By Dick Ruzzin

Chuck-Jordan054

What kind of a designer was he?

This has to be the first question for me. You could give Chuck no greater compliment than to say that he was a car designer. He was outstanding and everyone at Design Staff knew it. It was why he moved up to be the Vice President, not without some difficulty. He set the standard and we all learned from Chuck, especially when we took a clay model outside. Chuck was recognized by the design profession around the world as a great designer. He loved the European shows, meeting all the designers from around the world and talking about the latest Ferrari or Corvette. He especially liked the Italian designers.

While at Opel he shocked the European designers with the Opel CD, the Manta and the Rekord. All were beautifully conceived and superbly executed. Chuck even had the nerve to bring the Rekord sedan back here to the States to show it to Bill Mitchell for production approval in front of the Board of Directors, which was a big risk. He got through it with very little correction.

When Ferry Porsche showed Chuck the new VW 914 in Frankfurt he told Chuck that “No designer had touched it.” Chuck just smiled and said, “It looks like it.”

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What kind of a person was he?

Chuck was a person of high contrasts, he was fair and consistent and he had the highest standards. He taught Sunday school early in his career and car design at a local high school after he retired. Between those two time frames he led the largest automotive design staff in the world at different levels of responsibility and he led it very well for many years. When it came to work he was always very serious and direct and he did not mince words. He never mentioned his personal life and reluctantly spoke of his family. At work there was no room for distraction as he was very focused on his tasks.

Some people may have taken his singular focus on design as an aloofness or arrogance, it was neither of those. He understood the immense importance of the job and wanted to make every minute count to achieve the very best design solution for every design program. He was a stellar example of design professionalism, in almost forty years I never heard him utter an off color word. Chuck had a good sense of humor and used it judiciously, he really enjoyed humorous banter with anyone from a sweeper to a Design or Corporate executive.

If people did not perform as expected he let them know and he responded positively when they did. During my career he called me to task sharply three times. Twice he was completely right and my responses were positively recognized. The third time he was wrong. I called him on it and explained my actions. He accepted the response and apologized to me. Needless to say I was impressed.

Possibly more than anyone else that I worked with he was the most completely dedicated to the success of General Motors and worked very hard to achieve the best within his power. This was sometimes seen by the Corporation, right or wrong on it’s part, as too forceful and over the top. He pushed them to the limit when required even to his own personal career detriment.

Chuck was straight forward with his people, whether they liked it or not. If they did not it was because they did not understand their true value or capability. He tried to make people exceed their capabilities. When people surprised him by achieving above their assumed level he acknowledged and credited them.

He loved cars, new ones more so than old ones, and had a special affection for Ferraris of all kinds. His one regret regarding cars was that he did not buy enough Ferraris.

He had the final say on what was “Good Enough,” what would be accepted, or to be further pursued. He challenged people to do better, often this was misunderstood as harsh behavior, here the delivery of the message was confused with the true intent or benefit.

He was careful to use more than one source of information in difficult and stressful situations. Chuck emerged from the Earl-Mitchell style of “management by fear” that was common throughout the industrial revolution, and after WWII with his own style that helped later to form a more people friendly relationship between management and workers.

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What kind of a leader was he?

Chuck was an excellent design leader, and more importantly, an outstanding manager.

It is important to note that he did not manage everyone in the same way, and few understood this. It took me years to see that some of his designers required little direction from him while others needed constant attention. The ones that required little direction were ultimately placed in positions that were the most challenging. This was perceived by the needy ones as interference but in reality he was personally helping them achieve the desired goals.

Chuck filled in the gaps that people that were in his upper management team had with his own direction. I am sure he did not want to do this, but would if he had to. He would brag about studios that had done something special without his help. This was to demonstrate that he really valued the input by those responsible for the design and that he preferred not to interfere. He had his finger on the pulse of the building and was respected for his leadership by everyone.

