Fins, Firebirds and Ferraris – The life of Chuck Jordan
Chuck was part of a very select band of people in the world of General Motors.
There are fewer men that have been Vice President of GM Design than have set foot on the moon; Charles M. “Chuck” Jordan was one of the lucky few.
Before him the leaders of GM Design were Harley Earl, who was seminal in creating automotive styling of the “lower, longer, wider” type and Bill Mitchell, who led GM’s rocket-fin era and felt a car design should have beauty, elegance and the surprise of something new.
Chuck Jordan was born in 1927 in Whittier, California, to a ranching family. By the age of 12 he was driving trucks on the ranch and became obsessed with drawing cars; so much so that his mother would bring him dinner in his bedroom whilst he drafted up new concepts. She envisaged his early passion would somehow lead him to greatness.
By his teenage years, Chuck Jordan was drafting up scale models and the natural move, after graduating with honours from Fullerton High School, was to enrol at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), notable alumni include Apollo 11 Astronaut Buzz Aldrin and former UN secretary general Kofi Annan.
Encouraged by his mother, Chuck entered the GM Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild model-car competition and he won, securing a $4000 scholarship and the attention of GM’s Harley Earl (below). Shortly after graduating in 1949, Chuck accepted an offer to join GM as a junior designer.
Jordan’s talent quickly set him apart. In 1953, Harley Earl appointed him chief designer of GM’s special products studio. It was there that he produced the designs for the iconic streamlined 1955 Aerotrain locomotive for which he gained high praise from Earl.
Seeing the talent Chuck Jordan held, Bill Mitchell– who was poised to assume the top design slot from the retiring Earl – went over to him and said, “Kid, if you want to get anywhere around here you’ve got to do cars.” Chuck was moved over to the main GM building and placed in an advanced studio. Here he flourished ending up getting the design patent on the 1955 GM truck and designing his first car – the Buick Centurion concept for the 1956 Motorama show; which featured sweeping lines, bat fins, and bubble top, it also had the world’s first reversing camera with in-dash monitor. Chuck also produced the Pontiac wide-track concept with help from John DeLorean.
Things moved fast and in 1957, aged 30, Chuck became the chief designer for Cadillac. One of his most famous designs was the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado featuring the highest-ever fins, a concept he designed to compete with Plymouth.
In 1962, Chuck became Executive in charge of Automotive Design, responsible for all GM car and truck exteriors and in the same year Life magazine hailed him as one of the “100 most important young men and women in the United States.”
As an avid Ferrari fan and owner, Chuck met Enzo Ferrari three times through their mutual friendship with designer Sergio Pininfarina. He recalled once discussing design over lunch with Enzo, in the famous Cavallino Restaurant, opposite the Ferrari works at Maranello. Afterwards Ferrari asked Chuck if he wanted to come along whilst he did a test drive in the mountains. Chuck recalled that Enzo was an aggressive driver and did things that scared him – such as cutting the corners in blind turns. However, he looked back on it to be one of the best days of his life. Chuck went on to own a Lusso, Daytona, Boxer, Testarossa, 360, F40 (his favourite Pininfarina design) and a 456GT.
Between 1967 and 1970, Chuck worked in Europe, as design director for Adam Opel AG in Rüsselsheim, Germany. Whilst there, he was responsible for a number of well-regarded designs, including the Opel Manta coupe and the 1968 production model GT sports car.
Jordan then returned to the U.S., again working alongside Bill Mitchell and, after Mitchell’s retirement in 1977, Chuck was named Director of Design for the entire design staff reporting to Chief Designer Irv Rybicki. Chuck and Irv didn’t always see eye to eye. Chuck liked to explore multiple new ideas and reject them if they didn’t work; Irv had a great design mind, but rejected on the hoof thinking.
In 1986, Chuck Jordan took over the top position, previously held by Mitchell and Earl, as Vice President of GM Design. His team was responsible for the 1990’s generation of Camaros and Firebirds, the Oldsmobile Aurora, and the 1992 Cadillac STS. His design leadership team also produced concept cars like the Oldsmobile Aerotech (for speed records) and the Sting Ray III.
Chuck Jordan retired in 1992 at the age of 65, with Wayne Cherry taking over the VP of Design role. He enjoyed a long retirement, even finding time to mentor young designers, and died from lymphoma at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, California on the 9th December 2010 aged 83.
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