In a recent post on Stillen’s contest to design a body kit for the Scion FR-S, I brought up the history of the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild, a scholarship based model making contest for budding designers that ran from 1930 to 1968. Since just about all of the promotional materials for the Guild were targeted at boys, I wondered if any girls ever tried to enter the competition.
Ron Will, who was a national winner of the Guild competition in 1961, later worked at GM design and is now retired after heading Subaru styling for 25 years, is active in the reunions that Guild participants have organized, so I contacted him. To his knowledge, no girls ever tried to enter the competition. With the changes in women’s roles Will says that had the Guild continued beyond 1968, he’s sure that it would have been opened up to female participation, just as the Chevrolet sponsored Soap Box Derby was. Richard Earl disagrees. In fact, the grandson of Harley Earl, the man who started GM’s styling department, says that the Guild was ended specifically to prevent girls and minorities from competing. Furthermore, Earl told me that his source was none other than Irv Rybicki, who headed GM styling after Bill Mitchell, Harley Earl’s successor, retired.
Richard Earl’s mission is enshrining his grandfather’s legacy as the father of automotive styling and he operates CaroftheCentury.com, dedicated to Harley Earl. Since he’s written about the “Damsels of Design”, the women designers who worked for Earl, I contacted Richard to find out if Sue Vanderbilt, the most prominent of GM’s female designers in the 1950s and 1960s, was still alive to see if I could get her perspective on the notion of girls participating Craftsman’s Guild.
Earl informed me that Vanderbilt had passed away but then alluded to “the real reason” why the Guild was discontinued. He was surprised that I’d never heard the story, since I’ve posted before at TTAC about Bill Mitchell’s supposed bigotry. My curiosity piqued, I asked him to clue me in. This is what he said.
Certain Detroit history is illusive. This particular area is one of them. What follows is kind of fast and loose.
I found out why the illustrious Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild was eliminated while interviewing certain GM Styling Section veterans and Damsels as well when I lived in Detroit area researching the history of Harley Earl/GM’s Styling&Design legacy. I was fortunate to not only sit down and talk to Henry Lauve, Paul Gillian, Irv Rybicki, Homer LaGassey, Stan Parker, Loretta Ramshaw’s brother who worked at Styling for a long time, George Pisiani and a parade of other great old veteran GM Styling guys; but as I mention I talked with a number of Damsels of Design as well.
I’ll focus primarily on what Irvine Rybicki told me while I was visiting him in his retirement home in East Sandwich, Mass… Reason I’m mentioning all this has to do with the sensitive stuff I learned from Irv, you know the behind-the-scenes stuff on GM Styling/Design. He was not like Jordan, a power broker, and Irv wasn’t scared of losing his pension or any reprisals be waged against him by what he said. He was honest and unmerciful about what went wrong after Harley Earl left the corporation and Detroit’s auto world.
Ronnie, you actually have a little knowledge as to why the FBCG went away because you wrote a story a couple of years ago pointing to the heart of the matter in your titled article, Was GM’s Head Bill Mitchell A Sexist Bigot?
Here’s what Irv told me, “The FBCG was disbanded because GM’s top execs at the time in power sided with Bill Mitchell and didn’t want blacks or young girls coming in and being involved in any way shape or form with the event. So they just got rid of it and told themselves they didn’t really need it anymore and it had already served its purpose.”
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS