Bill Mitchell, only the second man to head General Motors styling when he took over from the monumental Harley Earl, was not a man about whom people were impartial. GM’s official history reveres him. Harley Earl’s family reviles him. His coworkers and subordinates at GM either loved him or despised the man. Even landmark designs that were signatures of his reign at GM Styling, the split-window 1963 Corvette Sting Ray and the boat tail Rivieras, are polarizing designs that had detractors, including some on the GM Styling staff. He admittedly ran that department like a dictator, though he rarely fired anyone. Mercurial in temper, he’d have screaming fits at his design staff, laced with the most vulgar epithets, then defuse the tension with an offhand joke as he left the room. Shamelessly ambitious and self-promoting, often taking personal credit for his staffs’ designs, had the term “larger than life” not existed, Mitchell would have coined it to describe himself.
By today’s standards of workplace political correctness, diversity and racial and sexual harassment law, Bill Mitchell was an atavistic throwback to an age when ethnic jokes by supervisors were uncomfortably endured by the brunt of that ‘humor’. An executive then could tell his secretary to order him up some hookers after a multiple martini lunch, knowing that she’d hold all calls and cover for him if his wife (or another executive) got jealous. As a result, in addition to whatever praise and criticism his aesthetic direction and management skills have garnered, Bill Mitchell’s legacy has been somewhat tarred with the brush of bigotry.
The question is are we being fair to the man? Are we applying contemporary standards to an era that was simultaneously more innocent and more evil in terms of racial, ethnic and other prejudice?