Automobile styling is a unique subset of industrial design. Eighty-five years ago, General Motors was the first to recognize it as a separate discipline by appointing Harley Earl as the auto industry’s first head of a design and styling department. Here are five of our favorites from the General:
- 1963 Corvette: The 1963 Corvette Sting Ray might just be one of the greatest American designs in any field, up there with the Boeing 707 airliner and the Chrysler Building. Predominantly the work of Larry Shinoda under the supervision of Harley Earl’s successor Bill Mitchell, the ’63 coupe was the only year to feature the graceful (but vision-obstructing) split rear window. Unlike later Corvettes, it was the right size for a sports car and there simply isn’t a bad angle or line to be found anywhere.
- 1963 Buick Riviera: the ’63 Riv came about after Bill Mitchell took a trip to Europe and become enamored with European Grand Touring cars from the likes of Ferrari and Maserati. He issued the edict that GM must come up with a design that combined the style of a Ferrari with the luxury of a Rolls-Royce but in a way that was uniquely American. Originally slated to be the reintroduction of the La Salle, a sort of junior Cadillac, the Riv instead went to the Buick division, which had lobbied hard to get it. A mix of sharp angles and flowing curves with a restrained use of chrome and other adornments, it is now regarded as the finest American coupe design of the 1960s.
- 1970 Chevrolet Camaro: The ’70 Camaro is another car that was part of Bill Mitchell’s well-known fixation with Ferraris. This time, the GM team took inspiration from the Ferrari 250 SWB of the early 1960s, again with a uniquely American twist. The aggressively prominent grille, split bumpers and fastback roofline were a major departure from the somewhat Mustang-esque first-generation Camaro. The basic design was so good that it lasted until 1981.
- 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado: The brilliance of the big Olds coupe’s design wasn’t just skin deep. The Toro brought front-wheel drive to full-size cars for the first time with a massive 425 V-8 driving the front wheels. The swoopy design borrowed from another all-time American great, the Cord 810 of the 1930s. The thin grille, hidden headlights, graceful roofline and long hood were the distinguishing features of this milestone car that was good enough to find a spot in the collection of Jay Leno, a noted fan of great design.
- 2009 Pontiac Solstice coupe: Just to prove the point that great American designs aren’t part of the distant past, the Solstice coupe bears inclusion on any list of fine American automotive designs. The original Solstice convertible was an attractive but space-challenged sports car; its alteration into a coupe, however, solved the myriad packaging problems and from the rear three quarters gave the car a pleasing and aggressive look that is quite spectacular in dark colors. Sadly, it was a victim of the GM bankruptcy. Just over 1,100 production models were built before the Delaware factory, the Solstice and Pontiac itself were consigned to the automotive fossil record.