William ‘Bill’ Mitchell spent his entire 42-year career at General Motors, much of it served under the leadership of the flamboyant Harley Earl, GM’s Vice President of Design for over three decades. Earl appointed Mitchell as Cadillac’s first design chief in 1936. In 1954 he was promoted to Director of Styling, serving directly under Earl. Finally, after Earl retired, Mitchell stepped into Earl’s place and was Vice President of Design from late 1958 until his own retirement in 1977.
Mitchell, like Earl, was a large presence at GM. He was tall and physically imposing. His personality was equally, if not even more imposing; his exploits – carousing, sophomoric hijinks and profanity-laced tirades – were the stuff of legend, which made him a man feared and reviled by some, but worshipped by others.
But his successes in design were beyond compare. He took the Chevrolet Corvette and turned a quirky roadster into an American icon. He spearheaded a successful program to overtake Ford in the personal luxury car market. His work with the 1955-1957 Chevrolet Bel Air made that car a classic, too.
Unlike Harley Earl, who preferred Rubenesque cars with generous amounts of chrome and ornamentation, Mitchell promoted what he termed a ‘sheer look’, with more tailored forms and little in the way of visual jewellery.
In 1976, Mitchell was looking ahead and saw his 65th birthday looming in the next year. GM’s mandatory retirement age is 65, so Mitchell decided to create one last concept car, one that he hoped he could literally drive off into the sunset on his last day.
Mitchell recruited Bill Davis, a young designer he had worked with on numerous projects. The mysterious Studio X, Mitchell’s ultra-secret personal design atelier was reopened (it was periodically shut down by management) in the styling building’s basement and work began.
Mitchell’s brief was simply stated but difficult to implement – capture the essence of the ‘Mitchell Era’ design philosophy while resurrecting the glamour of the French Carrosserie of the 1930s; the Delahaye, Bugatti, Hispano-Suiza aura combined with Mitchell design cues was the goal. The car would be a personal luxury car, a format that Mitchell perfected in his quest to surpass the Ford Thunderbird in both sales and prestige.
Davis and a small team set up shop and began designing and modelling on the car that was dubbed ‘Madam X’ – in part because the project had no official ‘XP’ status, in part because of the secret studio that initially housed the project, and finally as a tongue-in-cheek reference to John Singer Sargent’s scandalous portrait of the famous Parisian socialite.
Bill Davis was given a free hand in the design, without much interference from Mitchell who acted as the patron and stepped away from the drawing board. Within a few months, a clay model was built, and while Mitchell generally approved of the design, there were some changes necessary. The original clay was a notchback, for example, but Mitchell was fastback man.
The finished full scale model was prepared with a special nitrocellulose black paint that had been used in the 1930s on GM luxury cars. The car was painted double black and polished to a beautiful liquid finish. At the scalloped wheel wells, a special red was used to highlight the sculptural underbody.
The presentation to Mitchell and other management was made in the famous styling dome in an all-black setting with dramatic lighting, accompanied by professional models dressed – naturally – in black gowns, reminiscent of the infamous Madam X.
Mitchell was delighted.
Several GM divisions were contacted for sponsorship of the next level of development of the car, and it was Pontiac that bought into the project. A Grand Prix chassis was donated for the finished car, while trusted contractors, including Pininfarina, were asked to submit bids. In the end, only the body shell was built, due to the costs of sculpting the voluptuous body. It also acquired a new name along the way: The Pontiac Phantom.
The final design was a statement about Mitchell, not a look forward to the future of Pontiac. Many noted the mixture of Grand Prix and Firebird styling themes, while others noted the similarity to the V16 project of a decade earlier. Some also noted the influence of the Pontiac Scorpion concept of 1961.
The Phantom featured the long bonnet of the V16 project cars, with the prominent prow flanked by rectangular headlights (Mitchell was not fond of retractable lights).
The long, sweeping lines at the sides recalled both the classic 1930s cars and GM retro designs like the 1971-4 boat-tail Buick Riviera. A curved fastback terminating above quad exhausts completed the composition.
The interior of the car, as well as the drivetrain, were not completed. Mitchell had hoped to present the concept to the Board of Directors to obtain additional funding to complete the project, but was blocked by Howard Kerl, a powerful executive who led the product planning and technical staffs – and Mitchell’s sworn enemy, having endured many a tirade over the years.
The car, technically a possession of Pontiac, was placed in storage to await its date with the crusher, the typical fate of GM concept cars of the day... but a team of designers quietly intervened and negotiated with GM and the Sloan museum in nearby Flint, Michigan, to save the car and put it on display. It remains there today.
As for Mitchell, he retired soon after, with no new concept car to drive home. He was not without transportation however, as he adopted over 50 GM vehicles – concepts, special editions and personal customs for his own collection. Mitchell launched his own design consultancy and ran it for almost a decade, until health issues forced a permanent retirement.
He died in 1988.
Enthusiasts' opinions differ on Mitchell’s most significant contribution to GM’s automotive legacy. Some say the Corvette, some say his stewardship of Cadillac through four decades, but many point to the personal luxury car as his greatest contribution. Even though he did not invent it, he certainly perfected the format and helped define the romance of a car that promised a great presence on the road, with lots of power and style.
A perfect car for the times – and a challenge to us in a new era of automobiles: can we design an automotive statement that would be its equal?