The Golden Years of GM Styling: A personal recollection of William Mitchell, Vice President of General Motors Styling
by Roy Lonberger
Heritage Center Interview, Part 2
In April 2011 Roy Lonberger was invited by John Manoogian (former Head of Cadillac Exterior Design) to visit the GM Heritage Center and GM Design. During that visit Susan Skarsgard (Global Industrial Design Manager) and Christo Datini (Chief Archivist, GM Design Archives) interviewed Mr. Lonberger regarding his brief career as a designer from 1965 through 1968 during the golden years of GM Design under William Mitchell, GM Design’s Vice President. The following are paraphrased excerpts from that interview. Be sure to read Part 1.
Roy Lonberger: Lot’s of memorable incidents. Let me tell you about several that come to mind:
We were showing a clay model of a proposed 1970 Camaro in the courtyard. Mr. Mitchell walked in after lunch, looked at the car, started swearing, his face got red, and then he walked up to the windshield pillar, and started doing karate chops with his hand on the A-pillar. He hated the design, wanted the windshield angle increased, and wanted it changed immediately. We got the message, but I thought he had broken his wrist.
Another time when showing a finished model to the engineers from Chevrolet Division, he was getting a lot of criticism about a design feature Mr. Mitchell wanted but the engineers were saying that it couldn’t be done (you know, the usual things that someone says when they do not want to cooperate, like being non-functional or too expensive). Like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Mitchell politely showed them the door, saying to them that if they did not know how to engineer the designs, that his team of designers would do the engineering for them. And for them not to bother him again—he would tell them when it was ready for production.
Once he refused to let Zora Arkus-Duntoff into GM Styling because Zora was show-boating by taking all of the credit for designing the Corvette.
And once while chastising a designer he told him that being different did not necessarily mean that it was good—that any boy could be different if he stood under a street light with his fly open.
Mitchell’s Chevy powered “Scarab” F-1 Street Car
Without funding and against company anti-racing policy, Mr. Mitchell purchased the entire Scarab Formula-one racing team and one race car, brought it into GM Styling, striped the bodywork and engine, replaced the panels with panels designed by Shinoda, installed a race engine from Chevy R&D, and turned it into a one person single seat car that he drove on the street. He might have gotten away with it, except he placed it in the center of his driveway at home during a Christmas party attended by James Roche (GM president). Shortly thereafter, the car returned to the warehouse studio, body and engine was removed. Presumably returned to Scarab configuration and sold on the open market.
But he wasn’t always petulant. He loved being with the performance guys. Once, he was so enthralled with the movie The Blue Max (a world war one story about the French Esquadrille with spectacular airplane scenes) that he took the entire Chevrolet studio staff to see it.
Then there was the day that Larry Shinoda and Hank Haga were drag racing alongside the reflecting pond inside the Tech Center. The had closed off the road with Tech Center security guards. Hank had a new Camaro. Larry had a new Chevelle with a “mystery engine” supplied by Chevy R&D. The result was no contest. Larry would have remained king of the mountain except that Mr. Mitchell roared out of the executive garage in his Stingray Racer. He destroyed Shinoda in three consecutive races. To this day I do not know if Mr. Mitchell won or if Larry intentionally lost.
JM: Yes, I have heard some of these. How long were you in Chevy-2 studio?
RL: Actually until I left GM in 1968, but my tenure was interrupted in January 1966 when I was temporarily assigned to the secret Warehouse Studio located off the grounds of the Tech Center across 12 Mile Road, in a nondescript warehouse; and later when I was moved to Studio-X for six months to head up a program for Mr. Mitchell and Pete Estes for Chevrolet.
JM: The Warehouse Studio was called Chevy-3?
RL: Not at that time. It was the secret lair of Mitchell’s racing projects led by Larry Shinoda. I have since learned from GM records that it was formally called Advanced-5. The reason it was not at the Tech Center is because GM Policy had banned any participation in racing, and Mitchell wanted to say honestly that no racing activities were going on at GM Styling at the Tech Center. He also wanted a place that escaped the scrutiny of his management.
JM: What car did you do at the Warehouse?
RL: The X-1000 Corvair Super GT Low Roof Aerodynamic Coupe. Eventually, it was called the Astro-1 (XP-842).
A particularly brutal snow storm between Christmas and New Year had all but closed Styling. Those of us who made it to work found ourselves confronted with few designers and support people. Some tried to return home. I stayed until the storm passed. During that time, I decided that I wanted to create an extremely low aerodynamic race car—one that I could put up on the wall and hopefully use as stimulation for the upcoming midengine Corvette program that would be happening after the holidays. So I created several illustrations and put them up on the wall.
