Interview with Chuck Jordan, GM’s Chief Designer
The General’s Tailor: Chuck Jordan, who in 1986 became only the fourth chief designer in GM’s history, offers his candid views on what makes a great auto design. From the January, 2006 issue of Motor Trend.
When Charles M. “Chuck” Jordan took over as vice president, GM Design, he became only the fourth man in 78 years to shoulder the awesome responsibility of steering the style of the world’s largest automaker. Few men could’ve comfortably stepped into such a white-hot spotlight, picking up a corporate pen once held by Bill Mitchell, the flamboyant force behind GM’s rocket-fin era, and Harley Earl, the legendary designer who literally created the concept of automotive styling. But the role seemed tailormade for Chuck Jordan.
Born in 1927 in Whittier, California, Jordan remembers sketching cars as early as age six. By his teens, he was making scale models. After graduating with honors from Fullerton High School, Jordan enrolled at MIT, where he studied engineering and design. In his sophomore year, encouraged by his mother, Jordan entered the GM Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild model-car competition—and won, garnering a $4,000 scholarship and the attention of Harley Earl. Shortly after graduating in 1949, Jordan accepted an offer to join GM as a junior designer.
Jordan’s talent quickly set him apart. In 1953, Harley Earl appointed him chief designer of GM’s special products studio. Just four years later, with Bill Mitchell poised to assume the top slot from the retiring Earl, Jordan moved into one of GM’s most coveted posts—chief designer for Cadillac. He was only 30. In 1962, Life magazine named Jordan one of the “100 most important young men and women in the United States.” After three years in Germany as design director for Opel in the late 1960s, Jordan returned to the U.S., again working alongside Bill Mitchell and, after Mitchell’s retirement in 1977, serving as number-two man to chief designer Irv Rybicki. In 1986, Jordan took the top slot, a position he held until his mandatory retirement at age 65 in 1992.
Motor Trend Classic: Where did your love of cars and drawing come from?
Jordan: My dad and granddad were ranchers. At 12, I was driving trucks on the ranch. I think that’s why I’ve always loved trucks—still do. And I was always drawing cars as a little boy. My mother was encouraging of my drawing. If I got going in my room drawing cars, she’d bring me dinner up there. She knew enough that this was a big thing for me. It was a passion. I don’t know where it comes from or how you get it, but some people just love cars.
MTC: When you won the Fisher Body competition, you didn’t have much formal training?
Jordan: Not really. I was 19, a sophomore at MIT. I spent some of my vacation time designing and building a car. Well, I ended up winning my region and got invited to Detroit for a four-day convention and banquet with all the executive vice presidents of GM, about 500 people—it was even on the radio. And then they announced that I’d won. The next day we went to GM Styling, and they showed us around. And Harley Earl’s assistant, a great old Irishman, came to me and said, “Listen, when you get out of college come see us—we have a job for you.”
MTC: What were your first assignments at GM?
Jordan: They had an advanced studio where they put all the newcomers. You were free to make mistakes, spill paint, didn’t matter. Every new designer there wanted to do sports cars, but I loved trucks, and I saw an opportunity—that we hadn’t changed our truck design since before the war. So I set to work on a new truck and ended up getting the design patent on the 1955 GM truck.
MTC: Was Harley Earl guiding you at that time?
Jordan: Harley Earl was so tough—six foot four, he’d scare the beejeezus out of you. He came to our studio once. I never got in trouble with him, though, because I never tried to do what he wanted. I tried to do what I thought was right. After I did a new tractor he liked for the Euclid division, he made me chief designer of a very small studio—Special Projects.
MTC: What did you work on there?
Jordan: For GM’s Electro-Motive division, I did the Aerotrain locomotive—streamlined, slick as a whistle. When it was all done, I got a rare note from Harley Earl—and he never wrote notes—saying, “I just want you to know how much I appreciate your taking care of the Aerotrain.” He was a tyrant if you didn’t do things right, but if you did things okay you were fine.
MTC: Trucks. Trains. How did you finally get into cars?
Jordan:: Soon after the Aerotrain, Bill Mitchell—who by then was clearly going to be the next Harley Earl—came to me and said, “Kid, if you want to get anywhere around here you’ve got to do cars.” And so they moved me over to the main building, in an advanced studio. My first car was the Buick Centurion show car for the 1956 Motorama.
