The Unsung Hero Of Pontiac Design
by Jeff Denison
The Early Years
There are few times in history when all of the planets align to achieve true greatness. In the world of sports, the ’72 Miami Dolphins won every game of the season, every playoff game, and the Super Bowl. This amazing accomplishment had never been achieved before or since in the game of professional football.
For the Pontiac Motor Division, its award-winning Super Bowl season spanned the decade of the ’60s. Chevrolet and Ford may have outsold them in sheer numbers, but Pontiac was definitely the auto industry leader in styling, image, innovation, and performance. Countless articles have been written documenting the Pontiac legends of the ’60s, such as:
Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen, a true leader, who changed Pontiac from a reliable old man’s car into a youthful performance division;
Pete Estes, for his years of leadership and engineering excellence at both Oldsmobile and Pontiac Divisions, as well as the creation of the Wide Track;
John Z. DeLorean, for his rare ability to understand exactly what the customer wanted, and produce just the right selection of automobiles in his own flamboyant way;
Malcolm R. “Mac” McKellar, who gave Pontiacs all the horsepower and torque they needed with his Super-Duty, Tri-Power, and Ram Air engines;
Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman and their award-winning illustrations that graced the Pontiac dealer catalogs throughout the ’60s;
Jim Wangers and his keen ability to promote just about anything.
A man in Pontiac’s history who has been mostly overlooked, however, is one of the most significant: Jack Humbert of General Motors Design. Jack led the design team that gave Pontiacs of the ’60s the leading edge in the art of automotive styling.
Design is a very powerful tool. Many people purchase cars based strictly on how they look, and that’s one of the major factors that enabled Pontiac to attain and retain the number three position in sales throughout the ’60s.
Jack Humbert was born April 9, 1924, in Canton, Ohio, and grew up in this small Mid-Western town. Like many children of the era, Jack was drawn to the automobile at an early age, and purchased his first car at 16.
After graduating from Middlebranch High School, Jack spent the next three years, 1943 to 1945, in the U.S. Army, serving in an armored division in the European theater. After World War II, he returned home to Canton and went to work at Oscar’s Service Station, a combination gas station and used car lot. Jack was a true “car guy,” who loved to work on them, as well as draw them.
His illustrating talent led him to the Central Academy of Commercial Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, where, after graduating in 1948 with a degree in Automotive Design, he went to work for General Motors Styling as a junior designer. For the next several years, Jack honed his skills and designed cars under such legendary design leaders as Harley Earl, then vice president of GM Design; as well as Bill Mitchell, who would become the next vice president of GM Design. Jack developed an eagle eye and the respect of his fellow team members working in both the interior and exterior design studios.
In March of 1959, at the young age of 34, Jack was promoted to chief designer for the Pontiac studio. This would forever change the direction of Pontiac’s design and image. The basic themes for the all-new ’61-’62 model years had already been selected and were well into development, having reached the full size clay-model stage by this time. This gave Jack the opportunity to do what he did best: concentrate on the details. As a result, the ’61-’62 designs attained a new level of refinement that set a very high standard, even for GM.
This was a turning point for Pontiac, and in 1961, it moved into third place in sales behind Chevrolet and Ford. The Division’s styling was fresh and youthful, making it a design leader throughout the ’60s and well into the ’70s. The following are but a few of the many landmark models designed under Jack Humbert.
The ’63 Grand Prix Pontiac introduced a personal luxury car design that stunned the automotive industry: the award-winning Grand Prix. Though Humbert had a hand in the premier ’62 edition of the Grand Prix, the ’63 was the first car completely designed under his leadership.
It changed the look of automobile design with its stacked headlights, recessed grille with round parking lights, a chiseled “coke bottle” body side, and a formal roofline with a concave backlight. This design also started a new trend by restraining the use of chrome, thereby reversing a practice that had become so prevalent in the design themes of late ’50s automobiles.
The ’63 Grand Prix won a Certificate Of Design Merit award from the Industrial Design Institute for its outstanding design. Pontiac sold 73,000 Grand Prixs in 1963, more than doubling that of the ’62 model. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as evidenced by competing car companies that incorporated aspects of the ’63 Grand Prix’s styling in their future products.
The ’65 Pontiac Lineup
The entire ’65 Pontiac lineup received the coveted Motor Trend Car of the Year Award; the major factor, “Design.” Pontiac’s fullsize cars graduated from their slab-sided, chiseled look of the ’63-’64 body styles, to the beautifully sculpted, fastback coupes of the ’65-’66 era. They became longer, leaner, and more aggressive with this elegant, free-flowing design. Pontiacs retained the patented stacked headlights and split-grille theme, only this time the ironing board was designed into the hood to the center beak of the split grille. The higher end cars of the ’65 lineup received diecast rearend treatments and the Grand Prix continued the concave backlight. “I went out on the Design patio to view the early design proposal for the fullsize clay model of the ’65 fullsize Pontiac and thought the team had lost it,” Designer Bill Porter remarked. “In typical Humbert fashion, however, he pulled the design together and made an award-winner out of it.”