After the holiday, when Mr. Mitchell had returned from his vacation, he strode into the Chevy-2 studio, walked to the middle of the room without looking at anything, turned right, then looked up at the wall of sketches—my sketches for the super low race car. He stopped, looked, paused, said a few profanities, and then demanded who had done the sketches. In the back, I meekly raised my hand, where upon he ordered me to grab my stuff and come with him immediately. I did not know what to think, but the thought of being fired crossed my mind.
We jumped into his Silver Arrow Riviera and drove out of the Tech Center to the Warehouse studio. On the way, he confided that he wanted me to create my sports car for a running racing chassis that had been developed by Frank Winchell at Chevy R&D. Mr. Mitchell told me the new car was top secret and intended to be tested at LeMans by Chaparral.
He staffed the studio with two modelers and one Tech-Stylist, and charged Larry Shinoda to make sure everything was completed on time and to guard the gates to the warehouse from other GM executives. It was to be a secret project. In fact, so secret that all of the charges were being assigned to the old Monza SS Production Project (XP-797).
The design concept was radical: 35-inch high, monocoque tub with high sills, center steering, step-in clam-shell access, periscope mirror, body color side windows, pop-out airbrakes, moveable aero devices under the body, ground effects, and body shapes to create down force and negative lift. At the time, there was discussion about whether the body should be fiberglass painted pearl white/silver or to be aluminum anodized silver. Because of the compressed delivery schedule, it was decided to be fiberglass. Most of all, the car had to look like it belonged to the Corvette design idiom.
The design program goal was to have a running car the following spring for the race. In fact, the body design was completed on schedule and presented as a full painted dynoc covered clay model on February 9, 1966.
JM: Anything else?
RL: Actually, the more I have since learned about the project, the more interesting it became. First, the program actually started in 1961 as a reaction to the alleged stability problems that the rear engine Corvair was experiencing. Chevrolet decided to explore a front engine, front wheel drive Corvair. Under the direction of Ed Cole, it was to be powered by a modular aluminum boxer engine that had individual cylinders which could be bolted together in multiple configurations from four to 10 cylinders. A 10 cylinder version was used to test the upcoming E-body Toronado. The six cylinder configuration was used for the Corvair.
The program was cancelled, largely by Mr. Mitchell because of the unsightly proportion of having an engine sticking out in front of the front wheels. But, with an inspiration, he convinced Frank Winchell and Jim Musser at Chevrolet R&D to modify the chassis, turn it around so that the engine was hanging out towards the rear, rotate the engine 180˚ so that it was placed ahead of the rear wheels in a mid-ship position. To provide the required structural integrity, the frame was converted to a monocoque structure. Mr. Mitchell needed a body for it, so he charged Larry Shinoda and Tony Lapine to create the legendary Monza GT (XP-777).
The Monza GT was displayed as a running car for the first time in 1962 at the Elkhart Lakes road races. It was displayed under a tent, alongside the Stingray Racer, and later presented as the parade lap car driven by Indianapolis champion Mauri Rose. The car was an instant sensation. So much so, that a casual observer at the races went into the display tent, introduced himself to Mr. Mitchell, and thus began the secret relationship between Jim Hall of Chaparral fame and General Motors. Hall wanted to know if GM would be interested in helping him build a rear engine CanAm car, preferably powered with a Corvette engine. I will leave it to others to describe the Chaparral relationship, most notably ex-Chevy R&D engineer Paul Van Valkenburgh, in his book Chevrolet—Racing, Fourteen years of Raucous Silence!
The Monza GT was so successful that Mr. Mitchell ordered a second chassis to be built, but this time with a stock motor hanging out behind the rear wheels for service accessibility. Shinoda and Lapine worked their magic and produced the Monza SS.
Chevrolet suddenly realized the potential of these two cars, and being threatened with the recently introduced Ford Mustang and experiencing decreasing Corvair sales because of Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed, management ordered a third chassis (XP-777 #3) to be built for the purpose of building a production version of the GT and/or SS. Shinoda and Lapine explored both GT and SS versions. And subsequently a roadster version with doors, rollup windows, a tall windshield, and a retractable soft top was produced as a static roller. For reasons unclear, the project was stopped. For everyone but Mr. Mitchell.
