An excerpt from the upcoming book, Dean’s Garage.
Becoming a Car Designer
This whole car design thing was an accident. Yes, I was interested in cars; I customized plastic models and sometimes I would get my hands on a Road & Track magazine, but I didn’t draw cars in the margins of my textbooks like most car fanatics when I was young. I was attending Ohio University, studying mechanical engineering, having no idea what a mechanical engineer even did. My father was a machinist working for U.S. Steel in the late ’60s, and he knew I liked to build things, and thought that possibly engineering would be a profession that would suit me. I had built a number of Soap Box Derby race cars, and had entered the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild contest. What was lurking in me at this point hadn’t been discovered yet.
My father brought home the U.S. Steel book, Concepts, that Syd Mead had illustrated of future vehicle concepts promoting the use of steel. With the images from that book and building Craftsman’s Guild cars, I had this inkling that someone designs cars and I wanted to do that. A great idea, but I didn’t draw much of anything at this point. With the aspiration of becoming a car designer, I found out that there was an Industrial Design program at Ohio University. I signed up for my first art class in ’65 and discovered I kind-of liked this thing called art. However, I quickly realized I was at the wrong school, but to get into an art school I needed a portfolio. I needed to accelerate learning how to draw proficiently, so whenever I would be back in the Cleveland area to visit my parents I would hang out at Cleveland Institute of Art and try to figure out how students in the transportation department were able to draw those amazing car sketches.
I graduated from college, had my portfolio in hand, and headed off to interview with GM and Chrysler. I never interviewed with Ford with the wisdom of a twenty-one year old, I had decided that I didn’t really like Fords. Approaching the front entry to GM Design building in 1968 was a humbling experience for me. My portfolio was reviewed and I was told, “Nice stuff kid, why don’t you go back to school and in a year and come see us again.”
I drove over to Chrysler and heard the same mantra, but Chrysler said they would offer me a job as a creative sculptor, and I could work on my portfolio and resubmit it at a later time. I took Chrysler’s offer. I worked at Chrysler for less than 90 days and they had a major cutback, “first in, first out.”
I went back to work creating a new portfolio and set-up an interview with GM Design hoping for the best. When I went back to GM Design I was told to leave my portfolio in the personnel office, and the head of personnel and I went up to the second floor cafeteria for a coffee until a designer would be available to review my work. Upon returning to the personnel office, there was my portfolio, open, and sketches spread out on a table. I assumed that was not a good omen, but to my amazement I was offered a job. I started out in the Design Development Studio, was drafted two months later, and would not return to GM for two years.
After a stint in Vietnam I was finally back to what I wanted to do, design cars. My first studio was Buick Studio. I was with a level of talent that was beyond anything I could have imagined. In Buick Studio were designers Ted Schroeder, Graham Bell, Allan Flowers, and Steve Pasteiner. My wife would ask me, “How are you doing at work?” My response was always the same, “They are going to fire me. You have no idea how good these guys are.”
I remember Ron Hill coming up to me one day saying, “Why don’t you take your sketch and do it as a full size airbrush rendering.” Panic overcame my entire body—airbrush, how do I do that? Steve Pasteiner saved me with coaching from the sidelines. As the years went on my design vocabulary grew because of the people I was around and the different studios I was part of. The experiences were exciting, the challenges were varied, and my time at GM Design was rewarding.
During a thirty-year career with General Motors, I focused on design projects with Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Chevrolet, and Cadillac. On the international scene I interfaced with General Motors counterpart, Opel, as well as working with the team at Pininfarina Design, before becoming chief designer for Cadillac studio,
I was chief designer for the electric-powered GM EV-1, the first electric car made for production by General Motors. This car design thing turned out just fine.