Words: Mike Ryan
Photos: David Newhardt, courtesy of Mecum Auctions
When you talk about General Motors styling, two figures loom large: Harley J. Earl and Bill Mitchell.
Between them, they would define the styling of GM automobiles for 50 years - from 1927 to 1977 – and oversee the creation of some of the company’s best-known production cars, from the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette to the ’59 Cadillac Coupe de Ville and the 1963 Buick Riviera to the ’69 Chevy Camaro.
GM concepts with the Earl and Miller touch include what’s arguably the first concept car – Buick’s ‘Y Job’ – from 1938, as well as the Le Sabre from 1951, the quartet of jet-inspired Firebird concepts from the 1950s, the Cadillac Cyclone and Corvette Stingray from ’59, as well as the Corvette Mako Shark concepts from the ‘60s.
Starting Styling. . .
Coming from a coachbuilding family and having already restyled cars for Hollywood celebrities, Harley Earl was no stranger to design when he joined General Motors in 1925.
In creating GM’s ‘Art & Colour’ department (later GM Design) in 1927, Earl essentially founded American automotive styling as we know it. His influence would be felt across the GM range in the pre-war period, but best evidenced after WWII.
Credited with bringing the tailfin to American automotive styling, Earl first added this design touch to a Cadillac in 1948 and this trend reached its height – literally – in 1959.
By the start of the 1960s, tastes had started to change and GM Design had experienced a changing of the guard.
. . .And Moving it Forward
While Bill Mitchell had been in Art & Colour/GM Design since 1935, he served under Earl and wouldn’t get a chance to truly assert his own style until some years after Earl retired in 1958.
After the ever-higher tailfins and ever-increasing amounts of chrome that characterised Earl’s later years with GM, Mitchell brought a sleeker, less ostentatious and more aerodynamic look to Chevys, Cadillacs and Buicks of the 1960s. Mitchell also led GM’s take on the ‘Coke Bottle’ profile that had become an almost industry-wide design trend that decade.
While the 1960s are regarded by many as the peak of American automotive styling, few would say the same of the 1970s. But there were factors at play in this decade, mainly increasing safety and fuel economy regulations that restricted the creativity of the previous decade. As such, there are few 1970s cars to be found in Mitchell’s highlight reel, but you could include the second-generation Camaro, the 1971-73 ‘boat tail’ Buick Riviera and the iconic late 1970s Pontiac Firebird Trans Am in the same company as Mitchell’s creations from the 1960s.
As much as they’re known for designing cars, both Earl and Mitchell were keen drivers. Earl owned the Buick Y-Job and drove it for many years, while Mitchell was an enthusiast at an even higher level, with a collection of cars and motorcycles he put to use on a regular basis.
Less well known amongst these car designer’s cars are a pair of Chevy Corvettes that were built in the 1960s.
1963 Corvette Sting Ray convertible – the Harley J. Earl Corvette
Even though it carries Harley Earl’s name, the man himself had no involvement in the styling of this particular car. It was the work of Bill Mitchell, or at least staff under his direction, and given to Earl as a gift in 1964.
Built at the end of the 1963 Corvette model run, the ‘Harley Earl Corvette’ carries a mix of ’63 and ’64 parts and even some ’65 parts. This car’s exterior badging, interior control knobs and four-wheel disc brakes wouldn’t be offered until the 1965 Corvette, while the ‘stinger’ bonnet stripe wouldn’t grace a production model until 1967.
The Earl car also carries features that never made it to production at all. The most obvious of these are the side-exit exhausts. This functional exhaust system combined cast iron exhaust manifolds on the 327ci V8 with custom 4-into-2 side pipes and ribbed mufflers. The Earl car was one of only four Corvettes to get this touch, with the others being concepts or similar special builds for GM executives.
The engine is hooked up to a four-speed manual gearbox, which along with the diff, is believed to be the same as that found on a ‘63/’64 production Corvette.
The paint, along with some of the interior features, were Cadillac-inspired, with the metallic blue paint being similar, but not the same, as the Nassau Blue colour option that was available on Corvettes in 1965.
Inside, matching blue leather is another exclusive touch on this car, wrapping the seats, centre console, instrument hood and glovebox hood, while white vinyl covered the facings.
