From Sketches, Special Edition, April 24, 1991
As we put this special edition of Sketches together in honor of Dave’s retirement, certain aspects of Dave’s character surfaced again and again in conversation with a dozen different people: Dave’s “generosity of spirit” and willingness to share his wide breadth of knowledge on the automobile industry in general and classic cars in particular; his dedication to both his craft and his friends; his commitment to helping others with their projects, often going the extra mile to make a difference; and, of course , his hearty laugh which makes others feel comfortable and instantly at home. As Strother MacMinn so aptly stated, “Here’s to Dave Holls, the best friend to every delighted designer who had the great good luck to cross his path…A once-in-a-lifetime friend!” Connie Bouchard put it another way when he said that Dave’s retirement will be a loss to GM , but his friends and all the classic car buffs of the world will be thrilled to have him full-lime now instead of part lime! Best of luck, Dave, and have a happy, healthy, and enthusiastic retirement. We know you will!
Dave Holls, GM’s Director of Design, retires May 1, 1991, after a distinguished career with General Motors Design Staff spanning nearly forty years.
He joined GM in June of 1952 during the last decade of Harley Earl’s vice presidency of GM’s Styling Section. A new graduate of Michigan State University’s Industrial Design program, Dave’s first ‘real’ studio assignment at GM was in the Cadillac Studio under Ed Glowacke. Dave recalls that ‘Ed took me under his wing and tried to make something of a jewel out of an awful rough stone: One of his first assignments was the 1953 Coupe de Ville emblem. ‘That was my first contribution and it was a big deal to me at that time.”
Shortly after he started working for GM, Dave was drafted into the Army. but not before he had the opportunity to work on the 1955 Cadillac models. While he was in the Service, he received a call from his Captain summoning him to his office because of a package that arrived from General Motors. Referring to the contents, the Captain said, ‘what is this? The new Cadillac? My God, they want you to sign the patents for it. Did YOU do it?’ Private Holls had an easier time with the Army brass after that encounter. He returned to GM in 1955 after two years in the Army. There have only been four leaders of General Motors’ Design organization and Dave Holls had the opportunity to work with all four vice presidents: Harley Earl, William L. Mitchell, Irvin W. Rybicki, and Charles M. Jordan. Dave’s early years at GM coincided with the end of the Earl era. He recalls him as ‘a very imposing figure…you were always a little bit in terror of Mr. Earl…it was MR. EARL…I think he wanted it that way.
After the ’50s came to a close and Harley Earl approached retirement, the designers were ripe for a change in design direction. Dave recalls one memorable day that led to the next design explosion: “somebody said, my God, you have got to go down to the end of Mound Road and see those new Chrysler products. So we drove down Mound Road and headed around to the back of the lot where the grass was just a little bit higher than it should have been and these fins shot out of the grass! These cars were absolutely unbelievable and we said, ‘they blew us out of the tub.” Mr. Earl was away in Europe and while he was gone almost every studio started a new model; it was sort of like you had to beat them.” The results included the 1959 Cadillac: Dave now refers to 1959 as “our year of total excess.” During the early 1960s Dave was named Chief Designer of Buick Studio and later Group Chief Designer of Chevrolet and Truck Studios. That was a period he recalls with substantial pride. Bill Mitchell was the staff’s new vice president, and General Motors was the automobile industry’s undisputed design leader. Bill Mitchell assembled a team of young chief designers: Irv Rybicki in Chevrolet, Jack Humbert in Pontiac, Stan Wilen in Oldsmobile, Holls in Buick, and Chuck Jordan in Cadillac. This team was responsible for many phenomenally successful cars, but Dave characterizes the 1965 GM products “the highlights of General Motors Corporation: calling each car a “knockout.” The style and individuality of these vehicles led to their success in the marketplace and helped build the careers of Dave Holls and his colleagues. Mitchell was very proud of this young design team and each of the men eventually moved into a senior executive position with GM Design.
Pressed to name his favorites among the many cars that he worked on over the years, Dave places the ’70-1/2 Camaro at the very top of his list. Others important to him are the 1966 Riviera, the 1970 Monte Carlo, and the 1959 Cadillac. (Who could forget the statement those fins made?)
