By on August 31, 2014

pontiac-phantom_02

Since it was the last design of consequence that General Motors design chief Bill Mitchell oversaw, Wayne Kady’s 1980 Cadillac Seville is thought by some to be the ultimate expression of Mitchell’s design philosophy. No doubt Mitchell was a fan of what he called the “London look”, and the ’80 Seville had that in spades: a classic vertical grille, a bustle shaped rear end, a raked C pillar and a long hood. When accused of borrowing the bustle-back from a contemporary Lincoln, Mitchell reportedly got indignant and said that he stole it from Rolls-Royce, not the cross-town competition in Dearborn. However, while Mitchell went to bat for the controversial Seville design over the objections of Cadillac management, the Seville was not the ultimate expression of his personal taste.

That ultimate expression can instead be seen in a car that never made it to production and in fact was treated a bit like a step-child by GM brass. While the Seville’s razor sharp edges are justifiably associated with Mitchell, something that distinguished GM cars in the 1960s from what Michael Lamm calls Harley Earl’s “Rubenesque” ethos of the mid to late 1950s, the fact is that Mitchell loved the sweeping and elegant look of cars from the late 1930s. The first two cars that he oversaw at GM were the 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special and the 1941 Cadillac. Neither of those cars has a single creased edge.

1980 Cadillac Seville

1980 Cadillac Seville

His favorite cars were the custom Silver Arrow Buick Rivieras that he had personalized for his own use, and while there are some of Mitchell’s sharp edges on the Rivieras, particularly the first generation car, in profile the Rivs, most noticeably the boat-tailed versions, evoke the sweeping lines of cars from decades earlier.

Mitchell’s ultimate statement as a car designer would be the 1977 Phantom, a large, fastback two-seat coupe built atop a Pontiac Grand Prix chassis. Though the Phantom has some sharp edges, its proportions, flowing lines and exposed wheel wells  go back to the era of those Cadillacs that Mitchell designed in the late 1930s. Though some have speculated that the Phantom ended up in Mitchell’s possession as some sort of severance payment upon his retirement, while GM designers were indeed known to use one-off concept and show cars as their personal drivers, the Phantom never had a drivetrain. It still exists, but perhaps in line with its history the Phantom is almost hidden away in the corner of a museum.

This 1967 rendering by Wayne Kady of a hypothetical V16 powered Cadillac prefigures both the 1980 Seville and Bill Mitchell's Phantom of 1977.

This 1967 rendering by Wayne Kady of a hypothetical V16 powered Cadillac prefigures both the 1980 Seville and Bill Mitchell’s Phantom of 1977.

By 1977, Mitchell was a bit of an anachronism, a man with a Mad Men mentality in an era while Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinam were raising women’s consciousness, someone who could order a half dozen hookers for lunch and send out an underling to the bank to get the Benjamins to pay them. GM’s design and engineering teams had just created what would be their last masterpieces for decades, the downsized 1977 fullsize sedans, the first American cars designed from scratch to deal with more expensive gasoline, the result of the 1973 oil crisis. The new Chevy Impala, for example, was 700 lbs lighter, smaller in every exterior dimension, yet had more interior room and more cargo capacity than the land yachts it replaced. Those cars would be GM’s high point for years, as they were almost immediately followed by the disastrous X-cars, the Chevy Citation and it’s badge engineered siblings.

Bill Mitchell was not a man for downsizing. Not a small man himself, for his last personal design Mitchell opted for something that was not smaller, lighter nor more space efficient. It was his idea of a modern classic and his hope for the direction that GM design would take after his retirement. However, by 1977, Mitchell had been with the company for four decades and many of his contemporaries (and advocates) were long gone.

A styling show was planned for the GM board at the proving grounds and Mitchell had the Phantom shipped out to Milford on the sly, hoping to surprise the board of directors as well as some of the GM executives like Howard Kehrl, executive vice president in charge of the product planning and technical staffs. Kehrl wasn’t as well known and certainly not as flamboyant as Mitchell, but the engineer had risen up through the ranks and by the late 1970s, with many of Mitchell’s allies retired, Kehrl held more power in the corporation. Having been on the receiving end of Mitchell’s legendary foul mouth, Kehrl was in no mood for one of Mitchell’s power plays. He spotted the Phantom being prepared for display and ordered it off the grounds immediately. Lo, how the mighty are fallen. Mitchell reportedly fumed, but the lion was roaring in winter. Later that year Mitchell retired from GM and opened up his own design studio in suburban Detroit. He died in 1988.

