Bill Mitchell's Swan Song: The Phantom
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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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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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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.
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.