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The Automotive Chronicles

Monthly newsletter published by McLellan's Automotive History. Dedicated to literature collectors, restorers, museums, publishers, manufacturers and investors who collect and preserve automotive literature
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July 2004 Issue
 
ARTICLE
 
Every Boy's Dream: The Life and Career of an Automotive Designer
By Dick Nesbitt
 
 

Dick Nesbitt is a long time customer of our company and friend with whom I have shared many stimulating conversations on design concepts. We are pleased to present here, in his words, the story of an interesting lifetime in the automotive design field. — Robert McLellan

 
1932 FORD B-400
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Of the many and varied professional opportunities available in the automotive industry, the role of the designer (or stylist), has probably captured the imagination of more young men and auto enthusiasts around the world than any other. Yet, as in a professional sports career, for example, only a comparatively small number of people actually become successful automotive designers. The following is my background and experience in the pursuit of an automotive design career.

1936 LINCOLN-ZEPHYR
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I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on April 18, 1946. We moved around quite a bit from there as my father was a radio sportscaster then, and he would receive better opportunities from time to time in other major markets around the country. From New York City and then Chicago, we moved first to St. Paul, and later Minneapolis, Minnesota, where my father became very successful as a television sportscaster.

1949 FORD CLUB COUPE
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I was 11 years old in 1957 and, by then, my interest was almost totally dominated by things automotive. I had a consuming desire to draw cars wherever and whenever possible including, of course, any class time I could get away with. And I collected car dealer "promo" models and built every plastic model car kit available.

New car showroom literature was highly prized and treasured, especially for the wonderful rendered illustration techniques. As the new car magazines appeared each month, I would conceal my copies in notebooks at school and dream up variations and "improvements" of the various new cars featured in each issue.

1955 FORD THUNDERBIRD
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From my 11 year old point of view in 1957, car styling fell into just a few basic categories. Anything with a "wraparound" or "panoramic" windshield (basically 1955 and up)was a modern car. Curved one-piece non-wraparound windshield models were older cars, and anything with a center divided windshield and flat glass was positively ancient. Although my father had told me otherwise, I was convinced that anything made before World War II couldn't possibly have ever been a "new" car. I was sure these vehicles came into the world looking as forlorn and worn out as they appeared in the world of 1957.

1956 CONTINENTAL
MARK II
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At 12 years old, I was able to draw cars well in perspective, much to the amazement of many classmates, and I could draw most recent production cars from memory. I had no idea that people were paid to illustrate and design cars for a living , and my father, a former pro-football player in the 1930s with the Chicago Bears and later a successful, well-known television sportscaster for KSTP Television in Minneapolis\St.Paul Minnesota, was very concerned I wasn't giving enough thought to some form of "conventional" employment.

Very little was featured in car magazines about the automotive design profession , but when infrequent articles did appear in "Motor Trend", "Car Life" or "Road and Track", they always made reference to a design college in Los Angeles, California called the Art Center School. The College was established specifically to prepare qualified individuals for acceptance and success in professional design, illustration and advertising careers.

1957 FORD SKYLINER
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Harley Earl, creator of General Motors'"Art & Colour" styling department, took an early interest in Art Center College as an excellent potential source of talented future car designers. Earl worked closely with the College in the 1930s to develop a specific automotive design education program within the school's industrial design department.

Art Center became the prime, almost singular contributor of qualified graduate auto designers from the 1930s on, and is now located in a beautiful facility in Pasadena, California.

I decided I wanted to attend Art Center College during my senior year in high school. Three years later, I submitted my application to the College, now officially the Art Center College of Design, and received a notice of acceptance for admission beginning in the fall of 1967.

1957 PLYMOUTH FURY
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I bought a red and white 1958 Buick Special "Estate Wagon" (really!) for $250.00, loaded up my remaining belongings , and then headed for Route 66 west to Los Angeles. This was the psychedelic era of "Flower Power" and the "Summer of Love", and at long last, now 21, I was finally on my way!

