NEWS: Inside Man: Blaine Jenkins

March 2, 2012
Blaine Jenkins Laughing
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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."
In his paint and color work, Jenkins was up against numerous constraints, not least of which was his desire to create "grayed-off" metallic colors. He kept proposing silver with a touch of something else included -- and kept being refused by Jordan, who said "silver is silver, you can't put color in it." Except Jenkins could, and did, and eventually got what he seems to consider his most outstanding achievement, getting the color "Evening Orchid" -- call it metallic mauve, perhaps -- accepted for production on 1965 Chevrolets and Pontiacs. He says there is at least one Evening Orchid car at every meeting of the Great Autos of Yesteryear car club in Palm Springs and that almost every member has one tucked away in his collection. Jenkins borrowed one to show us on the day of our visit.
The big Chevrolet Impala SS is indeed a handsome car in this distinctive color, old enough forty-seven years later to be a curiosity, not just a used car. This car is an icon of another era, when Chevrolets were bigger than Cadillacs had been fifteen years earlier, when no one was particularly concerned about aerodynamics or fuel economy or any of today's other shibboleths. And it perfectly characterizes the cars that are important to Blaine Jenkins: big, comfortable American cars expressing the optimism of his youth.
Most of us at Automobile Magazine are focused toward performance vehicles, sporting cars that run hard and require a high level of driving skill, or supersedans with manual gearboxes and complex and fascinating mechanicals. But to many enthusiasts, cars are all about style, comfort, ease of operation, and presentation. It's a legitimate aspect of automotive enthusiasm shared by vast numbers of people to whom a Ferrari is basically just an attractive collection of potential problems. Jenkins is clearly one of them.
One day in 1966, soon after his amicable divorce ("We're still good friends. I called Lou Ann on the fiftieth anniversary of our marriage and we laughed about it."), Jenkins went to see Steve McDaniel, head of all interior design at GM, and said, "I've spent ten years writing 'Bel Air' on every piece of paper I touch, and if I have to do it one more time, I'll explode." McDaniel said he could give him something different to do but with "no more money, no title, and no prestige."
It was an offer Jenkins couldn't refuse, so he became chief interior designer for Oldsmobile just in time to revise the spacious and fairly restrained interior of the radical and seminal Toronado front-wheel-drive coupe. Maybe it was the sheer size of the first Toronado that intimidated women, but the rather hard-edged and severe interior contributed to their general feeling of unease. Jenkins simply made all the soft trim softer for the second-year 1967 Toronado, making the giant sports model more like a luxury sedan inside. The problems diminished to insignificance.
That trick impressed John Beltz, soon-to-be general manager of Oldsmobile, who asked Jenkins to come up with some way to create an extreme 98, a model beyond the then-top-of-the-line luxury 98 for the oldest American car company's seventy-fifth anniversary in 1972. "What could you do if I gave you another hundred dollars per car?" asked Beltz. "What couldn't I do with that much budget?" was Jenkins's immediate reply. His basic answer was to include a great deal more labor in the upholstery, allowing for individual tuffets of stitched velour.
On the offhand suggestion of his immediate boss, he also tossed in loose pillows, as one might find on a living-room couch -- except the pillows were stitched into the rear-seat upholstery, so they only looked like separate elements. The anything-but-restrained limited-edition Oldsmobile 98 Regency four-door hardtop was advertised as "Quite a Substantial Car," and indeed it was. Its front seats looked like an expensive and very comfortable sofa, stretching across an improbably wide cabin. It was a big sales success, and the 98 Regency became a new trim level for sedans in '73, was extended to coupes the following year, and went on to become the popular flagship of the Oldsmobile brand for two decades.
Jenkins had the key knack of helping increase sales with his interior designs. Having done excellent work for Oldsmobile, he was moved to Pontiac for a few years with orders to get their interiors up to Oldsmobile levels of quality and prestige. The 1972-75 Pontiac interiors are the result of that stint, and again sales results validated his efforts. The late '70s saw him return for a few years as chief interior designer for Oldsmobile, which had started its decline from third-best-selling American nameplate through most of the '70s and '80s to oblivion in 2004. In 1980, his tested and proven skills saw him named as chief interior designer for Chevrolet, the division that earned GM most of its profits, a position he held until his early retirement in 1990.
