American Metal: GM Baron William L Mitchell

Cars People

The GM design powerhouse defined the heft of American Metal

In his design for cars as in his design for life William L Mitchell strove hard for two things: style and power.

He was a General Motors design legend who was responsible for over 70 million production cars and some of the most classic American metal ever made — with a character profile straight out of a James Ellroy novel.

A sartorially spectacular, tough talking, hard drinking, serial skirt hound who had seven hooker lunches on his expense account, Bill Mitchell would have any modern HR department crying into their cups of herbal tea.

As the son of a Cleveland Buick dealer, the young William grew up surrounded by exciting autos. After a stint in an ad agency art department and a period at technical college he pitched up at the GM ‘Art and Colour Section’ under the dictatorship of legendary Detroit totem Harley Earl.

Mitchell rose through the ranks at GM quickly, heading up his first department at just 26. Mitchell took over from Earl in 1958 as Vice President of Motor Styling, sticking with the former’s hard man, aggressive management style.

But as he explained in a post retirement interview in 1985, it was a culture in which you had to fight for your designs in an engineering led business. The designers were the pretty boys who the engineering department’s tough guys referred to as the ‘pantywaists’.

It was in this kind of environment that the sharp suited Mitchell scrapped it out on the shopfloor to stay true to his design principles. He gives an example of his technique below in a row with a General Manager over the inclusion of a grille in the front of the new Toronado, Mitchell tells him, “You have no business in design, that suit you got on, my wife’s got better linoleum on our kitchen floor than that goddam suit you’re wearing.”

Bill Mitchell got his grille. And lucky for motoring history he carried on getting his way producing some of the best looking and most enduring models in the American canon.

Here are four of our favourite pieces of GM Mitchell muscle.

The Chevrolet Camaro

Bought out quickly in ’67 as a direct response to the Ford Mustang it has become a classic marque for Chevrolet now in its sixth generation.


The Oldsmobile Toronado

Styling ahead of its time and a big cube V8 make this 1966 monster a muscle car in spirit. Note the hard fought grille.


The Pontiac Firebird

The 1968 Firebird was another entry into the Pony car market set alight by the Mustang. Later to be made famous as the ride of the great Jim Rockford.


The 1963 Buick Riviera

Mitchell later described this as his joint favorite piece of work (along with the Stingray) and it’s easy to see why.