From 1958 to 1977, the head of General Motors Styling was William L. (Bill) Mitchell, protégé and anointed successor of the legendary Harley Earl. Mitchell was just as contentious and flamboyant as his mentor, but his tastes were somewhat more restrained, bringing about a new era of crisp, confident styling that was perfectly suited to the prevailing mood of the early 1960s. One of the best designs of Mitchell’s tenure — and one of his personal favorites — was the 1963–1965 Buick Riviera, a stylish coupe that finally put GM on the map in the lucrative personal luxury market. But if things had gone according to plan, the Riviera wouldn’t have been a Buick at all, and it came to market only after a strange and complicated journey of missed opportunities, corporate politicking, and sibling rivalry.
For nearly five decades, Cadillac was the standard-bearer for luxury cars in America. That dominance was not won through technical innovation or forward-thinking product development, but through styling leadership. Although the division produced some gorgeous cars in the early thirties that are acknowledged as classics, Cadillac’s position as a true styling leader can be traced to one car: the 1938-1941 Cadillac Sixty Special. This enormously influential model was laden with then-radical features that have since become the industry norm. The Sixty Special also launched the career of William L. (Bill) Mitchell, GM styling chief Harley Earl’s eventual successor and one of the most influential men in the history of the American automobile. This is the story of the Sixty Special.
Thirty years ago, many believed this car would be the last American convertible. It wasn’t, but it did mark the end of the line for that uniquely American concept: the full-sized open car. This is the history of the 1971-1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.
Designing, building, and marketing new cars is expensive, even for the largest automakers. If they’re strapped for cash (e.g., BMC in the fifties and sixties) or overcome by hubris (e.g., General Motors in the eighties), it’s tempting to share platforms between models or even slap a new grille a new badge on an existing model and pass it off as a new product for a different division — a technique sometimes called badge engineering. As confusing and potentially alienating as badge engineering can be for consumers, imagine how the people at their divisions feel when they’re handed an existing product and told to make something new and different out of it. Such was the case with Pontiac’s “pony car,” the 1967–1969 Pontiac Firebird and Firebird Trans Am.
Nobody, least of all Ford, expected General Motors to take the success of the Ford Mustang lying down. Still, it took two and a half years for the General to field its challenger, the Chevrolet Camaro, and despite the Camaro’s fresh styling, a broad selection of engines, and a blinding array of options, the Mustang outsold it two to one.
If they couldn’t beat the Mustang on the showroom floor, Chevrolet decided, they would at least beat it at the track. GM was not officially in racing, but that didn’t stop Chevrolet engineers from concocting a fearsome homologation special to qualify their new baby for Trans Am competition: the Camaro Z/28. This is the story of the 1967-1969 Chevrolet Camaro and Z/28.
Do we even need to talk about the original 1965 Ford Mustang? It’s one of the best-known of all postwar American cars and there have been dozens of books about it, some of them quite sycophantic. Still, the Mustang is certainly important and hugely influential — not just in the automotive world. So, once more into the breach, dear friends, with the history of the original pony car, the 1965 Ford Mustang.
Even when the compact Gremlin bowed in 1970, AMC knew it would not be enough to stem the tide of imported subcompact cars. By the beginning of 1971, the company was already at work on a follow-up. When it finally appeared in 1975, it was hailed as a revolution. When it died four and a half years later, it was already becoming the butt of jokes. We’re referring, of course, to the unmistakable 1975-1980 AMC Pacer.
By the late 1960s, the demand for small, compact imports, temporarily sated by Detroit compacts like the Ford Falcon, was on the rise again and Detroit was getting scared. Each American automaker fielded its own response, but American Motors, which had built its market position with economy cars, came up with two. The first was a clever improvisation, the second was a brave attempt to do something genuinely new. Some people call them the ugliest cars of the 1970s — a title for which there are many contenders — but nobody would ever mistake them for anything else. We’re referring of course, to the Gremlin and Pacer.
We begin with the 1970-1978 AMC Gremlin.
This early Ate Up With Motor article has been retired, but you may be interested in our later, more comprehensive history of the Javelin and AMX: The Sporting American: The AMC Javelin.
When the original Chevrolet Corvette was introduced in 1953, it was a somewhat Pyrrhic effort to create something approximating a Jaguar XK120 using a fiberglass body and a lot of off-the-shelf passenger-car parts. It had neither scorching performance nor roll-up side windows and it sold poorly. It was nearly canceled in 1955 before salvation arrived in the form of Chevy’s new V8 engine, which gave its performance a much-needed shot in the arm. The Corvette also acquired a new chief engineer, a bright and mercurial Russian immigrant named Zora Arkus-Duntov, who did his level best to make it into a genuine sports car.
In 1958, legendary styling chief Harley Earl retired and his longtime deputy, Bill Mitchell, took over GM’s styling department. Mitchell was a car guy, fond of sporting iron and motorcycles. He loved the Corvette, although his vision for what it should be was sharply removed from Duntov’s notions of serious performance. The battle of wills between these two men in the normally stratified and reactionary corporate culture of General Motors would produce many clashes before both Duntov and Mitchell retired in the 1970s, but it also produced the classic Sting Ray and the fearsome third-generation Corvette, known to its fans as simply “C3” — a car of immodest looks and immodest performance. This car: