Car Designs of the 1937 Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild
by Ron Will
Heritage photos from 1937 provided with the compliments of General Motors.
In 1930 the contest began with boys age 11 to 19 challenged to build, paint and upholster a scale model of the symbol of Fisher Body, the elegant Napoleonic Coach. A basic kit of unfinished wood, upholstery and castings along with a detailed assembly book were all that the boys were given to build a highly detailed model. The prizes included $47,350 in cash and college scholarships, a lot of money in 1930. The lack of income in the depression provided an added incentive for young boys to build a model that would get them a college degree that otherwise would be out of reach. Thousands entered and over 1,300 finished coaches were received in 1931.
In the 1930s, car design was becoming a more important part of the incentive to purchase a particular model. In 1927 Harley Earl, a California Hollywood custom car designer for the stars, was hired by GM to design the new Cadillac LaSalle. It was a resounding success and resulted in GM Hiring Earl in 1928 to head up a new Art and Color Section, later to be called GM Styling and now called GM Design. Besides engineers, Earl saw a need to find talented car designers and sought to add car design to the Guild contest.
The coach contest continued, but in 1937 1/12 scale model car designs were finally added as a separate part of the Guild contest. The entrants only received a page of specifications and a guide book with methods of building their model. Only four door sedans were allowed in the beginning.
GM was kind enough to release many photos of those early 1937 Guild model years from their archives. We have posted a sample selection of those models.
That first year of the car design produced some remarkable models, far advanced for their time. However to judge these designs, it’s important to have a reference to the production designs of the period, like this 1936 Chevrolet and 1936 Ford, still designed with flat glass, separate headlights, separate fenders and running boards. Guild models for the 1937 contest were started in 1936.
Just as in later years, there were models of excellent design and perfect craftsmanship. Others were not far removed from the block of wood they were carved from. Nevertheless, every model completed was an accomplishment. Of the hundreds of thousands that entered, only a few percent actually finished entering a car model or coach.
Unfortunately, the war years interrupted the Guild contest after 1937. It was not re-started again until 1945. A few models were built for the 1938 Guild contest that was cancelled. We wonder how many young, gifted car designers lost the opportunity to show their skills and perhaps become top car designers during those missing years.
In later years, the Guild models were built as part of school shop classes. Modelers formed Guild Clubs to trade ideas and compare designs. At one point, the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild was second only to the Boy Scouts of America as one of the largest youth oriented activities.
Many models moved far beyond the stodgy designs of the 1930s and looked forward to rear engine designs and sleek aerodynamics. Many got rid of running boards and separate fenders, styling smooth body sides that would not come into popularity until the 1950s. They also predicted that exterior door hinges should disappear.
Many young boys probably lived in homes with few tools to shape their models, but they did the best they could.
Not many of those early 1937 models survive today, but here are a few.
The car design part of the Guild contest became far more popular than the coach contest. So, the coach competition was dropped in 1948. The Guild car design competition continued for 20 more years until 1968. GM was not the only benefactor in finding talented designers. Many Guildsmen were also hired by Ford, Chrysler, and even foreign car manufacturers. The influence of the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild is still felt far and wide with classic and distinctive car designs created by Guild car designers who are now part of automotive history.
Postscript: Both myself and Gary Smith of Deans Garage owe our car design careers to our participation in the Guild contest many years ago.