by Bill Porter

When I first went into Pontiac production studio in the winter of 1959 I had just come from over a year’s experience in Bob McLean’s Styling Research Studio, working alongside Norm James and Stefan Hapsburg, a couple of creative geniuses. They had been responsible for the turbine powered Firebird show cars. Norm designed the Firebirds II and III. Incidentally, his book Of Firebirds and Moonmen is a remarkable chronicle of this work and an insightful personal journey into the GM Styling world of the 1950s.


Bill Porter’s 1961 Pontiac Sedan vs. Streamliner in Indigo Blue Prismacolor pencil on vellum.


I was obviously totally infused with the kind of Research Studio thinking that prevailed in these last days of the Harley Earl era. We were working on high speed automated highway systems, New York City taxis, and other projects which applied the latest technological thinking to problems of significant social import. It was a very idealistic, if admittedly ivory tower, atmosphere. The clay models in the platforms in Pontiac Studio seemed very conservative and almost backward to my naive eyes. To vent my feelings along these lines I did a number of sketches of what I conceived to be advanced streamlined sedans shown alongside the brand new 1961 Pontiac fiberglass model sitting in the studio. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the looks of the new Pontiac—the all-new ’61 body being a great improvement on the bulkier ‘59s and ‘60s, in my mind. But as the sketch shows, it belonged to another, much more conservative genre than my vision of what a modern car should be.

If I recall correctly, and my memory banks aren’t what they used to be, I had seen some high-tail Porsche race cars and was interested in sweeping up the undersurface of the tail of the car to produce a low pressure area that would not only hold the tail down at 100+mph speeds, but would help suck air under the fully panned underbelly. Looking back at this sketch now, some 50 years later, I can see clearly that it needs a bump to clear the differential (the transverse fwd layout was still 25 years in the future) and the car is far too wide, even for Pontiac’s newly created “wide track” stance. Nevertheless, I am glad this sketch survived because it illustrates the vast difference within the GM corporation between the idealistic thinking of the researchers and the production studio realities. These coexisted briefly at the beginning of what are coming to be thought of as the Golden Years of the American automobile industry.

Jack Humbert, the greatly respected Pontiac studio chief in those years, was very tolerant of my naiveté. He didn’t put me down at all, bless him. Gradually, in the next few weeks I descended back to this earth and brought with me another aesthetic aspect of aerodynamics which occupied my youthful vision, ”area rule,” the newly developed fuselage shape for supersonic jets. I began sketching around the “coke bottle” shaped body side idea, which eventually found its way, although timidly, into the 1963 Pontiac line. Other designers picked up this idea and it and its sister theme, the “monocoque” cross section influenced many of the later cars that I had a hand in (1968 GTO, 1970 Firebird, 1995 Riviera, for example) as well as a number of cars from GM and other manufacturers.

This is one of only two of this series of my early Pontiac Studio sketches that have survived. The other, in reverse photostat form (white on black), is in the exhibition “Designing an Icon” (see Upcoming Events page for details). It shows a side view of a related streamliner next to the same ’61 Pontiac Star Chief fiberglass model. Designing an Icon is scheduled to open at the University of Houston on September 24th, 2009, then moves to the Peoria, Illinois Art Association in April, 2010.

Bill Porter, copyright 6/9/2009

  1. Ron Will

    Bill Porter’s comments about his first experiences at GM Design (GM Styling back then) are probably similar to many young designers starting out. The first studio GM put you in as a new hiree was “Design Development.” It was a training studio to get you going before unleashing you in a real production studio. I was eager to show GM how to design a real car because theirs were square and boxy (couldn’t they see that?). So I designed all these round cars with pointy noses and tails. Finally the studio chief told me to stop designing footballs and start designing cars. With that abrupt comment my design school dream world of car design ended and the real world of car design began. The studio should have been called “Designer Development.”

  2. By the time I got to GM Design Staff they had dispensed with Design Development Studio. I was put into Advanced Chevrolet led by Ron Hill with assistant Geza Loczi. They pretty much let me draw cars and introduced me to the art of mockup making. The latter proved possibly ultimately more useful than the former. Then three months later I was transferred to Pontiac II led by John Schinella. That was a real eye opener from many perspectives, most of which I wouldn’t care to recount.

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