Pontiac_Phantom_01

By 1977, times had changed. In a 1979 interview he told Corvette historian Michael B. Antonick, “You know,  years ago when you went into an auto styling department, you found sweeps…racks of them. Now they design [cars] with a T-square and a triangle.”

Even the designers who had risen through GM’s design studios under Mitchell to positions of power themselves realized that times had passed the designer by. Jerry Hirschberg, who later would head Nissan design, is quoted by Michael Lamm as saying, “”As the years passed, Mitchell’s rather narrow biases and hardening vision limited GM styling. He was fighting old battles and withdrawing increasingly from a world that was being redefined by consumerism, Naderism and an emerging consciousness of the environment.”

198692

George Moon, a senior interior designer at GM reflected on Mitchell at the end of his career: “Bill Mitchell ruled over GM Design Staff during its most creative, most exciting years in corporate history. No matter his mood, his manner, his style—he gave the place a verve and an excitement it never had before or since. He brought out the best creative energies from all of us, and he oversaw the design of the greatest diversity of cars ever produced.

“Bill couldn’t have survived in today’s arena: too many rules, too many handcuffs, committees and bosses. Nor could today’s corporation tolerate Mitchell’s flamboyance, impertinences, ego and lifestyle. He was his own man, flawed and gifted, crude and creative. You had to love him or hate him, but no one in America could ignore him.”

1977-gm-phantom-concept-car

Mitchell seemed to have understood that times had passed him by. Even his internal code name for the Phantom, “Madame X” evoked a bygone era. Concerning the Phantom he later said, “Realizing that with the energy crisis and other considerations, the glamour car would not be around for long. I wanted to leave a memory at General Motors of the kind of cars I love”.

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Start the video and click on the settings icon to select 2D or 3D formats

Though his power had ebbed, Mitchell was still a legend at General Motors. Perhaps out of consideration for Mitchell’s indelible role in GM history, unlike many concepts the Phantom wasn’t destroyed, and while it’s not in a place of honor in GM’s Heritage Center, the company’s private car museum, the automaker has either donated or loaned it to Flint’s Sloan Museum where you can see it in their Buick Gallery.

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 get a parallax view 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

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38 Comments on “Bill Mitchell’s Swan Song: The Phantom...”


  • avatar
    olddavid

    In the very late ’30’s and early ’40’s – prior to being drafted, my Father worked with Pete Estes at GM Engineering. I don’t know what exactly that they did, as their conversations when I was around were very cryptic. It somehow involved helping Mr. Mitchell get powertrains for his styling mules. The needed items would be branded ‘defective” and shuffled off to some back door warehouse. When I went with Dad to Chrysler for some dealer meetings, he decided to revisit old times and old friends. This was in the early 1960’s, with Pete becoming a star like DeLorean, yet both he and my Father still referred to him as “Mr.” Mitchell. What are the odds of two icons like Mr. Earl and Bill Mitchell being back to back chiefs of GM “Art and Color”?

  • avatar
    MonaroCV8

    Well the headlamp design seems to have been the inspiration for the early Saturn that had very similar headlamps.

  • avatar
    cargogh

    The Phantom certainly embodies a sense of sinister with grace and the centerline from his ’63 Corvette. The flush mount side glass is gorgeous, but advances in aerodynamics date these pedestrian decapitating razor bumpers, no matter how good they look.
    I always choose the 75-79 Sevilles over this next series, but I was 12 in 1975, never see them anymore and question if they are as proportionally perfect as I once believed. A friend had an immaculate early 80s silver and black Seville he bought cheap and used. Very eye catching. If the bumpers had been better integrated and the interior nicer, it would have had all the makings of a classic. I was wondering if he worked on the previous models, since they really relied on the T-square for that formal look.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Just wow .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    rudiger

    The Phantom’s prow sure looks like it was cribbed from Raymond Loewy’s 1953 Studebaker Starliner (which isn’t a bad thing).

    Regardless, it’s a great article that goes a long way to explaining what happened to car design in the transition from what is arguably the greatest car decade (sixties) to one of the worst (seventies). The times had changed and, unfortunately, it also meant that Bill Mitchell’s time had passed, as well.

    The Bill Mitchell quote, “You know, years ago when you went into an auto styling department, you found sweeps…racks of them. Now they design [cars] with a T-square and a triangle” sums it all up quite well.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    ““Bill couldn’t have survived in today’s arena: too many rules, too many handcuffs, committees and bosses.”

    I know exactly how he felt. This is a big problem of any corporate environment I’ve been in, and it stifles the creative process.

