85 Years of GM Design: the timeline

Automotive Design 18 Jun 2012
85 Years of GM Design: the timeline

This month GM Design celebrates its 85th birthday. We report the official timeline of the first ever automotive design department, founded in June 1927.


On June 23, 1927, the Executive Committee of General Motors approved the creation of a new department to “study the question of art and color combinations in General Motors products” and hired Harley Earl, a custom coach builder from Hollywood and the creator of the 1927 LaSalle, as its leader.

Harley Earl and the Color and Trim design team“Earl’s entry into the auto industry doomed rival Henry Ford’s “the customer can have it any color he wants as long as it is black” motto. Among Earl’s numerous accomplishments are the development of concept cars; the yearly model changeover; the vehicle tailfins of the 1950s; the traveling Motorama auto shows and the development of the iconic Corvette. Earl also is credited with hiring the industry’s first female automotive designers.”

GM Design vice presidents following Earl were William Mitchell (1958-1977), Irving Rybicki (1977-1986), Charles Jordan (1986-1992), Wayne Cherry (1992-2003) and Welburn (2003-present).

Ed Welburn, the sixth design chief in GM’s 104-year history, is the first to have global vehicle design leadership responsibilities.

Today, General Motors Design is the largest global automotive OEM design function, with 1,900 men and women working in a network of 10 Design Centers in seven countries: United States, Germany, Korea, China, Australia, Brazil and India.

June 1927

  • 1926 - Harley Earl at the wheel of a 1927 LaSalle Series 303 RoadsterThe GM Executive Committee establishes the Art and Colour Section. Studio operations are located in the GM Building on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit under the direction of Harley Earl, who began his career designing custom auto bodies for Hollywood actors and designed the 1927 LaSalle. It is the first department of its kind among major automotive manufacturers.
  • From the beginning, Earl uses modeling clay to shape his design ideas.
  • Art and Colour Section initially apply color and trim features to bodies already designed by GM’s Fisher Body Division.

1930s

  • Early attempts to create pleasing designs run into problems, so engineers are integrated into the creative staff. Many Art and Colour team members go on to significant leadership positions at other automakers.
  • First corporate international design studios at Opel, Vauxhall and Holden.
  • The use of color in mass-produced vehicles is introduced across the GM line.
  • 1933 Cadillac V 16 Aero Coupe1930 Cadillac Madame X V 16s bring the best of custom car styling to production vehicles and establish GM as a player in the luxury car business.
  • The Cadillac V 16 Aero Coupe, which debuts at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, demonstrates the “all metal upper.” It is credited with influencing the steel industry to develop the wider rolling mills needed to roll sheet steel for an all-metal car.
  • GM pioneers the concept of “advanced design,” working ahead of current thinking in special studio teams to explore possibilities from engineering and design ideas.
  • 1939 - General Motors Futurama New York World's FairArt and Colour dominates the new field of industrial design, creating products in the areas of streamlined trains with new diesel engines from GM’s ElectoMotive Division; exhibit design [1939 World’s Fair “Futurama Exhibit” in partnership with Norman Bel Geddes that forever changed the approach to exhibits]; the Parade of Progress that travels throughout America spreading the GM story; home appliances with a wide variety of fans, radios, etc. for GM’s Delco Products Division; and buses for the commercial vehicle market.
  • The first all-metal-upper vehicles in mass production – the GM Turret Tops.
  • 1938 Buick Y-Job ConceptArt and Colour Section is renamed “General Motors Styling Section” in 1937. Operations move to the top four floors of the GM Research Building on Milwaukee Avenue, just behind GM Headquarters. Earl organizes formal studios for each car division – Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac, Truck and Coach, and several other studios for advanced design. The enclosed studio space for each brand is copied by every other automotive company.
  • The Buick Y-Job – widely considered the automotive industry’s first concept car – is completed in 1938. Its long and low profile influences design for years. It also introduces electrically operated windows, flush door handles, a power-operated convertible top and the elimination of running boards.
  • 1938 Cadillac 60 Special is introduced and recognized as a major style-setting design to this day.

