by Terry Parkhurst
John Herlitz passed away on March 24, as the result of complications from a fall in his winter home in Naples, Florida. He was quietly laid to rest, next to his wife Joan, at Oakland Hills Memorial Gardens in Novi, MI the week after a memorial gathering at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum. That memorial gathering saw a 1971 Plymouth Road-Runner displayed that had not only been his own car at one time, but that he’d designed.
It has taken a while for the full extent of the loss means to really sink in to the community of Chrysler enthusiasts.
If you don’t know who he was, you certainly know his work, which included what is possibly the most iconic Chrysler car, the 1970 Plymouth Barracuda. People literally can’t enough of the car. Those that still exist, and have a 426 cubic-inch hemi-head V8 matched to the rest of the drive train and body at the factory, are going for as much as $2 million. In the same way that other artists sometimes copied the style of others and created a movement, there is even a market for what are now called “clones” or “replica” Hemi ’Cudas. What was it someone once said about the most sincere form of flattery?
When asked what it was about the ’70 Plymouth Barracuda that made it the icon that it is, noted automotive journalist Brock Yates said, “It was a break-out car for Detroit and certainly Chrysler. They were slick, fast and cute. They changed as they went on, but the first one was so unusual and different.”
Indeed, the Plymouth Barracuda was even different from its sibling, the Dodge Challenger. While the body proportions were similar – classic long hood/short deck sizing, meant to convey the power under the hood – the body of the Plymouth were rounded and ironically enough for a so-called “muscle car,” softer to the eye than the Challenger, which had the sort of folder paper look that would catch on in the Seventies.
John Herlitz followed up his groundbreaking design for Plymouth with makeovers of other revered performance cars, including the 1971 Plymouth Road-Runner and GTX. As the Seventies created new challenges for engineering and industrial design at Chrysler, Mr. Herlitz assumed more responsibility in the Chrysler design studios.
He next worked with the teams of designers who created the K-car compacts, which not only staved off bankruptcy, but also allowed Chrysler to create a new image. He followed that with the first minivans, creating an entirely new category of vehicle. Moreover, he helped create the family of “cab-forward” cars in the early 1990s, which were leading edge designs for their time.
Mr. Herlitz had become chief lieutenant to Tom Gale by 1994. Mr. Herlitz was named vice president for product design, while Mr. Gale was the engineer turned designer who headed the Chrysler studio.
Both men worked well together to create a new generation of bold cars and trucks for Chrysler that borrowed from the company’s heritage. This usually came first came forth in prototypes that presaged production cars, such as the Atlantic, Phaeton and Cronos.
Mr. Herlitz was also instrumental in the lines of 1997’s widely heralded Dodge Copperhead, a roadster designed to evoke the true roadsters of the post-WWII years.
“If the Dodge Viper is credited for re-inventing the Shelby Cobra, then Dodge Copperhead should be credited with re-inventing a car in the tradition of the Austin Healey 3000, said Mr. Herlitz at that time, adding, “Copperhead will fit comfortably into any sports car enthusiast’s garage – and budget.”
Indeed, the Copperhead would have certainly lived up to his words about fitting into a garage. It was three inches narrower and eight inches shorter than a Dodge Viper while it had an extra 12 inches of wheelbase. But while it was a hit at auto shows of that year, when Daimler-Benz took over the following year, the Copperhead wasn’t part of the plans. It was one of many missteps by Chrysler’s new owners.
Mr. Herlitz, who rose to become the senior vice-president for product design by the time of his retirement in 2000, helped to establish the Walter P. Chrysler Museum. He also aided in the design of a visual arts building, currently under construction, at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in northern Michigan; where he served on that school’s corporate advisory council. Mr. Herlitz was also the judge for some car shows, including the Amelia Island Concours.
Much has been said this election year about understanding “real people, working people.” John Herlitz certainly did and that was another key to his success as a designer. He was born the son of Swedish immigrants in Pine Plains, New York, on December 30, 1942; and like most industrial designers who focused on cars, he got onto his passion, early on. At age 13, he reportedly was sending sketches of cars to Chrysler. A correspondence ensued with company officials, who advised him on the education he’d need to become a car designer. That led him to obtain a bachelor’s degree in industrial design from Pratt Institute, located in New York City, in 1964 (following his graduation at Salisbury prep school in Connecticut in 1960). A Salisbury classmate, Henri David, wrote: “John was a unique kind of guy who
would sit in class and draw 3-dimensional street rods during
a painful history seminar. He was modest about his fame
and talents, which also helped to make him a very special person.”
From college, Herlitz joined GM; after a brief tenure there, he went to the Plymouth studios, and, for his first full-car task, designed a show Barracuda, the SX. The leaders of Plymouth chose to follow the general lines of the Barracuda SX when wrapping it around the new 1967 body, assigning John Samsen [see his web site] to supervise the modeling when Herlitz was called into the National Guard. The result was far different from prior Barracudas, and also quite different from the Valiant from which they sprang.
Mr. Herlitz married Joan Elizabeth Neinas on September 20, 1969; and she passed away on January 22 of this year. Two sons -- Kirk of San Carlos, California and Todd of Chicago, Illinois – survive him, as does one grandson.
What makes John Herlitz's design of the Plymouth 'Cuda interesting is that it is right up there now with icons such as the 1931 Dusenberg SSJ and 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible. For a car that was about $4,000 new, that's quite an achievement. When I myself went to the Art Center College of Design for two years (fall of 1968 continuously through spring semester of 1970) that was the kind of impact we all dreamed of having with industrial design.
Still as Oscar Wilde once noted, there is a difference between the cost of something and its value. Whether or not Plymouth Barracudas trade hands at six figures or more is less important than the legacy. Ultimately, the work of John Herlitz will continue to be appreciated by future generations because he knew how to combine line, shape and volume in just the right proportions to create timeless designs.
Sources for this article include the New York Times and a Chrysler Corporation backgrounder on the 1997 concept vehicles for the NAIS (North American International Auto Show) in Detroit, Michigan. Thanks to Jim Benjaminson and the Plymouth Bulletin for the Henri David quote.
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