He ordered the third chassis to the protection of the secret warehouse studio and commissioned Chevy R&D to build a racing version of the modular motor, and install it into chassis #3. In parallel, Mr, Mitchell ordered a “repair” SS body be built from the original molds, and added an integral roll bar, cut down windshield, and an aero-dam beneath the nose. Assembled into a racing car configuration, the car was shipped to Riverside Raceway to be tested by champion driver Bill Krause, who managed to get the car within one second of the lap record then held by Roger Penske in the Zerex Special.
Later, Chevy R&D experimented with stuffing a Corvette into the chassis for Jim Hall. But the program was unexpectedly cancelled by executive management, and the chassis was shipped back into hiding at the Warehouse. The body of the racing car was removed and installed onto Chassis #2, and now is on display at the GM Heritage Center as the Monza SS.
Racing Chassis #3 with the modular motor became the running chassis for the Corvair Super GT LeMans car, (later to become the Astro-1).
JM: And you returned to Chevy-2?
RL: No. With the design completed, I was promoted to Head of Studio-X.
JM: So what happened to the car?
RL: Mr. Mitchell needed to have a body built for the running chassis and tasked Larry Shinoda, Allan Young, and the Chevrolet Advanced Studio to make a presentation to the top brass for project approval and funding to build a show car for the 1966 New York Auto Show. The presentation consisted of a full size airbrush of my design and several of my original sketches (accompanied by additional illustrations by Allan Young). This presentation resulted in the approval of project XP-842, called Astro, to finish the engineering details and build a fiberglass body. The original dynoc clay was moved back to the Tech Center to Chevrolet Advanced Studio under the supervision of Dave Holls.
The body was completed, installed on the chassis, and tested at Milford with the modular engine with great success. However, for reasons unexplained, the program was cancelled by top management and the car was to be scrapped. Mr. Mitchell refused. Instead, he shipped the car back to the secret warehouse and put into storage/hiding.
About a year later, Mr. Mitchell resurrected the project as a show car for the 1967 New York Auto Show. Modifications to the design were made, including the replacement of the body colored side windows with transparent plastic, the creation of an elevating seat, the replacement of the Chaparral lace wheels with flush aerodynamic wheels, and the replacement of the racing steering wheel with the aircraft style yoke. Most significantly, the original pearl white/silver paint was changed to red.
The car was introduced at the 1967 show as the Astro-1. Along side the car was a static display of a 185-hp Corvair overhead cam motor with six GM styled trumpets to resemble weber carburetors.
Sometime in this process, the modular motor was removed and sent back to Chevy R&D, and replaced with a stock 1963 Corvair motor. The car is currently on display here at the Heritage Center and is used for car shows. The whereabouts of the modular motor remains unknown.
JM: What a fascinating story about the car, the clandestine racing activities, and the determination and power of Bill Mitchell. What did you do after that?
RL: With the exception of my final two weeks, I spent the remainder of my GM career at Studio-X and Chevy-2 studios.
In Studio-X we were charged with developing a four passenger Mini Camaro (XP-873) project for Pete Estes, Chevrolet Engineering, and Mr. Mitchell. It was intended to be the size of (and cost less to manufacture than) the Volkswagen Beetle. Fellow designer Geza Loczi was assigned to the studio, along with several modelers, and a tech stylist. Larry Shinoda would consult and occasionally Dave Holls would stop by. As before, concepts were presented weekly as full clay models in the courtyard or dome, and all design decisions were made by Mr. Mitchell. Interestingly, this project predated the Vega project several years later led by Jim Musser.
In Chevy-2, work continued on the ’67–’70 Camaros/Firebirds, Corvettes, two and four rotor mid-engine corvettes, and lots of show cars.
Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild Judging
Somewhere in this period, I was a judge for the Fisher Craftsman Guild (1966) along with Jim Bisignano and Russ Orr. Later I was assigned for several weeks with Neil Madler to provide art direction for the photographs of the winning cars.
I spent my last two weeks in the Pontiac studio working for Jack Humbert. After three years, I left GM.
JM: So that was the end of your GM career? What did you do then:
RL: Actually, it wasn’t the end. When Jordan returned from Germany he invited me to Styling to review studio work and to discuss returning to work at GM. But too much time had passed and the energy at Styling seemed to had dwindled. My time had passed. And I had another offer to consider from Tony Lapine at Porsche.
Ultimately, I established Magna Design Corporation in Silicon Valley offering Industrial Design, Engineering, and Prototype Development services to high technology companies. In 1980, additional offices were opened and expanded service to Europe.
