By on July 25, 2012

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, 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.

Chuck Jordan with boys competing in the Fisher Body 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.

Irv Rybicki, head of GM styling 1977-1986

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

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14 Comments on “Did Sexism and Racism End the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild? Harley Earl’s Grandson Says So...”

  • avatar

    Such behavior by many oranizations was not uncommon in the 1960s though that certainly doesn’t excuse it. Detroit was a “Good Old (white) Boys” club until recently.

  • avatar

    I just posted on TTAC’s current “Fire Escape” thread (about the Ford Escape with supposedly defective supplier parts) that in spite of GM’s sins, we should not wish them dead because they would take millions of Americans’ jobs and livelihoods down with them.

    That said, pardon me while I throw up.

  • avatar

    At least GM never sold a car called the Spade.

  • avatar

    As much as I like watching Baruth bicker with Hardigree, it’s articles like this that really interest me. Even if they also disgust me at the same time.

  • avatar

    I was surprised by the article. Then I remembered the sixties and stopped being surprised at all. It took Federal law to alter behavior. It took another generation before all the behavior seemed natural. Anyone in their sixties was in their twenties back then and they remember it if they will talk. I am talking racial prejudice here and I am continually surprised when I still hear it today.

    Gender bias lasted a lot longer. As a former submariner I wonder honestly if they needed to put women on submarines or other combat vessels. They just did (subs). I have no ax to grind here. I realize I am leaving myself open to criticism for doubting the need. I guess I am surprised women would want to go there. They are lots nicer today than the sixties. Just seems like one of those “not broke – don’t fix it” sort of things.

    I guess it goes back to the civil rights act of 1964. There were a lot of people that resented that act but I think the country needed it. Since this really isn’t car related I don’t think I will subscribe to the link.

  • avatar
    Austin Greene

    1968 was one of the pivots on which modern American history turned. It was the September 11th of its time.

    Society was changing fast. Minorities (including women) who had been treated as less than full partners began standing taller and demanding that they be allowed to make their equal contribution.

    The country was going crazy with Viet-Nam, hippies, drugs, race riots, etc. And the white upper-middle class male – who had been running the show since the end of World War II – didn’t have a crystal ball to tell them how things would play out. So they took the safest path and simply did not renew the competition for another year. Imagine what would have happened had they taken what was the riskier decision for them and allowed the competition to evolve with society?

    In 2012 I’m one of those in the leadership group. I am but one white male who is a happy minority among a leadership collective of other minorities. Collectively we like to think that we’re making better decisions today than those in 1968, but I can tell you that when it comes to things like Facebook, Twitter, et al. we haven’t got a clue and are probably making mistakes that 40+ years of hindsight will expose. Let alone the way we’re treating the environment. Problem is, just like in 1968, we don’t have a crystal ball.

    By the way, while I hold Harley Earl in the highest of regards as the best of his time, he was nevertheless still a man of his time. I must be one of the few people who own Stephen Bayley’s biography of Mister Earl.

    • 0 avatar

      Harley Earl was long gone from GM by 1968. Earl had a solid record of hiring ethnic minorities and even gay men. Bill Mitchell, whose prejudices are a matter of record, also, interestingly enough, didn’t restrict his hiring and promotions to WASP males. Mitchell was the guy who said that no woman would take the lead on exterior design when he was in charge, but he was also the guy who made Sue Vanderbilt the first female “senior designer” in GM history (and yes, she worked on interiors, including the original Camaro).

      Like L.P. Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

  • avatar

    This honestly doesn’t surprise me- for gay men at least, things got worse post-war in many ways than they were in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Earl was a child of an era that in many ways was more inclusive of gay men and in the 50s and 60s many organizations in western countries purged gays under pressure from religious and political groups. McCarthyism set the tone for a good twenty years for gays- get outed and you lost your job.

  • avatar

    Let’s keep in mind an important point: The guys making the decisions at GM at any level were not children of the 60’s. Nor were they children of the 50’s. They were the WWII generation, most likely born between 1910-1930, with all the prejudices intact.

    My backup to this? Memories of my father, Chevrolet dealer, loving family man, very religious Byzantine Catholic, and by 2012 standards one hell of a racist bigot (his comment regarding the day John Kennedy died will always stay in my mind, even as a 13 year old I knew there was something hateful and wrong there) – although by the standards of the 1960’s he was a reasonable, thoughtful, religious conservative man who would never have burned a cross or stopped the hiring of a black person in his dealership (he was lucky, they just didn’t apply). And I do remember him paying for wheel kits out of his pocket for local black youths who wanted to enter the Soap Box Derby – not as some wondrous “helping one’s fellow man”, but more out of wondrous amusement that some of “those kind” actually wanted to take some early steps to improve their station and become like the whites.

    One of our constant failings in life is to look at past history and judge it on current day standards – without having the slightest interest in why people back then thought the way they did.

  • avatar

    Not a surprising reaction. Several counties and states around the US closed all of their schools rather than allow “race mixing”. When the rules of society changed, many just decided to pick up their ball and go home. More room and a wider field for those that chose to stay.

  • avatar

    I can’t help wondering if the Malaise Era might have been less….malaisey if Detroit hadn’t shut off the steady stream of fresh young designers nurtured and encouraged by this program. Could just be a coincidence that things went south just a few years after the contest was ended, but who knows how that untapped talent might have coped with the challenges of the 70s?

  • avatar

    So it’s just as well I DIDN’T send mine in! I would have been disqualified!

  • avatar is involved in a project to create a new image for Michigan, based partly on the design legacy of its automobile industry. There’s a trove of unbiased scholarly presented here.

    What’s wrong w/ enshrining the business area directly responsible, in numbers, finance and statistics for taking GM and the rest of the American auto world to the top?

    These days, leaders in Michigan’s auto capital could learn a thing or two about turning their fortunes around by rediscovering roots and traditions from the era that launched Detroit’s Dependency on Design, and then later on, how this dependency spread throughout the worldwide automotive economy.

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