When he worked at GM, Jenkins started collecting and showing cars that were all about appearance. He had many, including a 1961 Lincoln four-door convertible, a '48 Chevrolet convertible, and a '48 Buick station wagon -- the last the precipitate cause of ending his design career. When preparing for the Meadow Brook concours, he sought to lift its bumper off the car, thinking it was already unbolted. It wasn't, and the huge effort he made to move it crushed several vertebral discs. He was in a wheelchair for a bit but, using a cane, was able to present the Buick at the concours a few weeks later, followed by seven weeks in bed. Constant pain afterward didn't keep him from doing his job, but Dave Holls, then director of styling at GM, noticed his difficulty of movement after interminable sedentary meetings and suggested that Jenkins apply for retirement on full disability. It was an unwelcome but necessary decision.
Selling off most of his cars -- but keeping a prized '54 Buick convertible that was his legacy from an old friend who had bought it new about the time Jenkins started at Art Center and also the 40th Anniversary Corvette for which he had created the interior -- Jenkins prepared to leave Michigan forty-two years after his arrival. Having had a principal role in so many cars, it is impossible for Jenkins to have an example of everything he did, but he has clear memories of the most important triumphs.
One was the acceptance of an all-black interior for Chevrolets. Or at least almost all-black. Fighting the internal bureaucracy, he was ultimately allowed to trim a car (the 1962 Corvair Monza) the way he wanted but had to take it to the GM board for final approval. They decided it was oppressive but allowed it to go forward if the headliner was white. "They sold tens of thousands of Honduras Maroon cars with that interior," Jenkins says.
His career may have passed unnoticed by the public, but the cars whose cabins and cockpits he designed will never be forgotten, so long as people keep preserving them as historical artifacts. His relative anonymity is in fact typical for the thousands of really good designers who worked in the American car industry during the years when there were no "rock star" designers, when only the bosses -- Harley Earl, Virgil Exner, Gene Bordinat, Dick Teague, et al. -- were credited with designing everything their employers made. That has never been true, of course. It's just that guys like Blaine Jenkins at GM, Carl Cameron at Chrysler, and Charlie Phaneuf at Ford, all of whom worked on the drawing boards decade after decade turning out excellent work, never got the credit they deserved.
Until now.
Blaine's Biggest Hits
Blaine Jenkins worked on the interiors of literally hundreds of cars in his thirty-four years at GM, but a few of them have special places in his memories, including some one-off cars made for the wives and daughters of GM top executives. Here are a few of the most important:
Corvair Super Monza
This 1960 Corvair with a one-off interior was a sixteenth-birthday present for Design VP Bill Mitchell's daughter, Lynne.
"Pinky"
A 1961 Corvair done for Harley J. Earl's wife, Sue, to use in Palm Beach, Florida. It served her for years but succumbed to salt air and rusted out of existence. The first Corvair convertible, it arrived at Styling as a body-in-white coupe, and apart from the double-bump glare shield at the top of the instrument panel, its interior was handbuilt and completely feminized in pink materials.
Corvair Spyder concept
Jenkins did the interior, along with a pair of early '60s "His and Hers" Corvair show cars, one done in cloth, the other in leather.
1963 Corvette Sting Ray
For the first C2 Corvettes, Jenkins had a major role in designing the door panels and seats for production (left).
1972 Oldsmobile 98 Regency
To celebrate Oldsmobile's seventy-fifth anniversary, Jenkins was alloted a huge ($100) budget boost for a lavish interior. He came up with loose cushions, held to the seats with only a fabric tab. It was so successful that the Regency became a distinct model.
1973 Pontiac Grand Prix
This was Pontiac's luxury vehicle, and the interior reflected the quality required to justify the price. Jenkins also suggested a gap-filling model, the LeMans Sport Coupe, that became a best-seller for the division.
Color transformation
Jenkins ran the color studio at GM Styling for four years. On one memorable occasion in 1981, he changed the entire corporate color palette except for black and white, eliminating all past colors and introducing new ones. More than 200 cars -- showing each new color on every GM model -- were assembled at the Arizona proving ground to show off the massive change.
1990 Corvette interior
Redone for 1990 under Jenkins's supervision.

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