The Career of Richard Nesbitt, Part One
Of the many and varied professional opportunities available in the automotive industry, the role of the designer (or stylist) has probably captured the imagination of more young men and auto enthusiasts around the world than any other. Yet, as in a professional sports career, only a comparatively small number of people actually become successful automotive designers. The following is my background and experience in the pursuit of an automotive design career.
I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on April 18, 1946. We moved around quite a bit, as my father was a radio sportscaster then, and he would receive better opportunities from time to time in other major markets around the country. From New York City and then Chicago, we moved first to St. Paul, and later Minneapolis, Minnesota, where my father became very successful as a television sportscaster.
I was 11 years old in 1957, and by then, my interest was almost totally dominated by things automotive. I had a consuming desire to draw cars wherever and whenever possible including, of course, any class time I could get away with. And I collected car dealer “promo” models and built every plastic model car kit available. New car showroom literature was highly prized and treasured, especially for the wonderful rendered illustration techniques. As the new car magazines appeared each month, I would conceal my copies in notebooks at school and dream up variations and “improvements” of the various new cars featured in each issue.
From my 11 year old point of view in 1957, car styling fell into just a few basic categories. Anything with a “wraparound” or “panoramic” windshield (basically 1955 and up) was a modern car. Curved one-piece non-wraparound windshield models were older cars, and anything with a center divided windshield and flat glass was positively ancient. Although my father had told me otherwise, I was convinced that anything made before World War II couldn’t possibly have ever been a “new” car. I was sure these vehicles came into the world looking as forlorn and worn out as they appeared in the world of 1957.
At 12 years old, I was able to draw cars well in perspective, much to the amazement of many classmates, and I could draw most recent production cars from memory. I had no idea that people were paid to illustrate and design cars for a living, and my father, a former pro-football player in the 1930’s with the Chicago Bears, and later a successful, well-known television sportscaster for KSTP Television in Minneapolis/St.Paul Minnesota, was very concerned I wasn’t giving enough thought to some form of “conventional” employment.
Very little was featured in car magazines about the automotive design profession, but when infrequent articles did appear in Motor Trend, Car Life, or Road and Track, they always made reference to a design college in Los Angeles, California called the Art Center School. The College was established specifically to prepare qualified individuals for acceptance and success in professional design, illustration, and advertising careers.
Harley Earl, creator of General Motors’ Art & Colour Section, took an early interest in Art Center College as an excellent potential source of talented future car designers. Earl worked closely with the College in the 1930s to develop a specific automotive design education program within the school’s industrial design department. Art Center became the prime, almost singular contributor of qualified graduate auto designers from the 1930s on, and is now located in a beautiful facility in Pasadena, California. I decided I wanted to attend Art Center College during my senior year in high school. Three years later, I submitted my application to the College, now officially the Art Center College of Design, and received a notice of acceptance for admission beginning in the fall of 1967.
I bought a red and white 1958 Buick Special “Estate Wagon” (really!) for $250.00, loaded up my belongings, and then headed for Route 66 west to Los Angeles. This was the psychedelic era of “Flower Power” and the “Summer of Love”, and at long last, now 21, I was finally on my way!
The College was then located in an older section of Los Angeles called Hancock Park and did not have dormitory or student housing facilities. Most of the houses in the immediate area were large English Tudor or Spanish style mansions, many with separate chauffeur’s quarters. I was able to rent a chauffeur’s quarters adjoining a garage for $35.00 a month.
It soon became apparent why Art Center didn’t generally take students right out of high school. To say the full-time program was rigorous would be the height of understatement. When I first walked into the College, I was overwhelmed by the quality of the upper semester student’s work from various majors on display in the lobby/gallery area. I was convinced I had made a serious mistake as I was sure I wasn’t capable of the superb ability demonstrated by the upperclassmen. The pace, quality, and amount of work required was phenomenal and I was constantly working on projects until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning seven days a week. Having grown up in the conservative midwest, I had always heard anything could happen in California, and my experience came during the first semester at school.
I had moved to a larger chauffeur’s quarters closer to the College on January 1, 1968, located on McCadden Street, just a block and a half behind Art Center, and within easy walking distance. The elderly lady owner of the house passed on a few months later, and the mansion was taken over by her son. The family was very wealthy, and put the property up for sale through a real estate agency they owned on Wilshire Boulevard. I was asked to stay on as a caretaker until the house sold, so I had complete use of the Spanish style mansion rent-free and all to myself for a year and a half until new owners were found.
The residence had been built in the 1920s and had been left very much as it was, in immaculate condition inside and out during the early 1940s and on by the last owners. The asking price for the 14 room mansion through 1968 was $100,000. It didn’t sell during the year and a half I was there for that amount, and was finally sold in 1969 for $90,000. The same property on today’s super-inflated California real estate market would bring several million dollars!
By the third semester, I had covered a lot of ground. It was also the first chance during third semester that a student would be considered for a scholarship application through the school. Only a few scholarships were granted and it was a significant honor to receive one. A friend talked me into submitting a portfolio for scholarship consideration and it was the thrill of a lifetime when I was notified I had been awarded a full-tuition scholarship sponsored by the Ford Motor Company for my remaining five semesters.
