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.
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.
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.
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.
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.