I retired from active management of Magna Design in 2010. Since that time, I have been involved with several startup technology companies, a racing motorsports company, and mentoring car design students.
JM: Looking back, what do you remember the most about GM Styling and William Mitchell?
RL: The Passion.
The unsurpassed talent and enthusiasm of the Chevrolet designers.
The competition between the designers to get their concepts produced.
The exciting performance automobiles that were created.
The quest to produce the best designed cars in the world.
The constant challenge and encouragement to explore the creative and new.
The satisfaction of knowing that you were in the big leagues doing the best work.
The single minded and unstoppable force of William Mitchell.
Like him or hate him, he ruled a kingdom that produced the best. If you were producing cars he liked and on his team, then he was your best friend. If you were not a supporter, then he ignored you. He had no patience for obstruction nor negativity. Either you were with him, or against him.
JM: Thank you Roy for sharing your recollections at GM Styling and William Mitchell.
Addendum 1: Studio Organization (Palace coup d’etat)
The organization of GM Styling was completely reorganized by Irv Rybicki when Chuck Jordan was assigned to Germany and Rybicki assumed the key role of Executive in Charge of Styling reporting to Mr. Mitchell:
Pre-Rybicki reorganization (last quarter 1967)
Chevy-1 Studio located second floor of Styling looking north out to the reflecting pool. Responsible for medium and full size production Chevrolets (A, B, & C bodies). Headed up by Rybicki reporting to Jordan to Mitchell (when I moved upstairs 1965). Later (1967) headed by Dave Holls, when Rybicki became in charge of all Chevrolet studios, reporting to Jordan to Mitchell.
Chevy-2 Studio located second floor across the hallway from Chevy-1, looking out the rear of the building to the employee parking lot towards 12 Mile Road. Responsible for Performance/Show cars (Corvairs, Corvettes, Camaro (Firebird), mid-engine Corvettes, show cars. Headed up by Haga reporting to Jordan to Mitchell (when I moved upstairs 1965). Later (1967) Haga reported to Rybicki who reported to Jordan to Mitchell.
Warehouse Studio (Advanced-5) located across 12 Mile Road outside of the Tech Center in a nondescript industrial warehouse. Responsible for performance and show cars for Mitchell. Headed up by Larry Shinoda who reported directly to Mitchell.
Studio-X located in the basement adjacent to the executive elevator. Headed up by Robert Larson (1965) when I first was assigned to it. Later headed by Roy Lonberger in late 1966, reporting directly to Mitchell.
Chevy-1 Studio remained on second floor looking north to the reflecting pool. Responsible for full size production Chevrolets (C bodies). Headed up by Holls reporting to Rybicki to Mitchell.
Chevy-2 Studio moved across hall and connected with Chevy-1 studio (separated only by moveable full size lofting board). Responsible for medium size production Chevrolets (A&B). Headed by Haga reporting to Holls to Rybicki to Mitchell.
Chevy-3 Studio (newly established studio consisting of the warehouse studio) connected to Chevy-1 studio (separated only by a moveable full size lofting board). Responsible for Camaros and Corvettes. Headed by Shinoda reporting to Holls to Rybicki reporting to Mitchell. When Shinoda left to go to Ford 1968, studio headed by Haga in a dual role, reporting to Holls to Rybicki to Mitchell. Haga left for Germany or California in 1974. Jerry Palmer becomes Head.
Studio-X relocated in basement to former assembly area. Remained for secret projects reporting directly to Mitchell. Roy Lonberger transferred to Pontiac production studio as staff designer reporting to Jack Humbert. Two weeks later, Lonberger leaves General Motors to return to California.
Addendum-2: 1970 Camaro/Camaro
Prior to the Rybicki reorganization, the 1970 Camaros/Corvettes were designed in Chevy-2. After the reorganization, they were designed in Chevy-3.
Addendum-3: Corvette Mid-Engine and Aerovette
At least four mid-engine Corvettes were done in Chevy-2 in 1967: Chassis-1 was The New York Auto Show car (XP-882) and a second chassis-2 (XP-882) with a fiberglass body and sugar-scoop backlight. This second chassis-2 (XP-882) was later rebodied out of aluminum and powered by a Corvette engine and called the Reynolds Aluminum car (XP-895). It is currently on display at the Heritage Center. It is disputed but not substantiated that some of these cars were powered with a 4-rotor motor. The fourth car called the 2-rotor was sent to Pininfarina and built out of fiberglass and mounted on a Porsche Chassis.
