On the Intersection of Style & Fuel Injected Vision William Porter Discusses the Heydey of Automotive Design Showcased In the Saginaw Art Museum’s Impressive New Exhibition

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Artist Feature,   From Issue 708   By: Robert E Martin

29th July, 2010     0

For decades the automobile served as an integral part of the spirit, ethos, and economic lifeblood of the Great Lakes Bay area, and the era of the ‘muscle car’, replete with powerful engines, sleek lines of design, and visual intoxication, represents an artistry that was fueled by high-octane inspiration, which captured the imagination of designers and consumers alike.

At no time was the creativity of design more resplendent than in the mi 20th Century when car manufacturers depended upon annual model changes to promote sales. Their in-house design studios worked in great secrecy to develop exciting new models and their designers produced thousands of sketches and formal renderings, most of which were destroyed when the studios no longer needed them.

But thanks to the far-sightedness of Bill Porter, an automotive historian and former head of General Motors Advanced Design Studio, a remarkable number of original drafts, sketches, and designs managed to be pulled together, which will be presented in an exciting new exhibition at The Saginaw Art Museum entitled Designing The Icon: Creativity & the American Automobile.

Sponsored by Garber Automotive Group, this exhibition highlights the creativity of the American automobile designers of the 1960s and early 70s, a period that stressed exotic styling and high performance.  It will run at The Saginaw Art Museum from August 13 to October 3rd, beginning with a Premier Party on August 12th. Programs presented during this exhibition will include Round Table discussions, a Gallery Talk with the designers, a Car Cruise, and a Youth Car Contest.

Featuring some 100 drawings from pivotal designers – many fully sketched and fleshed out in gouache, pastel, flow pen, Prismacolor pencil, markers and gesso; others almost cartoonish in nature – these working drawings easily capture the attention and admiration of anyone interested in design and color.

Calling upon their drawing skills as the first and best line of communication, the many designers represented in this exhibition find their earliest sketches were usually small, almost memo-like doodles as they explored a sea of possibilities which led to the final renderings.

In advance of this opening exhibition, I had the opportunity to discuss this pivotal period of American industry with Bill Porter, back when art and industry managed to intersect, dreams became realized, and the genius of imaginative industry truthfully realized.


Review: How did you first become interested in drawing & illustration and did you always have an inclination that you would become involved with automotive design? 

Porter: Drawing came naturally to me.  As a tiny tot cars fascinated me.  Born in 1931, I can remember spotting Chrysler Airflows on the streets of my hometown, Louisville KY, when I must have been about three years old.  My parents remember me calling them "beetle-bugs."  Since early grade school days I drew airplanes around the edges of my schoolwork, but I drew all kinds of other things too. 

Bored in church as a kid, I drew pictures of the people around me. 

By the time I was twelve or thirteen I could draw nearly as well as I could when I was an adult.  As an Art Major in college I was leaning toward car design but didn't know how to break into this highly competitive field; but then during a hitch in the army I won second prize in a national car design contest.  Studying for a Master's degree at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, I landed a summer internship at GM Styling in Warren, MI. 

I was in!


Review: How did you get the idea for assembling this type of exhibition? 

Porter: That too tracks back to school days.  From the sixth grade, my dad dropped me off at a local art school for Saturday classes.  I had won these classes as a prize in an annual citywide art contest for school children. 

Three years ago I received a phone call one evening from a lady who worked for this school, now called the Louisville Visual Art Association.  Kay Grubola had heard that I had a career in the automobile business.  She herself had been dazzled by some designer sketches she had seen as a young woman at the home of a Chrysler executive that her dad knew.  She was looking for work that exemplified the creative process, and work that had great appeal to younger people whom the LVAA wanted to attract as members.

Could I possibly help her find some old designer sketches for an exhibition?  Frankly, I was doubtful.  The studio environment in the 1960s and '70 was super-secret.  Sketches were usually destroyed after they had served their purpose.  Nobody thought of them as art.

I remembered that I had "rescued" some of my old sketches, so I told Kay that I would ask around among my designer friends.  Sure enough, out of attics and garages emerged quite a few.  I rounded up over a hundred and took them down to Louisville where Kay selected one hundred that she thought had the best eye appeal.  Luckily, a local Ford dealer, a fishing buddy of my late father, contributed a sizeable sum which covered properly framing every piece in the entire show.    


Review: What was the most challenging component involved with pulling it all together?

Porter: Convincing the board of directors of the Louisville Art Association that sketches created in the process of designing an automobile qualify as true art.  Since the 19th century, there has been a sort of second-class citizen status attached to art generated for commercial purposes.  That attitude has rapidly changed for the better in recent years and at long last the world of fine art--the museum world--is seeing the light.


Review: When you look back at your career with automotive design what are some of the high points that you feel embody the best qualities in terms of what you were striving to achieve with your work?

Porter: In my view, the best designs are those that represent a true synthesis of art and technology, where the two are inseparably fused.  This is particularly difficult to achieve in a complicated product like an automobile where many disciplines are involved. 

