing exponentially here and around the nation. Given this atmosphere, I find it difficult to write anything about the automobile business. As our readers know, the Motor City's lifeblood is the automobile business. This is the company town of company towns, and now that our locally-based auto companies are reeling, the entire region is reeling too. But we are also proud of the fact that Ford and GM have stepped up to help produce needed medical supplies because after all, it's what they do. The Arsenal of Democracy isn't some vague notion in our history books, it was a real response to a critical national need. And our founding industry - part of the industrial fabric of America - is responding again when called upon. So with that as background and in the interest of more momentary relief, I thought it would be appropriate to look back to a different era. A fleeting moment in time when the automobile industry was on an upward trajectory and powering to a future that appeared limitless. One of the legendary auto executives that embodied that era was Bill Mitchell, the iconic - and mercurial - design chief during GM's most glorious era. In our past two "On The Table" columns, I have written about the groundbreaking Corvair-based concepts that emerged during the Bill Mitchell era at GM Styling. These columns have triggered a groundswell of interest in that era and in Mitchell himself. (See Robert Cumberford's comments in Reader Mail -WG) So, we have decided to run one of my all-time most requested columns, the one where I share my personal remembrances of that era and of Bill Mitchell himself. After all, he lived just a block away... PMD
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. To say that the ‘50s and ‘60s were a different era in automotive history is not painting a proper picture of just how different it was. Detroit was much more of a freewheeling mindset back then. Car executives were bold, decisive, conniving, creative and power-hungry personalities who inevitably went with their gut instincts – which could end up being either a recipe for disaster or a huge runaway sales hit on the streets. The only committees you'd find back then were the finance committees – and they never got near the design, engineering, marketing or even the advertising unless there was some sort of a problem. These Car Kings worked flat-out, and they partied flat-out, too, ruling their fiefdoms with iron fists while wielding their power ruthlessly at times to get what they wanted – and rightly so in their minds – as they were some of the most powerful business executives on earth. In short, it was a world that was 180 degrees different from what goes on in today's rigid, namby-pamby, never-have-a-point-of-view-and-never-take-a-stand automotive environment.
No one represented the spirit of the business back then more than Bill Mitchell. He was bold, powerful, flamboyant, recalcitrant, maniacal, brilliant, frustrating and probably every other adjective you can think of for someone who was one of a kind. He was smart enough to know and he had the innate sense to understand that he had inherited the legacy of the great Harley Earl, and he never for a second forgot that fact – or let anyone else forget it either. And he played it for all it was worth with a swagger and strut that haven't been seen since. He often bumped heads with the "suits" down at the corporation when they didn't "get" one of his design recommendations – but he usually won the battles and got his way.
Mitchell was, in fact, his own potentate within the GM monolith, and he did outrageous things and spoke his mind and generally didn't give a rat's ass about any of the other bull**** that was part of corporate life at GM at the time. Mitchell was a larger-than-life personality, and it just didn't sit well with a lot of the sober financial suits down on the "14th floor" of the old GM building. He swaggered and strutted his way around the Design Staff like it was his own personal kingdom – and make no mistake about it – it was.
To give you just a small glimpse into how Mitchell held sway over things at Design Staff, the Corvette was the one car that meant more to him than any other. And whenever a young designer did a version and started to gloat even just a little bit, Bill would always set things straight with the following famous Mitchell-ism: "Don't flatter yourself, kid – I'm the one who does Corvettes here." (As a brief aside, one of the most hilarious things I ever witnessed as a kid was watching the mercurial Mitchell attempt to play golf at the Bloomfield Hills Country Club. He was horrible at it, and his frustration level would grow exponentially with each hole – and you could see his complexion glow even more beet-red than it already was almost by the minute. He had absolutely no patience for the game whatsoever, and finally he'd inevitably storm off the course without finishing his round and jump into one of his concept cars – the original Sting Ray, the Mako Shark, the Monza SS – you name it, and then he'd peel out of the parking lot spinning the tires and grabbing gears all the way down Long Lake Road.)
I've heard countless firsthand stories about the man and his ballistic fits in studios while cajoling his troops to go further and reach higher – but I saw a slightly different side to him too.
Because, after all, he lived just a block away from our house...
And I'll never forget the day I discovered that fact. I was still in my bike-riding days back then, but I remember resting with my buddies one blistering Friday afternoon on a corner in our neighborhood after a long, hot day of riding around aimlessly – we did that often back then – when we heard a rumble and roar coming from off in the distance. I knew right away that it wasn't motorcycles and that it was more than one of whatever it was – and just then a pack of the most stunning cars we'd ever seen burst around the corner and came rumbling right past us – the sun glinting off the barking pipes and the canopy of trees shimmering off the perfect mirror finishes of the paint jobs. This "horsepower train" was led by the "original" 1959 Corvette Sting Ray racer in Silver, followed by the XP700 Corvette (a "bubble-top" show car with side pipes also in Silver – it was Mitchell's favorite color), the first Mako Shark Corvette and a concept called the Corvair Super Spyder (also in Silver), a wild racing-inspired show car with dual cut-down racing windscreens and three pipes curling out and around each side in the back. They were so loud we couldn't even hear ourselves screaming whatever it was we were screaming, but after a split second to think about it, we took off, pedaling our guts out after them. It was apparent that these machines were heading for our part of the neighborhood – and as we tried to keep them in sight I realized they were turning on to my cross street!
We came around the corner and saw them pull into a driveway, exactly one block from my house. We stopped right at the end of the driveway with our mouths gaping down to the asphalt, as the drivers of the other cars handed the keys to the driver of the Stingray and he took them up to the front door where a woman collected them. Then, an Impala pulled up and the four men got in it and were gone, leaving the cars sitting in the driveway all lined up ticking and spitting as their pipes started to cool.
This became the Friday Afternoon Ritual of the summer – at least when Bill Mitchell was in town.
He liked having his "toys" at his disposal on the weekends. And every weekend the collection was different, depending on the mood he was in when he made the call to the GM Styling garage. I would watch what cars would be delivered on Friday, and then I would ride over there on Saturdays and just linger out in the driveway studying every square inch of every car hoping to get an audience with The Man himself – and maybe, just maybe – a ride in one of the machines. One thing about Bill Mitchell is he never got tired of the cars, and he never got tired of seeing people's reaction to them or answering questions about them. After about the third weekend of this, I finally got the nerve to introduce myself to him one Saturday morning as he was getting ready to go somewhere in the Super Spyder. From that moment on I was okay in his book because I was "one of Tony's boys" and he said, "Hop in – I'm just running up to the drug store, but come on..."