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  • The Early Days of GM Design Staff

    In 1927, Mr. Harley J. Earl was Director of Styling of the newly formed Art & Colour department at General Motors. Before employment at GM, Mr. Earl previously worked with Cadillac Motor Car Division as a consultant in designing the 1927 La Salle automobile. The 1927 La Salle model was one of the first vehicles in the United States to be designed by a stylist. The model was designed with inspiration from the Hispano-Suiza.
    In May 1927, General Motors was highly impressed with the feedback and shortly after created the Art & Colour department. The newly formed team consisted of approximately ten great leaders in design and styling. During this time, many stylists or designers were considered unknowns at many automotive industries. The GM Art & Colour department paved the way of recognition among the talented designers behind the curtain.


    In 1940, Mr. Harley Earl was appointed Vice President of Styling of the Art & Colour department. In 1943, Mr. Earl hired the first female designer for General Motors. By the 1950’s, seven talented women became part of the GM design team. The team consisted of Gere Cavanaugh, Marjorie Ford, Ruth Glennie, Jeanette Linder, Sandra Longyear, Peggy Sauer and Sue Vanderbilt. Each woman had a degree in Industrial Design and brought a great deal of knowledge to the design table.


    There is no doubt that Mr. Harley Early was one of the most admired and talented designers in the world. He left great legacies that people from multiple countries recognize and remember. Alfred P. Sloan once stated, "I was so impressed with Mr. Earl's work that I decided to obtain the advantages of his talents for other General Motors car divisions. On June 23rd, 1927, I took up with the Executive Committee a plan to establish a special department to study the question of art and color combinations in General Motors products”.

    In 1958, Mr. William Mitchell was appointed Vice President of Design. By 1972, a name change occurred from “Styling” to “Design” because the designers were now responsible for the actual vehicle architecture, safety, and interior and exterior design package. The theme was first generated on paper and the designer, Mr. William Mitchell, was in charge of the final decision making process. His great eye for design was reflected on many GM products such as the 1963 Corvette, 1963 Buick Riviera, the entire 1965 GM product line, among many others.

    Among his talent, there were many faces that were part of the new styling design leadership of GM. The team consisted of Mr. Dave Holls, Mr. Paul Gillan, Mr. Ed Glowacke, Mr. Jack Humbert and Mr. Bill Porter, Mr. Chuck Jordan, Joan M. Klatil, and Mr. Stanley Parker.

    Joan M. Klatil became one of the first female designers assigned to a production passenger car exterior design studio at General Motors styling. In 1965, Joan Klatil attended GM Styling Summer Design Program and was assigned to the design development studio in 1966. Joan was a native of Cleveland, Ohio and graduate from the Cleveland Institute of Art. She is shown below with the late Stanley Parker, former Chief Designer for the Cadillac Studio.

    Among the team was another talented designer named Mr. Chuck Jordan. In 1949, Mr. Chuck Jordan began his career with General Motors. Mr. Jordan introduced extraordinary designs that had featured GM products as the great leaders for many automobile designs during the 1950s-1960s. For an example, the 1956 Buick Centurion show car was used for the 1956 GM Motorama along with the 1955 Chevrolet Cameo pickup truck that became a very popular design among many consumers.


    General Motors has had many historical landmarks that will be remembered forever. In 1938, GM released their first experimental car, the Buick Y. In 1948, the Cadillac Tailfin appeared on the models. In 1949, the Buick Riviera became the first hardtop a vehicle with a convertible look. In 1953, the first American sports car, the Corvette, was produced. In 1954, the Greyhound Scenicruiser was designed and introduced to the public.

    There’s no doubt that over the years, GM has offered many great styling innovations. Although today, the great designers are no longer with us, their styles and memories will always be part of automotive history. Mr. Earl once stated, “People like something new and exciting in an automobile as well as in a Broadway show-they like visual entertainment and that's what we stylists give them".

    A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for donating the story to the MotorCities Story of the Week program. Photographs are courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection (NAHC) of the Detroit Public Library. (Bibliography: Bayley Stephen. Harley Earl And The Dream Machine: Alfred A. Knope NewYork, 1983. Lamm Michael & Holls Dave. A Century of Automotive Style 100 Years Of American Design, Lamm-Morada Publishing 1996-97. Powell Tracy. General Motors Styling 1927-1958 Genesis of the World's Largest Design Studio, Powell House publishing & Communications 2007.)

    For further information on photos please visit http://www.detroitpubliclibrary.org/ or email nahc@detroitpubliclibrary.org. For general comments on the story contact Robert Tate, btate@motorcities.org. Please do not republish the story and/or photographs without permission.