    • 0 avatar
      -Nate

      ” I know exactly how he felt. This is a big problem of any corporate environment I’ve been in, and it stifles the creative process. ”

      ‘ A Camel is a Horse designed by a Committee ‘ .

      -Nate

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Great article again, Ronnie.

  • avatar
    northshorerealtr

    I”m curious–and assume this was designed as a one-off styling exercise, and NOT designed for any specific division, right? I look at the front and see a what was used as a general Grand Prix hood/center section, the front fender edges look like the shape used from rear bumper of the ’68 or ’69 Riviera (I’d hafta look at oldcarbrochures to finalize that), and the general proportions of the 66 Riviera, and later, 69 Grand Prix donor chassis. Plus some of the side profile “door dip” of the boattail Riviera. Is it ending up in the Buick Museum because no one else wanted it–or because he envisioned it as a Buick?

  • avatar
    Joss

    My 2 cents…

    Phantom: Looks like paunchy imperialism dropped on a Camaro, a Dolly Parton doused by Met opera. Call it phantom-of-the-opera? Without the window because they’re Subaru. Maybe its me maybe the black & red.

    Would the wealthy be happy sitting that low? Would the fedora fit? Gee pops hope you noticed that hydrant while parallel parking. And do I spy Subaru windows?

    Seville – preferred the former 3 box but the 80 gets my tick for FWD. London calling?, Seville was way better value than a Silver Shadow and lower maintenance (bar diesel) than Jaguar. SEL 6.9 best choice there.

    Great article Ronnie. I’ll stay gullwing.

  • avatar
    Austin Greene

    Enjoyed this.

  • avatar
    petezeiss

    Now, no way Mr. Mitchell could have driven that thing on a daily basis (assuming he was still driving when that photo was taken).

    He would have leapt at a nice CUV.

  • avatar
    pragmatic

    I see alot of Olds Toronado in the sides, especially up front.

  • avatar
    NoGoYo

    I found out about this car in an issue of High Performance Pontiac magazine. Glad to see it here.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Actually, I think that Pontiac has more than a little in common with the 1966 and 1971 Rivieras…

    1966: (this one’s a ’67 but they were little changed)
    http://i18.photobucket.com/albums/b111/tt455/67rivgs2.jpg

    1971:
    http://www.vicarimotorsports.com/IMG_0843_r.JPG

    (And for my money, the ’66 Riv is the second best Mitchell design ever…we all know who the top dog is)

  • avatar
    05lgt

    Love the article, but I hate the car. It’s as if everything I never liked about the Olds Toronado and the 2nd gen Grand Prix were distilled and mated.

  • avatar
    mcs

    It looks a lot like the 1973 Grand Am:

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/54664152@N02/11794059013/in/pool-2213552@N24

    At first, I thought this might have been an early design concept for the Grand Am, except the concept was well after the original Grand Am.

  • avatar

    Note: I mentioned Michael Lamm in the article but failed to link to the encyclopediac book on American automotive styling that he wrote with retired GM designer Dave Holls, A Century of Automotive Style. I think the world of Mike and the book is a great resource. It’s available at the link below.

    http://www.lammmorada.com

    Thanks to everyone for the kind words. I wish I had known the story of Mitchell and the Phantom when I was at the Buick Gallery. I would have taken more photos. I just try to keep my eye out for interesting cars and people that have good stories. It’s mostly luck, though. If I have any role it’s putting myself in the right situation and paying attention to the people (and the cars). I’ll be processing 3D photo pairs and come across a car that I’ve shot, read a little about it and find out that it, or more accurately, the people involved with it, have a good story.

    I’m already almost old enough to collect Social Security, so the people involved in making the iconic cars of my youth in the ’60s and ’70s are themselves getting rather elderly. It’s important to pay attention to what old folks have to say. I was fortunate to be able to interview Mike Alexander of Detroit’s famous “A Bros” last year. He and his brother Larry built some of the most famous (and well built) custom cars ever including the Dodge Deora and the Little Deuce Coupe. He asked me not to write about it but he mentioned some health issues and he passed away in July. Guess it’s time to write a piece on Mike.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    This is an interesting article regarding design.

    My belief is vehicle design is influences by many in an organization, like GM.

    There will be leading designers that influence each other. Designers like all professionals will look at what is going on around them and adapt whatever suits their requirements.

    Here are some GMH’s that would have had design influences by all at GM in the 60s and early 70s. You can easily see these influences.

