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by Diran Yazejian, courtesy of the WPC News
While thumbing through an old copy of Automotive Industries, from November 15, 1967, I ran across an interesting article titled “Styling the ’68 Charger,” written by Elwood P. Engel, Vice President and Director of the Styling Office, Chrysler Corporation. It included sketches and renderings made during the development of the body, and also a photo of the “Dodge stylists who developed the exterior concept.”
It made me wonder, “what made these guys tick?” They came up with the excitement that brought 96,000 buyers to the Dodge dealers, instead of the 20,000 originally planned. They created a true icon: a design that wasn’t copied from anything, and has been copied by no one since. They shaped what is, today, arguably the most sought-after of the Mopar muscle cars. Delving into it, I found a great story; but first, things have to be put into the proper setting.
In the Chrysler Design Office (then called Styling Staff), there were “brand” studios: Plymouth Exterior Studio, Dodge Exterior Studio, and a Chrysler and Imperial Exterior Studio. Each was locked, and only the people who belonged in there had a key. The competition between the studios was friendly but fierce!
What fueled this competition? Esprit de corps. It was a self-perpetuating drive to try to outdo the other studio with better designs, over and over again. It wasn’t until show day when the finished, dinoc-ed (applied painted film) clay models were wheeled into the showroom that you knew which studio had the best stuff.
This was the environment that drove each designer, sculptor or entire studio for that matter to take risks, reach out beyond the norm, and exaggerate the initial design statement. There was always time to pull back a little, to refine.
“Brand” studios fell by the wayside in the early to mid ’70s, yielding to “body size” studios meaning, for example, Plymouth Satellites and Dodge Coronets were designed by people in the same studio, ditto for the ’75 Cordoba and Charger. With this change went some of the competition, enthusiasm, and maybe innovation connected with the business.
The photo of the five designers on the team ironically lacked the sixth, Richard Sias, who was off work the day the photo was snapped. He was the principal designer. It was he who created the double diamond concept on the 1/10th scale “way-out,” “aircrafty” clay model, approximately 20 inches long. The three “board” designers and three management level designers had one thing in common: they all had gasoline in their blood.
Sias graduated from the Los Angeles Art Center College of Design (then called Art Center School), after a stint in the U.S. Army. He was hired by G.M. Styling and then came to Chrysler. He drove a dual quad 1958 Corvette, and loved to draw aircraft but also had a passion to hunt and fish. He was 26 years old when the genius in him created the 1/10th scale model and about 28 when the photo was taken of the rest of the design team.
Harvey Winn graduated from the Cleveland School of Art, was about 23 and drove a new 1966 Mustang Shelby GT 350.
William Brownlie, age 40, was the charismatic Chief Designer of the Dodge Exterior Studio and a WWII Navy vet. He took courses at Meinzinger School of Art in Detroit but other than that his automotive design sense was intuitive. He worked at Ford Styling in the early ’50s, was hired by Chrysler’s Virgil Exner, and worked on the trendsetting Ghia show cars of the ’50s. The Norseman which went down with the Andrea Doria was Bill’s design. He was always a gentleman, was well groomed, wore Bill Blass suits, and drove a Porsche 356 coupe.
Charles Mitchell, age 45, was the studio manager, second in command under Brownlie and also a WWII veteran. As an Army Air Corps pilot, he was shot down behind enemy lines and made it out without being captured. Like Winn, he also graduated from the Cleveland School of Art. He was into rallying with MGs but then currently drove a Formula S Barracuda.
He was the one who kept eyeing Sias’ progress on the 1/10th scale clay model and wondering if it could possibly be “morphed” into a B body sized car. Sias said he thought it could be done but to do so he would need a couple of form sensitive sculptors who could move a lot of clay fast. He also thought it would help to have a walled-off area in the studio where planning, cost, and feasibility people couldn’t involve themselves too early. Mitchell recognized the risk but complied.
Diran Yazejian, age 34, was a Korea-era U.S. Army vet who also attended California’s Art Center. After graduation in 1959, he was hired into Chrysler/DeSoto Exterior, then into Special Projects where the Turbine car was designed, before going into Dodge Exterior. He had two Vettes, first a ’58 dual quad 4 speed followed by a 1964 327/365 H.P., 4 speed with a 4.11 gear.
Frank Ruff, Dodge B-body Design Supervisor, age 33, was also a self-taught, intuitive designer. He worked at Ford Styling, then was hired by Bill Brownlie into the Dodge Exterior Studio and was later promoted to Supervisor. His wheels were a ’63 Vette Roadster. It was he who had the second stroke of genius in the program: with his design experience and Sias’ vision, plus the talents of two ace clay sculptors, Jim Romeo and Don Kloka, the elements of the 20” concept model were put directly on to the full size clay buck. It already had the established package requirements in place, ie., wheel base, track, Coronet windshield, cowl, etc. In one fell swoop, voila!, the ’68 Charger shape was born.
