Corvette Timeline Tales: July 1977 GM’s Chief of Styling, Bill Mitchell Retires

“I design Corvettes around here!” – Bill Mitchell

Mitchell was a master at proportions. By itself, the Mako Shark looked BIG. But next to a production ‘68 Corvette, it looks like a 7/8s-size car.

It was probably a hot July day in Detroit when William L. “Bill” Mitchell quietly retired from General Motors after 42 years of service! Volumes could be written about this man. Mitchell looms large in the Corvette world because he was one of four key players that were responsible for setting the tone and design of the Corvette. Harley Earl came up with the concept of a mass-produced American sports car built in Detroit. Ed Cole was the inside engineer man that made it happen. Zora Arkus-Duntov put hair on the Corvette’s chest and made it the car a bare-knuckles brawler. And Bill Mitchell designed and guided the ‘63 – ‘67 Sting Ray and the Mako Shark-II-styled C3 Corvette. The Corvette would not have its signature style were it not for Bill Mitchell.

Bill was known as a “snappy dresser” that loved expensive italian silk suits. “Red” was also his favorite color.

Bill Mitchell, son of a Buick car dealer, started his professional career as an illustrator that liked to draw cars. While an illustrator at Collier Advertising, someone suggested that he show his car renderings to then VP of GM’s Art and Color Department, Harley Earl. Harley liked what he saw and hired Mitchell on December 15, 1935. Mitchell became Earl’s protégé and was eventually promoted to Director of Styling in 1954 and eventually VP of Styling when Earl retired in December 1958.

Even today, over 50 years later, Mitchell’s Stingray Racer is stunning. GM’s Ed Welburn spearheaded the effort to get the car restored. See video below.

This was a time in corporate America of men with very strong personalities, and Mitchell’s was arguably one of the strongest. So much so, that when Bill retired, GM’s upper management decided that never again, would there be a VP of design that was as powerful and independent as Bill Mitchell.

Here are a few brief classic Mitchell stories.

Mitchell and Duntov were passionate men, respected each other, but often butted horns. When Zora came into Bill’s inner sanctum to protest Mitchell’s pet design element, the “split-window” for the upcoming ‘63 Sting Ray, SPARKS FLEW! HOW DARE a lowly engineer on a low-volume production car come into his study and tell him how to style a car! Tempers exploded with Mitchell calling Duntov, “Zorro” and Duntov calling Mitchell a red-faced baboon! Bill had a quick temper, but got over it quickly.

One designer/stylist tells of the time he asked Mitchell if he could show him a few ideas for the Corvette. The young designer was blasted out of the office with a,” If you EVER ask me that again, you’ll be designing door handles for the rest of your days here! I DESIGN Corvettes around here!”

Bill Mitchell was noted for saying many times, “I got gasoline in my veins!”

While there was a lot of grumping about the split-wondow design, it is today considered an American classic. Some call the car, “The original American Idol.”

A few years after Mitchell’s retirement, a somewhat disgruntled Bill Mitchell was interviewed by a car magazine and asked what he thought of the styling of of the day. Knowing that cars were being designed by committees and focus groups, Mitchell quipped, “Do you think that Frank Lloyd Wright went around knocking on doors asking people, “So, what do you think a house should look like?”

While the 4-seater 1958 Thunderbird may have been the first “personal luxury” car, Mitchell defined the concept. The Buick Riviera is another American classic. Proportionally “big” yet a mid-size car. If you ever see one on the road next to a modern Honda Accord, you’ll be shocked at the Buick’s smallish size.

Unlike the Riviera, the front-wheel-drive Cadillac Eldorado (and counterpart, the Olds Toranado) were BIG cars. The design was so far ahead of its time, the general size, proportion and unique side flanks were used on the redesigned ‘73 Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix.

Bill Mitchell had a design and styling concept that you could say was his signature style. He believed that a “successful man” always wears a suit that’s perfectly pressed, with sharp, crisp, creases. So when you look at a Sting Ray, Buick Riviera, Corvair, ‘63 Impala, Cadillac Eldorado, C3 Corvette, Olds Toranado, and many other GM full and mid-size cars – especially the ones with the sharp creases, that’s Bill Mitchell’s work.


PS – Here are a few related stories…

Ed Welburn’s Garage

1959 Stingray Racer on YouTube Video

Bill Mitchell’s 1961 Mako Shark-I

1964 Buick Riviera TV Commercial (Ladies, this is a tiny bit sexist, but then again, it was 1964.)

1967 Cadillac Eldorado Coupe. Nice walk-around of a VERY nice car! Elvis Presley had a black Eldorado.