The College was then located in an older section of Los Angeles called Hancock Park and did not have dormitory or student housing facilities. Most of the houses in the immediate area were large English Tudor or Spanish style mansions, many with separate chauffeur's quarters. I was able to rent a chauffeur's quarters adjoining a garage for $35.00 a month.

1957 IMPERIAL
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It soon became apparent why Art Center didn't generally take students right out of high school. To say the full-time program was rigorous would be the height of understatement. When I first walked into the College, I was overwhelmed by the quality of the upper semester students' work from various majors on display in the lobby/gallery area. I was convinced I had made a serious mistake as I was sure I wasn't capable of the superb ability demonstrated by the upperclassmen. The pace, quality and amount of work required was phenomenal and I was constantly working on projects until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning seven days a week. Having grown up in the conservative midwest, I had always heard anything could happen in California and my experience came during the second semester at school.

1965 FORD MUSTANG
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I had moved to a larger chauffeur's quarters closer to the College on January 1, 1968, located on McCadden Street, just a block and a half behind Art Center , and within easy walking distance. The elderly lady owner of the house passed on a few months later , and the mansion was taken over by her son. The family was very wealthy, and put the property up for sale through a real estate agency they owned on Wilshire Boulevard. I was asked to stay on as a caretaker until the house sold, so I had complete use of the Spanish style mansion rent-free and all to myself for a year and a half until new owners were found.

1970 CAMARO "RS"
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The residence had been built in the 1920s and had been left very much as it was, in immaculate condition inside and out during the early 1940's and on by the last owners. The asking price for the 14 room mansion through 1968 was $100,000. It didn't sell during the year and a half I was there for that amount, and was finally sold in 1969 for $90,000. The same property on today's super-inflated California real estate market would probably bring close to five million dollars!

By the third semester, I had covered a lot of ground. It was also the first chance during third semester that a student would be considered for a scholarship application through the school. Only a few scholarships were granted and it was a significant honor to receive one.

A friend talked me into submitting a portfolio for scholarship consideration and it was the thrill of a lifetime when I was notified I had been awarded a full-tuition scholarship sponsored by the Ford Motor Company for my remaining five semesters.

51ACC-GM-DESIGNPROJECT1969
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I believe Art Center's strength was founded in both the eminence of the automotive design instructors like Strother MacMinn and the incredible quality of student talent the college attracted. Detroit auto design leaders such as Bill Mitchell, Gene Bordinat, Elwood Engle and Dick Teague visited Art Center often, and were always recruiting new designers from each graduating class.

I received a Bachelor of Science Degree in industrial design and graduated with honors in May of 1970. In 1971 I was hired by the Ford Motor Company and started work at the Ford Design Center in Dearborn, Michigan.

1974 MERCURY COUGAR
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My first assignment as a new-hire designer in a Lincoln-Mercury production studio was, not surprisingly, an ornamentation job. My assignment was to create a very refined jewel-like stand-up hood ornament for the new Montego based 1974 Cougar to enhance its upscale luxury image. This area of design was a new experience to me, so I thought long and hard for various sources of inspiration.

One that came to me was in the form of an 1880's vintage Elgin pocket watch my father had given me when I was 11 years old. This watch had a thick, crowned outer ring shape with a series of fine ribbed serrations surrounding the dial lens face area. Of the many concept illustrations I did for this project during November, 1971, the proposal most like my treasured pocket watch was selected as the final design and was produced as I had designed it for three years from 1974, 1975 and 1976. I incorporated a clear lens effect, much like the watch lens, and designed a floating cougar figure into the clear area.

FORD LTD. PROPOSAL 1973
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I was very surprised to learn that my hood ornament design played an important part in the marketing strategy for the direction of Cougar's new image for 1974, and this is the first time it's true origin has ever been revealed!

"BOSS 302" PROPOSAL
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Shortly afterward, an unusual program for this studio was released. We were to participate in presenting a proposal for the all-new and considerably down sized Mustang II project with several other studios submitting proposals as well.

