By on August 31, 2016


fisher body, shutterstock user Flystock

TTAC commentator Arthur Dailey writes:

We all understand that developing a new vehicle requires hundreds of millions of dollars and a number of years. However between the early ’50s and late ’70s, the Detroit Three unveiled multiple “new” vehicles on an annual basis. I remember eagerly watching the first episode of Bonanza, each September through most of the ’60s because that’s when Chevrolet would unveil its new cars to the public.

The split-window Corvette, the Corvair Monza, the Caprice and the Camaro, all seen for the first time on Sunday nights.

Of course, the structures of many new cars were the same. It’s just the body panels, lights and — in many instances — interiors and dashboards that changed. New engine configurations were regularly released, too. So in short, why were they able to do that then and not now?

Have crash testing requirements become so onerous that even changing body panels has become a multi-year endeavour?

Sajeev answers:

Oh no, this goes deeper than mere crash testing: a deeper dive also explains the cottage industry for Industrial Designers known as Transportation Design. This is less Piston Slap, more Vellum Venom, so peep the following quote:

The Annual Model Change permits improvements to be incorporated in new cars as quickly as they are tested and approved.

That insightful quote comes 3:40 into this Fisher Body video. Depending on your perspective, you’re either a cynical believer in planned obsolescence or you’re an early adopter of the latest innovations. The former is well covered, the latter conjures buzzwords like synergy and enlightened organizational management; perhaps more than buzzwords, as this insightful fable regarding Fisher Body suggests.

General Motors didn’t rise to the top because they were evil corporate bloodsuckers! (Perhaps that’s debatable.) GM innovated, continually refined it products, and added more brands to nurture said refinements (Pontiac for Performance, Cadillac for luxury, etc.) to appeal to all markets. Contrast GM’s innovation/planned obsolescence to Henry Ford’s begrudging and tardy admission of the Model T’s obsolescence. Too little, too late: GM and Fisher Body were primed for multi-level success, especially after World War II.

GM and Fisher Body were innovators in style (we all know Harley Earl’s legacy), but also engineering. To wit, the following quote while Ford was churning out Model Ts:

In 1920, Fisher made the first scientific use of insulation in an automobile to reduce noise and keep out heat and cold. It also narrowed the windshield pillars to provide increased vision. Fisher Bodies had the first dependable window regulator for closed cars. In 1923, Fisher Body made one of its most important contributions to the automobile world when it pioneered the use of lacquer instead of paint and varnish for bodies. This proved one of the greatest advantages in attaining volume production, helping to bring the closed car within reach of the average buyer. Instead of taking four weeks to paint and trim a body finished in varnish, it took six hours. Color became important in automobile styling.


This modus operandi demanded GM introduce cars significantly restyled and re-engineered almost every year. Ford and Chrysler had little choice but to follow suit, even if the changes were a mixed bag of relevance.

This is much like how TTAC fans feel about today’s advancements! Consider your feelings about BMW’s first i-Drive or today’s hit-or-miss infotainment systems, from a snobby Toyota Prius body to a cheaty TDI Volkswagen engine, and from a Ford Fusion to a Lincoln MKZ. Perhaps we should thank Fisher body for today’s good and bad product introductions.

Today’s changes come just as quickly, but now it’s concentrated on in-car technology. Not as memorable as your childhood watching Bonanza, but that TV show and Fisher Body ended for valid reasons.

Innovation and planned obsolescence are here to stay — love it or leave it … or both. 

[Image: Shutterstock user Flystock]

Send your queries to [email protected]. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry … but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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53 Comments on “Vellum Venom Vignette: Innovation, Planned Obsolescence and Fisher Body...”

  • avatar

    GM fails starting with the Vega were largely due to organizational screwups. While Fisher Body and the divisional powertrain groups were bulky organizationally, their expertise was first rate. The consolidation was done very poorly and resulted in much chaos.

    • 0 avatar

      Even further back: Chevrolet Series M Copper-Cooled

    • 0 avatar

      What makes you think the Vega was a fail? It accomplished exactly what it was designed to do: by lasting only a couple years, those cheap young SOBs who dared buy an inexpensive compact were forced to replace said car sooner, theoretically keeping GM’s annual income constant in the face of the hippie liberal trend toward smaller vehicles. Then reliable imports happened…but the GM strategy continued right through the 00’s. Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and bankruptcy.

