Once some folks start dreaming up car designs, they can’t stop. That was evident at a recent gathering of more than 20 retired designers in the Detroit inner-ring suburb of Royal Oak, Michigan. We button-holed a half-dozen, nearly at random, and asked them to discuss their imaginings as rendered in ink, chalk, pencil, paint, and clay.
The occasion was a three-fold celebration of mid-20th-century car design. A reception for an exhibit supporting the in-production documentary film, American Dreaming: Detroit Automotive Styling, 1946–1973 coincided with a gathering of the League of Retired Auto Designers, a lively club co-founded by the late GM design chief Chuck Jordan, whose members stage annual shows of new work. Plus, it was the 90th birthday of Bill Robinson, who’d followed his own substantial career as a designer with teaching at the College for Creative Studies (CCS), training new generations in the trade.
Amid all that, these accomplished designers, all credited with well-known cars, really lit up when we asked about fantasies that weren’t tied-down to marketing and production constraints.
“When you’d finished one program but before starting a new one, you could just do whatever inspired you, to cleanse the palate, so to speak,” remembers Wayne Kady, who headed up Cadillac and Buick studios during his 38 years at GM. “It was a fun time when you didn’t have to satisfy anyone but yourself.” This watercolor (dated 1962/63) depicts a purely imaginary turbine-powered Cadillac. “It was that era, the turbine Firebirds I, II, and III were out there, we had the entire range of powertrains to work with—hydrogen, electrics, whatever.” His design (not shown) for the 1971 Eldorado? “It started out as a V-12, before it got put on the front-drive platform.”
“That rocket-looking thing in the cabinet there, I drew it when I was 20, trying to get a job,” says Bill Robinson. He first landed one as an advertising and brochure illustrator, then moved into the design departments at Kaiser-Frazer, Briggs (building bodies for Packard and Chrysler), and Chrysler. “My idea was to earn enough money to go back and finish school. Well, in two years I was making enough to buy two new Cadillacs every year. I wasn’t going back to school.” He “retired” in 1980 and launched a second career, teaching at CCS until 2002. Some of his students were among those sharing his 90th birthday cake.
Vincent Geraci started his career at Chrysler drawing 1950s DeSotos and Imperials, and retired in 1990 from the same firm, at which time he was doing Jeep interiors. In between, though, he was mostly at AMC and became the last chief of AMC design before Chrysler bought it. “This drawing [dated 1968] was an idea wondering what a unique show car might be using Gremlin cues,” he says. “And this [at top] is a project I did with other AMC retirees [in 2004], imagining a modern Marlin.” Geraci’s studio had been charged with adapting Dick Teague’s Tarpon show car to a larger platform, creating the 1965 Rambler Marlin.
“I’m always getting blamed for the Mustang II,” Buck Mook laughs, “so when the League asked us to reimagine one of our projects for this century, I thought, why not?” He points to an original Mustang II photo and says, “Production thickened the front fender over these tiny wheels because Henry [Ford II] wanted to see a big, long hood out the windshield. So, I went the other direction with the new one.” As much derision as the Pinto-based Stang got in its day, Mook, and we, have noticed the cars turning up a lot in car shows lately. “I’ve got my eye out for a fastback Cobra. They got torn up a lot for rod projects and stuff like that. The right one will turn up eventually.”
Ron Konopka was a design studio clay modeler at Ford and Chrysler, and reminds us that cars are best seen as three-dimensional sculptures. In retirement, he’s collected 20 or more models from auctions at art galleries and car shows, some as big as 1/4-scale. “This one is a mystery, I haven’t been able to pin down who did it or even for what company. It obviously never made production but it’s someone’s dream.”
“One of my favorite between-projects assignments was to ‘imagine a Chevy for 15 years from now,’ ” says Bill Michalak, who labored most of his career in the Oldsmobile and Pontiac studios. “You got to really stretch on things like that. The other side, my original sketch for the Hurst Olds package was in production in about 60 days. You couldn’t refine it, and the technology at the time wasn’t what we have now.” Michalak joined GM in 1966 and retired in 2001. He’s not been interviewed for the American Dreaming documentary. “I’m too young, their focus is an earlier era.”
What we’ve detailed here is but a small selection from more than 70 pieces of automotive artistry displayed by the Royal Oak Historical Museum in the “Chrome, Fins, and Style” exhibit open through September 26. It’s a suitable venue, in that so many car designers lived in the area that Robert Edwards kept tripping over their leftover dreams around town at garage and estate sales. A fine artist himself, he started collecting these illustrations and models. In researching the art, he connected with the thriving community of retired designers and that lead to American Dreaming. Edwards and co-producer Greg Salustro are editing 70 hours of material into a planned 90-minute documentary. “We hope to have it finished by next spring,” he says, “and enter film festivals and get into distribution.’’ Modest funding via an Indiegogo campaign sufficed to move production along, but “we’re still looking for more backers and a major sponsor or two.” If it succeeds, Edwards said, he’d resume interviewing other designers to develop other films with a narrower focus on individual companies or a later era.
This article originally appeared on Car and Driver.