One theory I constantly want to debuke about the Automobile, either created once upon a time, or as an item we covet now, is that cars are the provenance of straight, by and large white, men. Since at least the mid-Century, if not earlier, manufacturers employed women, minorities and queers to help design the dreams that we all stare back at with rose tinted glasses.
The reality of the times meant that many of those that were outsiders to the mainstream fantasy marketed as “normalcy” didn’t have a chance to be celebrated in their time, However. My objective is to carve out more unique stories of who designed, built, bought and loved the machines that moved us alongside these amazing rides of the past as we climb into the future.
Two stories I know in the muds of my mind brought up this line of thought. First up, there was the discussion of how egalitarian General Motors head of design Harley Earl was in terms of hiring and promotion of talent from the rank and file.
Earl notably promoted Jewish designers, other ethnic minorities, openly homosexual men and women based on the wonky meritoricy of these marginalized groups working perhaps twice and thrice as hard in our boostraps mythology to succeed. Similar to the outgoing Obama administration, Earl did what could be considered progressive given the constraints of the time.
Earl’s successor, Bill Mitchell, has a far less sterling reputation, yet still is highly revered for creations commissioned under his watch, even if he quite often didn’t put in the actual work to create those cars designed under his reign. Ned Nickles took his instructions of a Ferrari meets Rolls Royce and created the Buick Riviera. Japanese-American Larry Shinoda refined the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray under Mitchell’s watch.
This isn’t too dissimilar to the take every prisoner and exploit their efforts ways reflective of the sadly incoming Trump administration. Although Donald Trump has not worked exhaustively for any slice of his comfort in his life, he’s ascendend to the top of the throne.
One was said that what’s good for General Motors is good for the country. Once upon a time General Motors also discriminated against African American customers, refusing to sell their luxury Cadillacs to Black buyers. General Motors was once upon a time, almost willing to sacrifice the profitability and viability of their prestige brand to ignore a very powerful and financially viable customer base due to bigotry and exclusion.
This level of discrimination continued into the workforce as well when African American female sex workers were employed by General Motors during war-time efforts. Despite displaying desire for industrial work, meeting deadlines and bringing meticulous care and craftmanship to their work, these women were thrown under the bus by unions when white males returned from the War looking for factory work en masse.
Although we’re currently being told to unite and give away our specific identities and the politics in the wake of our recent election, the past tells us that those already at the front of the line benefit from such calls for unity. Ignoring the needs, desires, dreams and creations of those outside the mainstream proves far more detrimental to the fulfillment of community, no matter how we define the term community.
The slide of General Motors’s being a barometer for the country happened under the hedonistic and lack of community signified by Bill Mitchell’s reign. Without inspired individuals fighting proud for their concept of the most beautiful or best engineered Buick or Olds or Chevy, the pull of profits for a select few became the most important cause. The rot as the opinions of the lower floors in the works mattered less, the more and more General Motors isolated itself from the changing world that grew tired of self-imploding Vegas and crumbling at the fingertips Citations.
As we look around, in these waning days of 2016, we see hedonism, discrimination, lack of facts, compassion and creativity rewarded, as it doesn’t have to do more than take a quick look over to the latest Simon and Schuster deal to see. As we close out this rather bitter year, let us remember through driving through the complexity of how our favorite machines have been created, we can learn many pertinent lessons about the folly of the folks who created them, leading to compromised results.
May we continue to learn these lessons to move beyond repeating them.
14 thoughts on “Dynamic Divergence: A Gay Dude (Or a Lesbian) Probably Designed That Car You Love. And Maybe Black People Saved Cadillac…”
Well said Lawrence .
Thank you .
Happy New Year, if that is appropriate considering things. Keep the good stuff coming.
I really liked this timely and thought provoking piece, Laurence.
I could spend some time debunking various myths, suffice it to say that some of the most ‘ manly Men ‘ I know, are Gay .
“African American female sex workers”
I don’t think you meant to say this…
I did intend to say that. The source I’m alluding to used Black “prostitutes” and “madames.” To be more affirming of peers that do sex work in the present, and to legitimize those that have done it in the past without the shameful connotations of the past, I chose to identify those African American workers hired by General Motors in Detroit by a more modern, less negatively worded way.
If you have issues with that, there’s nothing I can help you with.
In the meantime:
Okay, I understand now – I thought that “African American female sex workers were employed by General Motors during war-time efforts” meant GM was providing their own version of “comfort ladies” on the assembly lines. Perhaps it could be “former sex workers”?
It’s a fascinating article, but I find myself wanting to read up on some of these points in more detail – any chance of references to other material?
The stories I’m referencing apparently appear in The Chrome Colossus by Ed Cray. Here’s the quote I found online:
Dreystadt had accepted a contract to produce delicate aircraft gyroscopes. despite mutterings on the fourteenth floor that the job was a killer and needed skilled hands unavailable. The dissent turned to outrage when Dreystadt and his personnel manager, Jim Roche, hired 2,000 overage black prostitutes from Paradise Valley–uneducated, untrained, but willing workers. Dreystadt hired the madams too, blithely explaining, “They know how to manage the women.”
Dreystadt himself machined a dozen gyroscopes, then produced a training film detailing the step-by-step assembly process. Within weeks the women were surpassing quotas, and the outrage turned to chagrin on West Grand Boulevard. Jokes about Cadillac’s “red-light district” angered Dreystadt. “These women are my fellow workers, and yours,” he insisted. “They do a good job and respect their work. Whatever their past, they are entitled to the same respect as any one of our associates.”
Dreystadt knew he would have to replace these women at war’s end–returning veterans had job preference, and the United Auto Workers, heavily white male with a southern-states orientation, wanted the women out of the plant. “Nigger-lover” and “whore-monger” Dreystadt fought to keep some, pleading, “For the first time in their lives, these poor wretches are paid decently, work in decent conditions, and have some rights. And for the first time they have some dignity and self-respect. It’s our duty to save them from being again rejected and despised.” The union stood adamant.
When the women were laid off, a number committed suicide rather than return to the streets. Nick Dreystadt grieved, “God forgive me. I have failed these poor souls.” (Cray 318-319)
Thank you for this bit of history Laurence .
A sad thing all the way ’round .
hi. i’m glad i found your blog – very cool! it seems like we wander the same streets and appreciate many of the same cars. maybe we can chat sometime? some of my car pics are up on my instagram (@queervantes). thanks. (i live in west oakland)
Yeah, seems we’ve seen that same ’69 Mercury Monterey among others, and I guess I’m surprised we haven’t run across each other yet! My auto focused instagram is @Dynamic_Drives. I’ll message you on a social media platform to say hello!
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i’m terrible about putting up work/photos but i’ll try to get my car pics up somewhere.