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Mitchell, Bill
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William L. "Bill" Mitchell (July 2, 1912 Cleveland, Ohio — September 12, 1988 Royal Oak, Michigan) was an American automobile designer. Mitchell worked briefly as an advertising illustrator and as the official illustrator of the Automobile Racing Club of America before being recruited by Harley Earl to join the Art and Colour Section of General Motors in 1935. Mitchell is responsible for creating or influencing the design of over 72.5 million automobiles produced by GM, including such landmark vehicles as the 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special, the 1949 Cadillac Coupe DeVille, the 1955-57 Chevrolet Bel Air, the 1963-65 and 1966-67 Buick Riviera, the 1961-76 Corvette Stingray, the 1975-79 Cadillac Seville, and the 1970-81 Chevrolet Camaro.
Mitchell spent the entirety of his 42-year career in automobile design at General Motors, eventually becoming Vice President of Design, a position he held for 19 years until his retirement in 1977. His design stewardship at General Motors became known as the 'Bill Mitchell era'.

Early life and education

Bill Mitchell was the son of a Buick dealer and developed a talent for sketching automobiles at an early age. He grew up in Greenville, PA and New York City. Mitchell attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and later studied at the Art Students' League in New York, New York.

At Barron Collier Advertising

After completing art school, Mitchell joined the New York City based Barron Collier Advertising where he prepared layouts and advertising illustrations, including U.S. advertisements for MG cars. While working at the agency, Mitchell met brothers Barron Collier, Jr., Miles Collier and Sam Collier, who had founded the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) (a forerunner of the Sports Car Club of America) in 1931. Mitchell became the official illustrator of the club and his sketches for the club eventually came to the attention of Harley Earl, then head of General Motors Art and Colour Section.

At General Motors Corporation

Art and Colour Section

Based on sketches Mitchell created as the official illustrator for the ARCA, Harley Earl recruited Mitchell to General Motors' then new Art and Colour Section on 15 December 1935.

Chief Designer, Cadillac

In 1936 Earl appointed Mitchell as the Chief Designer in the then newly created Cadillac design studio.

Director of Styling (under the Vice President of styling section)

On May 1, 1954 Mitchell became General Motors Director of Styling under Harley Earl.

Vice President, Styling Section (in charge of all styling at GM)

In December 1958, Harley Earl reached GM's mandatory retirement age of 65 and thus retired from his position as chief stylist. The 46-year-old Mitchell succeeded him as General Motors Vice President, Styling Section. Mitchell set out to break with the styling cues used under Harley Earl, wanting to eliminate chrome excess, fat fins and similar signature marks.


The 1963 Buick Riviera was one of the famous designs during Mitchell's tenure as Chief of styling at GM.

In the 60s, Mitchell promoted what he called the "sheer look," a more aerodynamic, "shoulderless" drop off from a car's windows to its sides.

Mitchell gave GM designers the assignment of combining Rolls Royce and Ferrari styling cues to create Buick's classic 1963 Riviera. According to a popular story, Mitchell got the idea for the Riviera in Paris. He had originally envisaged the design for Cadillac Division, as a new La Salle, "a baby Cadillac". The Riviera also featured frameless glass in the front doors, giving hardtops an even sleeker look. An encounter with a shark, while skin diving in the Bahamas, inspired Mitchell's Corvette Shark show car, his SS racer and the production 1963 Corvette Stingray, largely designed by Larry Shinoda, under Mitchell's direction.

1963 Corvette Sting Ray Coupe featured what is sometimes referred to as "Coke bottle" styling. For its first model year it included a split rear window (with a pillar in the middle), though the 1964-1967 coupes would feature a solid plane of curved glass instead.

Mitchell's fondness for split rear windows as featured on the 1957 Buick and on the 1963 Corvette Stingray coupe was not shared by his some of fellow stylists or the buying public and both cars dropped the feature after public resistance. The split rear window on the would be eliminated (and re-worked into one pane of curved glass) for the 1964 Corvette coupe. The 1963-1967 Stingray (in both coupe and roadster editions), with its slightly bulged front and rear quarter-panels, would be one of the first General Motors cars to feature what came to be known as "Coke bottle" styling, creating an aggressive and muscular look.

Mitchell also influenced the dramatic styling of the second generation 1965 rear-engine Corvair, which, like other GM models introduced for that year, used curved side-window glass to enhance its "Coke Bottle" profile.