1940s

  • Harley Earl is named a vice president in 1940, indicating that the designer’s counsel is as important to GM’s management as any other staff. No other automotive company at that time had elevated styling to such a high management level.
  • As the United States enters World War II, production of civilian automobiles is halted. The Styling Section becomes the Camouflage and War Service Section.
  • GM is the first automotive company to hire women designers.
  • The first use of curved glass is made in the rear windows of Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile models which, together with the sloping backs called “fast backs,” add to the streamline effect. Cadillac and Oldsmobile also lead the industry with “full envelope bodies” that emphasize applied rear fenders.
  • Cadillac launches the use of rear “fins” and “egg crate” grilles. Buick launches “portholes” and “sweepspears” on the body sides, which remain with Buick to this day.
  • GM creates an important new concept train with ElectroMotive Division, called the “Train of Tomorrow.”
  • General Motors Technical Center - Display area of Styling DomeGM Chairman Alfred P. Sloan decides to create a technical center to house GM Research Laboratories, and the Styling, Engineering and Manufacturing staffs. Earl persuades GM management that a distinctive design is required for the facility and he recruits renowned architect Eero Saarinen. Construction begins in 1949. The General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Mich. – the first industrial park of its kind in the world – eventually gains acclaim as a classic example of mid-20th century modernism, known as International Style.
  • 1948 GM Clay modelers sculpting scale modelsGM allows Earl to set up an independent industrial design firm to give his designers projects outside of the automotive business to broaden their backgrounds.
  • Under Cadillac’s chief designer William Mitchell, tailfins debut on the 1948 Cadillac. Inspired by the World War II-era twin-fuselage fighter, the Lockheed P-38, the tailfins set off a decade-long styling trend.
    Earl had taken his designers to see the P-38 Lockheed Lightning at an Air Force base outside Detroit.
  • In 1949, GM Styling introduces the first hardtops. The design, introduced on Buick, Cadillac and Oldsmobile models, eliminated the B-pillar roof supports.

1950s

1951 Buick LeSabre Concept 1951 Buick LeSabre Concept

  • The 1951 LeSabre concept is unveiled. Inspired by the F-86 Sabre jet and probably the most influential dream car from Earl’s vision, the LeSabre concept features a one-touch top that closes automatically at a drop of rain, heated power seats, illuminated knobs and switches, a power antenna, and the world’s first wrap-around windshield. The concept influences car design for decades.
  • Sloan sought to expand the role Earl’s dream cars could play to inspire customers by creating the 1953 Motorama at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, the first stop of a six-city tour. GM Styling creates the shows’ look and feel.
  • 1953 Corvette profileThe 1953 Motorama introduces the Buick Skylark, the Chevrolet Corvette and the Cadillac Eldorado – eventual classics of American car design. Other eventual classics introduced in the ’50s: the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air and Bel Air Nomad, and the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado.
  • 1958 Firebird IIIGM Styling unveils the Firebird I (1952), II (1956) and III (1958) concepts in support of GM Research’s experimental turbine engine program.
    The designs are inspired by the nation’s fascination with the jet age.
  • Dominance in industrial design continues with Kitchen of Tomorrow, an all-aluminum Aerotrain built from GMC bus bodies to reduce weight, and heavy equipment for the Euclid Division.
  • The Styling staff moves to the completed Technical Center in 1955.
    The Technical Center is formally dedicated in May 1956 before a crowd of 5,000 people and on national television, with CBS’ Walter Cronkite as the emcee. President Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses the crowd on the radio.
  • Earl retires in 1958, and is succeeded by William Mitchell as vice president of Styling.
1959 Corvette Stingray and 1961 Corvette Mako Shark 1959 Cadillac Eldorado

1960s

  • 1964 GM Styling Vice President Bill Mitchell examines scale models in the design studioMitchell continues his predecessor’s style of longer, lower and wider automobiles. However, he tweaks it to add crisp, sharp edges to the roofs and fenders – a change inspired in part by his fashion sensibilities.
    Mitchell was known to say, “Trousers don’t look any damn good without a crease in them; you’ve got to have an edge to accentuate form.”
  • One of Mitchell’s first projects involves the purchase of a retired, racing chassis from the corporation, which had ended its participation in motorsports. He retrofits it with a body he calls the “Stingray.”
    The race car inspires design of the 1963 Corvette Stingray. His experimental Corvettes, the Mako Shark in 1963 and the Manta Ray in 1969, capture his passion for sharp lines.
  • Mitchell sets up parallel design activities, whereby each design team might be in charge of different proposals for a body shared by Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Chevrolet, competing with each other and possibly with other studios to develop the favored theme from which each would later develop divisional programs.
  • 1963 Buick Riviera CoupeAnother landmark of Mitchell design, the 1963 Buick Riviera, is introduced.
  • By the mid-’60s, GM Styling numbers almost 1,600 employees, including automotive and industrial designers, engineers, sculptors, color and fabric experts, draftsmen, wood and metal model builders, and pattern makers. It is the industry’s largest design organization.
  • The Mitchell era sees the pioneering use of new design techniques such as the use of black tape to illustrate full-size drawings, allowing for increased creative flexibility and faster modification.
  • The ’60s become the era of the muscle car and small block V-8 engines. GM vehicles such as the 1964 Pontiac GTO, the 1967 Pontiac Firebird and Chevrolet Camaro, and the 1968 Corvette, rule Woodward Avenue in the Motor City.

