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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Automobile Design

Time has not been kind to my second entry into the Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild.
Originally there was a windshield, steering levers, and two tall tail fins just behind
the passenger compartment (their loss was no great loss).
Back when I was a kid in my early teens, I was, like man boys my age, in love with cars. I wasn't so much infatuated with what made them run as how they looked. My first car was a hand-me-down 1956 Plymouth Belvedere, my second a '61 T-Bird, my third, a 1970 Pontiac Firebird. Except, perhaps, for the Plymouth, they've all since become classics. Before attaining a licensable age, I was into plastic 1/24 scale model cars. I spent on them every spare cent I could muster and over the years put together a collection of around twenty. Then I became aware of something called the "Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild." This was an annual competition involving the design and building of 1/12 scale model "cars of the future. "They supplied four rubber-tire wheels, we did the rest. I designed three entries two of which I actually sent off to Detroit. For all my hours of labors I received a couple certificates of appreciation. Much more valuable, however, was the appreciation I gained for excellence in design, not just of things on four wheels, but for virtually everything we touch, each and every day.

The 1947 winner by Chuck Jordan, who, by 1965, was in charge of GM's Styling Center.
A replica of this model now rest in Detroit's Ford-Edison Museum

In this 2010 photo, Geza Loczi
holds his 1965 winning model.
Shortly thereafter he joined
the GM design staff.
The Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild competition ran from 1930 through 1968, sponsored by General Motors to encourage teenaged boys toward a career as automobile designers (there's no indication that girls ever entered or were even eligible, which may have something to do with the guild's demise). Prizes for the winners included scholarships and trips to Detroit to tour the company's design studios. In the early years, the competition involved the building of Napoleonic carriage models which were Fisher Body's iconic symbol. Later, the contest evolved into possible designs for their product--auto bodies. At one time, the guild was second only to the Boy Scouts in teen membership, some eight million boys having competed over the years.

It's no accident that for many years, General Motors relied on Fisher for their line of auto bodies. Fisher had been designing transportation vehicles since the horse and buggy days. Their early car designs were literally "horseless carriages." Then, in 1924, GM's founder, Alfred P. Sloan came up with the concept of "planned obsolescence." He required his designers such as Harley Earl and Frank Hershey to come up with new bodies, if not new internal components, every year. The September debut of new models became the standard for the industry up through the early 1970s. Some consider this period nostalgically as the "golden age" of automotive design. Then economic chaos hit the auto industry, forcing both designers and engineers to pitch the tail fins and two-toned paint jobs and suddenly "get real."

What ten years did for tail fins. 1949 on the left, 1959 on the right.
Despite a teen design completion that was well ahead of its time, the great strides in automobile design were not coming from the mammoth General Motors or the somewhat stodgy Ford Motor Company (the T-bird was no Corvette), but from third place automaker, Chrysler where a man named Virgil Exner became the father of the ubiquitous 1950s tail fin borrowed from GM's Frank Hershey, who later borrowed it back, sparking a competition between the two automakers which rose to such heights (literally) as to gain the winner, GM's 1959 Cadillac, the nickname, "the rocket launcher."  Some claimed it looked more like the rocket itself.

Virgil Exner's 1959 Dodge wasn't exactly modest when it came to tail fins.

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