By on August 2, 2012

This is a follow up to a couple of recent TTAC posts that touched on how and why the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild, a youth competition sponsored by General Motors which produced a number of top flight car designers, was ended in 1968. After my first post, which wondered if any girls participated because most of the promotional material was targeted at boys, I was contacted by Richard Earl, the grandson of Harley Earl, who founded GM’s styling department and ran it for over three decades. Richard Earl provided me with a quote from Irv Rybicki, one of Harley Earl’s successors as head of GM Design, that claimed that it was racism and sexism on the part of GM brass that ended the Guild.

Since that post was published, TTAC has been contacted by John Jacobus who has written two books on the FBCG. Jacobus, who participated in a European version of the Guild, takes strong exception to Richard Earl’s claims. Jacobus said that he had “documented a number of top notch African American Guildsmen who built model cars for the FBCG,” and has offered to write, for TTAC, an “an opposing point of view article about the Fisher-Guild’s participant diversity and internationalism.” TTAC welcomes Mr. Jacobus to give our readers his informed opinion.

We were also contacted by Ron Will. Will worked at GM Design in the late 1960s when the Guild was ended and later headed Subaru styling from 1980 to 2005. Will also unequivocally disputes Richard Earl’s claim and says the the notion that GM killed the Guild because of racism or sexism is “nonsense”, that GM Design was hiring women and blacks at the same time as it was shutting down the Guild. Will says that kids had simply lost interest in the competition and were not entering nearly as many models. Also, unlike when the contest was started, by the late 1960s there were already a number of design schools turning out trained automotive designers, so the contest was no longer needed to identify talent. In an email, Will told me:

I am sending you my comment, so at least you will have my inside knowledge of the events.  I was there at GM during the time that the Guild was dropped and knew what was going on.  Richard Earl was not there.  The truth is not as controversial as the Mitchell story, but it deserves to be heard.

It would seem very strange that GM would shelve the Guild contest and at the same time be hiring and promoting new women and black designers to their design teams.  I don’t believe that any of these new hires were even involved in the Guild contest.  In fact, the current head of GM design, Ed Welburn, an African American, was hired under Bill Mitchells tenure. The real reason of course was that the contest had waned because of the growing number of teenage distractions such as TV and organized sports, plus more emphasis on science and mathematics in schools as preparation for college, and less emphasis on craft and shop activities. The number and quality of the models had fallen dramatically. The costs to run the Guild were very high and the results were weakening year by year.

We knew at GM if the numbers of models didn’t go up, that the contest was in jeopardy. Many state awards went un-awarded because of a lack of models.  Most Guild models, carved out of wood, took a year’s time to build, and young teenagers were no longer willing to devote that much time to model building.  New techniques for the Guild like Urethane foam model construction were introduced to make model building easier. This did not boost the number or quality of the models. Also, the design schools had put in place much stronger auto design programs at Art Center in Pasadena, CCS in Detroit, IIT in Chicago and Pratt institute in Brooklyn  from which to draw young designers. Many of the top winners in the 1960s were already attending one of these design schools, so their discovery in the Guild was not necessary. Since there were no girls in the contest and winning models were selected without knowing the race of the builder, it is pure nonsense to say that sexism and racism killed the Guild.

I knew Bill Mitchell, and he was indeed a very opinionated man, but it was lack of interest that finally killed the Guild, not racism or sexism.

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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5 Comments on “Counterpoint: Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild Was Ended Due to Lack of Interest, Not Racism & Sexism...”

  • avatar

    Plus the fact that Fisher Body went the way of GMAD.

  • avatar

    Ronnie, I was suspicious of the original story, but I didn’t read it until I returned from vacation, so it was too late to reply.

    My first thought was that I wouldn’t believe a word of it until Irv Rybicki himself was willing to go on the record with that account.

    I believe Richard Earl is the family member who runs a website that seems curiously dedicated to running down Bill Mitchell while praising Harley Earl. If I recall correctly, it claims that Mitchell was part of the reason that GM’s technological progress stagnated in the 1960s. Which is a somewhat odd claim, as the head of styling generally isn’t the person who decides which engineering innovations are brought to market. Unless you count the hardtop and wraparound windshield as major technological advances (and GM styling under Earl didn’t even really “invent” the hardtop – Chrysler had built seven Town and Country hardtop prototypes well before the debut of the 1949 Buick Riviera).

    Also note that Mitchell and GM management had to deal with an increasing number of government regulations by the 1970s that Earl couldn’t have imagined (5-mph bumper standards?).

    I think the real reason is sour grapes – let’s face it, during his peak from about 1962-1966, Mitchell’s designs were simply better than most of what Earl designed in the 1940s and 1950s. It’s hard to think of a single homely GM car built during those years, and several – the 1963-67 Corvette, 1965-69 Corvair, 1966-67 Toronado, 1963-64 Grand Prix and 1963-65 Riviera – are stunners. Even the humble Impalas built during those years are quite sharp.

    • 0 avatar

      As I told John Jacobus, I gave some thought to verifying the quote but Irv Rybicki is now in his 90s, living in a retirement home in the northeast but I’m not going to bother an old man about something controversial. Instead I let Richard Earl’s account stand on its own. He’s entitled to his opinion but I think after publishing that opinion, we’re more or less duty bound to run differing views from folks like Jacobus and Will with their own informed opinions.

  • avatar

    Interesting, whodathot Subaru had a head of styling in 1980?

    Just kidding, I’ve always had a soft spot for the 80s wagons, and if I owned Leno’s garage there would be a Brat in it.

  • avatar

    “…more emphasis on science and mathematics in schools as preparation for college, and less emphasis on craft and shop activities.”

    Being a high school freshman in 1968, I agree with that statement. Interested in architecture or engineering as a career choice, I was highly discouraged from taking any shop classes. I found out later that academic theory can only take you so far.

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