1970s

  • 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood EldoradoGM Styling is renamed “GM Design Staff” in 1972 to reflect the need to approach the product as a total concept, not just with surface styling.
  • Human factors engineering becomes part of the vehicle design process. Data collected from test subjects is used to design windshields, rear windows, instrumental panels and other car parts.
  • By 1974, designers begin using computer-aided design to create illustrations.
  • By the mid-1970s, revolutionary changes – including an oil embargo – end the muscle car era.
    Cost-conscious consumers want smaller, fuel-efficient cars. American auto companies re-engineer their vehicles to make them smaller and lighter for better fuel economy.
  • Irvin Rybicki becomes the third vice president of design upon Mitchell’s retirement in 1977. He heads GM’s massive downsizing drive, which involves a major overhaul of virtually every existing car line at GM by 1985.

1980s

  • 1988 Buick ReattaTo improve interior vehicle design, the science of ergonomics becomes increasingly important. Ergonomics ensures features are designed for ease of access, visibility and comprehension.
  • Rybicki leads the introduction of the “X” body, a new-generation vehicle with a transverse-mounted engine, an industry first.
    Featured vehicles included the 1980 Chevrolet Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, Olds Omega and Buick Skylark.
  • Rybicki also oversees the creation of “J”-body cars including the best-selling Chevrolet Cavalier. He draws on his Chevrolet experience for notable designs such as the 1982 Chevrolet Camaro, the 1984 Chevrolet Corvette and the 1987 Beretta and Corsica.
  • 1987 Oldsmobile AerotechVehicle design becomes less of a differentiator as consumer attention shifts to safety, emission standards and fuel efficiency.
  • Charles Jordan succeeds Rybicki in 1986 as the fourth vice president of GM Design.
  • To underscore GM’s stature as a technologically advanced, forward-thinking company, the Teamwork and Technology Exhibit opens at New York’s Waldorf Astoria in 1987.
  • Jordan establishes a “studio of the future” to explore the capabilities of math-based design. Alias software is used for the first time to create 3-D computer models and to mill reduced-scale and full-size clay models.
  • The design staff comprises 36 studios divided in seven departments: CPC (Chevrolet/Pontiac/Canada/Saturn), BOC (Buick/Oldsmobile/Cadillac), trucks, advanced design, advanced concepts, colors and materials, and international coordination.
  • The Oldsmobile Aerotech concept debuts in 1987 as does the 1988 Buick Reatta – two-passenger, front-drive coupe.
(check back soon for Part 2)

Image Gallery

85 Years of GM Design: the timeline - Image 8
85 Years of GM Design: the timeline - Image 2
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85 Years of GM Design: the timeline - Image 22
85 Years of GM Design: the timeline - Image 16
85 Years of GM Design: the timeline - Image 13
85 Years of GM Design: the timeline - Image 5

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  1. John Franklin Mason
    11/5/2015

    Situation is such Bill Mitchel did not design the Seville nor any of the vehicles downsized and developed in General Motors secret “Project 77” program. Neither were any of those vehicle designs created using computer-aided design.

    The downsized large full sized rear wheel drive Cadillac’s, Buick’s, Oldsmobile’s and Chevrolet/Pontiac’s produced and sold by General Motors as 1977-1990 year models were designed by yours truly between 1972 and 1975 in a prison cell and not in a General Motors Design Studio. I also created the images used on the 1979-1985 Cadillac Eldorado, Buick Rivera and Oldsmobile Toronado as well the Seville’s.

    Prison guards and inmates were the first to witness and critique the design of Motor Trend Magazine’s “Car of the Year” Awardees: the 1977 Impala and the 1979 Buick Rivera. Who knew my designs would be the choice of consumers in auto design clinics conducted by General Motors.

    It would be very interesting to see the General Motors computers referred to in the article create illustrations of those designs. In fact in the Cadillac illustration portrayed on the computer screen in the video where the rubber meets the road and in the center of the wheels have all the characteristics of my free hand drawings albeit the drawing itself has been altered.

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