The Fisher Body Craftsman Guild -- An Illustrated History, By John L. Jacobus published by McFarland & Company, Inc., July 2005. Contains 171 period-vintage photographs, 330 pages, hardbound.

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ISBN: 978-0-7864-1719-3
[Old ISBN: 0-7864-1719-6]
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Car & Driver, March 2006
Car & Driver
March 2006
Review of 'The Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild -- An Illustrated History', by John L. Jacobus in Car & Driver, March 2006
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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 Detroit.

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 farm-boy standards.

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… exceeded my experience by tenfold …painted surfaces 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 furniture."

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 encouraged him!

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.

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