Wil­liam L. “Bill” Mitchell

(Gen­eral Mo­tors: 1935–77)

Die Cast X - - DETROIT'S DA VINCIS -

Bill Mitchell was re­cruited by Har­ley Earl as a 24-yearold kid and spent the rest of his ca­reer at GM, much of it re­port­ing di­rectly Earl. As de­sign chief for Cadil­lac, his first project was the 1938 Sixty Spe­cial, es­tab­lish­ing the genre of “per­sonal lux­ury car”—a theme he would re­visit to bril­liant ef­fect later in his ca­reer. Its smooth sides and lack of run­ning boards were rev­o­lu­tion­ary for the time and would in­flu­ence GM’s styling for the next decade. Mitchell over­saw Cadil­lac un­til Earl pro­moted him to GM de­sign di­rec­tor in 1954—just in time to guide the de­sign team for the now iconic 1955–57 Chevy Bel Air. When Earl re­tired in 1959, Mitchell stepped in to suc­ceed him.

Whereas Earl’s de­signs often fea­tured mas­sive, bul­bous con­tours and lots of chrome trim, Mitchell fa­vored more an­gu­lar forms and taut flanks. His cars tended to sit lower, giv­ing them a longer, sleeker, sportier pro­file. A per­fect ex­am­ple is his re-en­vi­sion­ing of the Corvette with the 1959 St­ingray race car. Be­cause of GM’s cor­po­rate ban on rac­ing in 1957, Zora Arkus-Dun­tov’s Corvette SS pro­gram had been moth­balled, and the de­vel­op­ment mule lay aban­doned. Mitchell was keen to prove the Corvette could be a world­class sports racer, but GM would not fi­nance such a project, so Mitchell did it out of his own pocket. He tapped a young stylist named Larry Shin­oda (who would later de­sign the Boss Mus­tang for Ford) to help with an all-new fiber­glass body for the car, and Dun­tov pro­vided en­gi­neer­ing help. The

car was called the “St­ingray,” and it car­ried no Chevro­let or Corvette badg­ing. With Dick Thomp­son at the wheel, the car was en­tered in SCCA com­pe­ti­tion and won class cham­pi­onships in 1959 and 1960. The Mitchell/Shin­oda de­sign formed the ba­sis for the 1961 Mako Shark Corvette con­cept car, and much of it would reach pro­duc­tion on the 1963 ’Vette.

1963 also brought the world what is per­haps Mitchell’s crown­ing achievement as a de­signer. Re­vis­it­ing the per­sonal lux­ury cat­e­gory he helped cre­ate in 1938, he in­tro­duced the ex­quis­ite ’63 Buick Riviera. En­vi­sioned as a 2-door, 4-seat coupe to fight the T-bird, Mitchell was in­spired by Euro­pean sports and lux­ury mod­els he saw on a trip to the Lon­don Mo­tor Show. Specif­i­cally, he wanted to evoke the sharp roofline, rear deck, and char­ac­ter lines of a Rolls-Royce, with a stance and sporty ag­gres­sive nose like Fer­rari’s big GTs. The re­sult was des­ig­nated ex­per­i­men­tal project “XP-715.” Early ver­sions were re­ferred to as the “LaSalle II” be­cause it was thought the car might be used by Cadil­lac to re­vive that brand name, but ul­ti­mately the de­sign was awarded to Buick and be­came the Riviera. The con­cept ver­sion had a low­ered roof and con­cealed head­lights in the lead­ing edges of the fend­ers (the lat­ter a fea­ture that would make pro­duc­tion in 1965), and Mitchell used it as his per­sonal driver when it came off show duty.

