Bill Mitchell was just 24 when General Motors design boss Harley Earl made him Cadillac chief designer. The first car done under Mitchell's leadership was the trend-setting 1938 Sixty Special; next he knocked it out of the park again with his bold and beautiful 1941 Cadillac.
Then the 1948 Cadillac sprang tail fins on an unsuspecting automotive world. Earl and Mitchell, inspired by the shape of the graceful P-38 fighter plane, sculpted the car's rear fenders to resemble the P-38, complete with gentle bumps at the tips representing the plane's tail. But conservative buyers didn't appreciate the fins at first. So Cadillac General Manager Jack Gordon had Mitchell working on the 1951 model with instructions to shave down the fins.
"Cadillac chief engineer Ed Cole and I didn't share Jack's conservatism, so we played a little trick on him," Mitchell related later. "Each day we would raise the fin opposite the one we were supposed to be working on, so it would look like we were lowering the other one. The result was that the '51 ended up with higher and more prominent fins than the '48-'50. I later confided to Gordon what we had done, and he got a chuckle out of it, because by that time the fins had really caught the public's eye. But he'd have raised hell if he'd caught on at the time."
Few who knew Mitchell are likely to forget him. His presence was at once energizing and intimidating. Not a tall man like Earl, Mitchell nevertheless filled a room with an aura of command and confidence. But along with his genius came a difficult personality. On the job, he was tough, demanding, vain and profane, ruling his fiefdom with fear and intimidation. Away from the job, he was a flamboyant skirt-chaser who often drank to excess. Yet he knew what buyers wanted. And he knew how to motivate and inspire his people to bring out their best.
The son of a car dealer and a natural car fanatic, Mitchell was born in Cleveland in 1912 and grew up in Greenville, Pa., and New York City. After studying at the Art Students League of New York and the Carnegie Institute of Technology, he took a job in New York as an illustrator and layout specialist for the Barron Collier advertising agency. There, he befriended the three Collier brothers -- Miles, Sam and Barron Jr. -- who founded the Automobile Racing Club of America, predecessor of today's Sports Car Club of America. Soon their racing clubhouse was decorated with Mitchell's race-car sketches and drawings.
When a Detroit industrialist saw them there, he suggested that Mitchell send a portfolio to Earl at GM. Mitchell did, and Earl liked what he saw. The young designer was hired in 1935 to work on the 1937 Cadillacs and LaSalles.
Through the fabulous '50s and sexy '60s, at the forefront of the mysterious art of auto design, where every decision has profound influence on the financial welfare of major corporations and their employees, Mitchell was arguably the most successful, productive and widely imitated leader. While he lavished attention on Cadillac and took excellent care of Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick, he had a special place in his heart for Chevrolet, from his beloved Corvettes down to the brand's most affordable cars.