  • avatar

    Yeah, now you can get a “next model year” vehicle well before the last frost of winter of the existing year has melted away! Somehow it just isn’t as much fun…

  • avatar

    I recall my father’s love of GM vehicles and the 1978 Monte Carlo, 1982 Celebrity, and then the 1987 Cutlass Supreme Brougham. I would glance down and see that blue carriage with “Body by Fisher” every time I glided over the sill into the seats.

    I was saddened when that little symbol disappeared, although I knew it had meant nothing for a very long time.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      Same here. When I would get into my folks 62 Impala 4 door sedan I would glance at the “Body by Fisher”emblem on the door jam. It just exuded the impression of quality or the overused term of today, bespoke.

  • avatar

    Back in the day of Bonanza, annual model changes, new bodies, styles, cars covered prior to the official intro date. Those days are gone, although the annual model change created a ton of excitement.

    Imagines if back then those models that were changed annually had to meet crash tests, fuel economy ratings, and specific cost targets. There is a good chance that the annual model change would not have existed.

    It was exciting to see new models every year, 1958’s loaded up with chrome, 1959’s with wings and fins, and so on.

    Back in the day GM set the tone with styling started by Harley Earl, then Bill Mitchell. Everyone one else followed along.

    Just like model changes quickly aged and made an older model “obsolete”, today its technology that makes an older model “obsolete”.

    Body by Fisher…Technology by (fill in the blank).

  • avatar

    I still dress just like those guys, even the heavy glasses!

    But I use more deodorant.

  • avatar

    There is such a thing as a happy medium. The styling excesses pushed by Earl; the silly tailfin and wraparound windshield, which promoted rust and roof collapse (and busted kneecaps)…and the COST to the consumer; and of the selling of a personal car as a fashion and status statement…was wasteful and was doomed to fail in the end.

    Fine. That said, we’ve gone all Studbaker-Canada, with body styles ten years old and more…and ALL looking the same, the same wheeled inverted banana. I’ll ignore the era-specific VW Type 1; that was unchanging but that was a novelty. It was different at inception and different it remained.

    But today I have to look for the badge to tell a Honda from a Nissan; or a Spark from a Sonic. Fuel-use standards and passenger-compartment standards, and airbag standards…have led us to a styling standard and a weight standard. Seems the smallest car today, the stupid SMART excepted, weighs about 3000 pounds.

    In some ways I guess it’s a good thing that cars last so long and are not made obsolete by fashion trends. But something’s gained…and something’s lost.

  • avatar

    A lot of it had to do with Volume, their commericals were louder than the other ones.

    But seriously in the 60’s GM would crank out a million copies or so of the full size Chevy. So they were able to amortize the tooling in one model year as well as wear out a lot of that tooling. So do you order another die to stamp out the same fender as last year or make a few tweaks and then order those new fender dies and quickly make the current car look “old”.

    Regulations certainly play a big factor as well. Changes to those front fenders certainly could affect crash test results and that is not something they had to worry about in the 60’s. They also didn’t have to worry about CAFE so no need to see how those changes affected the aerodynamics.

    Also while that body may have been tweaked or “all new” in a given year a lot of the chassis and power train soldered on through numerous styling changes.

    So a lot of it comes down to the fact that they have many more areas to spread their development budget over for a given vehicle. It takes a lot more time to recoup those costs at a reasonable per car basis when you are cranking out far fewer of a given model per year.

    • 0 avatar

      This is the key. I think both “Arthur Dailey” and Sajeev are forgetting that in the 1950s, the automakers were making far, far fewer models. Chevrolet’s car lineup in 1957 was the 150/210/Bel Air (same car, different trim levels,) the Nomad/Townsman/Beauville (wagon,) and the Corvette.

      That’s *it.*

      Today Chevrolet’s US car lineup is the Spark, Sonic, Cruze, Volt, Malibu, Impala, SS, Camaro, and Corvette. And the Bolt will be out soon.

      It’s a lot easier to afford yearly new model updates when you only make three cars than it is when you make 10. And have a lot less market share.

      • 0 avatar

        The ’57 Chevrolet models were the third and last year of the body style that began in ’55. Before ’55, there wasn’t much in the way of options, just an inline six and three on the tree.

        Starting in ’55, there were engine and transmission options as well as options formerly available on the more expensive cars: power steering, power brakes, power windows, air conditioning, etc.

        That’s when GM decided to amortize the luxury features by including them in the low priced Chevys, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles. There were only a few models, but they could be configured the proverbial seven ways to Sunday.

