Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild Reunion
FISHER BODY CRAFTSMAN'S GUILD REUNION JUNE 2004
( This Story First Appeared in COLLECTIBLE AUTOMOBILE 12-04)
By Steve Purdy
Imagine you’re a teenage boy in the 1950s standing in the hall of a magnificent city hotel wearing the blazer and beret given to you by General Motors Corporation in honor of your selection as a finalist in this prestigious car-modeling contest. You’ve never been away from home except for summer camp. Now you’re waiting to file into the huge ballroom with dozens of other boys from around the country who have also won their regional competitions. You hear an orchestra playing inside. You’re breathing deeply. Cradled in your clammy hands is the model car you spent hundreds and hundreds of hours designing and crafting to perfection. If you are chosen one of the national winners, the future as a car designer you’ve lusted for is virtually assured.
Inside the ballroom hundreds of guests are seated as the GM executives and other dignitaries wearing white dinner jackets file into their seats on the long dais. In the center of that auspicious group is larger-than-life GM design chief Harley Earl, the only one in a black dinner jacket. He always liked to stand out in a crowd. Among the dignitaries are legendary “Boss” Kettering, the presidents of MIT and Cal Tech and keynote speaker, Lowell Thomas.
You and the other boys file into the ballroom to a second tier of seats just below the dais, set your cars down on the white tablecloth in front of you and take another deep breath. It will be a wonder if you’re able to eat the fantastic meal in front of you. There will be eight winners, four juniors (11 to 15-years-old) and four seniors (16 to 19-years-old) with cash and scholarships in the balance.
After a few short speeches and some preliminary activities the moderator begins announcing the winners. Forth place in the Junior Division; third place; second . . . forth place in the Senior Division; third place; second. As each winner is announced you feel relief that you are still in contention for top prize but at the same time you fear that you’re not going to win any of the awards. Kettering’s message, presented completely off-the-cuff, that just being in the room means you are a winner and have the talent and skill that will carry you far, is not resonating with you now.
The rest of the week is a blur with lunch at the Bloomfield Hills Country Club, a trip to Harson’s Island, tours of the GM design studios. Five days as the honored guest of General Motors is something that strikes you with awe, and changes your life.
Fast-forward about 50 years to June of 2004. You’ve come back to Detroit for the first ever reunion of the Fisher Body Craftman’s Guild. You’ve brought your lovingly preserved model wrapped in a soft cotton cloth and secured in a wooden box. You carefully remove the swaddled model, unwrap it, hold it in both hands like a newborn baby, and place it with dozens of others on the stage to be admired by all.
The Design Dome at the General Motors Tech Center in Warren, Michigan is the site of the first ever reunion for Guildsmen of all ages. You come to reminisce, reacquaint and be entertained again by patron GM. Nearly one hundred Guildsmen attend, many with family in tow, to see old friends and meet others who share the common bond of having been part of the Guild competition, a unique closed society. The oldest is Henry Larzelere a 1936 coach winner; the youngest, Tom Graboski, won the Styling Award at age 13 in 1968, the final year.
The reunion happened because John Jacobus (1st Place State 1956), historian and author from Washington DC, was working on a book about the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild competition. Assisting with research for the book his friend John Mellberg (2nd Place National Senior winner 1966), an automotive designer at Thomas Built Buses of North Carolina, along with retired GM design boss, Chuck Jordan (1st Place Senior Award 1947), had compiled a rather extensive database of Guildsmen. While Mellberg and Jordan were commiserating about how great it would be to get the group together Jordan said “Let’s do it in conjunction with the Eyes On Design show.” Planning began.
General Motors staff, with a little prodding from Jordan, hosted the reunion including a tour of a design studio where aspiring young design interns from six countries showed off projects being developed. The technology and the diversity is certainly beyond what could have been imagined in the Guildsmen’s days, but it was clear that the creativity still comes from within the minds of the youngsters, not from computer programs.
On the patio of the Design Dome were displayed Buick’s very first and most recent concept cars side-by-side – Y-Job and Velite respectively. The former a late 30’s idea of futuristic auto design, the latter, just introduced at the New York Auto Show, a lovely 4-seat convertible destined for production. The Guildsmen gathered around these two for a group photo.
John Manoogian II, director of design, Premium/Mid-Lux/Prestige/Performance Vehicles for GM gave the keynote address. Manoogian talked about the direction of GM design, particularly Cadillac’s bold initiative. As the banquet wound down emotions were high as an impromptu impassioned speech was made by a Guildsman from the 50s who was overwhelmed by the need to thank GM and his fellows.
The Guildsmen reassembled on Sunday morning under a tent at the Eyes On Design show on the luxurious front lawn of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford estate overlooking Lake St.Clair. Dr. Philip Hessberg, director of the Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology, host and beneficiary of the show said, “Eyes On Design is all about design so it is very appropriate to bring the Guild cars here.” Bill Scott, well-known retired GM designer and Guildsman from 57’, ’58, and ’59 has been a key member of the EOD committee during its entire history and facilitated the display.
