The Career of Richard Nesbitt, Part One

1957-ford-skyliner

 

Of the many and varied professional opportunities available in the automotive industry, the role of the designer (or stylist) has probably captured the imagination of more young men and auto enthusiasts around the world than any other. Yet, as in a professional sports career, only a comparatively small number of people actually become successful automotive designers. The following is my background and experience in the pursuit of an automotive design career.

I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on April 18, 1946. We moved around quite a bit, as my father was a radio sportscaster then, and he would receive better opportunities from time to time in other major markets around the country. From New York City and then Chicago, we moved first to St. Paul, and later Minneapolis, Minnesota, where my father became very successful as a television sportscaster.

I was 11 years old in 1957, and by then, my interest was almost totally dominated by things automotive. I had a consuming desire to draw cars wherever and whenever possible including, of course, any class time I could get away with. And I collected car dealer “promo” models and built every plastic model car kit available. New car showroom literature was highly prized and treasured, especially for the wonderful rendered illustration techniques. As the new car magazines appeared each month, I would conceal my copies in notebooks at school and dream up variations and “improvements” of the various new cars featured in each issue.

From my 11 year old point of view in 1957, car styling fell into just a few basic categories. Anything with a “wraparound” or “panoramic” windshield (basically 1955 and up) was a modern car. Curved one-piece non-wraparound windshield models were older cars, and anything with a center divided windshield and flat glass was positively ancient. Although my father had told me otherwise, I was convinced that anything made before World War II couldn’t possibly have ever been a “new” car. I was sure these vehicles came into the world looking as forlorn and worn out as they appeared in the world of 1957.

 

1999-bronco-svt-lightning

 

At 12 years old, I was able to draw cars well in perspective, much to the amazement of many classmates, and I could draw most recent production cars from memory. I had no idea that people were paid to illustrate and design cars for a living, and my father, a former pro-football player in the 1930’s with the Chicago Bears, and later a successful, well-known television sportscaster for KSTP Television in Minneapolis/St.Paul Minnesota, was very concerned I wasn’t giving enough thought to some form of “conventional” employment.

Very little was featured in car magazines about the automotive design profession, but when infrequent articles did appear in Motor Trend, Car Life, or Road and Track, they always made reference to a design college in Los Angeles, California called the Art Center School. The College was established specifically to prepare qualified individuals for acceptance and success in professional design, illustration, and advertising careers.

Harley Earl, creator of General Motors’ Art & Colour Section, took an early interest in Art Center College as an excellent potential source of talented future car designers. Earl worked closely with the College in the 1930s to develop a specific automotive design education program within the school’s industrial design department. Art Center became the prime, almost singular contributor of qualified graduate auto designers from the 1930s on, and is now located in a beautiful facility in Pasadena, California. I decided I wanted to attend Art Center College during my senior year in high school. Three years later, I submitted my application to the College, now officially the Art Center College of Design, and received a notice of acceptance for admission beginning in the fall of 1967.

 

1952-lincoln-cosmopolitan

 

I bought a red and white 1958 Buick Special “Estate Wagon” (really!) for $250.00, loaded up my  belongings, and then headed for Route 66 west to Los Angeles. This was the psychedelic era of “Flower Power” and the “Summer of Love”, and at long last, now 21, I was finally on my way!

The College was then located in an older section of Los Angeles called Hancock Park and did not have dormitory or student housing facilities. Most of the houses in the immediate area were large English Tudor or Spanish style mansions, many with separate chauffeur’s quarters. I was able to rent a chauffeur’s quarters adjoining a garage for $35.00 a month.

It soon became apparent why Art Center didn’t generally take students right out of high school. To say the full-time program was rigorous would be the height of understatement. When I first walked into the College, I was overwhelmed by the quality of the upper semester student’s work from various majors on display in the lobby/gallery area. I was convinced I had made a serious mistake as I was sure I wasn’t capable of the superb ability demonstrated by the upperclassmen. The pace, quality, and amount of work required was phenomenal and I was constantly working on projects until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning seven days a week. Having grown up in the conservative midwest, I had always heard anything could happen in California, and my experience came during the first semester at school.

I had moved to a larger chauffeur’s quarters closer to the College on January 1, 1968, located on McCadden Street, just a block and a half behind Art Center, and within easy walking distance. The elderly lady owner of the house passed on a few months later, and the mansion was taken over by her son. The family was very wealthy, and put the property up for sale through a real estate agency they owned on Wilshire Boulevard. I was asked to stay on as a caretaker until the house sold, so I had complete use of the Spanish style mansion rent-free and all to myself for a year and a half until new owners were found.