MTC: Any projects that stand out from your work in the advanced studio?
Jordan: One day, Bunkie Knudsen [then-head of Pontiac], Pete Estes [Pontiac chief engineer], and John DeLorean [at the time Knudsen’s assistant] came in and said to me, “Hey, what are you up to?” And we’d done this scale model of a car with the wheels moved all the way out to the sides of the sheetmetal—really radical, but it looked planted! And old DeLorean went to the production studios and figured out how to make it work. That’s where Pontiac wide-track came from.
MTC: Weren’t you also involved with the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, with the highest-ever fins?
Jordan: In 1957 we were working on the 1959s, and Earl, before he retired, in my opinion he lost it. He was still thinking big roofs, big chrome front ends, thick bodies. And for 1959 he wanted the same thing. Nobody liked it, including Mitchell. And so at lunchtime I drove to the Plymouth plant a few miles away, and I’m looking through the fence and all I could see were fins, fins, fins. And I thought, wow! So I got Mitchell and a group together, and we looked through the fence. And that afternoon we started a second design, while Earl was away on a trip. Mitchell had guts. After we finished the design, Harley Earl came in, looked around, and walked out. Didn’t say a word. A couple of days later, Mitchell told us that Earl had decided to support the second design.
MTC: Didn’t the Eldo get a lot of flack for being too over the top?
Jordan: People always ask me why we did those fins, and I say, “It was the right thing to do at the time.” It got us out of this stale state we were in, got the blood circulating. The 1959 was like letting a tiger out of the cage—saying, “go!” Then, of course, we got sobriety and did the 1960, raised the body so the lines came up and it wasn’t all fin.
MTC: By the 1970s, GM really seemed to lose the edge it had enjoyed for so many years. What happened?
Jordan: When I started at GM, there were only five cars. In the 1970s, there were all these different models, and we just couldn’t afford to keep them all fresh. In 1976, we had to downsize for fuel economy. Earl’s creed had always been “lower, longer, wider.” And now it was shorter, narrower, higher. And I’m afraid we didn’t always do a great job. But the first downsized car, the 1976 Seville, was a winner. And the 1977 Caprice, that wore well for a long time.
MTC: How did things change after Mitchell retired in 1977?
Jordan: When Irv Rybiki took over and I was number two, that was a hard thing for me. They didn’t want any more Mitchells around, and I was a Mitchell guy. Irv and I had very different philosophies. Irv had good taste, but he didn’t encourage exploring. And I was the opposite. I was always running through the place saying, “Try this, try that. If it doesn’t work, throw it out.”
MTC: When you took over the top slot in 1986, how did you handle the pressure of assuming the legacy of Earl and Mitchell?
Jordan: People ask me that, and the answer is it wasn’t that bad. It never seemed like work. It was always fun. We knew if we had fun we’d be turning out some good stuff.
MTC: What cars stand out from your tenure as chief designer?
Jordan: The 1992 Seville STS was one we were all proud of. When we introduced the STS at the auto show, Bruno Sacco [then Mercedes-Benz design director], whom I’d known for quite a while, said, “I never saw a car I like better than that.” That meant more to me than getting a big bonus.
MTC: What’s another?
Jordan: The Olds Aurora. I said, “Listen, guys, we’re going to do a sedan with some ‘wow.'” I wanted to do it like Kelly Johnson did at Lockheed—with a closed engineering department. You had freedom in there. I also said, “Let’s do it like an aircraft, thin-walled body, points through the front and tapers at the rear.” We did a full-size model, and it was ugly. It was double-ugly. So I said, “Let’s go again.” It wasn’t discouraging, just too fat. We got the thing in focus, leaned it out, then built a fiberglass model. We wheeled it out to the second floor where all the corporate execs would walk by—and not long after, the general manager of Olds told me they were going to stop building the Toronado, but they wanted a sports sedan like that one we had out in the hall. I said, “Great! It’s yours!” And we wheeled it right into Oldsmobile.
Styling concept that became the Oldsmobile Aurora
MTC: What did you think of the C5 Corvette—a car you’d worked on before retirement?
