WHO WAS BILL MITCHELL?
Who knew, that on July 2, 1912, when a baby boy was born to a Buick dealer in Cleveland, OH, how greatly this minor event would impact the success and evolution of General Motors, and the Chevrolet Corvette.
As a young boy, Mitchell spent the majority of his formative childhood years in Greenville, PA and New York City. At a young age, William L. (Bill) Mitchell, grew fond of sketching cars and grew exceptionally talented at it. As Mitchell got older, he knew he could blend his artistic skills and visions with his love for all this fast and furious.
Mitchell began his higher education at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This university is now known as Carnegie Mellon University. After finishing up in Pittsburgh, Mitchell moved to New York where he studied at the Art Students’ League. It was this pivotal move that set him up for massive success working with GM, where they place a heavy emphasis on form and function.
As a person, Mitchell was known to be a bit of a rebel with a strong will. He had a strong distaste for button down shirts, committees, and meetings, but he was willing to begrudgingly endure these formalities in order to do what he loved—design beautiful cars.
Mitchell wasn’t just an automobile enthusiast, his passion for speed included motorcycles as well. In his later years, he would wrap one of his Harley’s in silver fiberglass and ride it gleefully to work, always wearing his matching silver leathers. Mitchell truly loved all things stylish, and all things fast.
HOW GM DISCOVERED MITCHELL
Prior to being discovered by Harley Earl, Mitchell worked as an advertising illustrator at Barron Collier Advertising, and as the official illustrator of the Automobile Racing Club of America. While he was working at the New York ad agency in the late 1920s, Mitchell was often found sketching fancy cars, stylishly zipping through well-known and well-to-do New York neighborhoods.
Thankful to the fates of the universe, some of Mitchell’s exceptional drawings made their way to Harley Earl’s desk. Then, the head of design at General Motors, Earl knew he had to bring Mitchell onto the GM design team.
In December of 1935, Mitchell was hired on to be a part of the Art & Colour Section at General Motors. Impressively, in less than one year, he was made Chief Designer at the newly created Cadillac Design Studio. It was here that he would be the first to add tailfins to the 1948 Cadillacs.
On May 1, 1954, Mitchell took the role of GM Director of Styling under Earl. When Earl reached GM’s mandatory retirement age of 65 in December of 1958, there was no doubt that Mitchell would fill the role as Vice President of Design. Coming into this role at the age of 46, he had 19 more years to further shape his influence on the automobile world.
THE “BILL MITCHELL ERA”
Some people come onto a scene with such gusto and genius, that they ultimately define an era. This is what Mitchell did for not just GM, and not just Corvettes, but for automobile design overall. Bits of his influential design genius can still be found on cars being crafted today.
Mitchell is solely responsible for the sleek design of many of GM’s most popular and memorable automobiles including the Oldsmobile Toronado, the 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special, the 1949 Cadillac Coupe DeVille, the 1955-1957 Chevrolet Bel Air, the 1963-1965 and 1966-1967 Buick Riviera, and the 1963-76 Corvette Sting Ray and Stingray, and the 1975-1979 Cadillac Seville, and the 1970-81 Chevrolet Camaro.
Our favorite influence of his, was of course the magic he worked with the Corvette, which he spent many of his years on. In addition to being heavily involved in the Sting Ray (Stingray) years, he also brought us a massively successful and hugely influential concept car, the Mako Shark.
The story goes that this concept Corvette was inspired by a fishing trip Mitchell took where he caught a Shortfin Mako Shark. He was taken by the sleekness and beauty of this creature, and decided he would make a car to mimic its appearance.
By the end of his career, Mitchell was responsible for creating or influencing the design of over 72.5 million automobiles produced by GM. Mitchell worked for GM for 42 years, and every one of those years was spent honing his finely tuned skills in automobile design. His last 19 years were spent as Vice President of Design, which came to an end only with his mandatory retirement in 1977.
BONUS: MITCHELL HAD A SECRET DESIGN STUDIO
We mentioned earlier that Mitchell was a bit of a rebel, and didn’t respond well to bureaucratic barriers. It was this stubborn streak that led to the creation of a top-secret design studio where Mitchell would design many impressive cars.
In 1957, Mitchell had attended a motor show in Italy where he was deeply inspired to create a second generation of Corvettes. Of course, with the creation of a new generation, Mitchell would have to prove the new models’ superior design by racing them against the best of the best.
However, this plan would not unfold with ease. Due to a ban put in place by the Automobile Manufacturers Association, the Corvette was to be removed from the lineup for the upcoming race. This ban was in response to a catastrophic wreck at the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, which killed 77 people. The ban made it clear that American automakers were forbidden from participating in any performance or motorsports activities.
Mitchell was furious and did not accept this ban. Strong willed and stubborn when it came to being told what he could and could not do, Mitchell arranged for the setup of a secret studio, where he could work around such bans and prohibitions.
Over the next ten years, many genius designs would be born in secret behind the walls of Mitchell’s secret studio. Here, hidden away from the bureaucratic rules and regulations of GM, Mitchell and his carefully selected, trusted and talented partners, could design as they please, on whatever project they chose.
It was in this top secret studio that Mitchell would give life to many impressive machines, including the ‘59 Stingray Racer and two Mako Shark concepts.
In July of 1977, after turning 65, Mitchell was mandated to step down as chief stylist. The final car he designed at GM was the 1977 Pontiac Phantom concept. This car now resides at the Sloan museum. Completely inoperable, and simply an expression of Mitchell’s design style and personal preference, Mitchell said of this car:
“This is the kind of car I’d like to drive.”
Having worked tirelessly for GM from 1935 to 1977, in 1998, Mitchell was inducted into the GM-Chevrolet, Corvette Hall of Fame. You can find a touching display in honor of his massively influential work at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, KY.
Bill Mitchell left us at the age of 76, due to heart failure at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, on September 12, 1988.
Today, Mitchell is still recognized as One of the Greatest Car Designers of All Time.
We know we are grateful for the creative genius and strong will of Bill Mitchell, and as a fellow Corvette enthusiast, we’re sure you are too. Thank you for taking the time to stop by Hobby Car Corvettes to learn a little more about the history of Chevrolet Corvettes. Feel free to check out all the Corvettes currently on our sales floor, and if you ever find yourself in Martinsburg, Pennsylvania, check us out!