 

peterbilt-advanced-479

 

The residence had been built in the 1920s and had been left very much as it was, in immaculate condition inside and out during the early 1940s and on by the last owners. The asking price for the 14 room mansion through 1968 was $100,000. It didn’t sell during the year and a half I was there for that amount, and was finally sold in 1969 for $90,000. The same property on today’s super-inflated California real estate market would  bring several million dollars!

By the third semester, I had covered a lot of ground. It was also the first chance during third semester that a student would be considered for a scholarship application through the school. Only a few scholarships were granted and it was a significant honor to receive one. A friend talked me into submitting a portfolio for scholarship consideration and it was the thrill of a lifetime when I was notified I had been awarded a full-tuition scholarship sponsored by the Ford Motor Company for my remaining five semesters.

I believe Art Center’s strength was founded in both the eminence of the automotive design instructors like Strother MacMinn and the incredible quality of student talent the college attracted. Detroit auto design leaders such as Bill Mitchell, Gene Bordinat, Elwood Engle, and Dick Teague visited Art Center often, and were always recruiting new designers from each graduating class.

I received a Bachelor of Science Degree in industrial design and graduated with honors in May of 1970. In 1971 I was hired by the Ford Motor Company and started work at the Ford Design Center in Dearborn, Michigan.

 


Lincoln-Mercury

My first assignment in 1971 as a new-hire designer in a Lincoln-Mercury production studio, was, not surprisingly, an ornamentation job. My assignment was to create a very refined jewel-like stand-up hood ornament for the new Montego based 1974 Cougar to enhance its upscale luxury image. This area of design was a new experience to me, so I thought long and hard for various sources of inspiration. One that came to me was in the form of an 1880s vintage Elgin pocket watch my father had given me when I was 11 years old. This watch had a thick, crowned outer ring shape with a series of fine ribbed serrations surrounding the dial lens face area. Of the many concept illustrations I did for this project during November 1971, the proposal most like my treasured pocket watch was selected as the final design and was produced as I had designed it for three years from 1974, 1975 and 1976. I incorporated a clear lens effect, much like the watch lens, and designed a floating cougar figure into the clear area. I was very surprised to learn that my hood ornament design played an important part in the marketing strategy for the direction of Cougar’s new image for 1974, and this is the first time it’s true origin has ever been revealed!

 


Mustang II

Shortly after the Cougar project, an unusual program for this studio was released. We were to participate in presenting a proposal for the all-new and considerably down-sized Mustang II ,with several other studios submitting proposals as well. Even though it was obvious there was no place for the ground-pounding Mach-1 Cobra Jet 428s and high-revving Boss 302s of the recent past, Iacocca still liked the idea of a strong performance image for some versions of the new Mustang II and he actively encouraged the development of my “Ram-Air Boss” sketch theme, as it came to be called by the studio staff. The final design our studio submitted was a fastback proposal created by staff designer Howard “Buck” Mook, and our design was selected by company President Lee Iacocca over all the other studio efforts.

This design went on to an extensive series of consumer “clinics” throughout the United States, and in San Francisco, many young women wanted a traditional coupe version. As a result, we received instructions at our L-M studio to create a notchback coupe version as soon as possible. One of my design themes was selected, and I was instructed to direct it’s development into a full-size clay model followed by a finished fiberglass model.

Later, I was assigned to the Pinto-Maverick-Mustang Interior Design Studio, where I developed several Mustang II “Ghia” trim proposals.

 


Ford Carrousel

When I was assigned to the Light Truck and Tractor Studio , we received a product planning directive to develop a derivative of the upcoming new Ford Econoline Van, code named “Nantucket” and due for release in 1975. The derivative was code named “Carrousel” and was intended to attract  station wagon buyers with more car-like styling combined with the added appeal of van utility. From hundreds of concept sketches created by staff designers in this studio during 1972, one of mine was selected by Hal Sperlich, Director of Product Planning, and Lee Iacocca as the approved design direction. I directed the construction of a full-size clay model, and the vehicle received a great deal of interest from Henry Ford II. Unfortunately, the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 halted further development after a drivable, fabricated metal prototype had been built. The Carrousel was specifically designed as a “Garagable Family Van” alternative to the traditional station wagon market segment. This concept later became one of the most successful and enduring product innovations ever created when Hal Sperlich and Lee Iacocca launched the Plymouth Voyager/Dodge Caravan in 1984.

 


Ford Bronco

Another program I participated in during this time in the Light Truck Studio was the development of a new “Bronco” based on the same format as the Chevrolet “Blazer” pickup truck derivative. This program was code named “Shorthorn.” Ford wanted to use the new “F” series truck doors without modification. This door combined the window frame area and the lower door as a one-piece formed part. Ford’s decision to use the complete door assembly required a permanently fixed steel roof for the driver/front passenger area, although it would have a removable top for the area behind the doors. I proposed a design sketch incorporating a “Targa” style roof band. The built-in roof band helped visually separate the permanent front roof area from the removable fiberglass rear roof section. This design feature became a Bronco “trademark” styling theme from 1978 to 1986. This Bronco was intended for introduction in 1974, but the OPEC oil embargo postponed the release date to 1978.