  • avatar

    Also remember that in the 1950s, you pretty much had to put at least a new front end, if not a new body, on the car every year because all you had was the one car (and maybe a pickup, but pickups were for work only), and you had to mix it up every year for variety. After 1960, when the Big 3 introduced their compacts, then mid-sizers, personal lux coupes, and pony cars, they could afford to let the full-size car sit without a major update for another model year (or two, or three) without worrying about stagnation.

    • 0 avatar

      Plus each of Big 3 had to react to the others move. Look, new for this year bigger fins. So immediately the competition would react with even bigger fins. They basically just made multiple copies of the same car with different styling or configurations to make it appear the consumer had lots of choices from one dealer. 2 door, 4 doors, luxury, big engine, etc. However under the skin these were all the same basic vehicle. Hard mounting points stayed the same, engines and transmission were all swap-able.

      In reality though similar stuff occurs today. You’ve got the base sedan, a hatchback or wagon version (if lucky) and various CUV versions. Just look at the VAG where same MQB car is sold as like 10 different things.

    • 0 avatar

      Exactly what I came here to say. How many different Fords were sold in 1959 vs. 1999 vs. today? Start naming all the models, much less trim levels, and you’d be out of breath before you finished. Its easy to crank out a “new” car every year when all you build is one car model line. Then factor in modern crash standards, mpg, etc and a redesigned car every year is nearly impossible.

      • 0 avatar

        How many different Fords in 1958? As you said, there may have been (a) dozen(s of) different models, but in my book, it boils down to only three distinct models: The ’57 F-Series with a new grille, the ’57 full-size car with a new front and rear end, and the all-new four-seater T-bird. And I mean book literally. I have a little project I may be sharing with the world soon.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      The 58 Chevrolet and Pontiac are great examples of the newly styled but just for for one year car. After the very popular Tri-Five’s the 58 was quite similar to the B-Body Buick and Olds.

    • 0 avatar

      The base body type/chassis lasted longer than that. In 1965, GM came up with the full sized chassis with a 78 inch wide perimeter frame on a 119 inch wheelbase. They used that through 1970, six years, only extending the wheelbase slightly after 1970 for full size models GM is still making the 78 inch perimeter frame, 119 inch wheelbase chassis, for some of its pickups! It’s still a sound BOF application.

  • avatar

    Today the entire front and back of most vehicles is an immense piece of molded plastic. The easy and cost effective restyles are to redo the grille, headlamps, bumper (or what we understand as a bumper. Same for the rear restyled lights, exhaust tips and so on.

    “This new model year has new LED headlamps, a deeper front spoiler, distinctive LED parking lights, and a restyled grille.” “Added a diffuser in the rear bumper with new trapezoidal exhaust outlets enhanced by a chromed circumference”

  • avatar

    Bob Lutz goes into this in his book Car Guys vs Bean Counters. GM tried to take subjectivity out of automobile design. They built a huge, unproductive bureaucracy whose “job” it was to quantify the unquantifiable. At one point, they were provided an example of a Chrysler LH for consideration. The car was quickly covered in post-it notes showing where it violated GM’s painfully developed design standards.

  • avatar

    I’d say, in fact, that the annual styling do-overs were part of Detroit’s problem. As Sajeev points out, they just hung new sheetmetal over the same old stuff. And consumers – who knew this was happening – didn’t really have any other alternatives. I mean, if you needed something big enough to haul a decent size family around in, who besides GM, Ford or Chrysler (or AMC) would sell you one? The overseas competition was either junk, or was made up of economy cars. So consumers bought what Detroit sold them, and Detroit mollified or hoodwinked them with frequent style changeovers.

    That worked for a long time. But as soon as real competition from overseas began, a lot of those consumers weren’t mollified or hoodwinked anymore. They wanted something fundamentally better – and I mean better by engineering, not just styling – and overseas companies gave it to them.

    No better example of this exists than in the luxury segment. Let’s face it – Lincoln and Cadillac sold the same basic BOF stuff for DECADES after the sell-by date for that type of tech was past. It was a lot cheaper to redo the styling and add power options than it was to fundamentally redo the body, suspension and engine designs. And why not? The competition was something like Mercedes or Jaguar, and those cars came at a heavy premium, so they were niche sellers at best. When Lexus came out with the LS, which was a fundamentally superior car at a fair price, Cadillac and Lincoln were still shoveling out as many disguised Caprices, LTDs, Bonnevilles and Tauruses as they could. They figured the same old “give ’em new styling over the same old stuff” routine would continue to play. It didn’t, and they got decimated. They’re still playing catch-up to this day.

