“The best design is the least design,” according to iconic German industrial designer Dieter Rams, a major inspiration for Apple’s clean designs. Such advice fell on deaf ears during the mid-twentieth-century in Detroit, where a baroque and fanciful approach created some of history’s most beloved cars.
General Motors’ wildly creative mid-century offerings succeeded in large part due to the company’s design vice presidents. Harley Earl, who served from 1928-58 is most well known, but his successors deserve notice, too. Chuck Jordan served as the last of General Motors’ jet-age Michelangelos who sculpted steel and glass into road rockets suited for a roaring down brand new freeways in a soaring, optimistic age. Americans demanded nothing less for their drive into an unlimited future.
Chuck Jordan’s grandmother snuck him paper so he could draw on his hymnal during Sunday services. He was obsessed. Encouraged by his mother to enter GM's famed Fisher Body Craftsmen's Guild competition, Jordan spent seven hundred hours building a model that won him $4,000 and a ticket to Detroit--a trip that lead to his hiring by GM.
Jordan started off with a bang when Earl assigned him the task of designing a Motorama dream (now called “concept”) car. His dramatic 1956 Buick Centurion, with sweeping lines, bat fins, and bubble top, also featured the world's first back-up camera with an in-dash monitor.
Harley Earl’s prime directive to stylists was to “go all the way, then back off” when developing new designs. Chuck Jordan was keen to go all the way, but showed less interest in the “backing off” part. This bravura showed in his baroque 1959 Cadillac. It was hands down the most outlandish mass produced car ever built. With shark fins soaring nearly as high as its roof, rocket-pod tail lamps, and matching front and rear grilles glittering with more detailed intricacy than a federal health care bill, it was the absolute peak of space age style. Cadillac’s 1959 design was so over the top that GM immediately backed off, offering a toned-down 1960 model and gradually shaving their cars’ fins down until they disappeared altogether.
Jordan’s 1958 model was the most chrome-bedecked and gaudiest Corvette ever. Though initially derided by Corvette fans, it has grown in stature to the point that it’s become one of the most sought after models. He topped that with his wild XP-700 Corvette, a space age concept styled under the supervision of Earl's successor Bill Mitchell.
Jordan designed GM’s experimental 1955 Aerotrain when he was just twenty-six years old. His1987 Oldsmobile Aerotech, a speed record-breaking experimental, showed Jordan’s talent for making things beautiful even while keeping aerodynamics as top priority.
As Earl’s immediate successor, Bill Mitchell had introduced a clean, sculptured look to replace Earl’s busy, chrome-bedecked creations. Jordan served as vice president of design from 1977-92, a period when governmental regulations, safety, and efficiency concerns ruled with a heavy hand. His designs include the 1988 Buick Reatta, ’91 Chevrolet Caprice, and ’92 Cadillac Seville.
Jordan spent his retirement teaching auto design to high school students, saying, "Promoting their creativity and exposing them to the opportunity design offers is very satisfying."
We're not likely to see the reemergence of super star designers like Chuck Jordan in today’s highly technical, highly regulated auto industry. Today car designers attend the same schools and move around from company to company until they’re producing indistinguishable, generic looks. Efficient as they are, today’s aerodynamic fuel sippers struggle to offer even a modicum of the romance and drama that mid-century designers like Chuck Jordan seemed to toss off routinely.
Story by Jim Cherry