I believe Art Center’s strength was founded in both the eminence of the automotive design instructors like Strother MacMinn and the incredible quality of student talent the college attracted. Detroit auto design leaders such as Bill Mitchell, Gene Bordinat, Elwood Engle, and Dick Teague visited Art Center often, and were always recruiting new designers from each graduating class.
I received a Bachelor of Science Degree in industrial design and graduated with honors in May of 1970. In 1971 I was hired by the Ford Motor Company and started work at the Ford Design Center in Dearborn, Michigan.
My first assignment in 1971 as a new-hire designer in a Lincoln-Mercury production studio, was, not surprisingly, an ornamentation job. My assignment was to create a very refined jewel-like stand-up hood ornament for the new Montego based 1974 Cougar to enhance its upscale luxury image. This area of design was a new experience to me, so I thought long and hard for various sources of inspiration. One that came to me was in the form of an 1880s vintage Elgin pocket watch my father had given me when I was 11 years old. This watch had a thick, crowned outer ring shape with a series of fine ribbed serrations surrounding the dial lens face area. Of the many concept illustrations I did for this project during November 1971, the proposal most like my treasured pocket watch was selected as the final design and was produced as I had designed it for three years from 1974, 1975 and 1976. I incorporated a clear lens effect, much like the watch lens, and designed a floating cougar figure into the clear area. I was very surprised to learn that my hood ornament design played an important part in the marketing strategy for the direction of Cougar’s new image for 1974, and this is the first time it’s true origin has ever been revealed!
Shortly after the Cougar project, an unusual program for this studio was released. We were to participate in presenting a proposal for the all-new and considerably down-sized Mustang II ,with several other studios submitting proposals as well. Even though it was obvious there was no place for the ground-pounding Mach-1 Cobra Jet 428s and high-revving Boss 302s of the recent past, Iacocca still liked the idea of a strong performance image for some versions of the new Mustang II and he actively encouraged the development of my “Ram-Air Boss” sketch theme, as it came to be called by the studio staff. The final design our studio submitted was a fastback proposal created by staff designer Howard “Buck” Mook, and our design was selected by company President Lee Iacocca over all the other studio efforts.
This design went on to an extensive series of consumer “clinics” throughout the United States, and in San Francisco, many young women wanted a traditional coupe version. As a result, we received instructions at our L-M studio to create a notchback coupe version as soon as possible. One of my design themes was selected, and I was instructed to direct it’s development into a full-size clay model followed by a finished fiberglass model.
Later, I was assigned to the Pinto-Maverick-Mustang Interior Design Studio, where I developed several Mustang II “Ghia” trim proposals.
When I was assigned to the Light Truck and Tractor Studio , we received a product planning directive to develop a derivative of the upcoming new Ford Econoline Van, code named “Nantucket” and due for release in 1975. The derivative was code named “Carrousel” and was intended to attract station wagon buyers with more car-like styling combined with the added appeal of van utility. From hundreds of concept sketches created by staff designers in this studio during 1972, one of mine was selected by Hal Sperlich, Director of Product Planning, and Lee Iacocca as the approved design direction. I directed the construction of a full-size clay model, and the vehicle received a great deal of interest from Henry Ford II. Unfortunately, the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 halted further development after a drivable, fabricated metal prototype had been built. The Carrousel was specifically designed as a “Garagable Family Van” alternative to the traditional station wagon market segment. This concept later became one of the most successful and enduring product innovations ever created when Hal Sperlich and Lee Iacocca launched the Plymouth Voyager/Dodge Caravan in 1984.
Another program I participated in during this time in the Light Truck Studio was the development of a new “Bronco” based on the same format as the Chevrolet “Blazer” pickup truck derivative. This program was code named “Shorthorn.” Ford wanted to use the new “F” series truck doors without modification. This door combined the window frame area and the lower door as a one-piece formed part. Ford’s decision to use the complete door assembly required a permanently fixed steel roof for the driver/front passenger area, although it would have a removable top for the area behind the doors. I proposed a design sketch incorporating a “Targa” style roof band. The built-in roof band helped visually separate the permanent front roof area from the removable fiberglass rear roof section. This design feature became a Bronco “trademark” styling theme from 1978 to 1986. This Bronco was intended for introduction in 1974, but the OPEC oil embargo postponed the release date to 1978.
For most of the year 1973, I was assigned to the Lincoln Continental Advanced Design Studio. During mid-year 1973, I received an assignment to create a series of new “full-size/ down-size” Ford, Mercury, Continental, and Mark-V styling proposals to be reviewed by Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca for a special presentation at the Ford Motor Company Strategy and Advanced Planning Conference in Boca Raton, Florida.
This presentation was later followed by the development of the “Panther” platform, launching the all-new Ford LTD and Mercury Marquis for 1979, and the Lincoln Continental/Mark VI for 1980. It was an honor to be selected for this assignment.
Ford Fox Program
I received recognition for my contribution to the “full-size/down-size” program and a promotion to the International Special Vehicles Design Studio, where I was involved with several design projects coordinated with Ford’s Ghia studios in Italy and the presentation of concept illustrations for the initial “World Car” and FOX program. The ever-expanding FOX platform launched the Ford Fairmont/Mercury Zephyr in 1978, followed by the all-new Mustang/Capri in 1979 with many variations to follow.