    Same thing in the midsize segments – when Toyota and Honda began rolling out great midsize family sedans in the early ’80s, Detroit was selling the same BOF stuff they’d been selling for decades, just downsized somewhat.

    So…maybe we miss the days when new car intros were truly special (and I do too), but that was a big part of Detroit’s undoing.

    • 0 avatar
      heavy handle

      Agreed. GM got away with it until people realized that they were putting different lipstick on the same pig.

      The makes that had better perceived quality in the 1970s (Toyota, Mercedes, VW, Volvo) didn’t do this. Eventually, the lack of model-year updates became a sign of quality.

      • 0 avatar

        Detroit dragged out their new body on an old frame especially when it came to handling and braking for an extra decade. When the German started in the luxury segment the cars handled, braked much better than Detroit iron. Although all the convenience features starting with air conditioners, power windows, seats, were at the same stage as the Detroit handling.

        Detroit was 10 years behind in handling and the Germans were 10 years behind with the convenience features.

        The poor assembly and fit and finish of Detroit iron in general is a weak area that the Japanese pounced upon.

        Back in the day, air conditioners, power seats, power windows, power mirrors, cruise controls, automatic transmissions, differentials were appreciably better on Detroit iron.

        GM air conditioning compressors were used by everyone including the Germans. A Turbo Hydro 400 3 speed automatic was a global benchmark transmission used by many.

        Japanese, Germans were challenged to find dealers in North America, and Detroit dealers were deeply frowned upon if they took another franchise. This created a compelling barrier to enter the market, while reinforcing the Detroit antiquated business model.

        In 1985 Mercedes launched the 300E (W124) and Cadillac launched the Cimarron. The 300E became a global benchmark car.

        • 0 avatar

          “Back in the day, air conditioners, power seats, power windows, power mirrors, cruise controls, automatic transmissions, differentials were appreciably better on Detroit iron.”

          Actually, AGR, I’ll disagree on that point. My family had any number of expensive imported cars starting in the mid-’70s, and that stuff was not as good as what you’d find on a Caddy or Lincoln, plus these features tended to break more often.

          It took a while for European manufacturers to catch up in this area, and whether they really have is also kind of debatable when it comes to certain brands (I’m looking at you, BMW).

          • 0 avatar

            I think you’re actually agreeing on that point. He said Detroit was leading on the luxury and convenience feature front.

          • 0 avatar

            Don’t you tell me I actually agreed…when I totally misread what what he was saying…How dare you!

            (I needed more coffee…LOL)

        • 0 avatar

          If any big Detroit automatic tranny was the benchmark back then, it was the Chrysler Torqueflite.

      • 0 avatar

        Well, it wasn’t just GM.

  • avatar

    In his autobiography, Sloan opined that Americans cared about style and features, not about engineering or handling. Hence, the model year.

    The Japanese have given us 4-6 year design cycles with a refresh at the mid point. The Germans have impacted luxury car designs with their conservative approach. The industry has generally moved toward offering brands with a common face in order to build brand identity. None of that is compatible with the old GM model year concept, which wouldn’t impress too many of today’s customers, anyway.

    • 0 avatar

      “In his autobiography, Sloan opined that Americans cared about style and features, not about engineering or handling. Hence, the model year.”

      well, he was right then and is right now. Thus why the mass market isn’t interested in brown diesel Miata station wagons with manual transmissions.

  • avatar

    “The Japanese have given us 4-6 year design cycles”

    I can speak to this point specifically as we bench marked Toyota and Honda, then one-upped them in months from the studio to production.

    I’m no longer involved with that strategic group – but I can tell you from my promiscuous dating escapades that Honda is trying to drop out prototype builds altogether. If they figure that crap out, not only will the 4 year life cycle be cut down by almost a year, but the OEM life cycle costs drop dramatically. The supplier piece cost will increase simultaneously, but everything is cheaper when the Tier 1 supplier has to do it in lieu of the OEM.

    Funny how my tangent has come full circle with Sajeev’s article; Fisher Body was definitely a deeply partnered Tier 1. Before you know it, we will be seeing OEM’s offload stamping, body, paint and assembly business units onto suppliers. Everything old is new again. Ford already spun off their steel business unit and was prepping to do the same with stamping 15 years ago. Fisher Body will be exhumed to bury the UAW overhead costs.
    The only thing stopping OEM’s from doing this is how closely tied Chief Engineers are to the VP/board level.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    My recollection of the 60s yearly body changes can be attributed to just reshaping grilles, headlights, mudguards/body panels.

    Not much different than today with the Gen I, II, etc.