He went into my office one afternoon in Cadillac Studio. We were the closest studio to the viewing yard. I went in and asked him if he wanted a coffee or something. He said no and asked me to sit down for a minute, I sensed an unusual situation as he was acting very different than normal. I wondered what he wanted as he looked very tired.

He then shocked me by saying, “I just came in from the patio. Sometimes this job is really hard. Not everybody is easy to work with like you guys.” I was floored. I then understood more clearly the treatment that we were receiving, how much he trusted the studio and valued what we were doing and how we were doing it.

I explained what had happened to my designers. We then noticed that he would often come in to just talk and joke around. He would glance at the models, but just rest for a few minutes, make a few comments, and leave. This trusting behavior helped us immensely, as we were designing both the Eldorado and Seville at the same time. The only time in my career that I experienced that responsibility as a Chief Designer.

Chuck was a strong person both physically and mentally, but suddenly I saw the immense pressure that he was under as Vice President. Yet, he did not waiver, on his last day of work as the Vice President of Design he gathered all of his Directors in his office and handed out assignments even though he would not be there to see them finished.

He was missed by all of us very much, even more as time went on.

Chuck-Jordan

What was he like to work with or for?

I enjoyed working for Chuck very much. I worked to earn his trust and was given great freedom for many years. I came to feel that I worked with him and not for him and this was very evident during the Cadillac programs (Seville and Eldorado). At that time he treated me as an equal as we struggled to achieve the desired results for Cadillac. This was a very challenging time for Chuck, the biggest challenge that he would face in his six year assignment as Vice President of Design Staff.

After eighteen months as Vice President he was able to present the designs for the 1992 Eldorado and Seville to corporate management. They both had rave reviews in product clinics.  His careful management of the Cadillac effort at Design resulted in an excellent result under extreme corporate scrutinity and the required high expectations.

I grew to be very straight forward with him, and my designers learned to be that way also. With me he was more of an observer  but we always sought his approval. Normally when Chuck came into a studio, everything stopped and a little show would be put on to explain the current direction. In Cadillac he would just wave us on. The situation was well understood. I responded once when asked what it was like during the Cadillac days, how was management to work with? I said: “There were no captains. Every one bails when the ship is sinking.” That was true. Cadillac sales were a disaster as the corporation required an inappropriate response from Cadillac resulting in cars that were too small for the customers.  Chuck acted like we were all equals from the first day I went in to the day I left.

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How did he deal with the increasing (usually negative) influence of other priorities (Marketing, Finance, Engineering, Manufacturing) over Design?

I do not recall Chuck really having any great battles with manufacturing or engineering. He did have some but trusted us to fight to get the best out of everyone. He did make comparisons with other products and would show up in difficult meetings to support us. I think in Germany he really had to fight to get the Rekord Coupe into production. I think that was a financial issue.

Chuck did fight for design—this was remembered when I went to Germany because I was told by Opel engineering that they wanted me to “Fight for design the way Chuck Jordan did when he was here.”

Many thanks to Dick Ruzzin. Published by permission.

15 Comments
  1. john m. mellberg

    Gary and Dick,
    Thanks to you both for bringing this excellent commentary about our friend and fellow designer/mentor, Chuck Jordan. As with his predecessors, he too was a one of a kind, however, that being said, he was truly the designers designer, and his passion for car design was infectious, appreciated and respected. He was also a fine, kind and generous person. He no doubt would be humbled and yet well pleased with your presentation here.

    Thank you for sharing this fine remembrance. He’s creative presence and car design passion are sorely missed!

    Kind regards,
    John M. Mellberg
    Automotive Designer (Ret’d.)
    DESIGN CONCEPTS Studio

  2. John Houlihan

    Excellent piece Mr. Ruzzin. I owe me entire design career to Charlie Jordan. He approved my hire in 1966. I must add that Bob Veryzer was instrumental in helping me sort out my thin portfolio and pointing out what to stress and what to gloss over. I had (luckily) some sketches of trains and big earth moving equipment which Bob thought might appeal to Mr Jordan. Also he pulled out some rough sketches of a three wheeler (two in front one in back) and coached me on what to say about three wheelers and Morgans in particular.