    These Holdens are quite remarkable for their time.

    http://www.uniquecarsandparts.com.au/car_info_holden_torana_lc_gtr_x.htm

    http://www.motoring.com.au/reviews/2011/classic-and-rare/holden/inside-the-holden-hurricane-27555

    • 0 avatar
      pragmatic

      That Torana front bumper has some Fitch Phoenix in it. The Fitch of course needs a large rear overhang for the engine, the Holden has more traditional proportions.

  • avatar
    doug-g

    Great piece. Michael Lamm is probably now the dean of automobile journalists. I remember when he seemed like a kid next to people like Tom McCahill. I, too, am only a few years from Social Security.

  • avatar
    SilverCoupe

    Love the car, but it definitely says Riviera, with a bit of Toronado thrown in, to me. Of course, I am biased, as we had one of each from that era.

    I generally do purchase automobiles that are associated with a single designer, as they tend to be the purest designs, and the ones that will stand the test of time.

  • avatar
    55_wrench

    What MCS said.
    There’s a lot in that design that ended up in the 73-77 Lemans sedans and wagons as well.

    We had one of these:
    https://encrypted-tbn2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcS3Ek0pp2gH3SvP44iAtGcOMkYt_SaaczV7uwTcyaVHaFFbTWcO

    just like the picture:IN BROWN

    but no diesel or stick. 400 Poncho, TH400 tranny, factory dual exhausts . We have many fond memories of the thirsty beast.

    Thanks for sharing. I never heard of this concept car until now, great article.

  • avatar
    petezeiss

    Deco met Disco and both were sorry it happened.

    Love the creased 2-plane windshield. Just needed a chrome strip bifurcating it.

  • avatar

    Great article. I did not experience 50s and 60s so for me it is a kind of heroic time, not unlike ancient Greece, in automotive design and everything else, the time when people were dreaming big and bold.

  • avatar

    I toured the Sloan Museum a couple of months ago to review it for The Brougham Society. As soon as I saw this car I knew exactly what it was. As someone that loves design, I could tell that it was a Mitchell design right away, as it had like you said, many of his signature styling cues, including the thin A-pillars, that to me, are a hallmark of Mitchell design.

    Great story!

    -Richard

    • 0 avatar

      Thin A pillars have been an obsession with a lot of car designers. The original AMX concept had very thin A pillars. It’s possible that the AMC designers got the AMX’s cantilevered roof from the Exner-Ghia Norseman show car (which sunk on the Andrea Dorea) which had almost no A pillars at all, just turnbuckles. In the classic era, Murphy bodies were known for their “clear vision pillar”, a thinner A pillar than was common in the day.

      It’s not a terrible idea to make the A pillars as thin as is practical and safe. I’ve reviewed cars that had A pillars so wide they can hide a complete car.

  • avatar

    back in the early 80’s a designer for GM, George Prentice, took me on a tour of the studios where I saw the Phantom and it was scheduled for demolition due to a shortage of storage space. I quickly contacted Phil Kwiatkowski, curator at Flint’s Alfred P. Sloan Museum, and we coordinated the donation of this classic piece, saving it from scrap.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for helping to save a piece of automotive history and thanks, too, for filling in the background to the story. It would be nice if the museum put some kind of information card about the Phantom and Mitchell in the display.

      • 0 avatar

        you’re welcome. for another interesting tidbit of GM styling history, look into the story of Henri Lauve, the fella Mitchell edged out for the top job at design. by hook, or by crook (as some will tell), the Man of LeSabre got rooked.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    William Mitchell presided over the period during which General Motors produced its most handsome and stunningly-designed automobiles. Still, this Phantom makes me think that he was losing it around the time he left GM, as does the 1980 slant-back Seville.

    Sometimes I wonder if, perhaps, the slant-back Seville would have a better reputation if it had better engines. After being available with the Cadillac V-8 down-sized to a nothing special 6.0 Liters in 1980, the horrible V-8/6/4 engine came along in 1981, followed by the underpowered 4.1 Liter V-8 and, of course, there were quite a few equipped with the absolutely horrible Oldsmobile 5.7 Liter Diesel V-8 throughout the production run.

    The comment about William Mitchell being from a “Mad Men” era rings true. Earlier we’ve had some stories about Harley Earl and his “Damsels of Design”. Years ago I met a woman who may have been one Earl’s Damsels. She had been employed as a designer at GM and, although she had mostly worked for the Frigidaire division, she knew a lot about the automotive divisions. She had the utmost respect for Harley Earl (despite his questionable taste in automotive design) and absolutely loathed William Mitchell whom she described as being a sexist pig.

  • avatar

    btw I met Mitchell. he was a creep. although a decent automotive designer, the rumors of his European escapades with under age girls was certainly to his detriment.


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