But, along the way, Bill Brownlie started to have second thoughts. While it was exciting enough, there wasn’t any design evolution whatsoever from its predecessor, the ’67 Charger. Meanwhile, the timing people were getting nervous because the ’68 Coronet development, mundane by comparison, was falling behind schedule and missing studio release dates.
As Brownlie was leaving on a business trip to Europe he gave strict instructions to stop work on the Charger (which didn’t even have a schedule yet) and concentrate on the Coronet finalization; it was the prudent thing to do. He came back two weeks later, walked into the studio, saw that the Charger model had progressed; and by the tone of his voice, both Sias and Ruff knew without question someone was going to be in deep trouble. At that moment the studio door opened and Elwood Engel walked in, put his arm around Brownlie and said, “Now, that’s what a car should look like” (trite, but fitting, “timing is everything”). Elwood left and, predictably, returned with the entire Plymouth studio, which was always his way of spurring competition.
All of the designers supported the design development of the car until it was released from the studio complete with the grille, lamps and ornamentation. The car was a natural to not have anything breaking up the surface flow of the pillars into the lower body, but they swallowed hard and put a vinyl roof on, knowing it was huge profit item. Louvers were added to the front door surface to give clearance to the lower hinge, an interference condition missed early-on.
Yazejian’s tail lamps departed from the evolution of the horizontal theme set by the preceding ’66 and ’67 Chargers by going to dual round, set in a rectangular field. The unobtrusive back up lamps were virtually unseen, until lit.
The studio proposed and mocked up functional dual gas fillers on both sides of the car like some European cars. They really looked great perched on top of each quarter panel. The designers lost that one to the accountants, and nearly lost the left-only flip-up cap for the ever-popular twist-on cap with the bar handle on the side of the quarter panel.
Harvey Winn restated his Coronet bumble bee stripe on the rear of the Charger R/T, which began a family identifier of performance Dodges.
Dodge Product Planning proposed canceling the concealed headlamps to save money. The designers strongly opposed the proposal and Bob McCurry, V.P., Dodge Division General Manager (a.k.a. “Captain Crunch”, a nickname aptly given for his performance as a Michigan State University football center) came into the studio to see the headlights mocked up both ways with a huge mirror on the centerline of the front end. He said two words, “Keep ’em,” and left.
So, what happened to these guys? They never again worked together.
Sadly, Richard Sias didn’t receive praise or recognition for his role in this program from Bill Brownlie. Bill expected more from Sias, saying a one-design designer is not enough. Later, Bob McCurry gave Brownlie a beautiful gold wrist watch to give to an outstanding designer. He chose to let the designers compete for it on a show car project. The watch was presented to Jim Ebejer, designer of the Charger III, which took a flying leap into oblivion after the first year it was shown. Even Jim was embarrassed, knowing the watch should have been given to Sias.
Richard Sias resigned. He went to Spokane, Washington, then on to Seattle and worked for Walter Dorwin Teague, an industrial design house with the Boeing Aircraft account. There he owned three ’68 Chargers, all at one time, and made one a convertible because he wanted to see how his baby would look as a ragtop. When he retired he had to abandon the project 98% done and moved to Montana, satisfying his first love, hunting and fishing.
Harvey Winn left a short time later to an industrial design firm, then went to Ford’s Special Project Studio. He was, at the time this was written, working in the advertising industry in Detroit.
Bill Brownlie retired from Chrysler in 1980 as an Executive Designer, then went on to be a V.P. at Creative Industries. Bill passed away in 1996 at the age of 70.
Diran Yazejian remained in the Dodge Exterior Studio, and was a major contributor to the ’69 changes to the Charger and to the new 1971 Charger. He advanced to Carline manager of A and E Body Dodge, then on to the ’72 Charger facelift program, and continued with various assignments until retirement in 1994. He still lives in suburban Detroit and enjoys restoring and maintaining a modest collection of antique and classic cars.
Chuck Mitchell, who rose to the level of Chief Designer, also stayed on until his retirement. If anyone cares to look for the root of Chrysler’s breakthrough mini-van, it will be found in a FWD model done under Charlie Mitchell using the then-developing K-car platform. He lives in the Detroit area and continues his interest in the fine arts as an accomplished sculptor.
Frank Ruff was also promoted to the Carline manager level in Dodge/B Body Exterior Studio. He then continued his career at various posts and is currently enjoying his retirement in the Detroit suburbs.
So, there you have it, what took place in a locked studio to produce the ’68 Charger, a true icon of the ’60’s. There was electricity between its designers, car guys to the core, marred by hurt feelings afterwards but they created what today is indeed a rolling legend. Hollywood couldn’t have written a better script.
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