Vile Gossip: The Chrome Cobra Leaves This Mortal Coil

Chuck Jordan was my very first friend in the car business. We came together unexpectedly in the private, musty quarters of the National Automotive History Collection on the second floor of the Detroit Public Library. It was the fall of 1980, and I had been an automotive journalist for exactly one month. I was researching “The History of Fuel Economy” [Car and Driver, February 1981] for my new career, dressed in my ubiquitous bib overalls. Who knows why the slender, elegant guy in the shiny silver suit and thinning white hair was up there at 7 p.m. on a weeknight. After a few sidelong glances, he came over and asked who I was. “I work for Car and Driver,” I said, a phrase so new to my lips at that point that it sounded like a lie even to me. “I’m Chuck Jordan from GM, and you are going to love this business,” he said, with great animation. “The people are as wonderful as the cars! Why, just last week, the sun was shining and I was walking down the street in Turin, Italy, with Giugiaro! Isn’t that fantastic?” he asked. “Who’s Giugiaro?” I thought.

“If there’s anything I can do for you, just call me,” he said, and he gave me his business card as he left. I had just met the infamous Chrome Cobra, Charles M. Jordan, then director of design at General Motors. I waited a month to call. “Do you have a designer living in Ann Arbor who might want to judge a Cub Scouts Pinewood Derby competition with me?” I asked. “No problem,” he said. When I arrived, there in the parking lot was the most exotic car I’d ever seen in my life, Chuck’s own 1979 Ferrari 512BB. I was flabbergasted, but Chuck always liked kids (he taught car design to high- school students in Southern California after he retired in 1992), and the trip to Ann Arbor gave him a chance to wring out that big boxer twelve. He was quite fond of wringing out his cars, even into his eighties.

The 512 was his third of seven Ferraris, a love affair that began when Sergio Pininfarina found him a Lusso while he was in Germany running Opel Design. Jordan brought the Lusso home to Michigan in 1970 when he became the executive in charge of Olds, Buick, and Cadillac exterior design. A Daytona came next, followed by the 512, a Testarossa, an F40, and a 360 Modena Spyder. “He didn’t keep that long,” his son Mark, a prominent car designer and Art Center graduate, tells me. “He didn’t like it. He replaced it with a 456, which suited him.”

Jordan was also famed for his massive Ferrari model collection. “He had around 2500 at one point,” says his son. “The models were his therapy. He’d resurface the ones he thought weren’t right. Smoke a cigar, get out photos, study them. Bondo, file, redo the window moldings, cast new headlights and taillights, and make bumpers from scratch. He’d have them painted at GM. They had beautiful paint jobs! Maybe you shouldn’t write that.”

Writing about car design became my specialty, and I practiced mostly at GM, which was where the action was in the early ’80s. I hung out there so much, Jordan once introduced me on an elevator to racing boss Vince Piggins as his daughter, never correcting the joke. As these relationships tend to do, ours frayed a bit when I got too good at ferreting out secrets and criticizing design decisions in print. There was one furious moment after one of my articles was published when the Chrome Cobra shouted at me across his desk, threatening to ban me from General Motors.

“Oh, would you settle down,” I said calmly. “Let’s go have lunch.” And we did.

Jordan became the fourth GM vice president of design in 1986, but his talent, influence, and fame completely outstripped that of his predecessor, Irv Rybicki. He had six short years at the top before mandatory retirement at age sixty-five.

“Above all, he was a wonderfully great and loving dad,” says Mark. “As compelling as his career at GM was, his kids were first in his heart.”

Below, Left: New friends Jennings and Chuck Jordan judge a local Pinewood Derby contest. Below, Middle: Sergio Pininfarina visits proud F40 owner Jordan at General Motors. Below, Right: Father and son Charles “Mark” Jordan celebrate Chuck’s eighty-third birthday, one week before the onset of the rare lymphoma that would take his life five weeks later.

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