Former Nissan racer Steve Millen’s aftermarket performance company Stillen is running a contest involving Facebook. Amateur designers can style the company’s body kit that will accompany Stillen’s performance toys for the Scion FR-S. The winner will get to attend SEMA this November, when the body kit will have its first public display. When I saw the headline my first thought was, “What, another social media hypefest?” Just the other day, Derek Kreindler questioned the value of Nissan’s efforts to crowdsource product planning via social media sites. Does the general public know any more about designing cars than it does about product planning? As thousands of aesthetically challenged body kits will attest to, the most talented designers seem to be working for OEMs and design houses, not the aftermarket. Then, my cynical self calmed down a bit and the automotive history buff in me took over and I realized that it’s just a new gloss on an old idea. Entrants have to design their own body kit that consists of a front lip spoiler, side rockers, and rear valances. Stillen’s professional in-house designers will judge the entries, winnowing them down to the top 5 designs. Then via Facebook the public will pick the winner. Stillen has provided a template at the contest’s webpage, and they are encouraging people to enter (multiple times, if they wish) even if they don’t have top level digital rendering skills, saying that the judges’ focus will be on shape and design, not how much Autodesk wu you have.
The use of Facebook may make this contest look contemporary but it hearkens back to a design competition for young designers that started in the 1930s and lasted over three decades, the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild. Not only was the Guild an important part of the way General Motors marketed itself to young people, but GM’s styling department, then under the leadership of Harley Earl, also used the Guild competition in a serious manner to identify and mentor teenagers with enough talent to actually design cars. Furthermore, at its heyday, the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild was a bit of a cultural force. With over 8 million participants, the only youth organization with a larger membership was the Boys Scouts of America. If you were a member of both organizations, you could use your Guild entry to win a merit badge.
Obviously, the Guild was bit more serious than Stillen’s contest, though the goal was about the same: identify talent. Instead of a trip to Vegas, Guild winners won college scholarships. There were junior and senior classes, with first and second place winners in both age categories, as well as regional winners in the national competition. Guild competition winners didn’t just get scholarships. At least two dozen winners went on to careers as auto designers including some very notable stylists like Virgil M. Exner, Jr., Chuck Jordan (who eventually ran GM styling), Richard Arbib, Elia ‘Russ’ Russinoff, and John M. Mellberg.
Though the rules changed over the years, the original structure of the competition was in two levels. The first was to scratch build a scale model of the Napoleonic coach that had served as Fisher Body’s logo since 1922. Winners of that competition would then design and submit models of their idea of a futuristic “dream” car. In 1937, perhaps as a reflection of how important Earl’s Art & Colour department had become in GM’s business model, along with the establishment of design studios at Ford and Detroit’s contract body builders like Murray and Budd, the rules changed to allow an entrant’s choice of either doing the coach or a car model.
The Fisher brothers, like many other successful Detroit automotive industrialists, were very charitable and the Guild started as an effort in philanthropy, with an emphasis on the scholarships. The scholarships were valuable. In 1934, the top prize was a $5,000 college scholarship. With inflation that works out to about $85,000 in 2012 dollars but college costs have vastly outpaced inflation so a $5,000 scholarship was pretty much a full ride deal. In 1934, for example, at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, tuition was $400 and total annual costs including fees and room & board were less than $1,000 year.
By the late 1950s, though, with past winners working at GM and other companies as designers, many young men understood that winning the competition was a career opportunity to do the thing they loved most, beyond just the chance for a college educations. I say young men because the program was clearly aimed at craftsmen and not craftswomen. Entry blanks in 1930s vintage ads for the Guild say “Boy’s name”, and even into the late 1960s, the ad copy mentioned boys even if the entry blanks didn’t. It’s not clear if girls’ entries would have been rejected but the Guild’s male focus has not escaped attention from academic feminists.
It’s interesting that just as the domestic auto industry embraced youth marketing in the late 1960s, they abandoned the Guild. Perhaps a model making contest was seen as a bit old fashioned after 1967′s Summer of Love. In any case, 1968 was the final year of the competition. Of late there’s been a flurry of interest in the Guild, with books like John Jacobius’ The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild: An Illustrated History and reunions. The vintage models have even attracted attention from the fine art world. Veterans of the Guild have called on GM to bring it back and, to be honest, with the rendering and 3d printing tools available today, the results might be very impressive. If I was Ed Welburn and Joel Ewanick, I’d pay close attention to Stillen’s contest.
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