After the side exhausts, the abundance of gauges is the next thing you notice on this car and all were functional, if not practical. On the driver’s side is the usual speedometer and tachometer, as well as fuel, volt, oil pressure and engine temp gauges. The passenger was faced with an accelerometer (a G force meter), vacuum gauge, inside and outside temperature gauges, an oil temp gauge and the clock, which usually resided in the centre console, but was replaced with, of all things, an altimeter!
Since retirement, Earl had been living in Palm Beach, Florida, so the build of this car also included air conditioning.
While Earl drove the Corvette frequently (including in parade laps of the Daytona speedway when he served as Grand Marshal for the 1965 Daytona 500), he only held on to it for two years. The second owner toured the USA with the one-off car, after which it disappeared for some years before resurfacing at auction in 1973. In 1981, a subsequent owner commissioned a restoration to its Harley J. Earl spec, employing GM Design Centre staff to ensure accuracy. Receiving Bloomington Gold certification in 2011 (concours for original and factory-authentic Corvettes), the car has passed through several hands since, reaching a peak selling price of US$1.5 million in 2013.
Most recently, it has been part of the Rare Wheels Collection in Florida, where it sat alongside a similar one-off Corvette, a year younger and less extravagantly styled, known as the Bill Mitchell Corvette.
1964 Corvette Sting Ray coupe – the Bill Mitchell Corvette
When it came to his own Corvette, Bill Mitchell applied his own tastes. And as this car was built during Mitchell’s tenure as the head of GM Design, he could oversee every detail and ensure he got exactly what he wanted.
In this case, what Mitchell wanted was a coupe instead of a convertible and less pizzazz than the Corvette that was built for Earl, but like that car, this one would also carry several one-off and pre-production parts.
Externally, features that set the Bill Mitchell Corvette apart from a production example from 1964 include the open-pattern die cast grille and vents on the front guards. Production Corvettes only carried indentations on the guards in ‘64, with the ‘egg crate’ side vents not reaching production until 1970.
The extra pair of tail lights at the rear was another exterior custom touch that reflected the treatment found on ‘big’ Chevys (Impala, Bel Air) of the period and was a touch already in use by Corvette customisers.
Another notable, but far from obvious, feature on the Bill Mitchell Corvette is the one-piece side glass. Vent windows were still standard in ’64, so the Mitchell car forecast the flow-through ‘Astro Ventilation’ (removing the need for vent windows) that would come on line in 1968.
The metallic blue paint was unique at the time, complemented by Goodyear ‘Speedway Blue Streak’ tyres. There’s no striping or side exit exhausts, but there is a bit of bling in the form of Dayton wheels - a true wire spoke rim that was available as a dealer-fitted accessory at the time, but never an official factory option.
The exhaust tip extensions were another personal touch, said to be inspired by Mitchell’s admiration of European sports cars.
Inside, blue leather in the same shade as the exterior covers the seats, doorcards, instrument and glovebox hoods and the centre console, with blue seat belts fitted, too. The door cards have large brushed metal panels and a trio of functional ‘chaser’ lights fitted, both of which were unique to this car at the time. Same goes for the high-back buckets seats, which only became standard on Corvettes with the 1968 models.
Mitchell chose to retain a conventional instrument cluster and steering wheel for his car, but added a ‘Fasten Seat Belts’ sign to the centre console and a shifter from a Buick Riviera.
A closer look at that shifter shows three gears in the gate, revealing the three-speed automatic that’s hooked up to the car’s 327ci V8.
Two-speed Powerglide autos were still standard fare at the time, with the three-speed Turbo Hydra-Matic fitted to Mitchell’s car unavailable on a production Corvette until 1968.
The 327 V8 in this car is described as “high performance”, which given Mitchell’s love of speed, points to it being 365hp (272kW) and 350lb/ft (474Nm); the highest non-fuel injected version available with the three-speed auto.
Part of the Bob McDorman Collection of GM Design Corvettes for many years, the Bill Mitchell Corvette sold for a mere US$160,000 in 2010. Joining the Rare Wheels Collection in Florida more recently, this Corvette’s symbiosis with the Earl Corvette led to them being displayed together and, in 2019, offered for sale as a pair
Consigned as a pair at Mecum’s Kissimmee Auction in January, 2019, the ‘GM Styling Department’ Corvettes carried a pre-auction low estimate of US$2.5 million, but with a high bid of US$1.7 million, the pair were passed in.
Thanks to Mecum Auctions for information and images used in this article.