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.

Dennis Little’s GM Renderings

  1. Wow, Dennis Little was a joy to work with. I was a Designer at ASC Design with Mark Trostle Sr. Every once in awhile we had a specialty GM show vehicle or project build and Dennis was the GM rep. From Design. Absolutely a most pleasant professional. Never overbearing. Very engaging and easy to work with. All the GM Design team Were great to work with but Dennis was very special, very talented and had a wonderful way with people on any project.
    Cheers, Chris Dowdey

  2. I see some of the Sid Mead influence in some of the renderings.
    I would like to see his Fisher Body Craftsman model. I received a state award in my home state of New York in 1959. We are working on setting up permanent displays
    around the country for these models to try and inspire the youth to peruse their automotive interests.

  3. 98 REGENCY

    I thank you for sharing. I recognize the designer’s name and his work for Pontiac and Oldsmobile. I liked looking at the sketches and reading about his background. I think he is the same guy who did the downsized 1985 Oldsmobile 98. am not sure, but I have books in my home with his name in them and on sketches. I know he worked on Seville and Eldorado for 1992. I know he worked on Oldsmobile Aurora as well. I know he worked on the N bodies, E Bodies as W Bodies as witnessed by the sketches above. I think I may have a letter in my home from him when I wanted to work for GM designing cars years ago ( 1980’s). I did find info on him in a Cadillac Eldorado book in my home. Thank you for sharing.

  4. John manoogian II

    Thanks for showcasing Dennis’ work. A true professional and a genuine great person.

  5. Clark Lincoln

    Clark Lincoln

    Dennis and I both started at GM about the same time, and I also started out studying ME at Texas A&M, but after a couple of years found out about ID…
    Anyway Dennis and I never really worked together (I don’t think) but we did hang out together and got along very well. I always felt he was a bit better designer than I, but never felt like we were in competition – just friends always willing to help each other if ever needed… Always the gentleman, well dressed and great posture! And it looks like he and Bev are enjoying retirement!

  6. Dennis and I worked together in Cadillac Studio on the 1992 Seville and Eldorado as well as the rest of the Cadillac line-up before and after. His greatest skill was not his design ability, although it was without question outstanding. His greatest contribution was his ability to see things clearly and to have and communicate the greatest confidence that we would succeed. The four of us were very frustrated for months because we could not visualize a solution for either car that met our own internal expectation of what they shoud be.

    Dennis was steady, trusted by Design management and Cadillac Division, he was always there with a solution. He had a great influence on our success and was admired by the whole studio for his honesty and creativity.

    Dick Ruzzin

  7. Glen Durmisevich

    Nice article Dennis. We worked together in Cadillac and Oldsmobile. Dennis is a great guy and good designer. He and was always calm and collected, which is a trait I picked up on that served me well. We had fun. Thanks Dennis.

  8. Walter Gomez

    Great designs and renderings as expected. I loved seeing the Olds Silhouette rendering! There’s a mint condition one just down the street from me; it’s so low and small compared to today’s minivans.

  9. I had the pleasure of working with you near the end of my career with GM in Cadillac studio. Not only working with you but being able to have you as a friend for 50 years, since our starting years at GM. Erika and I have shared many great times with you and Beverly, traveling and watching our families grow. Stay well.God bless.

  10. David MCIntosh

    I worked with Dennis as Assistant in Cadillac, starting with the 1998 Seville, and others. Always a pleasure to work for and with. It’s great to know how people get into this business. Thanks Gary and Dennis.

  11. Be thankful you had a dad that encouraged you. All I had ever wanted was to be a car designer. I was the kid described as always drawing cars in the margins of his notebook. Except, often, it was whole pages, forgoing the notes I was supposed to be taking. When my step-dad asked what I wanted to do, I said design cars. He responded, “What do you think you’re gonna do, walk up to GM and asked them for a job? You better get your head out of the clouds.”. That was enough to bust the bubble of a 13 old boy. I bounced around for awhile, trying things that didn’t really suit me and wound up in the automotive industry anyway. But not in the way I had hoped. Great job on the Silhouette, by the way. Always thought it was the best of the U-bodies.

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