Gil Spear - Auto Designer

When someone sends me an e-mail with a subject line something like this: 'My Dad Designed The Front End Of Your '39 Plymouth', I pay attention. I received such a note last week. It was an enlightening read.

A.G. 'Gil' Spear, a renowned automobile designer died in June 2008 at age 93. His daughter mentioned that he "was the designer of the distinctive front end on the 1939 Plymouth, 1939 Chrysler New Yorker and 1940 Chrysler Saratoga. He only designed the front ends. He rarely took the time to take the credit for all his contributions, nor was he particularly adapt at playing the corporate game. Albeit behind the scenes, A. Gil Spear, Jr. led an inspired life, initiating designs, motivating others and continuing to create a designer's legacy."

Gil's parents were both commercial artists. His dad, Adrian Gil Spear, did ads for several car companies, including Pierce Arrow and Willys Overland.

Gil Spear studied at the Pratt Institute but had to drop out (depression-era financial difficulties) and take a paid position styling with General Motors Corporation in 1937. He was laid off in 1938 and then worked with noted industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes on the GM Futurama Exhibit for the 1939 New York World's Fair.

Spear moved back to Detroit, accepting a position with Chrysler Corporation in its design department. It was a small group because, in those days, Briggs Manufacturing Corp., a body supplier, had its own design department and actually styled many of Chrysler's products as well as offerings for Briggs' other auto customers, including Ford, Packard, Graham and Hudson. Chrysler blamed Briggs' styling for poor sales of its 1938 models and took a proactive role in changing the look for all offerings for the 1939 model year.

Ray Dietrich, the famous coachbuilder, was responsible for Chrysler's 1939 styling cleanup, completed by Robert Cadwallader after Dietrich left in mid-1938. In the case of Plymouth, headlamps were moved into the elongated fenders and the 1938's barrel-like front end was replaced by a lower grille made up of vertical bars. The restyled '39 Plymouth shared the familial 'prow nose' front end with DeSoto, Dodge and Chrysler but each brand had its own distinctive style due to clever trim work. Dietrich and Cadwallader were assisted by a small team of stylists and Spear may well have been one of them.

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In interviews, Gil did claim to have styled the front end for the 1941 Plymouth. Fellow workers have further stated that it was Spear's concept drawing which inspired the distinctive and handsome wraparound grille found on the production 1942 Chrysler.

Spear left Chrysler Corporation in 1942 and went to work for Briggs Manufacturing. He also did freelance design work during WW II and the immediate postwar period, including salvage design for damaged warplanes. Gil analyzed damaged and failed components, determining what was needed to repair planes, redesigning components if necessary. He also designed the 1946 Stout Project Y sedan, a fiberglass-bodied prototype which was underwritten by the nascent Kaiser-Fraser auto empire.

Gil began his employment with Ford Motor Co. in April 1947. His first task was to refine the 1949 Ford clay model Joe Oros and Elwood Engel had worked up. According to Spear, the full-sized clay model was amateurish and he and George Snyder had to entirely redo it to make it ready for production. Among other things, Spear tried to include a "heads-up" display for the speedometer, with lighted numerals projecting the speed on the windshield - technology borrowed from World War II aircraft. But "fear of the unknown" and cost dictated a conventional speedometer.

After completing the distinctive 1949-1951 Ford designs, Spear was asked to reestablish Ford's Advanced Studio to create future Ford concept cars. Gil was a staunch champion of the retractable hardtop idea and even produced a small comic strip with a 'Man From Mars' viewpoint, pointing out the silliness of canvas-roofed convertibles:

Spear later became head of Engineering's Special Development Studio. Serving as an Executive Designer for International Operations in the Lincoln Mercury Studio, he was appointed Chief Designer for Ford of England in 1967 to design the Capri.

Gil Spear was a mentor to Jack Telnack, when the future VP of the Ford Design Studio was a novice designer working a stint at Ford's Australian operation. After retiring from Ford Motor Company in 1974, Spear continued to obtain patents for a number of successful new product designs.

Gil was an avid swimmer. A former U.S. Masters swimmer, Spear vividly recalled competing against the best in his age group and winning many gold medals. At age 81, he competed in a 200 meter freestyle and clocked a time of under 4:40. In his final years, Gil maintained a design studio, working up to six hours a day to create Christmas cards and helping other aspiring artists and designers.

As a car designer, Gil Spear is not as well known as legends Virgil Exner, Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell and Dick Teague. Nevertheless, his creations will be seen and appreciated for centuries to come. He was proud that so many of the aerodynamic forms he created became sheet metal realities.

Most of us do not leave behind lasting markers of our presence on this earth. The garden projects, home remodeling work, business reports, spreadsheets and other little footprints disappear with the passage of time. We can only hope that the good deeds we've done, the lessons and values we've passed along to our children and grandchildren and/or the societal changes we've helped to create will somehow make an impact on subsequent generations.

Unlike most mortals, talented artists have the ability to execute timeless masterpieces which will be appreciated by far-future admirers.

When one visits the great cathedrals of Europe and marvels at their massive magnificence, a little research will often disclose the name of each master builder. But not much else. Yet, what makes these structures so interesting are the details which reveal themselves upon close examination. The 15th Century artists who carved detailed cornices, lifelike statuary, gilded ceiling bosses and fanciful gargoyles at York Minster are long dead and their names forgotten. But they live on through their work over five centuries later.

sherlock auto blogFive hundred years from now, there will be automobiles carefully tended and displayed in museums. Surely there will be a 1949 Ford Deluxe on exhibit. And, if museum visitors look carefully, they will notice on the inside door molding - just below the front windows - a stylized silhouette of a then-futuristic car injection molded from clear plastic so that it appears encased in Lucite.

This second-surface decorated plastic escutcheon assured the original buyer that his/her all-new 1949 Ford was the Way of the Future in an optimistic postwar America.

The idea and design for this clever, eye-catching trim piece was Gil Spear's. It is just one of his many timeless contributions to automotive design. (posted 7/18/08)


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The facts presented in this blog are based on my best guesses and my substantially faulty geezer memory. The opinions expressed herein are strictly those of the author and are protected by the U.S. Constitution. Probably.

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