Even though it was obvious there was no place for the ground-pounding Mach-1 Cobra Jet 428s and high-revving Boss 302s of the recent past, Iacocca still liked the idea of a strong performance image for some versions of the new Mustang , and he actively encouraged the development of my "Boss-302"sketch theme, as it came to be called by the studio staff. The final design our studio submitted was a fastback proposal created by staff designer Howard "Buck" Mook, and our design was selected by company President Lee Iacocca over all the other studio efforts.

1972 SELECTED CAROUSEL PROPOSAL
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Later, when I was assigned to the Light Truck and Tractor studio, we received a product planning directive to develop a derivative of the upcoming new Ford Econoline Van, code named "Nantucket" and due for release in 1975. The derivative was code named "Carousel" and was intended to attract station wagon buyers with more car-like styling combined with the added appeal of van utility.

From hundreds of concept sketches created by staff designers in this studio during 1972, one of mine was selected by Hal Sperlich, Director of Product Planning, and Lee Iacocca as the approved design direction. I directed the construction of a full-size clay model, and the vehicle received a great deal of interest from Henry Ford II. Unfortunately, the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 halted further development after a drivable, fabricated metal prototype had been built.

The Carousel was specifically designed as a "Garagable Family Van" alternative to the traditional station wagon market segment. This concept later became one of the most successful and enduring product innovations ever created when Hal Sperlich and Lee Iacocca launched the Plymouth Voyager/Dodge Caravan in 1984.

1978 BRONCO
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Another program I participated in during this time in the light truck studio was the development of a new "Bronco" based on the same format as the Chevrolet "Blazer" pickup truck derivative. This program was code named "Shorthorn". Ford wanted to use their "F" series truck doors without modification. This door combined the window frame area and the lower door as a one-piece formed part.

Ford's decision to use the complete door assembly required a permanently fixed steel roof for the driver/front passenger area, although we still had the option of a removable top for the area behind the doors.

I proposed a design sketch incorporating a "Targa" style roof band. The built-in roof band helped visually separate the permanent front roof area from the removable fiberglass rear roof section. This design feature became a Bronco "trademark" styling theme from 1978 to 1986. This Bronco was intended for introduction in 1974, but the OPEC oil embargo postponed the release date to 1978.

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1973 CONTINENTAL MARK-V "BOCA RATON" PRESENTATION
 

For most of the year 1973, I was assigned to the Lincoln Continental Advanced Design Studio. During mid-year 1973, I received an assignment to create a series of new Mark-V styling proposals to be reviewed by Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca for a special presentation at the Ford Motor Company Strategy and Advanced Planning Conference in Boca Raton, Florida.

It was an honor to be selected for this assignment. I received recognition for my contribution to the Mark-V program and a promotion to the International Design Studio, where I was involved with several design projects coordinated with Ford's Ghia studios in Italy.

After a move to the Dallas/Ft.Worth area, I have worked as a vehicle and industrial design consultant for a wide variety of clients.

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1999 FORD FIESTA CONCEPT
ILLUSTRATION
1999 CHEVROLET SILVERADO CONCEPT ILLUSTRATION
   


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FUTURISTIC BRONCO DESIGN BASED ON THE 1999 FORD F-SERIES LIGHTNING
FOR "TRUCK TREND" MAGAZINE.
 


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1995 NORTH TEXAS CHEVROLET ZONE SPECIAL EDITION "PRO-Z" CAMARO
 


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From 1980 on, I have authored and illustrated several styling related articles for various automotive magazine publishers and I was commissioned to both author and illustrate a book title for Publications International, The Evolution of American Car Design — 1930 to 1980, which was published and released for distribution in 1985.

 

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PETERBILT EXTERIOR AND WTERIOR CONCEPT ILLUSTRATIONS
   

Recently, I was hired by Peterbilt Motors in Denton, Texas to design the exterior and interior of the new 387 Aerotruck series.

 
 
Note: Illustrations throughout article represent work done by Dick Nesbitt during his career.
 
 
 
The Automotive Chronicles, July 2004
 
 
 
 
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