Dave Holls talent and enthusiasm for automobiles and automotive design was not limited to his professional career at General Motors. He is a well-known classic car collector and a renowned automotive historian. These interests led him to serve as the co-founder of the Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance which he continues to participate in every year as chairman of the judging committee. He was recently asked to judge the Paris Concours and looks forward to that experience with relish. An avid collector and restorer, the Holls collection includes a 1932 Cadillac Convertible Coupe, a 1935 Auburn Supercharged Speedster, a 1940 Packard Darrin, and a 1941 Lincoln Continental—all housed in a new garage and workshop where Dave works on his projects.
Dave Holls retirement from General Motors in no way signals the end of his career in the automobile business; he has merely switched gears. Two large and important projects are on the immediate horizon and the telephone continues to ring with new opportunities. He has agreed to collaborate with a well-known writer (Michael Lamm) to produce a book on the history of automotive design and will help establish a major automotive museum on the east coast. There is no doubt that Dave Holls contributions to automotive design will continue through his writing, his collecting and his wide influence in the profession.
Dave Holls On Design Integrity
“Bill called me Into his office one time and he said, “How you doing, kid?” and I said, ‘fine.’ He said, ‘No you’re not. You’re getting in bed with your damn general manager. You’re going to wake up and not know who it is in the morning’…(he meant). You could be independent, you could work for a division, but still have the goals of Design Staff at heart, and that’s what Bill wanted. Don’t ever get to the Point where a general manager can talk you into doing something that you don’t think is right, which is good advice, because the general manager isnt’t going to respect you any more for it. He’s going to know he can put you in his pocket.”
“That was probably the period when I gained the most knowledge when I worked at Opel. And, of course, you’re a one-man show there. You know, you’re really running everything, and that’s the first time you attend board of directors’ meetings, and its the first time you handle the press and this exclusively yourself, and you keep your books for your organization. It is a mini scale (VP) job.”
My First Corvette
“was a ’55…that neat, little car with a Ferrari grille and over-head valve engine and a powerpack you could buy for 40 bucks. And it looked good, and it went like a scalded weasel, you know, and boy, all of a sudden, Chevy was the in thing—so that car probably had more impact on Chevrolet Division than any one it’s ever done since.
On the Best Cars
“I think probably the culmination of all the designs that we ever did in this building for all the five divisions, were the 1965 B and C bodies that were probably the highlights of General Motors Corporation. Each car was a knockout…it was just the ’65 Chevrolet, Pontiac, Olds, Buick, and Cadillac…I still think it’s the best year.
Chronology of Dave’s Career
6/24/1952 Junior Designer, Experimental Design Studio
2/1/1953 Designer, Experimental Design Studio
6/1/53 Senior Designer, Cadillac Studio
8/3/1953 Military Leave
6/1/1955 Senior Designer, Pontiac Studio
5/1/1960 Assistant Chief Designer, Chevrolet Studio
10/1/1961 Chief Designer, Buick Studio
7/1/1966 Group Chief Designer, Chevrolet and Truck Studios
12/1/1969 Group Chief Designer, Chevrolet and Commercial Vehicle Studios
7/1/1970 Transferred to GM Overseas Operations
7/1/1974 Executive Designer, Experimental Auto Design
9/1/1977 Executive Designer, Advanced and International Auto Design
8/1/1980 Executive Designer, Advanced and Auto Exterior Design
8/1/1984 Executive Designer, North American Passenger Cars
9/1/1986 Director of Design
5/1/1991 Dave Retires
6/16/2000 Dave Holls Dies at 69
Dave’s friends wish him well on his retirement
“Dave and I have spent our entire careers together at General Motors and this place just won’t be the same without him. We grew up in the Harley Earl days, and together, worked for each of the men who ran Design Staff. Dave has been a very important part of General Motors Design for almost forty years, but he has also been a personal friend to me for that whole period. His talent, his enthusiasm for cars, and his great laugh will be missed around GM Design. Happy Retirement, Dave!” —Chuck Jordan, Vice President, General Motors Design
“His hearty laugh, his love of automobiles, a great historian, that’s Dave Holls. Dave has a great sense of humor and enjoys life heartedly. In his retirement I wish him the best life in tile whole world and I know he will have it.”—Clare MacKichan, Director of Advanced Design and Engineering, GM Design, retired
“We worked on articles for the 1934 LaSalle and the history of Cadillac together. Dave has a real ‘generosity of spirit’: he is so open and generous in sharing his love of cars and what he knows will others. In one conversation I learned all about the ’34, and a lot about the ropes in auto history. I congratulate him on his 39 years at GM, designing great cars. And if he hasn’t given any thought to his next writing project just yet, tell him I have.”—Julie Fenster, Managing Director, Beacon Hardy Books Publishing Co.
