Inside Man: Blaine Jenkins

#GM, #Ford

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.

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