GM's Former design chief turns attention to students

LOS ANGELES — Chuck Jordan, 74, has been retired from General Motors for nine years. But he has no more time for a leisurely weekday lunch than when he was corporate vice president directing GM’s design staff from 1986 to 1992.

Each school day since the spring of 2000, Jordan In the afternoon, he has homework of his own, organizing the next day’s presentation and critiquing his students’ assignments.

The volunteer teacher seems to have adopted an ease and graciousness that contrasts sharply with the way he was perceived by some at GM.

In their 1996 book, A Century of Automotive Style, Mike Lamm and the now-deceased Dave Holls (who was Jordan’s director of design at GM) called Jordan “a complicated man.” They noted that while “some of his colleagues saw him as volatile and unpredictable … to others he was charming and gracious and a pleasure to be with.” The authors concur that Jordan set “extremely high standards for others and himself.”

He applies those standards and his full attention to his students, save for his annual judging of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

“I’ve done what I’m going to do, and it’s a matter of record,” Jordan says. “Now I enjoy and want to work with young people. Promoting their creativity and exposing them to the opportunity design offers is very satisfying.”

In a phone interview this fall, he reflected easily on his life and career.

In the presence of legends

Jordan joined GM’s design staff straight from college in 1949. His career brought him in contact with the legendary Harley Earl, who was in charge of GM’s Art and Colour department, as the design department was known when Jordan started there.

But it was Earl’s successor, Bill Mitchell, who took Jordan under his wing and offered this bit of counsel: If you’re going to advance, you need experience in GM’s European studios.

So in 1967, Jordan went to Germany, where Robert Lutz was sales manager for GM Europe. Out of that relationship grew a mutual respect and friendship that would extend over Lutz’s changing company affiliations (BMW, Ford, Chrysler). Jordan greeted the news of Lutz’s return to GM last summer with some hope. Jordan said a letter he wrote to Automotive News was prompted by “my knowledge of Bob’s abilities and my sadness and frustration at GM’s current situation.”

What does Jordan perceive as good car design, and how is it achieved?

The ‘Wow! factor’

“When too much emphasis is placed on the results from clinics and focus groups, or when brand management has too great a say, it becomes styling to the lowest common denominator,” he says. “If everyone agrees on something, no one will want to buy it. A car has to have a Wow! factor about it. It has to look as though it belongs on the road. I have no set formula for creating a vehicle with the Wow! factor, but it has to have emotion, and that takes a creative flair. To me, Bill Mitchell epitomized someone with that flair.” In Jordan’s view, cars that exhibit that flair include the Cords, 904 Porsch and Mercedes 300SL, the 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special, ’49 Ford, ’63 Buick Riviera and ’66 Oldsmobile Toronado.

Jordan ticked off the production vehicles penned under his helm of which he is proudest: The 1992 Cadillac Seville and Eldorado, and the first-generation Oldsmobile Aurora.

The sedan was introduced in 1995, after Jordan’s retirement, but it was created under his aegis. “That’s an everyday sort of car, but the design is solid, and it still looks very good.”

With no direct prompt (could he mind read — or was it just because they were so glaringly obvious?), Jordan continued, “I should have been more astute with the (1991 Chevrolet) Caprice and should have made sure we cut out that rear wheel opening at the outset. But then, we thought it made the car more substantial, and that was what Caprice was supposed to be.

“And then there were the ant-eaters.”

He is referring to the minivans — first introduced as 1990 models — marketed as the Chevy Lumina, the Olds Silhouette and the Pontiac Trans Sport. “They were actually complete by the time I took over (as design chief). It was too late for any change without major repercussions. That long snout was the result of putting a van body on a car chassis and the geometry created by having the engine out front. In an attempt to smooth the profile, we wound up with the radically slanted windshield and dimensions.”

The chief’s role

The role of a GM design chief goes far beyond chiseling those snouts and slants.

“The head of GM design needs to have a strong voice and be willing to stand up and fight,” he said. “It is necessary to create and maintain a lively environment where the staff feels free to create. The head establishes the design philosophy and direction. And even though that direction may change, you can’t leave folks to second guess. It is the head whose judgment establishes the final choices and direction, and so that person has to be willing to stick his neck out, to take the risk.”

Today, Jordan sticks out his neck and his pocketbook for his students. He spends hours at home putting a clear overlay on their sketches to show them other ways to approach their work.

Jordan hopes that some of these young people might build a career in automotive design.

“Young designers are needed in the studios,” he said. But you need the seasoned designers, too, because it is their experience that should shape and guide the judgment of the freshman class. Today, too many of the designs are risk-free. Car design is the part of the business that deals with emotions. Engineers deal with facts and the financial guys with the numbers. Someone is going to discover again the key to forms that have elegance and shapes that have drama.”

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