“Dave Holls has made the Meadow Brook Concours the finest classic car show in the world. He signed me up as a judge 11 years ago and I’ve been with the program ever since. We have dinners once a week and Dave will sit and doodle on napkins or scrap pieces of paper; it is a fight to see who gets them. I’ve grabbed a couple of them. He usually draws classic cars. I’ve got one or two ‘hot rod’ doodles.”—Lowell James, President, Lowell James Communications
“I’ve known Dave Halls for 25 years. I remember most how extremely helpful he has been to all lovers of classic cars: advising us on selection of colors, interior trim, striping and wheel colors. Dave just loved to do that. He probably knows more about classic cars than any other living person. We will all gain now that Dave is retired from GM. Half the classic car buffs will have him full time now, instead of part time.”—Connie Bouchard, Executive Engineer, Ford Motor Co., retired.
“Dave was the first chairman of the Meadow Brook Concours and has always been strongly committed to keeping the program very pure to reflect design excellence, not letting commercialism creep into it. Oakland University is indebted to him. Now we have built a reputation in the classic car community. Dave has given his all (to Meadow Brook)”—Margaret Tywman, Director, Meadow Brook Hall, Oakland
“We were both working in Cadillac (studio) in the mid ’50s going through the ‘fin’ era and trying to design the ‘ultimate’ fin, in plywood. Dave started drawing his own fins and put his name, ‘D. Holls’ right in the middle of each piece. When these drawings reached the fabrication shop, they interpreted ‘D. Holls’ to mean drill holes.—Ron Hill, Chairman, Industrial Design Dept., Art Center College of Design.
“Dave and I were buddies in the Cadillac Studio in the ’50s. Dave was in the studio cutting out tail fins; they were getting bigger and bigger and then Dave stumbled and knocked them right over onto the deck lid! I later worked for Dave in Buick. We were adding inches to a remake of an ‘A’ body; it wound up 10 inches longer than what we started with! Back in those days, Dave could make it wider, longer. and lower than anyone else, and get away with it!”—Ed Taylor, Assistant Executive, GM Design, retired
“The whole room brightens when he walks in with hearty greeting. You feel like a long last brother. That welcome goes with sharing that’s genuine appreciation of great automobile design skill. His knowledge and taste has found an inevitable focus in organizing and judging special car show events including Concours d’Elegance. His authority is especially appreciated at two prestigious events: Pebble Beach and Meadow Brook—the latter where he is both an organizer and the Chief Judge. Many Of us are indebted to Dave for his kindness and generosity far beyond the camaraderie of automobile enthusiasm. Here’s to Dave Holls, best friend to every delighted designer who has the good luck to cross his path. He is a once-in-a-lifetime friend.”—Strother MacMinn, Instructor, Art Center College of Design, Auto Historian
“Dave Holls is an extraordinary fellow. He is something special in the design business and I know of few individuals who can combine the talent, the excitement and the love of just about all kinds of automobiles together and have so much fun doing it. Back in the early ’70s Dave gave me my first real taste of international design. Dave was just finishing up his tour at Opel and was involved with the irrepressible Eric Bitter. We had lunch at the Schloss Kronberg with none other than Juan Manual Fangio. In the middle of lunch, Dave got so excited that he had to rush home and get his recent acquisition, an early thirties Auburn boat tail speedster, that he drove back to the Schloss and we all had the time of our lives!”—Keith Crain, Vice Chairman, Crain Communications University.