Jordan: After I retired, the culture changed. The engineers and brand managers were put in charge, with design relegated to a lower level. And what happened to the Corvette is clear: the C5 was conservative. These guys were so afraid of risk, they’d say, “Oh, let’s take it to a clinic.” I mean, they took sketches to a clinic! I just about had a hemorrhage. I never would’ve let that happen. A good designer doesn’t need Mr. and Mrs. Zilch from Kansas telling him what to do.
MTC: What automakers stand out today, design-wise?
Jordan: The Japanese have got all the other assets, and now they’re starting to do emotional designs. The design leader right now is Nissan. They came out with the Z, the Infiniti G35, the Murano…the Altima is an emotional design. I used to know Shiro Nakamura [Nissan design boss] when he was a young punk. He’s wonderful. You listen to him talk and say, “Wow, I wish I’d said that.”
MTC: How about the Big Three?
Jordan: They have a lot of finding their way to do. It’s not easy. There’s a certain amount of luck that comes into it—being able to hit something that’ll churn the emotions of the public. I would’ve bet the Chrysler 300 would’ve landed flat on its tail. It’s all cartoonish proportions—big wheels, you can barely see the guy’s head inside. I don’t think the 300 will wear well. As for Ford, finally J Mays has figured out that he’s got to do something new. I don’t like the Mustang. It’s an old car. But J has some talented people. GM has some glimmers of hope. The new Pontiac Solstice is a good, emotional car.
MTC: What about BMW’s Chris Bangle?
Jordan: I have a lot of respect for Chris Bangle. He worked at Opel when I was there. I’d watch him every now and then, and he did some really imaginative work. He always used to wear a little mouse on his shirt—it attracted attention to him. Though I don’t agree with all the things he’s done at BMW, I do support the fact that he’s doing it. He’s got the guts to say, “Okay, we’ve milked this thing for so long we’ve got to set a new standard.” One day Bangle is going to be recognized as a leader in the design world—and not just compared with his peers today.
MTC: You must have several thousand Ferrari models in your studio. And you’ve owned numerous Ferraris since the 1960s. What draws you to them?
Jordan: In the 1950s I used to go with Mitchell to Elkhart Lake to see the races. I’d watch the Ferraris go around, and I listened to them, and I saw the association with the people. It was exciting. Once you taste that…there’s something about Ferrari that has its own mystique. I couldn’t care less about Porsches. They don’t stir me up.
MTC: Which Ferraris have you owned, and why?
Jordan: My first was a used Lusso. I bought it in 1969 for $5000! I still think it’s one of the most beautiful cars ever done. Then I bought a Daytona. But I’m not a collector. I like the latest stuff. So I eventually sold both of those. My next Ferrari was the Boxer. Then I had a Testarossa. Both of those cars were fun, not as jazzy as the 360 I had—which was too busy. After that I had an F40. Wow. I still think the F40 is one of Pininfarina’s best designs—there are no ugly views. Then I found my love, the 456GT. It’s not exotic. It’s just a wonderful car.
MTC: Did you ever meet Enzo Ferrari?
Jordan: Three times, thanks to my friend Sergio Pininfarina. Once we had lunch together at the Cavallino—Ferrari was interested in design. Afterward he asked me if I wanted to come along while he did a test drive in the mountains. Ferrari was an aggressive driver. He did things that scared me—such as cutting the corners in blind turns. But on the way home, I thought, “Man, that may have been the best day of my life.”
MTC: What got you into teaching auto design to a high-school class?
Jordan: I volunteer because I had some teachers in high school and at MIT who meant a lot to me—who understood creativity and taught me to do things differently. I always appreciated the mentors I had. Also, I’m drawing again. You can’t talk design—you’ve got to show them what you do. Besides, I’d rather hang out with kids than old folks!
MTC: What would you say to anyone who aspires to be an auto designer today?
Jordan: Now is a great time to be in design. Design is king. All cars today do great things—quality, performance—and people are recognizing that design has become a strong deciding factor for buyers. Bill Mitchell taught me that a car has to have beauty, elegance, the surprise of something new. A car has to make you feel something. If a buyer looks at a car and says, “I don’t like it,” all the other stuff doesn’t matter.
Photos of Chuck from various sources. Be sure to check out other posts about Chuck Jordan.