 


Lincoln Continental

For most of the year 1973, I was assigned to the Lincoln Continental Advanced Design Studio. During mid-year 1973, I received an assignment to create a series of new “full-size/ down-size” Ford, Mercury, Continental, and Mark-V styling proposals to be reviewed by Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca for a special presentation at the Ford Motor Company Strategy and Advanced Planning Conference in Boca Raton, Florida.

This presentation was later followed by the development of the “Panther” platform, launching the all-new Ford LTD and Mercury Marquis for 1979, and the Lincoln Continental/Mark VI for 1980. It was an honor to be selected for this assignment.

 


Ford Fox Program

I received recognition for my contribution to the “full-size/down-size” program and a promotion to the International Special Vehicles Design Studio, where I was involved with several design projects coordinated with Ford’s Ghia studios in Italy and the presentation of concept illustrations for the initial “World Car” and FOX program. The ever-expanding FOX platform launched the Ford Fairmont/Mercury Zephyr in 1978, followed by the all-new Mustang/Capri in 1979 with many variations to follow.

15 Comments
  1. John Kessler

    How did the Fox Platform get its name? Why was the “FOX PLATFORM” called the FOX PLATFORM?

    JK

  2. Richard Nesbitt

    John,

    Ford Product Planning selected obscure names as a code identification for significant new design programs to mislead information reference leaks regarding the actual project direction. Fox, like Panther, Shorthorn, Carrousel, etc., was a name created for this reason.

  3. Wayne Barratt

    Hi Richard,

    Have you noticed that your 1972 Carousel rendering is very similar to the new Ford Flex grooved tailgate applique/tailamp design?

    Regards,
    Wayne

  4. Richard Nesbitt

    Wayne, I did notice the similarity. On my 1972 Carrousel design proposal, I incorporated the use of a series of thick and thin horizontal lines on the tailgate applique/tailamp area to visually widen and lower a tall and narrow vehicle. The spelling of “Carrousel” with two r’s is the way Ford Product Planning actually spelled it as it was used for the code name identification. The Ford Aerostar van also incorporated the Carrousel wide “B” piller and DLO window design graphics in the final production version for 1986.—Dick Nesbitt

  5. Bob Marcks

    Here’s a Dick Nesbitt comment — on Dick Nesbitt and Bob Marcks — along with my thanks again to Dick, because he was the individual who proposed that I be featured in a Collectible Automobile article! As the saying goes: What goes around comes around” and goes around and…

    Collectible Automobile Magazine Article:

    The February 2008 [it’s out now] issue of Collectible Automobile magazine has a feature article on “Designing Seventies Cars:Mission Impossible?” by noted author,Mike Lamm.
    –Also featured is an article I authored with illustrations–“The Disco Deco Decade:Studio Design Experiences in the Seventies”……….
    By coincidence,a “Personality Profile:A Life in Design” story is also included about Bob Marcks,a former designer with both Ford and Chrysler…….
    –I met Bob many years ago when he was a partner with Marcks Hazelquist Powers,a noted industrial design office in Detroit.
    Bob spent a lot of his time reviewing my portfolio and encouraged me to attend Art Center College of Design in California and to become an automotive designer with Ford.
    – Dick Nesbitt

    Last edited by Dick Nesbitt; 11-27-2007 at 12:25 PM.

  6. Howard Payne

    I had just finished the I.P, and the interior of the 1972 Thunderbird,( the panel was sharted by Continental MKVI ) when I was called into Roy Brown’s office and told that as of the next day I was going to be in the Pinto,Mustang? Granada interior studio, leading the interior design on the Mustang II interior. How fortunate that I had Gib Giberson, Joe West, Jim Robberts, Earl Bunge, and Joe Zimmer as designers. I was fortunate to get the shop to fabricate Buck Mook’s exterior to cover our inerior buck. Roy told me to throw out all the rules, forget about cost, go all out with the interior. John Aiken’s I.P design was chosen over mine so that area was completed . The design turned out great, as the guys did a great job in a limited amouint of time. Management was very happy with the outcome and the Mustang II interior was approved. The shops fabricated the interior, complete with a working radio which I tuned to Dave Ask’s favorite stations. This became known as the “Anahime buck”, where it blew out thed survey in Anahime Ca.. Contrary to what Dick Nesbit states, I never saw Dick in our studio nor was he involved with the interior of the Mustang II.

