In 78 years, General Motors has had just four heads of design - East Valley Tribune: Business

In 78 years, General Motors has had just four heads of design

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Posted: Friday, March 23, 2007 12:00 am | Updated: 5:32 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

The sun has a certain glow as it rises over the edge of the desert. As its rays lick the soft sand, it glows with a red hue the color of a freshly cut rose. Its warmth releases a soft breath on the dew of the green grass where Chuck Jordan stands, quickly drying the wet stains on his dark shoes.

In front of him, resting on the lawn of the Vicery Hotel, sits a lime-green 1965 Opel GT, a vehicle with a radiance just as deep and bright as its designer’s personality.

“Forty years later,” Jordan says, brushing back his silver hair, “I am still just as passionate about this car. It’s still something else.”

There are no arguments here.

Forty-two years later, the GT still looks as good as its 79-year-old father.

They are both icons standing out here in the desert morning.

They are both reborn.

“I look at the current Opel GT and Saturn Sky and I can’t help but be proud,” Jordan says. “Something still makes them shine.”

Jordan should know a little something about star power and shine.

As only the fourth man in 78 years to run General Motors’ massive design studio, Jordan is a living legend.

Bill Mitchell shared his desk once. So did Harley Earl. That’s not exactly small company in the world of automotive design.

“It was an awesome responsibility.”

And it seemed to be one he was destined for from the time a six-year-old boy from Whittier, Calif., began sketching cars at his bedside table. He would sketch so late into the night his mother would bring his dinner to his room. By the time he was a teenager, Jordan was making scale car models. By the time he had graduated from Fullerton High School with honors, enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in engineering and design, he was already thinking ahead.

In his sophomore year at MIT Jordan, with the encouragement of an understanding and patient mother, entered the GM Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild model-car competition. He not only competed. He won.

That led to a $4,000 scholarship — not small change in the late 1940s — and the attention of Earl, GM’s legendary design guru. By 1949, at 22, Jordan had a job as a junior designer with GM where he remade the automaker’s truck designs.

He was interesting, charismatic and a little quirky, which was good for a designer in the 1950s when things were changing quickly in car world. Jordan’s impact was a lightning rod in the industry.

Within four years, Earl appointed him chief designer of GM’s special product studio and four years after that he was named chief designer for Cadillac. He was 30.

“I never tried to do what Harley Earl wanted. I tried to do what I thought was right,” he said.

What wasn’t to like? In the 1950s he helped pen the first-ever concept for a minivan as well as the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado with enormous tail fins.

In 1962, with the idea for the Opel GT already brewing in his head and on the occasional sketch pad, Jordan was named to Life magazine’s “100 most important young men and women in the United States.”

But he was bound for Europe where Jordan worked in Opel’s design studios and created the GT, a two-seat sports car that would sell more cars in the United States than Europe.

Critics raved and called it the Baby Corvette.

“It was a wonderful experience and was really the right time for Opel in America,” he said. “Opel needed that image. And it rubbed off like nothing else.”

Jordan’s career took the same vertical trajectory.

After three years in Germany as design director for Opel, he returned to the United States in the late 1960s and served as the Number Two man in the organization until 1986 when he took the top spot as vice president of design until mandatory retirement in 1992.

His mantra was “no dull cars” and, as the top GM designer, he influenced the Camaro/Firebird, the 1992 Cadillac STS and Eldorado and Oldsmobile Aurora.

It was 43 years at GM with an unmistakable impression.

Today it lives on with the Opel GT and its sister car, the Saturn Sky.

“I love the new cars,” Jordan says with a smile. “This is the way to go in the future. We’re moving on.”

And so is Jordan, who is still an active part of the design community, teaching his craft at his local high school, working with his Ferraris and promoting automobile design at every possible opportunity.

“It’s the best life you can have. Does anything really beat it?”

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a line on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.

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