You had to look carefully to tell a 1952 Chevrolet truck from a ’51. The major visual clue was the outside door handle. Chevrolet trucks had used the twist type through 1951, but switched to the pushbutton style for 1952. One-ton models adopted the floor-pedal parking brake. Thistle Gray became the new color for inner grille bars.
Despite this seeming sameness, activity was taking place inside Lu Stier’s styling studio located in Fisher’s Plant Eight facility during 1952. Plant Eight was located a few blocks away from the Argonaut Building, where Harley Earl officiated over the GM Styling Section.
One member of Stier’s design group was Chuck Jordan, who would eventually rise to the position of vice president of design. Now retired to California, Jordan joined GM in 1949. All design interns started in the orientation studio, which happened to be on the fourth floor of Plant Eight, next door to Stier’s truck studio. Jordan had always been fascinated with trucks -- he’d learned to drive one at age 12 on his father’s orange ranch -- so when it came time to pick a studio in which to work, he chose Stier’s.
In addition to chief designer Stier, members of the studio at that time included designers Bob and Al Phillips (who were not related), modeler Clark Whitcomb, and woodworker Frank Wagner. There was no assistant chief designer, says Jordan, because it was such a small studio.
When he got there, recalls Jordan, “We were working on a facelift of the original 1947 truck, and we did a lot of sketches knowing that we could only do a grille and ornamentation. I think we also did an instrument panel. So we were all working on that project and, as a first experience, it was wonderful, because Lu Stier didn’t act like a big boss. He was one of us, just a low-key guy, always pleasant, never temperamental, never dictatorial; just did what he had to do to run the studio. And he also worked with us as a fellow designer.
“We’d talk about things as we put them on the wall, and he just moved right ahead. We didn’t have any program or any rules or anything. When we saw something that was good, we tried it. It was a wonderful environment.”
Stier’s immediate boss was Al Boca. Boca came into the studio occasionally, but Jordan doesn’t feel he had much authority or influence. He acted more as a liaison between the studio and Chevrolet engineering. Engineers would visit often since the truck bodies were all engineered by the division. That put Jordan in his element, considering he’d taken his Massachusetts Institute of Technology degree in mechanical engineering, though he knew all along that he wanted to devote himself to styling and body design.
According to Jordan, Earl did not visit the truck studio very often. “No one came to give us instructions. Everyone pretty much left us alone. But there was one time when Harley Earl did come in. It was on a Saturday. We were all working overtime ... so here we were, all in jeans and T-shirts on a Saturday, and here comes Harley Earl walking in bigger than life. I’d seen him before, but I’d never been in a working relationship with him.
“So we’re all standing there with our knees knocking as he came in. ... He walked into the studio and always worked in front of a full-sized board. He worked on line. He couldn’t sketch. He’d look at sketches, but on this particular Saturday, he’d come over with an idea.
“He said, ‘Fellas, I g-g-got an idea,’ the way he stuttered, and he sat down in front of the board with his legs splayed out, and we’re all standing behind him, wondering what was happening. He said, ‘Now here’s what I want to do,’ and he described an early version of an El Camino pickup.”
According to Jordan, Earl spent several hours in the studio. Jordan was asked to modify the roofline, lowering it an eighth of an inch. “I tell you, that was one of the hardest things I ever did, because my hands were shaking. That was my first experience with Harley Earl,” he says.
The passenger-car-based pickup was to have been built on a 1952 Chevrolet sedan base. It seemed like a great idea, and it excited everyone in Stier’s studio. But Earl later lost interest in the project. Jordan doesn’t know why. The early “El Camino” was never modeled in clay or built as a prototype. But the idea was resurrected, of course, for 1959, and the resulting production El Camino was the first of a successful line.
Then, too, in May 1952, Edward N. Cole became Chevy’s chief engineer. Cole immediately focused on the 1955 line of cars and trucks, particularly the development of Chevrolet’s small-block V-8. While he did tweak the 1954 cars and trucks, these changes were overshadowed by work on the V-8 and the totally changed 1955 models.