The reunion lasted through Monday as the group was hosted again by GM, this time at the brand new GM Heritage Center a few miles north of the Tech Center. The GM car collections, including extensive archives, have been brought under one large roof in a non-descript industrial park building. Not a museum in the modern sense like the Henry Ford with cultural and contextual displays, rather it is a well-lit storage and viewing facility for about 200 special cars and trucks and racks of archives.
The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild began in 1930, as a way for the company to identify and recruit young men with exceptional skill in the “crafts” needed to design and build bodies for automobiles. In the beginning the challenge was to build a replica of the Napoleonic coach that was the symbol of Fisher Body. The boys would be provided plans and specifications but many of the details were left to interpretation. It was more than just an assembly process. A great deal of creativity in design and materials was required for a competitive entry. It was not unusual for a youngster to spend well over a thousand hours on a model. The winners received cash and scholarships that often triggered successful careers at Fisher Body and GM.
By 1937, in order to broaden the base of entries and entrants, the competition included model automobiles in addition to classic coaches. By 1947 coaches were out and cars were in. Until the early 50s the competition specified that models would be based on a 4-door sedan, then convertibles and sports cars were allowed. Finally by the late 50s an “open class” emerged. Chuck Jordan describes the competition as a scholarship program, not for athletics or academics, but purely for creativity.
Boys were recruited nation-wide in a variety of ways. Magazine advertisements, flyers, brochures and other conventional means were augmented by teams of recruiters who hit the road visiting as many as 1200 high schools in one season. Teams of young men, single and fresh out of college, spread out around the country bringing a practical science program to middle and high schools. It was a boon to GM in terms of Guild recruitment as well as promoting GM to youngsters just beginning to drive. Complimented by the thrilling Motorama tours, GM became the most visible and most exciting carmaker to young people.
In 1968 the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild was cut by GM. Declining numbers and quality of entries, as well as an inability of executives outside of the design departments to see the net value of the program, made the Guild vulnerable to the axe.
The demise of the Craftsman’s Guild was a bitter disappointment for everyone involved. Jordan, the guild’s strongest advocate within the corporation, believes it was purely an economic move. “The GM design staff cherished the Guild,” he lamented, “It allowed them to reach out to young people, getting them to think about GM as a career. The Guild and GM were brothers.” He goes on, “We were all sad when Jim Roach announced its cancellation. It was cost cutting time.”
Larry, Glenn and Raymond Hagen, three brothers originally from Brighton, Minnesota, all competed in the Guild. Larry’s art teacher in high school saw his talent at sculpting and first encouraged him to enter. It then became a family tradition with the ardent support of their engineer father and artist mother. All three attribute the Guild competition with influencing their career choices and opening opportunities that would not have happened otherwise.
Chuck Pelly, 1954 Junior award winner, was a car nut as a kid and made his Guild entry in a rubber mold. The shape of the mold primarily influenced the shape of the car. He painted it “mandarin red” winning a scholarship that took him to the Art Center College of Design in California then to Europe, broadening his horizons immeasurably. Pelly was awarded the Lifetime Achievement award at the Eyes On Design show.
Tom Goad of Birmingham, Michigan took 1st place in the Junior Division in 1948. His dad was a GM manager and presided at some of the banquets. Dad wanted Tom to go into auto design but young Tom wanted to be an engineer. Tom got his way and spent a long and varied career at GM doing everything from race cars to concept cars. Retired now Goad is a noted collector of classic cars and editor of the Classic Car Club of America magazine.
Ron Pellman earned four trips to Detroit. He had never been out of western New York prior to his first trip. “Seeing the new GM Tech Center was a life-altering experience,” he said. “Like entering a new world.” He was numb with excitement at the banquet but he does recall “Boss” Kettering getting a standing ovation from the crowd after the MC had asked everyone to hold applause until all introductions were made. Pellman went on to an automotive design career including his own company designing race cars.
Galen Wickersham is originally from Oklahoma but his entry was sent from the Washington DC region. His dad was a Congressman. On the train trip to Detroit in both ’48 and ’49 he met up with other boys with the same destination. Tom Goad’s dad was MC and Harley Earl was the most memorable personage there.
Each of the Guildsmen has a story worth telling. Beloved patriarch of the group, Chuck Jordan, for example, has gone back to working with youngsters by teaching auto design to high school students. The Guildsmen universally agree that the competition was crucial in their young lives. Learning to stick with a project, exercise their creative muscles, compete with the best, meet industry titans, and earn the rewards of their hard work set them on an accelerated course toward a successful adulthood.
[John Jacobus’ book on the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild published Fall 2004. Use the McFarland Publishing web site (www.mcfarlandpub.com) to place an order, or contact them by phone at 800-253-2187 or by FAX 336-246-4403. An order can be placed by mail at: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publisher, P.O. Box 611, Jefferson, North Carolina 28640.]