American Look: A Tribute to Men and Women who Design, Designing the 1959 Chevrolet

Regular readers will know that we’re big fans of the Jam Handy Organization, which produced educational and training films for schools and the military, but, more important to our focus here, was essentially General Motors’ motion picture studio. Sure they were educational and promotional but the Jam Handy folks always tried to put a little bit of art in their work. This almost half hour long film, is ostensibly a tribute to the designers who gave America its “populuxe” look and function circa 1958, but it’s ultimately about selling the 1959 Chevrolet Impala, showing how the stylists at GM’s Tech Center draw, sculpt, and model cars and components before they are manufactured. Mr. Jam Handy started out making instructional films and while the films they made for Chevy and other GM divisions were essentially long-form advertisements, they films are still educational in their own way so it’s worth a look for more than just a kitschy glance at early space age design. Also, the film is historically significant because of when it was produced. The 1958 and 1959 cars from General Motors were designed at a time of transition, the result of a bit of a ‘palace revolt’ against Harley Earl, after some of his top designers saw early production versions of the Forward Look cars that Virgil Exner Sr. had led at Chrysler. For my tastes, the ’58 and ’59 GM cars were way overstyled (though they have their fans today), but the pushback from his designers was one of the reasons why Earl retired. Earl’s successor, Bill Mitchell, would lead GM design away for the 1950s and into the 1960s with his preference for clean, linear designs. They were still bold, as American cars should be, but you can see an obvious transition from this 1959 Chevy Impala to Mitchell’s signature design, the 1st generation Buick Riviera.

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