Only a handful of individuals have earned General Motors’ coveted Vice President of Global Design title. Bill Mitchell, who led GM design for 19 years, wanted a clean break from Harley Earl’s chrome and big tail-fin looks. He was also much more rebellious.
Motor Trend detailed Mitchell’s anti-establishment history at GM in a new feature published last Thursday, and it goes deep inside the halls of GM. In fact, no one knew where Mitchell’s most important work was done because that was the point. Studio X was secret, leanly staffed and birthed a handful of iconic GM cars.
Before Studio X, Mitchell also worked out of a small, secret space in a basement called Research B. Here, work began on what would become the Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray, but these were the days before Mitchell took over GM design. In 1958, he asked for a new space to develop work in secrecy. Despite limited space, a blueprint showed Earl’s former file room as suitable and within walking distance to the elevator from Mitchell’s office. Studio X had a space.
The small room had space for one one car platform, two drawing tables and a coffee pot. Most importantly, the space was hush-hush and it operated under the radar from GM executives and other wandering eyes. The C2 Corvette concept, known as XP-87, became the Stingray prototype racer in the secret studio, which won the 1959 and 1960 SCCA class championships. Following its racing success, it became the basis for the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray. Other cars designed in Studio X include the Oldsmobile Toronado, Monza GT, two Mako Shark concepts and more.
Alas, Studio X closed under Irv Rybicki, head of styling in 1967. Mitchell worked to reopen the studio once more to design a retirement present for himself, but the project was ultimately canceled. However, the car, a Pontiac Grand Prix based “Pontiac Phantom,” still lives today at the Sloan Museum.
Does the same kind of energy live inside GM today? Actually, yes. Recently retired chief designer Ed Welburn reopened a Studio X to develop the 2006 Chevrolet Camaro concept. And even today, Michael Simcoe, the latest GM head of design, admitted secret places still exist.