1963 Oldsmobile J-TR Ushered In New Era Of Styling At GM

If you love Sixties cars, Bill Mitchell is a God among men.

His portfolio of design work as Vice President of Styling at General Motors was vast and prolific, and spanned the last hurrah of the Detroit automaker’s golden years as the mightiest automaker on earth. He was groomed by his equally influential predecessor, Harley Earl, and took over as grand pooh-bah of GM Design in the fall of 1958.

Back in those days, computer aided design was decades away. Of the cadre of “analog” tools employed back then, most were single-handedly developed by Earl and honed by Mitchell when he came onboard GM. Full-size drawings, clay styling bucks, (and other methods still used today,) created a fairly long gestation period for new car design. As a result, 36-48 months was a fairly typical timeline from initial sketch to showroom floor.

When Mitchell took over in 1958, it took until the early ’60’s for his groundbreaking work to emerge from GM’s pipeline. Automobile design was was never the same and rarely been equalled since.

One mega-hit after another took the automotive world by storm. The 1963 C2 Corvette, 1963 Riviera, 1966 Toronado, 1967 Camaro, 1968 C3 Corvette, 1967 Eldorado, 1970 Camaro, 1971 Boat tail Riviera, and all ’60s/early ’70’s muscle cars. For a finale, he created the 1976 Seville and GM’s downsized full-size cars.

Mitchell with 1965 Mako Shark II concept.

GM Concept cars under his rule were legendary. Most are well known, but when we saw a rare Oldsmobile concept from 1963 over at Mac’s Motor City Garage, the wonder of Bill Mitchell’s talent was illuminated anew, still fresh and fantastic after 55 years.

Remember, Harley Earl’s styling legacy was fins and chrome ladled on with a trowel. Mitchell’s design sensibility was the antithesis of all that. He was seeking crisp, unadorned sheet metal, an ethos based on custom tailored suits.

Earls designs at the end of the '50's were bordering on bizarre. We love this era, but Mitchell had other things in mind. Images: Special Interest Auto

One look at this GM concept car illustrates what Mitchell was trying to achieve.

This 1963 Oldsmobile J-TR, based on a standard F-85 convertible, was a harbinger of things to come and many of the tweaks were “borrowed” by customizers out West in California, namely George Barris. 

The best way to “get” the styling tsunami that Mitchell brought to the design world, is to compare a production Olds from just five years earlier. Top: 1958 Olds Bottom: 1963 Old J-TR Concept.

According to Mac Garage, “Unmistakably the work of Bill Mitchell’s GM styling crew, the J-TR boasts a number of trendy ’60s touches, including a stylized racing stripe and futuristic Cibie rectangular headlamps from France. Note the slim two-piece front bumper, a striking departure from the production F-85, and the minimalist grille treatment. 

Unveiled at the 55th annual Chicago Auto on February 16-24, the J-TR made the rounds of the national show car circuit in 1963, including the New York Auto Show where it shared the Oldsmobile stage at the Coliseum with the reigning Miss America, Jackie Mayer.”

One look at the Barris “Sonny and Cher” Mustangs reveal many tweaks mirroring the J-TR. The Cible lights and overall look of the J-TR were heavily leveraged here. Conventional wisdom was the “Left” coast custom guys were setting the tempo for car design but clearly,  the Big Three were still very influential.

Sonny Cher Ford Mustangs. Customizer George Barris “borrowed” many Motown/Mitchell styling cues with a pair of “his and hers” Mustang convertibles for Sonny and Cher’s 1967 film Good Times. The movie was a flop but the Mustangs are still making an impact. They sold as a pair for $137,000 at the 2009 Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Mitchell stepped down as chief stylist in July 1977 following his 65th birthday. The last car he designed at GM was the 1977 Pontiac Phantom concept, which now resides at the Sloan Museum.

He was also instrumental in the design of what would become the 1980-85 Cadillac Seville. On August 1, 1977, Irvin Rybicki succeeded Mitchell as Vice President of General Motors Design.

Mitchell was a tough act to follow and with the onset of gas shortages and global competition, the era of Detroit dominance was over. Irv Rybicki, above, brought in an era that would be remembered as a low-point in GM styling. In fairness, along with X, J, A Bodies and disastrous luxury car down sizing in 1985, he gave us the 1988 re-styled pickups, 1984 baby Blazer, 3rd Gen F-Body, C4 Corvette, and Fiero.

About the author

Dave Cruikshank

Dave Cruikshank is a lifelong car enthusiast and an Editor at Power Automedia. A zealous car geek since birth, he digs lead sleds, curvy fiberglass, kustoms and street rods. He currently owns a '95 Corvette, '76 Cadillac Seville, '99 LS1 Trans Am and big old Ford Van.
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