Later in 1972, the original New York Auto Show car (XP-882) was rebodied in the basement studio for Mr. Mitchell and Hank Haga by Jerry Palmer, Ted Schroeder, Randy Wittine, and Ron Will. It was called the Aerovette and initially powered by a four rotor motor. Later the motor was replaced with a Corvette engine and is now on display at the Heritage Center.
I did not have anything to do with the Aerovette and have removed my illustration from this article. It was intended to praise the work and end of the Mitchell performance car dynasty. My apology to Ron Will for offending in any manner.
Addendum-4: Shinoda return to styling
According to Ron Will, shortly after Larry Shinoda left Styling to go to Ford, He returned to Styling in a Ford Concept car, roared into the executive garage, and proceeded to roar the engine, and then burn rubber to leave, just to piss off Mitchell (Ron Will’s contention, while I would think it would be directed at Rybicki, for closing down his warehouse studio and breaking the chain of command with Mitchell). I suppose we will never know.
Addendum-5: X1000 Corvair SuperGT Low Roof Aerodynamic Coupe
In response to Stephen Lary, regarding the unusual name: X1000 was an internal tracking number that Mr. Mitchell used for personal, unfunded, and unauthorized projects.
Corvair SuperGT was the name of the car.
Low Roof Aerodynamic Coupe was a description on the tracking card (to keep the bean counters satisfied, if they should learn about the car).
During the project, I never used any of the above names. Simply the secret LeMans car. A more accurate name should have been the Monza SuperGT since the car was built on the third chassis of the Monza GT & SS program.
Later, I was surprised to learn that it had become the Astro-1…what an ambiguous name for a race car.
1. Illustrations and text are used with the permission, and remain the property of Roy Lonberger and are copyright 2012 to MagnaDesign. They may not to be used in any manner without consent by Roy Lonberger and/or Magna Design. Interested parties can contact: Roy Lonberger, CEO Magna Design. RVL@Magna-Design.com
2. Photographs are used with the permission, and remain the property, of General Motors. They may not be used in any manner without consent of General Motors. Interested parties may contact the following: SusanSkarsgard, Global Industrial Design Manager, GM Design, firstname.lastname@example.org; Christo Datini, Lead Archivist, GM Heritage Center & Media Archives, email@example.com.
3. Roy Lonberger was born in Southern California in 1940. His education included mechanical engineering (University of California), Industrial Design (Art Center), Graduate Business School (Santa Clara University), Graduate Ergonomics (Stanford), and Advanced Management (Kepnor-Tregoe Institute). In 1963, he graduated with Honors from Art Center (on a Ford Scholarship) at the age of 22 with job offers from Ford, GM, and Chrysler.
He began his career at Ford. leaving a year later to satisfy his military obligation. He later worked as a product designer for Tony Carsello in Beverley Hills, followed as an ergonomic engineer at North American Rockwell for the Apollo Moon vehicle. He returned to the automobile industry in January 1965 to work for GM. Three years later he left GM.
Subsequent employment included stints as a product designer at Keck-Craig Engineering, Partner & VP at George Perkins Industrial Design, Manager of Design at Memorex, Account Manager of Design at FMC, Manager of Design at FMC Europe, and Director of Corporate Identity at FMC Corporate-Chicago.
In 1976, he formed Roy Lonberger/Associates in Silicon Valley, and subsequently incorporated as Magna Design Corporation. His business specialized in non-consumer products including transportation systems; race cars; material handling vehicles; aircraft; sail boats; agriculture equipment; medical products; scientific instruments; cranes and excavators; and business products. During that period, he found time to teach design at San Jose State University and to serve as the Northern California Chairman of IDSA. Through Magna Design, he has done complete projects (industrial design, engineering, prototype development, and limited production) for over 1000 projects for 286 clients through out the world. He holds five patents and 56 design awards. He recently retired from Magna.
Currently, he is involved with several startup companies (including one that is investigating external propulsion systems for vehicles). He is also involved as CFO and Board member to a motorsports company. Most of his spare time is spent mentoring car design students, participating in various car club events, and researching automobile design history. His passion remains cars. He and his wife Carol live in Los Gatos, California.
4. I would like to personally thank John Manoogian, Jim Musser, John Schinella, John Mellberg, Gary Smith, Christo Datini at the GM Heritage Center, and Susan Skarsgard at GM Design for their support and information, and Shane Baxley for his tremendous talents in helping prepare this article. Comments, criticisms, and corrections would be appreciated.
Roy Lonberger, RVL@magna-design.com