Inside Man: Blaine Jenkins

#GM, #Ford

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.

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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