    The interview went well thanks to Bob’s advise an Mr. Jordan actually seemed to like the three wheeler rough sketches. Anyway, two weeks later Roger Martin called me with the job offer opening the door to the rest of my life.

    I am eternally grateful to GM, Bob Veryzer and Charlie Jordan.

  3. Chuck was a very enthusiastic and kind gentleman, who was always willing to discuss design and offer help and suggestions when asked by anyone interested in the craft He is missed…

  4. Bob Forrest

    I love this series of articles and feel that car designers never get much credit for their work. Unlike architects their work surrounds us and allows us to own their art. It is great to learn about the man behind the cars we lusted for but it would have been much better to show examples of that work. Even if the actual artwork is not available photos must be all over the internet. To bring back memories and educate examples would have made the article much better.

    Bobf

  5. Ah, good ol’ Chuck Jordan,

    I worked for him in summer 1954. He was in charge of the Euclid studio. This was in the exclusive Plant 8 (converted warehouse) downtown Detroit. Euclid was a new General Motors division, the heavy duty vehicle company having been purchased by GM in 1953. Our job was to redesign the Euclid emblem (new red background) and devise a distinctive paint job (light green to distinguish it from Caterpillar yellow). Harley Earl rarely popped into Plant 8. So the atmosphere was most laid back; coffee percolating, radio blaring all day, Playboy magazine (hotcha! this was 1954, remember) circulating regularly. Good times.

    They didn’t last. In fall ‘54 I was condemned to the Oldsmobile Studio, with Art Ross in charge. He’d pop into the studio 5 minutes before quitting time for a “session” e.g., we designers forced to listen to his hour long rants about whatever…on our own time (Attn: Bernie Smith. Remember?).

    So thanks for the good times, Chuck.

  6. Ron Will

    Thanks Dick for this wonderful all around remembrance of Chuck Jordan. You portrayed him so well, I can see him confidently walking into the studio and all his designers coming to attention. His presence was commanding. Chuck did not mince words. Either you were on the right track or you needed to dig deeper with more sketches to find that just right design. In later years he did not forget his designers. I entered three Ferrari designs in the annual League of Retired Designers show. When Chuck saw them, he called me personally to say, “Ron you hit it out of the ball park with these Ferraris” That was the best compliment you could ever get as a designer, was the approval of Chuck Jordan. We will all miss him.

  7. George Madjeric

    Loved reading this Dick! Brought back many early memories for me as a young studio engineer. I hired into GM Design when Chuck Jordon became VP of Design. So many great times watching and learning about styling as I began my career under his leadership. Short story, when I interviewed for a position at GM Design, I was asked if I preferred interior or exterior. I answered interior and explained why. In my response, I had mentioned a Ferrari, not necessarily in a positive light, but needless to say that is what they remembered most about the interview. I didn’t know at the time of the interview that Chuck loved or had a Ferrari let alone knew anything about him. Either way, they hired me and my first day of work, Joe Ptak walked me down to the executive garage and stopped before entering and there parked in the wash bay was a Ferrari Testarossa. Joe looked at me and says, “That is why we hired you”.

  8. John Manoogian II

    Thanks, Gary & Dick for the great article about CMJ. I always had the utmost respect and admiration for Chuck as a designer and a leader. From the day he hired me at Art Center, until his passing, he had a large influence on myself and my career at GM Design. We had our ups and downs over the years, but I never lost my respect for his passion for design and automobiles. All that I am and whatever I was able to achieve as a designer, I owe a debt of gratitude to Chuck. I worked very hard to please him, knowing how high his standards were. We worked hard and played hard, and there was never a dull moment. He was one of my biggest supporters when I was working to earn a Graduate Business Degree, in spite of his doubts.

    I miss his conversations about cars and design. He remains a true legend in the history of automobile design. RIP, Chuck!

