The French Connection: Does America’s sports car have French accent?
(Photographs: Charter Weeks; Artwork courtesy of Phillippe Charbonneaux and Retroviseur magazine.)
The Center of the French Automobile is stunning. It houses the personal collection of engineer and designer Philippe Charbonneaux. Row upon row of rare and elegant cars gleam under the arch¬ing roof of the spacious, well-lit museum on the Avenue Georges Clemenceau in Reims, France. Here is a gunmetal gray Delahaye, a unique De Dion Bouton 50CV-V8, a 1930 Delage with a crystal radiator cap. The cars were once owned by the likes of King Alphonse of Spain, generals deGaulle and Eisenhower, and William Joly Gaynor, the mayor of New York in 1910. There’s a corral of “city cars,” zippy little one- and two-seaters perfect for negotiating narrow European streets, and cars that raced in the Reims-Geuex Grand Prix, from the “monstres sacres” of the Thirties to today’s Formula 1. They are the work of Europe’s most illustrious designers, and the mark of Charbonneaux himself is on many of the autos on display. But what was even more stunning, as we wandered down the aisles, was the sight of a 1953 white Corvette displayed in a special section. It bore a small sign indicating that it was the creation of Philippe Charbonneaux. I was baffled. Could the quintessential American sports car have French blood coursing through its hoses?
Fascinated by the implications, I spoke to Charbonneaux by phone upon my return from France. In fact, he had spent six months in Detroit in 1949, a guest of General Motors, one of several young European stylists invited to participate in the post-war innovations at GM. And he was quite definite in his assessment of his impact. “I brought to General Motors new ideas as an artist,” he told me. “At that time, American styles were heavy, with enormous hoods and low fenders.” He spoke firmly when he asserted that “during the time I was in Detroit, no design, no clay model besides mine proposed the notion of front fenders higher than the hood, which was itself flat. My intervention became the point of departure in the studies that resulted in the first Corvette!”
Philippe Charbonneaux was born in 1917 and began his career as an automobile stylist in 1945. He worked with the firms of Delahaye-Delage, Frigeavia-Televia, Bernard, Renault and others. He designed many automobiles, including the aerodynamic J. P. Wimille 1947, the Delahaye Coach, Berline and Cabriolet, the 1951 Citroen and the 1961 Renault-R8. He has served on the boards of numerous professional societies and edits a magazine called The Automobile Anthology. How is it that his name appears nowhere in the history of the American sports car he claims to have been involved in designing? The answer may lie in the labyrinthine workings of General Motors in the 40s, and in the eccentricities of an organization led by Harley Earl, head of the Style Department at GM.
When Charbonneaux sailed for the U.S. in April of 1949, he carried a contract which offered him passage, lodging, a stipend of $500 a month and the caveat that all drawings and designs he produced would remain the sole property of General Motors. In Europe at that time, there were few design studios; some manufacturers had no stylists at all. It was with great anticipation that Charbonneaux came to work in Detroit. But he was in for a surprise. In an interview for the French magazine Retroviseur, he said, “You cannot imagine the army of designers who toiled in the studios, working in a rhythm much slower than we did in Europe. It was an enormous organization following its own routine, using methods based essentially on the separation of tasks. Each department worked on a detail of a body — front end, door handles, fenders, interiors — but never on a whole car. The range of GM automobiles, five makes and over 70 models, were subject to endless revisions and modifications.”
Once Charbonneaux was installed in Plant 8, he moved quickly “toward the realization of whole cars.” But this was not what the company had in mind. Evidently he made efforts to contact Harley Earl directly, for in July of that same year he received a rather formal letter from Julio Andrade, an Italian designer working with GM. There had been “a misunderstanding on your part as to the type of position you were going to have with us.” It seems that only full-time employees were assigned entire cars to design. The European guests were invited to contribute simply details (Charbonneaux calls it a “cocktail” approach). Thus, “from now until the 16th of September, your sailing date, you will endeavor to prepare several designs that, although exhibiting European characteristics in line and motive, will be, in our opinion, salable in this country.”
Charbonneaux was also asked to refrain from trying to contact Mr. Earl in person, “not only because he is very busy with many other problems, but because it creates a bad organization. It may look to him that those of us he has appointed to take care of these things are not on the job.” It would seem that this enthusiastic young designer was not to realize his dream of single-handedly transforming the American automobile.
Perhaps, though, that dream was alive in the mind of Harley Earl. Son of a carriage builder, Earl was “discovered” in a custom rebuilding shop in California and taken to GM by Alfred Pritchard Sloan. What Sloan saw was a young man with revolutionary notions. Earl proposed longer, lower bodies, rounded curves and flowing lines from headlight to rear bumper. In 1927, Earl was appointed director of the new, 50-member Art & Color Section at GM. By 1929, he had designed his first entire car — a Buick LaSalle — and by 1940 Earl had risen to vice president.