Dean’s Garage Footnote
Dave Holls touched my life on several occasions. I remember he would come into the studio and really study sketches on the wall, and once he asked me to do a full size rendering based on a couple of sketches. Long story short, those sketches became the 1992 Oldsmobile Achieva SCX. After I left GM, I met Dave at Barrett Jackson Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona where he signed my copy of A Century of Automotive Style. Later, through some extraordinary circumstances, I helped complete Dave’s Bugatti design.—Gary
Thanks to Dennis Wesserling for the Sketches article.
I ran across this video entitled 1967 Chevrolet Camaro Design and Testing. It’s a general overview of the development of the car with some studio shots. Dave Holls can be seen at 4:50, and makes another appearance at 5:35 with comments about the new car.
Dave was a neighbor of ours when my family lived outside Detroit (Bloomfield Township) when I was a kid during the ’60s, and my folks exchanged Christmas cards with him for many years. I just wish I could have met up with him again at Pebble Beach, when I was DRIVE! Magazine’s editor….but I’ll always have the memories!
Automotive Writer & Historian
(Former Associate Editor, VETTE/Mopar Muscle/Super Chevy/Corvette Fever Magazines 2007-14; Former Editor, DRIVE! Magazine 1998-2007)
I never met Mr. Holls, but his collaboration with Mike Lamm on A Century of Automotive Style resulted in the best book on the subject that I’ve ever read. He certainly died too young!
I didn’t meet Dave Holls until the early 1980s, working on the Concours d’Elegance Committee at Meadowbrook. I found Dave to be self-effacing and openly friendly to all. He was a joy to work with during our terms on the committee. His departure from this world saddened me then and does now. His leaving us was a loss for design. Like Tony Miller, and many others, I could not resist buying his book “A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of Car Design” and have treasured it since. Even though we worked for competing companies, he made me glad, once again, to be in the design field.
Dave Holls and I started at GM Styling the same year – 1952. Dave was one of a kind. Dave and Stan Wilen would play off each other at lunch and they were a riot. But Dave was a first class designer. I remember when he went against the tide and put single headlights on the first Monte Carlo and it sold off the charts.
Dave had one of the first Corvettes and took it to a drag race venue. Before the race, he overshot the starting line so he backed up in the proper position. When the light turned green, Dave shot off – backward! Dave had forgotten to put the gear selector back from Reverse to the Drive position.
Dave’s book with Mike Lamm is a classic. I have a copy and it is among my most prized possessions. Dave left the business far too early and sadly, passed away at a far to early age. What a guy was Dave Holls.
Dave was an energetic and enthusiastic designer. He was a good mentor and probably responsible for me getting hired at GM. I was most impressed and honored when Dave autographed his book for me, acknowledging he was aware of and approved of a Cord L-29 boatail speedster I was helping to design as if it were a custom body from the classic era. His approval meant a lot to me.
Having owned a ’66 Riviera, I was aware and appreciative of the fact that Mr. Holls was the studio chief at the time of its creation.
I was not, however, aware that he was also involved in the design of the ’70 1/2 Camaro. I was in the Dodge Studio when it came out and someone at Chrysler had managed to quickly get their hands on one. All the designers were paraded down to take a look at it and came away very impressed. The refined European (read Ferrari) influence was unmistakeable and a startling contrast to the unabashedly American musclecars taking shape in the Dodge and Plymouth studios at the time.
If GM had a Designer’s Hall of Fame, Dave Holls would definitely be a deserving inductee.
I worked with Dave when he was promoted to studio Head in Buick. That was in 1963 i believe. He had been in Cadillac with Ed Glowacki as Ed’s assistant. Working with Dave was a blast. We both had similar tastes in design and had tons of laughs together. He was directly responsible for my promotion to Pontiac as Humburt’s assistant. I went back to Buick with Dave again for three more years. He was very good natured and became the object of my practical jokes: oil under his favorite Corvette, the seemingly destruction of an expensive silk screen hanging in his office by Balthasar and myself, always taking it in the right vein, of affection and fun. When he was transfered to Germany it was like loosing my father. I don’t think I had ever worked so closely with any Studio Head as I had with Dave. The comradery was through the whole studio because of Dave. He could have made a great leader of Design Staff!
I am sure the picture above was taken when Dave Holls was at Michigan State College after WW11. The MSC Quanset huts in the background were the first home of the Art Department where he would have taken Industrial Design.
