T R A N S C R
I P T O F R
E V I E W
Car & Driver, March 2006
Patrick Bedard: When you could carve out
a career as a car designer
Someday, when we now-graying Bedard kids
all go back to the home farm for a final
sort-through of the accumulated leavings
of our youth, one of us will find a hunk
of balsa about a foot and a half long, roughly
shaped into the silhouette of a low coupe.
"Lessee that!" I'll say.
It will start a cascade of memories: of
a boy determined, at some single-digit age,
to be a car designer when he grew up; of
a design contest sponsored by the Fisher
Body Division of GM; and of the contest
rules that required a l/12th-scale dream
car of my own design to be sent to far-off
Some of the memories will be joyful; drawing
cars was the dessert of my days then, a
time after dinner in which I could sit down
by myself at the family table and dream
about shapes and shadows that existed only
in my mind.
And some of the memories will be rueful;
my drawing talents never could reproduce
on paper the images that were so vivid in
my mind, and my model-making skills were
informed mostly by the daily hammer-and-nail
repairs required to keep hogs in their pens.
Even in the naiveté of my farm-boy
youth, though, I had the feeling that finishing
my model and sending it off to the Fisher
Body Craftsman's Guild, as the competition
was called, was my chance to try out for
the majors. On this point I was right. The
guild was the "primary source of GM's
styling talent" in the mid-'50s, according
to a new book on the topic titled, logically
enough, The Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild,
by John L. Jacobus (Jefferson, North Carolina:
McFarland & Company, 2005, S49.95).
I was a tail-fin kid, awakening to cars
in the mid-'50s when Detroit was pushing
roof silhouettes lower, tail feathers higher,
and fashion into the stratosphere with sweeps
of chrome and three-tone paint jobs-pink,
charcoal, and white still make me grin like
I'm tasting Kool-Aid for the first time.
The guild, by then, was a contest for futuristic
car concepts. "GM wanted innovators.
. .who could predict the future" with
their dream-car designs. That was an about-face
from its 1930 beginning when it was a sort
of take-home test for the industrial arts.
What could you do with your hands? In those
Depression days, craftsmanship was as sought
after as high SAT scores are today.
You may remember the "Body by Fisher"
symbol, the big-wheeled carriage about the
size of a postage stamp on the rocker panels
of GM cars up into the '80s. That trademark
carriage was the "Napoleonic coach,"
and the guild's original contest required
building a model of it from scratch, according
to a blueprint from GM. No imagination necessary,
no love for coaches expected-just get the
details exactly right. In the midst of the
Depression, the guild held a serious competition
requiring 1000 to 1500 hours of patient
craftsmanship to complete a coach. The prizes
were serious, too-four $5000 scholarships
were given away the first year, $75,000
in prizes altogether.
Despite the promotional logic of staging
a contest to reproduce a corporate trademark,
the American love affair wasn't with coaches.
So, starting in 1937, dream cars were added
to the competition menu.
Naturally, my design of the exuberant '50s
had tail fins, surfaces that curved up and
out from each rear quarter into sleek blades.
Turns out I was inventing the back half
of a 1959 Chevy about the same time GM was.
That's what my mind saw. But balsa is remarkably
soft, I learned, and the grain tears apart,
leaving divots in the surfaces when you
go at it with carving tools sharpened to
Of course, cars of that period had many
chrome moldings. I thought the one around
the windshield was especially important.
And the more I thought about it, the more
paralyzed I became.
Now I'm fascinated to read author Jacobus's
reaction when his dad took him from their
home in Baltimore to Detroit to see the
winning models of 1962, on display at Fisher
Body headquarters. This was after the high-schooler
had already won first-place awards at the
state level in two consecutive years.
"The level of perfection
my experience by tenfold
were compounded and waxed to a mirror-like
finish; every detail was scaled and proportioned
exactly-rearview mirrors, instrument panels,
stick shift, radio antennas, white walls,
and hubcaps; symmetry was perfect and the
execution was flawless; and metal trim was
polished or chrome-plated and fitted to
the body, inlaid like a piece of Chippendale
The guild was obviously very good at separating
the talented few from the rest of us wannabes.
I can understand how the 13-year-old first-place
winner of 1946, Virgil Exrver Jr., knew
to build a clay model to refine his design-his
dad was Virgil Exner Sr., then chief designer
at Studebaker and later at Chrysler during
the tail-fin era. But what about Charles
M. "Chuck" Jordan, who won the
following year and went on to head GM styling
from 1986 to his retirement in 1992? His
first drawings of cars were done in church
at age seven. And, he said later, his mother
Terry Henline, of Lincoln, Nebraska, won
a 1957 styling scholarship and second-place
nationwide in 1958. That's the same Terry
Henline I harangued mercilessly 25 years
later when he was chief designer in one
of the Pontiac studios and 1 thought the
Pontiac 6000 was born ugly on his watch.
I still think so, but let the record show
that a guy whose guild model won a high
award was being criticized by a guy who
never got his act together.
The guild came to a quiet end in 1968, when
GM decided it "was in the business
of manufacturing and selling cars, and not
in the business of teaching America's youth
the intricacies of automotive design."
But maybe the teaching worked the other
way. The rise of guild graduates within
GM, to about 35 percent of its stylists
in 1957 suggests that it was the youth of
America doing the teaching.