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Legendary GM design chief Chuck Jordan dies at 83

Fri, 10 Dec 2010 00:00:00 -0800

UPDATED -- Chuck Jordan, the legendary designer who helped usher in the modern era of car styling at General Motors, died on Thursday evening, Dec. 9. He was 83.

Jordan is credited with a long list of iconic designs at GM at a time when the company set the tone for style in the industry in the 1950s and '60s. He was just the fourth man to hold the position of vice president of design, which he did from 1986 until his retirement in 1992.

He joined GM in 1949 after graduating from MIT. Jordan quickly made his mark on a number of areas, working on projects as diverse as tractors and locomotives. He got a big break when he moved to the advanced design studio and worked on several of the Motorama cars, an eye-catching collection of concepts that toured the United States in the '50s.

His long career at GM included stints as design director of Cadillac and Opel and in oversight of exterior styling for GM's premium brands.

He followed Irv Rybicki, Bill Mitchell and Harley Earl at the helm of GM design, a mantle that has since been carried by Wayne Cherry and Ed Welburn.

Current GM design chief Ed Welburn said: "Chuck Jordan was the person who hired me as an intern in 1971 while he was working for Bill Mitchell, and I will always be appreciative of the opportunity he gave me to join GM's Design Organization.

"He was a strong creative force at GM Design, and a passionate leader. It always felt as if every new project he was leading represented a new mountain to climb, and was a fresh opportunity to create new trends and statements in automotive design. He had the charisma and passion of few others in the industry."

In one of his final public appearances, Jordan was upbeat this summer at the Concours d'Elegance of America at Meadow Brook in suburban Detroit, where his restored Motorama cars were on display.

“The beauty of the Motorama cars is we tried different ideas,” he recounted in an interview with AW.

Jordan was born on Oct. 21, 1927, in Whittier, Calif. Survivors include his wife, Sally, and a son, Mark, who works as a designer for Mazda. Memorial arrangements are pending.



Passion for design

Cherry said he considered Jordan “the quintessential designer, the designer's designer.”

“I'll always remember his commitment to high standards and aesthetic excellence. He will be missed,” Cherry said.

He said one of his favorite memories of Jordan is when they would tour auto shows together, particularly European auto shows, looking at the work of competitors. Cherry spent 25 years working at and leading GM's design efforts in Europe before replacing Jordan as corporate design chief in 1992.

“I learned a lot from Chuck. It's a very sad day,” Cherry said on Friday.

Former Chrysler design chief Tom Gale said: "I respected him greatly. I remember when I was just starting out, you knew about him him a long time before you ever met him. We always enjoyed a great relationship even though we were competitors.

"His contributions to design go back to the late '50s. He was part of the (Fisher Body) Craftsman's Guild. I think he and Dave Holls made a huge contribution to the '59 Cadillac, the one with the big fins. And of course all the muscle car things came along thereafter."

David Locze, a designer at Volvo, worked for Jordan for 15 years at GM, from 1965 to 1980.

“Chuck is probably one of the most visionary people I've ever known; he was always pushing for the guys to explore originality and newness. I really respected him for that,” Locze said.

“I worked for him in the best era of all, the muscle-car era, from 1965 to 1980. He had a spirit and a light in his eye. When he talked to you, his eyes would light up.

“When I left GM and moved on to Volkswagen, my own company and then to Volvo, I carried over the joy of working on something you really liked, without the politics. Chuck always thought the politics got in the way of actually designing. He wasn't very political; he was just always about good, solid design. He always emphasized that and I have always carried it with me.”

Jordan's drive for the best designs and to get the best from his designers meant there were times he dispensed with pleasantries.

In the 1996 book All Corvettes Are Red by James Schefter, which chronicled the development of the 1997 Chevrolet Corvette, Jordan was known as the “Chrome Cobra” by those who worked in GM's design department.

“He earned the sobriquet honestly. Jordan could be acerbic when he critiqued designs and capricious in dealing with real or imagined offenses,” Schefter wrote.

Locze, the Volvo designer said, “He wasn't really stern but at the same time, he was pretty direct.”

Education was also important to Jordan. He remained involved with teaching design after his retirement from GM. But he always had a passion for cars.

Stewart Reed, chairman of transportation design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., recalled, “I was down seeing him about a year ago. He had completed the last pledge of a gift to Art Center. We needed to take two cars to lunch. Chuck said, ‘I'll get the Ferrari out.' It was a 456 GT. It was so cool following him because he was driving very vigorously. He got out and he just smiled.”

Dale Jewett contributed to this report



Chuck Jordan's car

Some of the vehicles that Chuck Jordan played a role in designing:

-- GM Aerotrain

-- Cameo show truck

-- Buick Centurion

-- 1958 Chevy Corvette

-- 1959 Cadillac Eldorado

-- Opel Manta concept

-- 1968 Opel GT

-- Oldsmobile Aerotech

-- GM Ultralite

-- Stingray III

-- Buick Reatta

-- 1992 Cadillac CTS



Statement from GM design vice president Ed Welburn

“Chuck Jordan was the person who hired me as an intern in 1971 while he was working for Bill Mitchell, and I will always be appreciative of the opportunity he gave me to join GM's Design Organization. Chuck was always involved in the hiring of talented, young designers, and he took great interest in their growth and development.

“He was a strong creative force at GM Design, and a passionate leader. It always felt as if every new project he was leading represented a new mountain to climb, and was a fresh opportunity to create new trends and statements in automotive design. He had the charisma and passion of few others in the industry.

“Most people associate Chuck Jordan with very tailored and crisp designs of Cadillac and Corvette automobiles, but Chuck also had a passion for truck design and created some of GM's most significant concept and production trucks of the 1950s.

“More recently, I'm glad that Chuck had an opportunity to visit GM Design just this past summer while he was back in the Detroit area for the Meadow Brook Concours d'Elegance. He spent hours touring our Design Center in Warren and talking with our design staff. It was a wonderful to have him back in the place in which he helped create such a rich legacy.”




By Greg Migliore and Mark Vaughn