Design at GM

At the age of 19, Peter Brock was the youngest designer ever hired by GM Styling.  His world was design and the love of fine automobiles. His experience of working with legends like VPs of Styling Harley Earle and Bill Mitchell resulted in an incredible hands-on education. Even with long hours each day in the studio, the unbridled enthusiasm of youth persisted long after most employees had gone home. Late one night, when Earle was prowling his domain, as he was wont to do, he entered a studio to find Brock alone, working on sketches. Earle, normally reserved and aloof with his staff, was intrigued. Styling’s towering presence engaged the young designer in an informal conversation and asked what the young kid thought of GM’s current direction.  No doubt thinking he’d hear enthusiastic praise, Earle was probably a bit surprised when Brock immediately shared that he thought GM was missing the mark.  “There are two areas we should address,” responded Brock. “First the Europeans are making tremendous inroads on American sales. We don’t have a single small car in our line up to counter that. Second, there’s an immense, untapped market for a “student’s car” that no one has even considered; GM’s missing it out there. Young guys like me, going to school can’t afford big cars.  We can’t even park them on campus”; Peter relays with a chuckle at the thought of his telling Harley Earle he didn’t understand the car market.

BRE2_Cadet_Image_002_w_captTo Earle’s credit, he was intrigued.  After a few more informal, after-hour discussions, Earle told the young designer he was going to initiate a project to address that student market and Brock would lead it!  The next day the studio head formally announced to his staff there would be a new small car project and listed the people that would be assigned. Brock, of course, was included to head the project under the direction of the studio boss.

The result was the Cadet.  Earle, who never spoke directly to his designers (except, as Brock knew, after hours when no one else was around) became so excited about the sketches of the new Cadet Coupe that he expanded the program to include his own slightly extended wheelbase sedan delivery version; something small business owners would use for delivery services, stationery stores, florists, pharmacists, even gardeners.  Earle saw the potential.  It was a curious arrangement as Earle would come into the design studio during the day and imperiously tell his mid management lieutenants exactly what to tell the designers (as they all stood there next to the great man) and then at night Earle would come in and talk to Brock directly.

bre2_Cadet_Image_001_w_captEarle was so excited about the Cadet he planned to showcase the car to all of GMs upper level executives and dealers at Styling’s annual internal VIP car show. At the show’s end, after attendees had survived hours of blinding chrome on the new 1958 GM line-up, the lights went low as other cars were cleared away, and then they came back up on this beautiful little jewel of a $1000 car, slowly spinning on a turntable… the Cadet. The audience fell silent. It was about a third the size of anything they’d seen all day. No one knew what to say… they sat in stunned silence! The only chrome on it resided on slender door handles. After a few moments, the president of GM, Harlow Curtice, stood and formally announced: “GM doesn’t make small cars”. The lights went out and the car was never mentioned again.

Rather surprised and disappointed that even Harley Earle wasn’t able to sell his Cadet concept to GM’s assembled executives, Brock continued forward on the styling projects he was assigned while Earle began to make the transition into retirement and handing over the reins of Styling to William “Bill” Mitchell. Although the Cadet never came back into Brock’s studio, a seed had been planted and the project was resurrected a few months later and eventually became GM’s ill-fated Corvair. Some say that Brock was responsible for the Corvair. Besides planting the idea and some of the Cadet’s lines remaining on the new GM “small car”, Brock had nothing further to do with the Corvair.

Mitchell was now taking over Styling and wanted to make his mark early. He was a man “with gasoline in his blood”. He loved fast cars and racers in particular. One of his first projects as the new Head of Styling was to design and build a better Corvette for Chevrolet. In late ’57, after returning from the Turin show, he outlined his ideas for the Corvette’s new shape and held a contest within the studio for his staff designers to sketch their ideas for such a car.

bre2_MG_7043_11x17_B_W_prinIt was a sketch by Brock, penned 11-17-57 that was chosen as Mitchell’s “new direction” This was the first time it was visible within the studio that Brock’s work had been singled out, as his role on the Cadet project had been behind the scenes with Earle. To everyone else in the studio it appeared as if Brock was simply a member of a design team assigned to work on the “student’s car” project.

A couple of more senior staff members came into the studio to work on the new project, as all knew that those connected with Mitchell’s new Corvette had a good chance of going on to greater things. “I was just too new at GM to warrant involvement in such a visible project. Corporate politics were a fact of life at GM,” Peter laughs. “My original sketch had been taken down as the studio head declared we all needed a “fresh look” at the concept. Weeks later Mitchell came in to review the sketches the new team had created and he’d look over all the new work and say, ‘No that’s not what I want. Where’s that sketch I chose.’ The studio head would reluctantly pull my original sketch back out of a drawer and Mitchell would light up, ‘Yes, that’s the one! This is what I want.’ It happened a couple of times so finally they put me (junior) on the lead team.”

bre2_Sting_Rat_for_Dick_CarJust prior to Mitchell’s takeover and just after the season’s first important race at Sebring, the AMA, led by conservative GM execs downtown, instituted the infamous “AMA ban” on all racing activities and “high performance”; even the Mobilgas Economy Run was cut. All of Detroit’s “Big Three” auto makers agreed to refrain from building anything “exciting” that inferred speed. “Our Corvette program, led by a defiant Mitchell, went “underground”. A secret studio was built behind a supposed tool storage facility where our work continued unabated on what would become the prototype Corvette roadster. It was called the Stingray Racer. What had started out as a coupe was transformed into a roadster.” A fellow junior designer named Chuck Poehlmann and senior designer Larry Shinoda were assigned to refine the car’s shapes into the production roadster and coupe models, respectively, which finally appeared to the public in 1963, six years after Mitchell initiated the program. Brock helped finish the Stingray Racer with Mitchell and the team; however, he would not be at GM when the production Sting Ray came to market. With no race cars on the horizon, Brock had experienced enough of the corporate world to understand it wasn’t his style and he and GM parted amicably. Brock packed up his Cooper Climax race car and his luggage and headed back to his native CA “to race”.

In California, Brock eventually became Carroll Shelby’s first paid employee, which led to the design of the Daytona Cobra Coupe, which you can check out here!