At the end of World War II, the demand for automobiles was at its height. Americans could put the war behind them and begin to participate in the booming post-war economy. While Europe was developing small, sporty cars, American manufacturers were turning to the big, powerful models. And, as the advertising industry geared up, style became paramount in the minds of buyers. Sloan and Earl believed firmly in the idea of “dynamic obsolescence;” changing the look of each car in every model year, persuading buyers to trade old models for newer, more stylish ones. Perhaps it was with this in mind, as well as with his personal vision of an American sportscar that might rival its overseas competitors, that Earl sought out European designers.
Few traces remain of the work of these young men. I spoke to Zora Arkus-Dun-tov, hoping to discover the extent to which the foreigners influenced the course of things at General Motors. Duntov, however, did not join the company until the early 1950s, but he gave me the names of several people who might be able to assist me. One retired executive I called downplayed the role of the Europeans. “I don’t think they were very good, and I doubt that their efforts culminated in anything much,” he said. ”They were not at all significant in developing new styles.” However, Irvin Rybicki, who was a junior designer for GM at the time and who rose to vice president of design, thought having the European designers contribute to styling was “a grand idea. They s aw things differently.” Remembering the atmosphere in 1949 he says, “Every individual there made a distinct contribution to all the designs, be it a theme for an instrument panel, a wheel or a front end.” And he recalls the name of Philippe Charbonneaux, though he doesn’t remember meeting the man. “Everyone worked at specific tasks, and each designer would tack up his drawings. At night, Harley Earl would walk through the halls, tearing this or that rendering off the walls. No one knew how his mind worked.” Rybicki laughs when he relates how the designers would return to work in the morning, anxious to see if one of their drawings had disappeared overnight, a sure sign of Earl’s interest or approval.
…no design, no clay model besides mine proposed the notion of front fenders higher than the hood, which was itself flat. -Philippe Charbonneaux
My intervention became the point of departure in the studies that resulted in the first Corvette! – Philippe Charbonneaux
I asked Rybicki about the Corvette, the only car in development at GM that might rival the sports cars coming out of Europe. “To my knowledge, only Earl and his engineers ever went into the room where the Corvette models were being made. The project was closely guarded. However, I’m inclined to think that Earl used style ideas conceived by his designers.” Yet no one else’s name was associated with that car. The lack of contact with Earl and the piecemeal nature of the stylists’ work was what, according to Charbonneaux, caused him to turn down an offer to return to GM. He cites a letter dated November 7, 1949, which told of “a new studio of young designers.” The letter, signed the T. E. Charme, business manager in the styling section, said “…we are seriously considering offering you a place in that group.” Some time after his return to France, Charbonneaux saw the first Corvette. “I was struck by the similarities between certain of my studies made in Detroit, in particular the front end.”
I contacted Lucy Karash from the vice president’s office of General Motors’ Design Staff hoping to unearth some of the drawings made in the late ’40s, concrete evidence to corroborate Charbonneaux’s startling assertions. She enlisted the help of the staff librarian, but discovered that when the company moved to new quarters in 1955, the legion of sketches, drawings and clay models had not been saved. There is no Plant 8 anymore. Many of the people who worked in the Style Department in the ’40s are no longer alive. But there still exist drawings and watercolors that Charbonneaux made after his tenure at General Motors and which belong to him. They show some remarkable resemblances to designs used in finished GM cars.
His painting of what was to become the experimental Chevrolet Biscayne shows headlights sunk into the hood and raised, rounded fenders. The 1954 experimental Olds 88 echoes certain features of the 1950 coupe “Charbonneaux Special.” Charbonneaux takes credit for the disappearance of door handles, and the stylized “V” in a red disc that graced the nose of the Pontiac Bonneville. But it is his rendering of the black Delahaye, with its distinctive “scoops” behind the wheel wells (“an idea dear to me”) that illustrates his claim to a part in the Corvette’s evolution. Harley Earl was experi¬menting with many of these very elements as early as the 1920s. No doubt he appreciated their refinements at the hands of his young designers, but were they, as Charbonneaux clearly believes, brought to their final realizations by the Frenchman? There seems no way, short of relying on the memories and anecdotes of the people involved, to determine whether or not it was, in fact, Charbonneaux who pioneered the designs.
No one to whom I spoke who had been at GM during those heady days was willing to credit the Europeans with significant contributions to the development of the cars of the Forties and Fifties. What remains are the fierce convictions of a man who is well respected as a designer, collector and historian of the French automobile. While he was in Detroit he worked with some of the company’s most brilliant and innovative stylists. He met and admired Bill Mitchell, who was to become the next head of the Style Department. And he believes passionately that he, Philippe Charbonneaux, lent a trace of blue blood to the car that is so uniquely American.
The white Corvette sits in its place — roped off, gleaming — in the Center of the French Automobile. And it holds its own among a gathering of some of the most innovative and glorious cars ever designed, looking not in the least uncomfortable.
—Marie Harris is a free-lance writer whose work takes her to likely places in search of unlikely stories. She is a partner, with her photographer/husband, in an industrial advertising agency in New Hampshire. CF