peter brock with clay model

What was the difference between designing cars at GM vs. Shelby?

The main difference was the oversight and the number of people involved. At GM I was working for Bill Mitchell the VP of corporate design with some 27 years of experience in heading several teams of designers in various studios. At Shelby’s, I was completely on my own in designing the Daytona simply because it was my idea to begin with and there was no one else in our small team of fabricators and mechanics who had any experience in design.

Turin Motor Show

As head of design at GM, Mitchell did not actually design cars himself but directed his teams by spotting possible trends and encouraging the expansion of those ideas.  When I designed the XP87 Corvette concept for Mitchell, back in 1957, he had been to the show in Turin, Italy earlier that year and brought back dozens of photos of cars he thought had a theme with possibilities.

Bill Mitchell with clay modelsIn the process of selecting a “direction” for his new Corvette Mitchell chose to work with four designers, including myself, in a special studio called Research B. Our studio was primarily an “Advanced Concepts” studio as opposed to a “production studio” where cars already slated for production are created.  He chose Research B primarily because the Corvette program had already been killed off by top management and he could not take his project “upstairs” to the production Chevrolet Studio where it might be discovered.  Mitchell took a serious chance going against top management’s directive to terminate the Corvette program but was so passionate about continuing to see the Corvette live that he proceeded with us in secret to expand on the theme he’d seen in Turin. He was very definite in his ideas in giving his brief on the “direction” he wanted to see.

Eventually, Mitchell selected my sketches to expand into three dimensions with a scale clay model. Interestingly, designers didn’t get to design three dimensionally when I was at GM. They weren’t even allowed to touch “their” clay model!  The models were sculpted by very skilled union members. The UAW (United Auto Workers) tried to make sure every member who worked in the auto industry belonged to the UAW.  The only group who didn’t belong were the designers. This gives some idea of how independent the designers were!  Fortunately, the sculptors at GM Design were some of the best in the world and it was a pleasure to work with them. They were fast, accurate and had an innate sense of form that accelerated the process.  Once the scale model that I oversaw, working with the sculptors, was approved by Mitchell he initiated its expansion into a full-scale model. If you’re interested to learn more and see pictures from this era I’ve written a book on the subject, titled Corvette Stingray, Genesis of an American Icon.

daytona coupe buckAt Shelby’s, I was the entire design team. I didn’t need to submit sketches for approval. Shelby surprisingly didn’t care what my design for a faster Cobra would look like.  All he wanted to know was, “Is it going to be fast enough to beat the Ferraris!”  The car was so different looking, that most of the team in the shop were initially opposed to its appearance.  There wasn’t time to do a clay model. The first race of the ’64 season, Daytona, was less than four months away. There would be no chance for real development, it had to work right out of the box. In the end, the Daytona Cobra Coupe was built in 90 days and broke the lap record at Riverside Raceway on its first test day. The rest is history.

There are pros and cons to both approaches. The Stingray Corvette took six years before it went into production. Fortunately, Bill Mitchell made sure the design I’d sketched to win his approval in November of ’57 looked almost identical to the “split window” coupe that finally appeared in ‘63.

The important thing to me is that I love designing automobiles and however a car is built, and by who is of small consequence provided there are a minimum of compromises. The satisfaction of seeing one’s creation break lap records, win races and even championships is just as satisfying as seeing a production cars break sales records.

15 thoughts on “What was the difference between designing cars at GM vs. Shelby?

  1. What I like about Peter is that he is not only a great designer but also a great person. He has touched all the American car Icons not only with his design prowess but also with the teams he has put together. Designing and racing are in his blood. If only Carroll Shelby had given Peter to race the Shelby cars in competition his legacy would have also included winning races. Peter is one of a kind and we are just happy to have met him and enjoyed not only the 1963 Corvette that he influenced but also the Aerovault Trailer he designed. We look forward to your open house in Oct.
    Both you and Gayle must stay healthy and enjoy everyday to its fullest.

    1. Hi Darwin….I had a chance to see the new Shelby documentary movie in Monterey. It was made by Adam Corolla’s team. It’s more than two hours long, so covers a big time span. I don’t know when it’ll be officially released but I’ll let you know if I hear anything. Peter

  2. Where did you get your skills as a designer, from what I keep reading, it was very “engineer-minded” designs, but they were all still so beautifully shaped

    1. Thanks for your interest in my design philosophy Simon. Wherever possible I prioritize function. Initially, this may create an unfamiliar form, but if it’s successful it’s esthetic beauty then becomes self-evident. As the for basic skills to display these ideas? Those can be learned at any good design school like Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Ca or the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit.

  3. Excellent information Pete. I have read your Corvette book and always enjoyed learning about your time at GM.

    The Daytona Coupe is the epitome of functional beauty!

    Enthusiasts world wide thank you for sticking by your Daytona Coupe design and build when the company was filled with doubters!

  4. had the pleasure of hearing your presentation at Simeone museum 11/16 and meeting you after to show pictures of my 63 Sebring Silver Split Window Coupe. I still get goose bumps when re-reading your book [Corvette Stingray: Genesis of an American Icon] over and over. Besides my copy, I gave each of my 2 sons signed copies as well as they also appreciate the C2 Corvette. Thanks for your web site and Blog.

  5. Hi Peter, really enjoying your blog and reading your personal views and experiences on subjects dear to your fans hearts.
    Paul

  6. Hello Pete,

    Thank You for sharing another personal account and insight on the history of the cars that we all love. Really enjoy reading these and always look forward to the next.

    Thanks Again,
    Tom Marshalek

  7. Why an I not surprised about Pete’s career….know him and Gayle well, but love the details….it’s always disappointing to see Car Execs short sighted on future…we/they can thank Mitchell for sticking to his believes and selecting Pete’s ideas…..Ford was better because of Shelby with the Cobra, GT350 and Daytona Coupe once again with Pete right there to make it happen!!

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