William L. “Bill” Mitchell
(General Motors: 1935–77)
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).