Dave was a great person and a great person to work with as many have already attested. I had the great opportunity to work for him several times both here in the USA and in Germany. He was the most genuine automobile authority that I ever met, he remembered everything he ever heard about cars and he was well recognized across the country. He never touted that, you found out about it a little at a time from others. I first worked for him in Chevrolet Studio when he became the first Chevrolet super chief in charge of all three Chevrolet car design studios.
Much later I saw that Dave was a closet people person long before it became popular. That was a risk to his career but he took it. None of us who ever worked for him knew that, when in Cadillac Studio I saw him defend us with great emotion. He was passionate about the people who worked for him as well as all the designers in our building. Dave understood that you cannot beat up the people who are responsible for creating your future.
One day Dave came into Chevrolet 1 very excited and said that “we” had finally sold the division on black and white houndstooth seat inserts for the ’69 Camaro. We all looked at him confused as we did not understand his excitement.
Almost forty years later in Auburn Indiana at a car auction with friends I was going through a tent when I saw a ’69 Z28 coupe, black with white stripes and white letter tires. I walked over to it and looked inside curious about the interior. I expected black and there were the black and white houndstooth seat inserts. Perfect. It was a modern muscle car classic. Dave was best at “sporty elegance” and it was visible in many of the cars whose design he was responsible for.
Dave was a great character, really funny and very intelligent, he loved jokes and took them very well. If he was with Stan Wilen you were in for a comedy treat without equal. They got along great although they were very different. Once at lunch Stan told Dave that his idea of restoring a car was taking it to a car wash. That was for Dave, he almost fell off of his chair.
He once told us about being called up to Bill Mitchells office when he was the new Chief Designer of Buick, the youngest studio head on Mitchells staff. Dave felt confident, maybe a little cocky. He walked in and Mitchell said:
“How are you doing kid”?
“Great” said Dave… “No you’re not!” said Mitchell… Sit down”!!!!
He then proceeded to chew Dave out about getting too close to Buick Division.
Once Bill gave him the message Dave knew he could do whatever he wanted to.
I had the great good fortune to work at Opel Design in 1971 when Dave was there early in his assignment. It was the custom of the Opel management to each drive a special car. A bigger engine or somehow customized. I had been invited to the Design staff meetings in Daves office every Monday morning and at one meeting the paint shop manager brought up the color of Daves Commodore GSE Coupe as they were ready to paint it. Dave said he wanted black and he was told he could “not” have a black car, that was impossible. Dave stiffened in his chair behind his desk, he leaned forward and his eyes bugged out of his head. (Many of you may have seen him do that).
Here he was the Director of Opel Design and he could not have his own car painted the color that he wanted.
“What”!, He said, “Why not”? The poor paint shop manager tried to explain that during the war the German SS had black cars and there were no black cars in Germany at that time.
Black was “verboten”.
Everyone in the meeting agreed. There was silence… Then Dave said:
“I WANT BLACK”. The GSE was painted black with a hand made egg-crate aluminum Ferrari style grill, big driving lights and a polished racing flip gas cap in the center of the rear end. Very nice car, it stood out, it went very fast.
Shortly after that I took my wife and two sons to the German Grand Prix at the Nurburg Ring. We wangled pit passes and before the race I heard someone call my name and looked up. There standing on the roof of the pits above me with all the German auto big wigs was Dave waving at me. He had on sunglasses, black pants and a black T-shirt with his cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve. I did not get it for weeks, then I realized he was giving all the executives from Mercedes, BMW, Audi and the rest the bird. He was a designer from the USA and they now knew it. And he was wearing black.
Dave would have made a great VP of Design but the timing just was not right. He loved cars of all kinds from the early FIAT Topolino to the Auto Union Grand Prix cars to brand new cars and anything futuristic. He credited designers from other companies for good design work, often discussing their merits with us. I think he was the only person that I have ever known who had a real sense of history and how he fit into it.
Dave was more than a great designer, he was a great man from relatively humble beginnings and his design influence on so many GM products that are now of very special interest and value is clearly his legacy.
Those were the days.
Dave is looking down on us now, probably sitting in a shiny black ’39 dual carb flat head Ford two door fastback with skirts, a shaved deck and Smittys.