Inside Man: Blaine Jenkins

#GM, #Ford

Essentially unknown to the public -- even to the most dedicated automobile enthusiasts -- Blaine Jenkins has an exceptional history of accomplishment in car design despite never having shaped a fender, a taillight, or any other gross physical element of a production-car exterior. That's not to say that he didn't draw exteriors. Even now he enjoys the intellectual challenge of taking a historical vehicle and bringing it up to date with the canons of a later time -- he cites having evolved the 1950 Hudson into a possible 1965 model as an example of this. But apart from his fascination with and expertise in exterior paint colors, Jenkins is an "inside man," someone who helped create the instrument clusters, steering wheels, seats, and trim panels of cars that represent the absolute peak of General Motors' hegemony over the world automotive industry, those flamboyant vehicles author John Keats characterized as "insolent chariots" in his 1958 best-seller of the same name.

Jenkins seems a happy man, fully enjoying his sunny retirement despite some distressing, mobility-limiting back problems. He lives in a splendid modern house in domestic harmony with his companion of the past thirty-seven years, Philip Chilson, he has some perfectly restored classic American cars in his now-reduced heteroclite collection -- a 2002 Ford Thunderbird daily driver is an unusual choice for a designer who only ever worked for GM, but he likes the yellow and black interior -- and he is a low-key participant in local automotive events, neither hiding nor vaunting his former role at the creative center of the world's largest carmaker.

Jenkins was born in 1934 in Caney, Kansas, a tiny community of 2500 people near Tulsa, Oklahoma, at a truly rough time. As John Steinbeck recounted in The Grapes of Wrath, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl years forced millions away from the Great Plains, but many stayed, as did Jenkins's family, persevering and working for a better future. Blaine graduated from high school in 1952, then studied architecture for three years at Kansas State before his all-but-accidental discovery of a design school in California changed the course of his life.

Like many young American men in the 1950s, Blaine Jenkins loved cars for the personal freedom they offered and their manifestation of America's ability to achieve just about anything anyone could imagine. Like most young men, he had no idea how anyone ever got to participate in their creation until he found out about the Art Center School, then as now the principal American source of car designers worldwide. He applied and was accepted in the industrial design curriculum.

Jenkins must have been really good as a student. Late in 1956, Chuck Jordan, later the fourth-ever VP of Design at General Motors but then just a ferociously ambitious rising star in original GM design boss Harley J. Earl's styling imperium, was sent to Art Center to check out the work of promising students. Jenkins brought a pile of his drawings and spread them out on a ping-pong table in the basement of GM designer/Art Center instructor Bob Cadaret's Los Angeles home. Jordan said, "Well, these are not the best I've ever seen, but they're not the worst, either." He then posed a vital question to third-semester student Jenkins: "Can you start next month on the 15th?" Jenkins decided to forget the degree and take the job.

As he tells his story, Jenkins is wryly humorous. With a firm offer in hand, he called his girlfriend in Caney, Lou Ann Sheldon, and said, "I've got a job. You want to get married?" Miss Sheldon's romantic reply was "Oh, OK." So he drove his 1953 Mercury convertible to Kansas on the way to Detroit, got married, and honeymooned in Michigan. The Mercury was quickly traded for an Oldsmobile 98 convertible, affordable on his $400 a month starting salary -- very good money in November 1956 -- and after an obligatory passage through the make-or-break Orientation Studio, Jenkins went to work on Chevrolet interiors, a job he did for ten years.

Never in charge but always a solid contributor to the production models -- including every Corvair ever made and the first-ever Caprice -- Jenkins nonetheless has his share of tales to tell from that period. For instance, he was involved in the now-legendary story of Bill Mitchell's famous Mako Shark I concept Corvette, which was unveiled in 1962. Mitchell had succeeded Harley Earl as GM's VP-Design in 1958, and he was determined to be even more of an atypical presence than his mentor had been, whenever possible going for something outrageous, whether in his custom-made motorcycle clothing, spontaneous temper tantrums, or surprising concept cars. On a Caribbean fishing trip Mitchell caught a mako shark and then had it stuffed and mounted on his office wall. He then ordered the in-process concept car painted to exactly match his trophy fish.

Every attempt made to shade the paint on the car as subtly as the natural gradation on the shark was furiously rejected, which was a problem for Jenkins because he was considered to be "the color guy" for Chevrolet. As the story goes, the fish was taken down to the paint shop after-hours, the car was made to look as close to the taxidermist's masterpiece as possible, and then the fish was sprayed with the same paint from the same gun so that it was identical. The car's designer, Larry Shinoda, helped perpetuate the apocryphal story, but the paint man in charge, Ed Ketterer, tells us that they never actually painted the fish. In any case, the match was perfect, as Mitchell happily attested. "I knew you could do it; you guys just had to work harder."

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