The LeMans and GTO lineup was mostly carryover from the all-new ’64 design, but the front and rear were updated with fresh details such as stacked headlamps, twin protruding split grilles, and wraparound taillamps hidden in chrome, as well as a new single hoodscoop design for the GTO.
The ’67 Firebird The ’67 Firebird defines how important design is to the automobile. GM’s Chevrolet studio had completed the design work on the ’67 Panther/Camaro, before Pontiac had even gotten started. The Pontiac team was busy working on one of John Delorean’s many pet projects, a two-seater sports car named the XP-833 Banshee. General Motors upper management told DeLorean the Banshee was out and Pontiac would share the Camaro’s already-designed sheetmetal.
All Jack’s team changed was the hood, the grilles and headlights, the front and rear bumpers, tail panel and taillights, as well as stamping six hash marks in the Camaro’s quarter-panels. Pontiac ended up with a very distinctive-looking car, definitely a more aggressive design than that of the Camaro. Much of the change came from the front chrome bumper that covered the leading edge of the Camaro’s fenders, giving the Firebird a uniquely different appearance from its F-body cousin.
It’s interesting to note that DeLorean still didn’t give up on his vision of a two-seat sports car for Pontiac, and had design staff build a fiberglass model of a shortened ’67 Firebird with two seats called the Banshee T/T. History has shown John DeLorean continued to pursue his two-seater sports car vision, even after leaving GM.
The ’68 GTO
This Pontiac was so revolutionary, it would change the way cars were designed forever. It was the first application of a flexible bumper that was integrated into the design of the body and painted body color. This new Endura bumper was made of a steel-reinforced rubber-like material developed by GM’s Inland Division. The ’68 was the first GTO to offer hide-a-way headlights and hidden windshield wipers
The ’68 “A” body was started under Bill Porter in the Advanced Pontiac design studio. It was 6 inches shorter than the ’67 and rode on a 3-inch shorter wheelbase. Bill steered the designers toward rounder, more voluptuous shapes. “We must have sculpted the body side a hundred times trying to get those shapes perfect and that was before Jack even started working on it,” Porter recalled.
This basic theme was then sent to the Pontiac production studio under Humbert’s guidance. “Jack took a good design and made it great, that’s what he was good at,” Porter said. Many of the ’68 GTO design elements were copied by competitors on future vehicles. A quote from Motor Trend magazine, which named the ’68 GTO Car of the Year said, “Never before has an automobile been so successful in confirming the correlation between safety, styling, and performance as the ’68 GTO.”
Humbert’s designs were a reflection of the man. He wasn’t flamboyant, but he dressed in tailored three-piece suits that were always impeccable. He was a true gentleman’s gentleman, with a great sense of humor and would not disagree simply for the sake of creating controversy. He knew the direction in which he wanted the design themes to go and would slowly develop the clay models until he had realized his vision. Bill Porter once told me, “Jack was the iron fist in a velvet glove-he would take in everyone’s input and slowly move the clay model in just the right direction.”
Jack enjoyed pulling a studio chair up to the fullsize clay models and, working with his talented sculpting team, developing those surfaces and details that would make the Pontiacs stand out from the crowd when they showed up in the dealer showrooms.
This is just half the story. Join us next month, when HPP delves into later Humbert designs like the ’69 GP, and ‘701/2 Firebird, and provides testimonials from fellow designers and coworkers.
A Career Flourishes
Pontiac’s designs from the ’60s and early ’70s stood the test of time, still looking as great today as they did when new-a major accomplishment. The vast majority of the most-prized Pontiacs in collector circles today were designed under Jack Humbert’s leadership.
Additionally, in the “The 10 Best Pontiac Designs,” which appeared in the Sept. ’08 issue of High Performance Pontiac magazine, all but one were completed during Jack Humbert’s regime. This speaks volumes about the man, his team, and their many talents. Let’s learn more about them.
1969 Grand Prix The late Wayne Vieira worked closely with Jack on the all-new ’69 Grand Prix design. Ben Harrison, of Engineering’s Special Projects Department had the idea of using a stretched version of the A-body chassis with a 118-inch wheelbase instead of the larger 122-inch B-body the GP had been built on. This gave the new A-special, or G-body, a long-hood, short-decklid proportion that was popular in the new pony cars. “The ’69 Grand Prix was designed in just over a month, it was one of the fastest programs I have ever worked on,” said Vieira in 1999, when he was the chief designer of the Saturn studio. “We came up with one of the longest hoods in the industry.” The ’69 Grand Prix was sheer and clean with a very distinctive Pontiac split grille encased in a chrome bumper. This gave the Grand Prix a classic look. It also set a new trend in the appearance of the personal luxury car.
1970 1/2 Firebird
The ’70 1/2 Firebird was all-new from the ground up, but this time Pontiac had input in the design process. The driver and engine were moved three inches back.
Pontiac and Chevrolet design studios went in different directions on the ‘701/2 “F” car program, with Jack’s team winning the design battle and mastering the upper body that set the design direction for it. Pontiac’s newest visual element, the Endura bumper, pioneered on the ’68 GTO, played a major role in the styling of the all-new Firebird.