  9. Roy Lonberger

    Excellent article Dick. Three points about Chuck:

    1. He personally championed my employment at GM after I had worked at Ford. It took him two years and numorous meetings with the Executive Board. Finally, he received approval and I was hired. I owe my GM career to Chuck.

    2. The line I remember most: “Show me, don’t tell me”. That was his mantra for design. If it wasn’t on the wall, it did not exist to him. It challenged everyone to become better designers.

    3. And on a personal note, Chuck learned that I had crashed my 56 Chevy before the weekend that my daugheter was to be born. Late on a Friday, he called down to me and offered his car for me to use for the weekend, while I took my wife to the hospital.

    He cared. He was elegant. He was talented. I busted my tail to please him.

    Roy

  10. I knew Chuck for many years, first at GM then later in San Diego after we had both retired. I was so impressed with his work with the kids at the El Cajon highschool where he taught a class, driving from Rancho Santa Fe to El Cajon DAILY. He did this without being paid… just one measure of his character.
    I had the chance to help him out hanging the Retired Auto Designers part of the San Diego Auto Museum’s Ferrari show and I treasure those days with this extraordinary man.

  11. Clark LIncoln

    Of course we all had our “moments” with Chuck. He was a mad dog sometimes, gritting his teeth and poking you in the chest to make a point. But at least you always knew where you stood with him – unlike some other bosses. No question about his commanding and impressive presence – he set the standard for all us younger designers.
    My favorite quote – when he was reviewing designs and you would try and explain how you would improve your design – he’d say “My ears can’t see “.
    My most lasting memory when I was developing Alias for studio designers to use, he would always bring important visitors into the studio (Advanced 2) to show them “the future”. He, however did not like computers and never understood how they could be used creatively, and one day he was poking me in the chest and said ” I don’t trust you about any of this computer stuff” He was very frustrated about the whole business of designers using tools he couldn’t.
    Of the four VP’s I worked under he was hands down the best – mad dog and all.

  12. David McIntosh

    Chuck was one of my mentors for design. I was lucky to work for him during the 1960s when I felt his influence was the strongest. When I designed the Reatta, he was less involved, but when the car was done he called to tell me what a good job we had done. He also got me tickets for the gala night at the Detroit Auto Show when the Reatta was unveiled. He could be stern and also funny, but always an advocate for newer and better design. I had great respect for him.

  13. Dick Ruzzin

    To: Bob Forest,

    The article was about the man as you state in the beginning of your comment. It was not about the work behind the programs that he directed.

    You will ‘not’ find the sketches on the internet in large volumes as you suggest, in fact you will find very few. Throughout his career the amount of sketches, discussion and intellectual struggle driving the work behind the designs that he directed would be huge and beyond comprehension. His special skill, talent and ability was to choose the right designs.

    Your suggestion is another article of it’s own.
    Dick Ruzzin

  14. Sheldon Payne

    Someone once told me, I can’t remember who (Ray Koenig perhaps), that Chuck did a very kind, but risky, thing on behalf of Masaji (“Bud”) Sugano, one of Harley Earle’s favorite tech stylists. Bud was sort of Mr Earle’s go-to-guy when he wanted someone to draw out an idea full size.
    As it happened, Bud was a translator in the US Army during WWII, ironically while his parents were interned in a relocation camp. After the war, he came to work at GM Styling and became known to Mr Earle as a good technical stylist. Unfortunately Mr Earle called him “Jap” rather than by his name, when giving him direction in the studio.
    I don’t know the sequence of events exactly, but Chuck also knew of Bud and used him on projects like the Aero Train and was troubled by the way Earle talked to Bud. So one day he spoke to Earle about it, indicating that this was probably offensive (we’d say culturally insensitive today) and not a good way to treat the man.
    As is well known, Earle was very proud, but he did stop calling him “Jap.” Without any official apology, Earle simply switched to calling Bud “Chap,” as though he had been doing so all along.
    Bud was my mentor when I first hired in to Styling in 1969 and was a very nice person, as well a good tech stylist. He both respected and admired Chuck Jordan very much, and said so to me on more than one occasion.

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