• Dec 16, 2010
Even for those who didn't know him during his glory days, Chuck Jordan was a familiar face on the auto show circuit. Slowed only a bit by a stroke, he was still present at a surprising number of the major shows, squeezed in with the assorted reporters, photographers and videographers, paying close attention to – and offering his perceptions on – the latest and greatest the industry could roll out.

I last saw Chuck Jordan earlier this year, not long before his death last week at the age of 83. The silver-white hair had thinned and the face was a bit gaunt, but he was still the trim and dapper silver fox I first met shortly before he assumed the design helm at General Motors. As only the fourth global styling chief in GM's history, Jordan was a powerful man – too much so, contended his critics – one whose simple whim could transform or even kill an entire product program.

Jordan was a powerful man – too much so, contended his critics.
In his early years, the young designer earned kudos for stand-out efforts like the 1958 Corvette and, most notoriously, the '59 Cadillac Eldorado, with its over-the-top tailfins – which Jordan likened to "letting the tiger out of the cage." He was a critical force in the golden era of GM design, when the maker's striking approach to styling helped it capture more than half of the overall U.S. new car market.

By the time he assumed the title of vice president of the General Motors Design Staff, on October 6, 1986, however, GM was already in a steep decline. And the company Jordan left six years later was at best a hobbled giant. Today, looking back, it's disheartening to realize how few truly significant products made it through his lavishly-furnished office at the General Motors Technical Center.

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Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com, and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

I met Jordan shortly before he got that big promotion. He was sitting alongside his predecessor, Irv Rybicki, in the office he had yet to occupy, ready to be interviewed for a magazine story I was working on. GM had been hammered by the twin oil shocks of the 1970s, and the subsequent rise of the imports. But it had begun to fight back with an assortment of downsized products, like the Chevrolet Cavalier and its sibling J-Cars.

A new line of midsize sedans and coupes, collectively dubbed the A-Cars, were ready to follow and Rybicki and Jordan were supremely confident that GM would retain dominance in that critical segment. But what about the new Ford Taurus, I asked, referring to the original '86 sedan that was getting initial rave reviews. "That jellybean car...?" Jordan began, he voice tailing off as if just that put-down was enough to dismiss Ford's chances.

Despite GM Design's declining image, Jordan remained an imperious and proud figure.
Of course, that original Taurus proved the winner of that battle. The A-Cars took the critical drubbing – a famous cover of Forbes magazine showing four otherwise look-alike models from different GM divisions lined up side-by-side, indistinguishable. The General's badge-engineering strategy might have been designed to lower costs – though with relatively little success – but it destroyed the company's reputation for styling leadership, mantles that Ford, and later Chrysler, were quick to claim.

Despite GM Design's declining image, Jordan remained an imperious and proud figure. It was always interesting to go up for an interview. His office was covered with, of all things, an assortment of Ferrari parts and memorabilia. Only someone with the fierce self-confidence of a Chuck Jordan could keep a prancing pony parked in the garage next to the Tech Center's Design Dome.

To be fair, there were at least a few significant efforts to come out of the Jordan-era studios, such as the Buick Reatta, and the first-generation Oldsmobile Aurora and Cadillac STS sedans, as well as the Oldsmobile Aerotech and Sting Ray III concepts. But they were far too few and far between to either establish a solidly positive legacy or, more importantly, stave off the steady decline in GM's market share.

It also needs be stressed that it was a time of turmoil at GM, and perhaps worst of all, Jordan, like all the senior product-side managers, had to report to that ultimate of bean-counters, General Motors' Chairman and CEO Roger Smith. The lead inmate was running the asylum.

A castrated design department was perhaps the saddest part of the Chuck Jordan legacy.
Even so, Jordan wielded significant power, so much so that upon his November 1992 retirement, rivals made sure to clip the wings of design successor, Wayne Cherry. The humbled and quiet Cherry spent much of his own tenure taking orders and watching as the hacks and bullies neutered seemingly every good design his team could come up with. A castrated design department was perhaps the saddest part of the Chuck Jordan legacy.

Anyone who questions the potential role of design just has to look at recent GM history. The lack of visually striking products was as critical to the maker's eventual bankruptcy as its chaotic and incoherent business strategy. When he joined the company a decade ago, Bob Lutz tried to set it right. He had once derided GM products as "angry appliances," and was determined to allow the designers do what was needed again.

Cherry's successor, Ed Welburn, isn't the emperor of decade's past. Nor does he have the temperament of a Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell – or Chuck Jordan. But he's nonetheless relished the opportunity to make GM Design perhaps the most critical force within the company's product development system. And recent offerings, like the Chevrolet Equinox, the Cadillac SRX and the Chevy Camaro, show what can happen as a result.

The promise Chuck Jordan brought with him to the Tech Center never materialized. But the organization he ran is once again showing itself a force to be reckoned with.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 4 Years Ago
      RIP Mr. Jordan.

      Thank you for your contributions.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Holy crap! The clay model in the background looks like it could house 5 wheels in its wheelbase! Loved many of his designs though. GM design in the 60's was truly ground breaking, and many examples stilll look elegant and futuristic today.
      • 4 Years Ago
      RIP Chuck.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Loved that 1988 Oldsmobile Aerotech when I was growing up.

      Rest in peace...
      • 4 Years Ago
      Really good article Autoblog. I would think that deep down, during the 80's when GM sucked most Chuck Jordan found it difficult being a company man. Bashing the Taurus, a car that was light years ahead of anything GM put out design wise had to be tough on him.

      That '56 Buick Centurion on the other hand, would turn heads in field of Ferraris and Lamborghinis.
      • 4 Years Ago
      My grandmother still tells stories about how she felt like a celebrity when driving their new 1966 Toronado. Still a beautiful car today. I loved the design of the 1960 Cadillac coupe so much that I bought one and am now restoring it. Thank you Mr. Jordan for your contributions to American design.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Did he design the First Gen Toronado? If he didn't someone stole the model behind him and claimed it as their own.
      • 4 Years Ago
      As a retired Chief Designer, I worked with Chuck for the last 23 years of his career and can attest to his being a hard task master. We had a number of "disagreements" which he, of course always won... Chuck was the last of the design "true believers" to occupy that office and may have been the most talented of all. Although trained as an engineer (MIT) he was a very creative artist who kept his hand in it right up to the end, He did a design sketch for a project for the League of Retired Designers no more than a couple of months before he died. I saw that design sketch and it was not bad. Not bad at all.
      RIP Chuck.