    It was the same as today.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    @Big Al–There was a little more than grill and chrome changes for many cars during the 50’s and most of the 60’s but the basic frame and power train was very much the same except when the 49 Ford, 55 Chevy, 57 Chrysler products, Studebaker, and Nash. When the Government mandated more safety and pollution standards then the annual model change started to become less frequent. Today most manufacturers don’t even bother to change the grill or the tail lights during most years. Cars are safer and more efficient but they are also much more boring. I do miss the 63 Buick Rivera, the 63 Pontiac Grand Prix, Mercury Marauders, the early Mustangs, the early Cougars, the old T-Birds,early GTOs, early Cutlasses, early Chevelles, early Camaros, Impala SS, early Monte Carlos, early Challengers, early Chargers, the Ghia inspired Chryslers the Studebaker Golden Hawks, and the Avanti. Their time has passed and as a kid I enjoyed going to the dealerships to see the all new cars. Now I don’t care as much and view a vehicle more like a washing machine, refrigerator, and dish washer. Maybe that is not bad since it is not really that important and is just a mode of transportation.

    In all honesty a vehicle is something that you need and it is best not to spend you life savings on one or to buy one as a status symbol to impress others. I actually like my old 99 S-10 more than my other two vehicles which are much newer and have more creature comforts. I have had a Monte Carlo with swivel bucket seats and power everything along with a Chrysler 5th Avenue full optioned and I enjoyed those vehicles but at this stage of my life I prefer a vehicle that has more utility and provides reliable and long life. I also like the comforts but not to impress anyone as much as for my own satisfaction.

  • avatar

    It seems a number of posters like bashing body-on-frame construction; but, realistically, what are the options? Unitized construction, or body-on-frame.

    Unitized construction has been adopted – and moved away from. The 1972 Ford intermediates RETURNED to BOF construction after starting from inception as unibodies. Why? Quieter and structural integrity resisting rust.

    Virtually all pickups today (a segment in explosive growth) are BOF; as are many SUVs. The CUV market seems to be saturated and may be shrinking. So, a greater number of consumers, with fatter budgets, are choosing body-on-frame, when given a choice.

    There have been a few other oddities, such as the VW’s platform frame; but those have proven dead-ends. Until something like injection-molded plastic proves as strong as steel currently is…it’s going to be one of those two constructions.

    All cars have four wheels, too. That doesn’t mean they’re in an engineering doldrums. It just means that there hasn’t been found a better way; and the same could be said for chassis and construction choices.

    • 0 avatar

      ” The CUV market seems to be saturated and may be shrinking. So, a greater number of consumers, with fatter budgets, are choosing body-on-frame, when given a choice.”

      [Citation needed]. Why, then, did the Explorer, Pathfinder, and Durango all move to unibody?

      • 0 avatar

        They shifted their market niches

        Why did the Mercury Cougar, a hot junior Personal Luxury vehicle, offer a WAGON in 1975? Because the name was just slapped onto what had been the Montego.

        The Explorer became an AWD car – for the CAFE advantages. Pathfinder, I don’t know the story on. Durango moved away from a truck-based vehicle to use a car platform – to save cost.

        I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I’m saying that market is not where the explosive growth is. And CUVs themselves are growing.

        I haven’t broken down whether unibody vehicles now have a greater or lesser percentage of total sales; but without the numbers, I’d bet they do not.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    The reason you don’t see as many body on frame is that the uni-body is lighter and the methods of production make it less expensive to manufacture. Today manufacturers make a vehicle lighter with smaller engines is a way to meet the stricter fuel standards especially since vehicles have gained weight with additional safety and pollution equipment. It is not that the body on frame is bad it is just that it has been replaced by uni-body and with technology there will eventually be something else. Cars of the past did not have to meet the safety, pollution, and efficiency standards that they have to today and the American manufacturers had the majority of the market share. It is a much tougher environment for car manufacturer today and the market is much more competitive.

  • avatar

    seems to me toyota learned a lot from GM and improved on it.

  • avatar

    I’m thinking that video is a glimpse at the high-water mark of American manufacturing employment. Just imagine all the jobs represented by the production of merely the cabinetry and hardware of those primitive computers and sundry test gizmos.

  • avatar

    Talking about Bonanza Chevy commercials there was one commercial where the Cartwright boys were standing around waving their guns. Papa Cartwright shows up and asks about the guns. Hoss replies that they were going ‘bird hunting’ they were after ‘falcons and t-birds’. Can you imagine such a commercial being made today?

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