An excerpt from the upcoming book, Dean’s Garage. Photo: Gary Smith

1958 Oldsmobile story

by Bernie Smith

In 1956, I was a designer working on the 1958 Oldsmobile design. Earl had become convinced that the American public wanted larger and larger cars with increasingly more chrome, or chromium, as he called it. Most of the designers resisted this movement towards more bright work but they knew that Earl would ultimately have his way.

We were struggling to get a design theme for the ‘58 Olds and Earl was really giving the Olds design chief, Art Ross, a hard time. I knew that Earl liked almost anything with a “bullet” shape so I did a very large rendering of a design with a reverse bullet shape that came off the headlamps and flowed back onto the front door. I used just enough chrome to attract his attention and rendered the car in black with the bullet shape accented in red, one of his favorite color combinations. You could say that I sold part of my soul to the devil, but we desperately needed a theme before he fired the entire bunch of us.

When I was finished with the rendering, I put it up by the studio entranceway, a choice spot that I knew would catch Earl’s attention as he walked by. I had no sooner gotten back to my desk when Earl popped through the door. Sure enough, he stopped and looked at the rendering for what seemed like a long time. Then he poked his head into the studio and asked where Arthur was. Art Ross was the Olds chief designer then and was my immediate boss. Art had been in his office near the entrance way with the door closed. He must have seen Mr. Earl through his glass window. He came bursting out of his office to greet Earl. Earl quickly led Art over to my rendering and said, “Arthur, you got the design right here under your nose and you don’t realize it.”

I was at my desk across the room, so I missed most of the rest of the conversation. Earl did most of the talking and I could tell that Art Ross was not a happy man. I had not considered the possibility that Mr. Earl would see my rendering before Art did. I had not been in Arts good graces anyway and I was sure this would seal my fate. On one hand, he should have been pleased to finally have a design that Earl liked. But on the other hand, I’m sure he didn’t like the idea of doing a design on which he had not passed judgment. The design was modeled in full-size clay and it became the central theme for the ‘58 Olds. Art gave me little say in the execution of the design and Mr. Earl kept adding more bright work.

A few samples of Bernie Smith’s Artwork

14 Comments
  1. john

    Great story! When looking for a theme, times could get tense in the studio.

  2. What a great story Bernie. As I remember Earl usually used the word “kronium” to describe the bright work he so loved. No one would dare correct him, so we all used that word in the studio with a smile. Those sketches of yours are so reminiscent of a great era in American design. A couple of those should have been Motorama material. Thanks for sharing!

  3. John

    Good to hear from Bernie. I worked for Bernie Smith in Preliminarily Design Studio. This was my first assignment out of Design Development Studio, or as some called it “ The School”.

    It would be hard to find a kinder, friendlier gentleman than Bernie. He was very patient and supportive to me as a new designer when I needed it most. I owe him a great debt of gratitude for his gentle and instructive council.

    John Houlihan

  4. Dave North

    I consider Bernie Smith to be the #1 best influence for me during my time atGM Styling-Design! Great guy in every way! Designer- Pal- go to guy whenI needed advice, or guidance. David R North

  5. Glen Durmisevich

    Bernie, I enjoyed working for you in the Advances Studios.
    That’s a great story. Shows that doing the right sketch at the right time and getting the big boss to see it pays off. Even if your immediate boss doesn’t see it first.

  6. J J Shifty

    Great story and great design. 58’s stood out. Back when cars were different every year.

  7. Jon Albert

    In the first part of my career at GM Design, I was privileged to know Bernie, but never had the opportunity to work for him, since my early work was primarily interior design and he was a manager of exterior talent. I think a component missing from the GM Design culture was the tendency, in their focus on future products, to ignore history and the individual contributions of their established design management that got them to their positions. There is one of Bernie’s sketches (“Stiletto”) that clearly influenced the GM-X (later Pontiac Cirrus) concept car that was part of GM’s ‘Futurama’ exhibit at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. That car pointed the way to GM design philosophy through the last half of the 1960s, and until now, I never realized that Bernie was connected to it.

  8. Hi. I don’t even know Bernie Smith, But I like him. Fantastic sketches. Inspiring. I’m an ex-Ford Design Guy so what do I know, except I had several friends who were GM Designers and they were all Great talents with wonderful Stories about our culture.

    You Rock Bernie Smith. I would have enjoyed working With you as well!

    Cheers, Chris Dowdey

  9. Robert

    Great story!

  10. Edmond Phillibert

    Very beautiful sketches and thank you for sharing your story. I know that the second picture was pertaining to the Oldsmobile’s counterpart of the x-100 program which led eventually to The Olds F-85. I don’t know the xp-82 program, I would be interested to know further.

  11. Randy Queen

    58 Oldsmobile was proof Harley Earl had reached his point of no longer being considered genius of what the public wanted. Only 58 model car worse than a 58 Olds was the Edsel and maybe that was a toss up.

  12. Stan Mott

    Ah, the days back in Art Ross’ 1954 Oldsmobile Studio. Don Hoag sat in front of me, I sat in front of Bernie Smith, and Bernie sat in front of Georgie.

    My favorite Harley Earl quote of the time was, to express his dissatisfaction with a particular design, “If my grandmother saw that design she’d say ‘I’d never drive that son of a bitch!’” No one laughed. But it’s been cracking me up ever since.

    Stan Mott

  13. Charles Cerulla

    What a wonderful article on the 1958 Oldsmobile’s beginning at the drafting board. I own a family purchased original Super 88 4Dr. Sedan 49k. The “Love Of My Life”!!! Thank You, Chuck Cerulla

  14. My first day at GM was Jan 1965. In the Styling lobby was the GM-X with Santa inside. I marveled at the design, the absence of lines, and the wonderful subtle surfaces. I did not realize until fifty years later when writing my book that Bernie was responsible for the car.

    To me, one of the best designers at GM, a “class act”, and a gentleman.

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