In my opinion, the best cars I have had a hand in are the 1968 Pontiac GTO, 1970-73 Pontiac Firebird 400 and Trans Am, 1985 Buick Electra T Type, the 1991 Buick Park Avenue, the 1997 Buick Park Avenue, and the 1995 Buick Riviera.


Review:  What do you feel it was about that era of design from the 1950s through the 1970s that distinguishes it from other decades?

Porter: Personally, I see the 1950s as the "Bomb & Fin" era.  The aircraft image ruled.  Of course this was Great Fun, bur sort of wasteful. 

For me, the 1960s were the "Golden Age" of the American automobile, with plenty of masterpieces to go around. 

The 1970's by contrast, I see as the "Lost Decade" for the US industry.  It was the age of Naderism and the Oil Crises. 

No fun and few masterpieces.


Review: Did your ideas for cars change and evolve much as you would proceed on any given project and would management, engineers, or other people involved with the manufacturing process often veto or override your ideas?

Porter: My recipe for great design involves the blending of engineering and aesthetics.  Automobiles are complicated--it takes a long time and lots of individuals to design one.  In this context, the creative process, if it is truly creative, is an evolutionary journey where the designer's initial inspiration undergoes a development process to its final fruition.

And, sure, along the way some shortsighted boss, bone-headed bean counter or stumblebum engineer can screw up your masterpiece.  But that's the way the world is. 

The trick is to retain the spark of that initial inspiration in the final product.  In the end, one hopes to get in a few good licks and beat the averages.


Review: What was your source of inspiration for the designs of the various cars that you developed?

Porter: Well, in car design you always work with other designers, engineers, and, during my career, clay modelers.  Usually the inspiration comes from the design team and they can come by it in various ways: from the influence of other design sources; from biomorphic (animal) sources; from intellectual problem-solving exercises, etc., etc. 

I honestly believe that the designer's best source is his own subconscious mind.  That is the seat of what we call talent.  In the heat of a creative urge, designer's don't care where their rush comes from, but on reflection it is sometimes possible to identify a source. 

For example, the essential ingredient of the Pontiac Honeycomb wheel came from Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes.  One aspect of the '95 Riviera design came from a design exercise I had forty years earlier as a student at Pratt.


Review: What in your opinion is the finest car that was ever designed?

Porter: My all-time favorite car is the Type 57SC Bugatti, designed in 1936 or '37 by Ettore's son Jean.  This vehicle is an automotive Beethoven's Fifth.


Review:  It is often argued that one of the reasons the American automotive industry took a downward spiral is because its vision became clouded by concerns of economy and efficiency, taking more of a cookie-cutter approach to automobiles that made one brand indistinguishable from another.  What are your thoughts about this?

Porter: From the 1930s onward, the entire monolith of the American auto industry evolved toward bigness in every aspect: its products; its management; its unions; all systemically interlocked.

Body interchangeability existed from the early 1930s.  The sameness this begets was evident then and was exacerbated by the market segmentation of the '60s and later. 

The gigantic investment in this system also resulted in rigidity of thinking and great fiscal difficulties whenever true change was attempted - the Corvair, for example.

I remember, when I was a child, my mother's friends complaining that they couldn't tell one car from another.  When I was a teenager during the war, I thought all Japanese looked alike.   Later, I came to realize that inability to distinguish between individuals within a type might indicate a lack of interest in the type as a whole. 

To those members of the public whose interest had turned toward imported products, American cars all looked the same.  In truth they didn't look any more alike than, say, Toyotas and Nissans. 

But as the impending calamity grew over the decades, many of us clearly saw the icebergs: the VW Beetles in the 60s, later the Hondas and Toyotas.  But the great leviathan cruised on.


Review: Feel free to add any additional comments or thoughts on areas that I may not have touched upon.

Porter: Let me express some post-debacle optimism.  At least some of the enormous baggage that the American automobile industry drug behind it has been cut free.  Actually, as a GM retiree, I am part of that baggage and I am disappointed that what was to be a wonderful retirement for myself and my generation may not be quite the blue-skies vista we had hoped for. 

Nevertheless, the opportunity is once again available for strong entrepreneurship to break free in ways that have not been possible for decades.  Today the global business climate is new, the technology is new, and the challenges are new. 

I believe that once again it is possible for giants like Alfred P Sloan, Harlow Curtis, Ed Cole and Pete Estes to emerge from the pack and do great things tomorrow.     

I'm not for bringing back the '60s. 

I want to see a new kind of pinnacle--maybe yet in my lifetime!



The Saginaw Art Museum is located at 1126 N. Michigan Avenue in Saginaw. Phone 989-754-2481 for more information on ICONS. Hours are Thursday from 10 am – 5 pm; Friday & Saturday from 10 am – 5 pm; and Sunday from 1 pm – 5 pm. Individual memberships are available for $40.00 and student and senior memberships are $20.00.


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