Mitchell stayed heav­ily in­volved in the per­sonal lux­ury seg­ment through­out the 1960s and spear­headed two of GM’s most pro­gres­sive de­signs: the 1966 Oldsmo­bile Toron­ado and 1967 Cadil­lac El­do­rado. Built off the same E-body plat­form, they were the first GM ve­hi­cles to em­ploy a front-wheel-drive pow­er­train and the first by any

Amer­i­can man­u­fac­turer since the 1937 Cord. Mitchell had ini­tially lob­bied to have the Toron­ado built on the smaller A-body chas­sis from the Cut­lass, but to make sense fi­nan­cially, the de­ci­sion to use the ex­otic FWD driv­e­train re­quired a larger, more ex­pen­sive car. The fu­tur­is­tic styling was in keep­ing with that spirit of cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy, and engi­neers equipped it with Oldsmo­bile’s most po­tent en­gine—a 425-cu­bic-inch Su­per Rocket V-8 gen­er­at­ing 385hp—mak­ing it the high­est per­for­mance ve­hi­cle in the Olds sta­ble. The fol­low­ing year, the El­do­rado filled a sim­i­lar role in the Cadil­lac lineup.

Mitchell over­saw GM styling through­out the mus­cle car era, and his pref­er­ence for lean, edgy styling cer­tainly in­flu­enced GM’s most well-ad­mired mus­cle ma­chines. He took an ac­tive role in Corvette de­sign, both in 1963 and again with the third gen­er­a­tion in 1968. He also had a di­rect hand in the redesign of the Ca­maro in 1970, re­sult­ing in one of the best-look­ing mus­cle cars of all time. It is un­for­tu­nate that the fuel crises of the 1970s cou­pled with in­creas­ingly strin­gent safety stan­dards put sig­nif­i­cant con­straints on GM’s de­sign pa­ram­e­ters to­ward the end of Mitchell’s ca­reer. Un­like Har­ley Earl who left on a high note, GM styling was in a ma­jor slump when Mitchell re­tired in 1977.

One of Mitchell’s most in­ter­est­ing projects was his de­vel­op­ment of the St­ingray race car. GM had a ban on fac­tory in­volve­ment in mo­tor­sports, so Mitchell bankrolled the de­sign and cam­paigned it pri­vately. Sev­eral years ago, AUTOart made mod­els in 1:18 and 1:43.

Bill Mitchell’s first project as de­sign chief for Cadil­lac was the 1938 Sixty Spe­cial, an in­flu­en­tial de­sign that es­tab­lished the “per­sonal lux­ury car” seg­ment.

By 1955, Mitchell had been pro­moted to de­sign chief for all of GM, re­port­ing di­rectly to Har­ley Earl. He was in­stru­men­tal in one of the great de­signs of all time: the 1955–57 Chevy Bel Air.

The ’63 split-win­dow ’Vette was one of Mitchell’s crown­ing achieve­ments. AUTOart pro­duced a 1:18 ver­sion.

Bill Mitchell took a per­sonal in­ter­est in the Corvette.His 1961 Mako Shark I and 1965 Mako Shark II con­cepts fore­shad­owed the ’63 C2 and ’68 C3 Stingrays.

Un­der Mitchell’s guid­ance, fins and chrome gave way to tauter, more stream­lined de­signs, like this ’61 Im­pala from Sun Star.

Mitchell hit an­other one out of the park in ’63 with the in­tro­duc­tion of the Riviera. Au­to­mod­ello has pro­duced a beau­ti­ful 1:24 ver­sion of the 1965 model—the first with hid­den head­lights. We re­viewed it in Win­ter 2018.

Bill Mitchell presided over the en­tire mus­cle car era at GM. He added his own stylis­tic touches to the Ca­maro redesign in 1970 (left). Auto World has a few nice ’70 Ca­maros in 1:18 (right).

Sport­ing the first GM front-wheel-drive pow­er­train and fu­tur­is­tic styling, no other Amer­i­can car of the 1960s was as rev­o­lu­tion­ary as the 1966 Olds Toron­ado (above). Lucky Die Cast re­cently re­vived the old 1:18 Yat Ming tool­ing for the Toron­ado (right).

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