The design team put together one of the most aggressive cars to ever roam the streets of America, the Trans Am. Its stripes, spoilers, and Shaker hoodscoop went on to identify the T/A for the rest of the decade. This basic design was so good it lasted 12 model years.
The talent at the Division was not lost on the automotive press. These are just a few of the highlights of the many car lines and models that were designed under Jack Humbert’s leadership of the Pontiac Design studio. The Division received four Motor Trend “Car of the Year” awards in less than 10 years: ’59 Pontiac Motor Division, ’61 Tempest, ’65 Pontiac Motor Division, and the ’68 GTO. This achievement has never been matched by any automotive manufacturer in the history of the “Car of the Year” award, before or since. Pontiac could have easily won the COTY for the ’69 Grand Prix or the ’70 1/2 Firebird, as these were both standout cars, but the readers and writers may have cried foul for the Division’s already unprecedented four wins in nine years.
Jack Humbert was promoted to Group Chief Designer over Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac Design studios in April 1968, and Bill Porter became the chief designer of the Pontiac studio. Jack remained a Pontiac man the rest of his career at GM Design. He continued to move up the ladder and eventually earned the title Executive Director of Design in charge of all of the production exterior design in 1980 under the late Irv Rybicki, then vice president of design.
Jack Humbert and his wife, Evelyn “Smitty” Smith, had a daughter and a son. Daughter Jacqueline is happily married and living in California. Son Robert followed somewhat in his father’s footsteps and is an architect living in Louisville, Kentucky.
Jack deftly balanced family duties, designing beautiful Pontiacs by day, and being a certified car guy at night. He restored a car at home in his garage with the help of some of his friends.
Jack’s dream car was the work of another great automotive designer, Gordon Buehrig. While restoring a black, supercharged ’37 Cord phaeton, his perfectionist tendencies really showed through. The first time it was painted, he was unhappy with some of the reflections on the original production sheet metal, so he had some of the panels professionally reworked by his talented sculptors. He then had it repainted, and this time it was perfect.
Regrettably, in March 1985, Jack’s life was cut short by leukemia, but he left a legacy of automotive design that is second to none in the Pontiac world. Pontiac owned the decade of the ’60s-it was its era. The Division was the industry leader in styling and Jack Humbert was the in-house unsung hero, whose contributions command a special chapter in the Pontiac history book of legends from the ’60s.
A Team Effort Automobiles are designed by teams of designers, sculptors, and engineers. Here are some of the names of those from the Pontiac studio who shaped the decade of design leadership under Jack Humbert.
Duane Bohnstedt, Wayne Viera, Ron Hill, Glen Wintersheidt, Paul Deesen, Jim Ferron, Elia Russinoff, Bill Porter, Roger Hughet, George Pysche, Al Flowers, Maurice Chandler, John Perkins, and Ted Schroeder. It should also be noted that Fedele Bianco lead the Pontiac interior design team in the ’60s.
Rudy Reginold, Frank Fisher, Bill Tricoff, Al Thall, Earl Hoskings, Ray Hildebrandt, Conrad Locanis, Monte Obries, Nick Houvres, Steve Ailing, Dean Towns
Willis Calvin, Bud Gosling, Paul Zibel, Roy Tiesler, Carl Tacke, Rod Weekly
A Lasting Legacy
A lot can be learned by how a man is remembered by his peers. If the quotes below are any indication, Jack Humbert was admired and respected as a designer, a leader, and a gentleman.
“Jack was my hero and mentor, he was very well organized and a perfect gentleman. He had the rare ability to put together cars that always looked good.”—Bill Porter
“Jack was the greatest designer I ever worked with. He was always the gentleman.”—Roger Hughet
“Pontiac was the best studio of my career, and that was because of Jack Humbert. Jack was a finisher, he spent countless hours with the sculptors perfecting surfaces.”—Elia Russinoff
“Jack Humbert had exceptional courage to stand behind fresh new designs that Pontiac was noted for. He was extremely kind and revered by everyone who worked for him.”—Paul Deesen
“Jack was one of the sharpest designers I ever worked for, he had an eagle eye. Jack could see a 1mm imperfection in the clay model from across the room.”—Tom Peloquin
“I will always remember Jack going to the GM Styling garage and getting in one of his signature triple-black Pontiac convertibles with blackwalls and 8-lug alloy wheels.” —John Perkins
“Growing up in the ’60s, my father was a new-car salesman at the local Pontiac dealer. Seeing the beautiful AF/VK illustration of the ’68 gold convertible GTO in the brochure, I knew I wanted to design cars for General Motors. At GM Design, I found the man behind the cars of the ’60s was Jack Humbert. Jack was my hero. I felt he deserved more recognition for his major role in the Pontiacs of the ’60s, and I wanted to share his life with other enthusiasts.”—Jeff Denison
The author would like to thank all of the people at GM Design who helped in preparing this very special article.