Remembering A Great Automotive Designer: Dave Holls

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of General Motors, Michael Lamm, Dean’s Garage

Published 2.13.2019

One of the most talented automotive designers from the 1950s through the 90s was Dave Holls. He started his career as a designer for General Motors in June of 1952 with Vice President Harley Earl. Holls graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in industrial design and was one of the most creative and talented individuals in the design field. He also had spent two years in the United States Army.

Holls’ first assignment at GM was to redesign the 1953 Cadillac Coupe Deville emblem under the direction of Ed Glowacke. In 1956, when Chrysler had manufactured their 1957 lineup designs by Virgil Exner, the GM design staff revised their current design proposals, and the results included the design of the 1959 Cadillac model. Holls referred to the 1959 Cadillac as “our year of total excess.”

The 1950s represented an era of fins and chrome. The 1960s brought more conservative styling, and the 1970s introduced change with new ideas and more horsepower. Dave Holls left his creative mark on automotive styling during those great years, which will be admired for many years to come.

Holls also was a great person and very approachable. He knew automotive history and design, and, for many years, he helped launch many careers at GM in the automotive styling field. In 1960, he began working in the Chevrolet studio, where he contributed to the popular 1963 Corvette Stingray design and the 1968 Corvette. In 1961, Holls became chief designer for the Buick studio, where he was responsible for the design direction of the Riviera from 1966 to 1970.

Automotive historians have often said that the year 1965 was an important year for GM. The 1965 GM vehicles earned great success in the marketplace. I have always thought that the 1965 lineup offered impeccable styling that most consumers thoroughly enjoyed. It has been said that Bill Mitchell was very proud of all the designers who helped design the 1965 product line, including Holls at Buick.

In 1970, Holls would become design director for Adam Opel AG in Germany. Toward the end of his GM career, he became director for the development of the 1991 Buick Park Avenue and the popular 1992 Cadillac STS model, which I always thought was a great looking design.

Holls had a great and interesting 39-year career with GM that touched most of their brands, including Pontiac, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick and more, before retiring in 1991.

Sketches magazine had this to say about Dave Holls when he retired from General Motors: “His dedication to both his craft and his friends and his commitment to helping others with their projects, often going the extra mile to make a difference and, of course, his hearty laugh which make others feel comfortable and instantly at home.”

In later years, Holls would co-found the prestigious and world-renowned event “Eyes on Design Classic Car Exhibition.” He also co-authored the great book “A Century of Automotive Style 100 Years of American Car Design.”

Finally, Dave loved the automobile and was a collector. Most importantly, he had a good way of making people feel very comfortable. I had many conversations with Dave about automotive history, and I learned a lot. Unfortunately, Dave passed away on June 26, 2000, and although he is no longer with us, his great designs and personality will always be remembered for many generations to come.

A special thanks to Michael Lamm

Auto Week magazine. “Obituary: Designer David Holls.” May 30, 2000.
Lamm, Michael. “Dave Holls, who led GM designs, dies.” June 26, 2000.
Lamm Michael & Holls Dave. A Century of Automotive Style 100 Years of American Car Design.” 1996-1997.
General Motors. “Dave Holls’ Career.” Sketches publication. Special Edition April 24, 1991.

A few photos from the archives. Several photos: General Motors

  1. What an absolute peach of a gentleman, very prolific designer but so humble…
    Had the pleasure of spending a day with him at the Virginia Beach concours, where we were showing the Nardi Blue Rays… Met Dave and we just hit it off… what a great time.

  2. Don Sicu

    Great interview

  3. Absolutely one of my most favorite auto designers! Great interview. Thanks!

  4. Great interview of an excellent automotive car designer, leader and person.

  5. Marty Martino

    I also met Dave Holls at the “first and only” Virginia Beach concourse. He was with a Seminole red ‘59 Cadillac “62” convertible that I would later learn was restored by my friend Dave Mega.
    When I met Mr Holls it was de ja vu. His warm and friendly personality, not to mention physical appearance reminded me so much of actor Robert Preston, whom I had briefly worked with a dozen or so years before .
    Both had no airs and as Jim Simpson said about Dave, humble and knowledgeable.
    BTW I also met Joe Bortz at Virginia Beach that day. I Must admit that I had been quite his groupie for some time. Years later I would be so lucky as to “play in the band”.
    And Jim, I had barely heard of the Blue Rays before VB, WOW did they knock my socks off ! Thanks for showing them .
    For me that was one of the most profound Car days ever! It’s such a shame that the organizers were invaded by Virginia Beach government which ultimately killed the show’s future.

  6. Mark Wayne Gregory

    Thank you so much for presenting this wonderful interview with one of my favorite “automotive design heroes”, Mr. Dave Holls. He, Wayne Katy, along with Bill Mitchell, created some of General Motors’ most memorable designs that still make my heart skip a beat. What an extremely talented man he was. I could talk to him for hours about car design.
    I remember how sad I felt when news of his death was mentioned in my Cadillac-La Salle Club monthly magazine. Mr. Holls will always be remembered for his considerable contribution to automobile history.

  7. James E. (Jed) Duvall

    I met Dave Holls at the Concours at Meadowbrook in the late 1990s: A true gentleman and very humble about his accomplishments. His perspective about the difference of General Motors design and styling between 1958 and 1961 and the transition between Harley Earl to William Mitchell shows insight that could only exist if one work for both men. A “My Classic Car” interview worthy of inclusion at this site as I had missed it before on “Speed”/”Speedvision”.

  8. Christopher Dowdey

    WOW. I only met Mr. Holls to sign his book for me. But I had heard
    So many stories ….he was legendary. Great interview and thanks. I was a young Designer
    at Ford Design.

  9. Jason Houston

    May Dave rest in peace. I’m not sure he would agree, however, the 1970s were “great years which will be admired for many years to come”.

    Recall, it was 1973 when the government stepped in and dictated what cars were to be built and how. It was the lowest point in automotive history, and designers and engineers were placed in federal straight jackets, resulting in rancid styling stapled to horrible quality.

  10. Wayne Kady

    I was fortunate to have worked for Dave Holls for a period in my design career, his enthusiasm was infectious and entertaining and made you feel a part of the team. When I retired he invited me to lunch where we exchanged car design stories. My regret was that I never got a chance to reciprocate.

    Dave was highly respected and a legend in the automotive design profession.

  11. Patrick Masterson

    As someone distant from the industry, the interview confirms that importance that an endearing, pleasant personality has in one’s success. It’s possible for people to be forceful, or intelligent or good-looking, but the ability to be happy and share that freely will often lead to a powerful career. Only a live interview like this can confirm the depth of someone’s personality; the ring of authentic, infectious enthusiasm permeates Holl’s demeanor. Thanks for sharing the video.

    As an aside, I’m startled to see the discussion about the one-time only Virginia Beach Concours. I live in VB, and I’m pretty sure I still have a poster, even though I missed the actual event.

  12. Zoltan Popadic

    A week ago i saw a 96 Cadillac Seville STS at Zurich airport Switzerland. Blue metallic. Excellent condition. In the 1990s a hole bunch of this marvelous cars were cruising in and around Zurich.
    Better styled and looking so much better then any Bimmer or Benz. The same goes on for the Olds Aurora.

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