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Legends of the Fall: The Cadillac Allante, The Buick Reatta, and How GM Lost Its Styling Mojo


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Legends of the Fall: The Cadillac Allante, The Buick Reatta, and How GM Lost Its Styling Mojo

The short-lived Buick Reatta two-seater may seem like the most innocuous of cars (indeed, that was part of its problem). Behind its placid exterior, however, lay a ferocious internal battle that also gave birth to the Cadillac Allanté, ended the four-decade dominance of the once-mighty GM Design Staff -- and set the stage for the decline of GM itself.


In 1977, GM Design vice president Bill Mitchell reached the age of 65 and followed his legendary predecessor, Harley Earl, into mandatory retirement. Although he never enjoyed the power that Earl once commanded, Mitchell was a formidable presence within General Motors. Sharp-tongued and deeply stubborn, Mitchell feared no one, and his ferocious temper was well known. He was not an easy man for GM management to live with, but he upheld the styling leadership that Earl had established back in the 1930s. Mitchell played no small part in maintaining GM's U.S. market share, which in the year of his retirement was close to 50%.

Mitchell's chosen successor was Charles M. Jordan, who had been his design director since July 1959. Chuck Jordan joined General Motors in the late 1940s, becoming head of the Cadillac styling studio in 1958. On Mitchell's orders, he spent the late sixties as head of GM's German Opel division, where he was responsible for the Opel GT and Opel Manta coupe. Like Mitchell, Jordan had strong design skills matched by an equally strong temper. In Michael Lamm and Dave Holls' book A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design, stylist Stan Wilen, who worked with Jordan for years, related a memorable incident in which he had to hold Jordan back from a fistfight with a shop foreman.

Jordan was extremely talented, but his temperament had made him many enemies within the GM hierarchy. Having been hand-picked by Bill Mitchell was not necessarily to his advantage, either, because GM management was weary of Mitchell. Mitchell's many faults -- which included serious drinking and egregious sexual harassment -- were tolerated because of his obvious value to the company. No one was enthusiastic about allowing his replacement to be more of the same.

In July 1977, the selection committee bypassed Jordan and named Irv Rybicki as the new design VP. Rybicki had been Mitchell's chief assistant, with stints in the studios of every division except Buick. Although Chuck Jordan was widely acknowledged as the better designer, Rybicki was far more congenial: even-tempered, fair, objective, and in all respects a team player. He was the antithesis of Mitchell and Jordan in personality, which was exactly what the selection committee wanted.

According to Holls and Lamm, Jordan responded to the news by storming out and driving away in a rage. Rybicki was subsequently persuaded (possibly by Mitchell) to make Jordan his design director, but it was an uneasy arrangement. Jordan had previously been Rybicki's boss, and he was bitter at being passed over. The two were often at cross-purposes, undermining each other's authority and leaving their staff unsure which way to turn.



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