Vintage vehicles, Automotive history and stories from motoring's past. 

GM designer Bill Mitchell

GM designers including Bill Mitchell and Harley Earl enjoy a moment of laughter.

GM designers including Bill Mitchell and Harley Earl enjoy a moment of laughter.

After thirty years turning out well-designed cars at a rate the world had never seen, legendary GM styling chief Harley Earl was a hard act to follow, but he chose his successor well. William L. Mitchell was the son of a Buick dealer who had worked under Earl from the 1935 to 1958. 

Mitchell had a rare chance to see world class design leadership up close and personal. He’d originally come to Earl’s attention when the chief spotted Mitchell’s brilliant illustration work and put him to work designing Cadillacs.

Though Earl respected Mitchell’s talent enough to appoint him as his successor, they had diametrically opposed styling philosophies. Earl favored voluptuous bodywork bejeweled with heavy chrome trim, while Mitchell favored smoothly sculpted shapes with artful simplicity providing their drama. The transition between the two designers' regimes came at precisely the right time, as the garish excesses of the fifties gave way to Mitchell’s fresh, clean approach that perfectly fit the dawning decade.

Mitchell’s talents were first recognized for his work on Cadillac’s stunning 1938 Sixty Special. He was also instrumental in the design of the 1949 Cadillac, 1955-57 Chevrolets, Camaros, the 1963-76 Corvette Stingray, and the 1976-79 Cadillac Seville. His signature style set a corporate standard that appeared across the board on GM products of the period. Throughout the sixties, Mitchell promoted what he called the sheer look, a sleek, "shoulderless" style that allowed more interior room, a straight drop from a car's windows to its sides.

One of Mitchell’s most recognized designs graced Buick’s dramatically new 1963 Riviera. He asked GM designers to combine Rolls Royce and Ferrari styling cues to create a personal luxury coupe. The swanky looking coupe that resulted is increasingly seen as a late 20th Century design classic. 

An encounter with a shark while skindiving in the Bahamas inspired Mitchell's Corvette Shark show car, his SS racer, and the production 1963 Corvette Stingray, largely designed by Larry Shinoda under Mitchell's direction. Mitchell's quirky affection for split rear windows was featured on 1957 Buicks and Oldsmobiles along with the 1963 Corvette Stingray coupe. His enthusiasm wasn't shared by fellow stylists or the buying public and both cars quickly dropped the feature after public resistance, though modern day collectors value them highly. 

Mitchell’s last GM design was for the Pontiac Phantom, a swoopy concept car meant to evoke classic era motoring. After retiring from GM in 1977, he founded a design consultancy. 

William "Bill" Mitchell was known to enjoy adult beverages and the occasional party. His staff appreciated his often ribald sense of humor. An unfortunate morning after one get together found him stranded up a tree so high the fire department had to be called to get him down. 

By Jim Cherry