  7. Dick Nesbitt

    Late in 1973, I was assigned to the Pinto/Maverick/Mustang Interior Design Studio with Joe West, Gib Giberson, Ted Finney and Jim Arnold as Studio Manager. I did not know of a Pinto/Mustang/Granada studio??? Both Ted Finney and I were responsible for the creation and development of several Mustang II premium “Ghia” level interior proposal presentations at that time for review by Interior Design Director Dave Ash. The seat/door panel sketch included in this post was one of many from that assignment.

    Jim Arnold was a wonderful studio manager, and Joe, Gib and Ted were terrific designers to work with. It was a great privilege to have been assigned to this studio.

  8. Rick Neddow

    Hi Dick, I can’t believe I stumbled upon a website that has one of the folks responsible for the design of my favorite vehicle of choice to own and drive. I have a 78 and a 79 Bronco and the smiles and comments I get from folks whilst out touring is not to be believed, My wife gets great pleasure in telling folks she went topless in the Bronco and then she’ll laugh and tell them the Bronco is topless. We do a lot of local cruise nights and there never fails to be several folks that are over joyed to regal us with their stories of how they owned one or their uncle, brother, father or friend of the family owned one and what a truly great vehicle it is and talk about full circle I can’t tell you how many kids love the Bronco maybe it will inspire the next great designer..
    Once again thanks for the 78/79 Big Bronco.

    Rick.

  9. dennis heapy

    Hi Dick, I remember you in 1967 hanging around jon kosmoskis custom paint shop in mpls. talking about wanting to become a car designer. well i guess you made it. you and i landed in detroit at about the same time in 1971. I got to work for my hero mike alexander at ASC, working on many ford concepts that i am shure you are familiar with. small world. dennis heapy

  10. RICHARD NESBITT

    Hi Rick
    Glad to know you and your wife love your Broncos !! I am amazed and proud of the enthusiastic following the ’78-’79 Bronco has acquired over the years…
    I have heard Ford is considering a new Bronco in the tradition of the original.
    I hope they will consider the ’78-’79 for inspiration.
    Dick Nesbitt

  11. RICHARD NESBITT

    Hi Dennis
    We go back a long way!!
    I remember Jon Kosmoski and House of Color very well…I did some design sketches for Jon for some of his project cars he was building.
    As I remember,he would do one car a year in solid black to show the quality of his bodywork. His work was really outstanding.
    Kosmoski sure did well with House of Color Custom Paint !!!
    I knew Mike Alexander at ASC and did some project cars with him through Ford.
    I was assigned to an International Design Studio in Dearborn and we were competing with European Ford Studios for the next new European Granada design…
    We had a current European Granada 4door for the design show comparison but needed a 2door version as well.
    We couldn’t get a 2door soon enough so Mike and his guys fabricated a 2door on one side of the 4door-metal,glass,rubber and all.
    it was production quality perfect and they did it in 3 or 4 days time !!

  12. Walter Gomez

    Dick, How was Fritz Mayew involved in the Mustang II design, and was the Ford Allegro an influence for the front?

  13. RICHARD NESBITT

    Walter, Fritz Mayhew was the Design Manager for the Cougar/Comet/Montego production studio that “won” the Mustang II design competition…
    -Our design proposal was created by Howard “Buck” Mook and was not influenced by the Allegro from 1963, although they are similar…

  14. Walter Gomez

    Thanks Richard! I was at Art Center when Fritz Mayhew (Ford) sponsored a project to redesign the Mustang based on the then new Fiesta in October of 1976. At the time I was under the impression that he had designed the Mustang II. Half way through the project Fritz unexpectedly showed up at the school, and told us to stop using the Fiesta as the base, and that we were to redesign the Mustang using the existing platform with the doors carrying over. We all moaned, because frankly, we didn’t like the design. I remember submitting one design with stacked rectangular headlights as was done on the ’77 Torinos. My design was awful and Fritz called me out on that. I of course still have the project binder, the full-size Fiesta package, the Mustang II perspectives we were to use, and my design concepts.

    Over the years the Mustang II has grown on me and I suppose one day, on might end up in our garage to join our Ranchero!

  15. Jay Schleifer

    Dick,
    Your memories of starting at Art Center in the old 3rd Street building match mine. I too was terrified by the quality of work done by more experienced students. Yes, the work load was massive and I also stayed up nights in a rented screen porch, the only space left in a boarding house on South Manhattan Ave that the school recommended. By semester’s end, I realized I was short on both money and talent and that was that, but I still have my self-made clay shaping tool. And I still love cars, enough so to have written some 20 books on them for a teen audience. Gasoline in the blood will find some way to shape your life. Thanks for the wonderful article.

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