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.