The 1977 Cadillac Sedan de Ville featured slightly downsized styling influenced by the 1975 Cadillac Seville

During the 1973-74 energy crisis, which brought on a greater demand for smaller cars in place of the larger cars that had been GM's bread and butter profit machine for decades, Mitchell oversaw the styling and design efforts of GM's downsized full-sized and intermediate-sized cars which were introduced in 1977 and 1978, respectively, some of the last designs that he would lead—and all based on themes first developed in his 1975 Cadillac Seville. However, when it came to compact and subcompact cars, Mitchell, who often struggled with alcoholism, reflected that "Small cars are like vodka. Sure people will try them out but they won't stay with them."

Mitchell stepped down as chief stylist in July 1977 following his 65th birthday. The last car he designed at GM was the 1977 Pontiac Phantom concept, which now resides at the Sloan Museum.


Following his retirement from General Motors, Mitchell ran William L. Mitchell Design, a private design-consulting firm, from 1977 to 1984. He was a vocal critic of the new fourth-generation Corvette's styling, which he referred to as "bland."

Bill Mitchell died at the age of 76 from heart failure at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, on September 12, 1988.

Awards and recognition

Bill Mitchell was inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame by the National Corvette Museum in 1998.



  • Nielssen, Eric (1977-07-09). "GM's Mister Style retired". Autocar (United Kingdom) 147 (4209).
  • Robinson, Peter (December 2006). "Icons: Auto Designer Bill Mitchell". MotorTrend. MotorTrend Magazine. Archived from the original on 2010-11-13. Retrieved 2010-11-13. Of all the 72 million cars for which he was responsible...
  • Winding-Sørensen, Jon (2003-06-09). "75 years of General Motors Design: Bill Mitchell - The Car Guy". Car Design News. Car Design News, Inc. Archived from the original on 2010-11-13. Retrieved 2010-11-13. He hated all the chrome, he hated the fat fins, he hated the excesses...
  • "Bill Mitchell (1998 Induction)". corvettemuseum.com. National Corvette Museum. 2010. Archived from the original on 2010-11-13. Retrieved 2010-11-13. 1998 Induction
  • "Bill Mitchell, General Motors Head of Design, Part I". Corvette Action Center. Corvette Action Center, Inc. 2010. Archived from the original on 2010-11-13. Retrieved 2010-11-13. Mitchell was born July 2, 1912, in Cleveland...
  • "Corvette Stingray Creator William L. Mitchell Dies". Washington Post. Washington, D.C.: The Washington Post Company. 1988-09-18. Archived from the original on 2010-11-13. Retrieved 2010-11-13. A vice president of design at General Motors for 19 years, Mr. [William L. Mitchell] molded the appearance of hundreds of car models, including the 1963 Buick Riviera and the 1970 Camaro. His designs were transformed into more than 72.5 million automobiles, according to GM.
  • "Mitchell, William L.". GM Heritage Center. General Motors. 2010. Archived from the original on 2010-11-13. Retrieved 2010-11-13. Bill Mitchell developed a love for automobiles and a remarkable talent for sketching them at an early age.
  • "Salute to William L. Mitchell - Vice President - General Motors Design". General Motors Design Impact (General Motors Corporation). July 1977. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-11-13. Retrieved 2010-11-13.
  • "William L. Mitchell Biography". Automobile in American Life and Society. Dearborn, Michigan: Automobile in American Life and Society. 2004. Archived from the original on 2010-11-13. Retrieved 2010-11-13. After his retirement from General Motors, Mitchell operated a private design consulting firm, William L. Mitchell Design, from 1977 to 1984.
  • "William L. Mitchell, Auto Executive, 76". New York Times. New York, New York: The New York Times Company. 1988-09-15. Archived from the original on 2010-11-13. Retrieved 2010-11-13. William L. Mitchell, a former vice president for design at the General Motors Corporation, died of heart failure Monday at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.

Further reading 

  • Crippen, David R. (1985). "The Reminiscences of William L. Mitchell". Automobile in American Life and Society. Dearborn, Michigan: Automobile in American Life and Society. Archived from the original on 2010-11-13. Retrieved 2010-11-13.
  • Cantey, Mark R. (January 2008). Driving Style: GM Design’s First Century (Hardcover ed.). United States of America: MRC Publishing, Inc. ISBN 978-0-615-26435-6. Officially Licensed by General Motors Design, a chronicle of GM's first century of design
  • Lamm, Michael; Holls, Dave (1996). "Chapter 10: The Mitchell Years". A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design (Hardcover ed.). Stockton, California, United States: Lamm-Morada Publishing Company Inc. pp. 172–187. ISBN 978-0-932128-07-2.

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