MotorCities National Heritage Area
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Story of the Week

By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images Courtesy of Dean’s Garage/Eva Corvair Lady McGuire
Published 11.25.2020

Elia Russinoff seated at his drawing desk at home Eva Corvair Lady McGuire RESIZED 1Elia Russinoff seated at his drawing desk at home (Eva Corvair Lady McGuire) 

The automotive world recently lost a great and talented designer named Elia Russinoff. I had the opportunity to meet him when I worked at the General Motors Technical Center Archives many years ago. I can honestly say he was a perfect gentleman and really knew his automotive history, especially when it came to General Motors design culture.

Russinoff standing next to a Corvair Eva Corvair Lady McGuire RESIZED 2Russinoff standing next to a Chevrolet Corvair (Eva Corvair Lady McGuire)

Russinoff created many great designs during his exciting career with the GM design staff from 1954 to 1995. He was born August 27, 1930 in Detroit. As a teenager, Russinoff became very passionate about becoming an automotive designer. He took a course that was advertised in Popular Mechanics magazine called “You too could be a stylist,” and his dreams came true when he won the first National Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild award in 1949.

Learn Automotive Styling ad 4The Learn Automotive Styling ad that inspired Russinoff. 

Later, Russinoff graduated from Pratt Institute in 1954 with a degree in Industrial Design. Before attending Pratt, he went to “Meinzinger Art School” to learn how to illustrate correctly using color contrast.

Elia Russinoffs Fisher Body Craftsmans Guild model from 1949 Eva Corvair Lady McGuire RESIZED 3Elia Russinoff's winning Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild model from 1949 (Eva Corvair Lady McGuire)

It was the great designer Bill Mitchell who hired Russinoff at GM. Mitchell said, after reviewing his portfolio, that Russinoff had gasoline in his veins. After joining GM design, he contributed to many great programs in the Cadillac studio, including the Cadillac Town & Country show car, which was admired by Harley Earl, GM’s vice president of design.

An ad for 1966 Pontiac Grand Prix GM Media Archives 5An ad for 1966 Pontiac Grand Prix (GM Media Archives)

During the 1960s, Russinoff worked on several exciting in the Pontiac studio, where he designed the front end of the great looking 1966 Grand Prix model, which later became a huge seller for the division. He also worked on the popular Firebird models, introducing new styling features. He created many sketches for the 1960s Chevrolet Corvair models at the beginning of his career.

Russinoff once said that he had learned basic design principles from Earl, who he had worked with in the studio during his first year at GM. Earl taught that automotive designs had to be long, low and wide. Later he would apply this method of design to his own styling.

A Russinoff design proposal The Elia Russinoff Collection RESIZED 6A Russinoff design proposal (The Elia Russinoff Collection)

As his design career continued, Russinoff became a part of the Oldsmobile studio. He thoroughly enjoyed designing futuristic aerodynamic speed forms and shapes. Russinoff once said that he helped design and develop a two-seater smaller sports car, however, management later canceled the project. He also came up with a design idea for a proposal called the hinge car, which was a vehicle that could easily fold up. That did not work out either.

A Russinoff space age design concept The Elia Russinoff Collection RESIZED 7A Russinoff space age design concept (The Elia Russinoff Collection)

Nevertheless, Russinoff was an automotive designer with great talent and influence. His passion and love for cars have put him in our automotive design history books, so he will be remembered for generations to come. During his career at GM, Russinoff passed up many promotions just to stay in the design studio to style vehicles.

Since his retirement in 1995, Russinoff had participated in many activities, including the League of Retired Automotive Designers and playing the violin (which he was exceptionally good at). His Fisher Body Craftsman models are currently on display at the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners.

A two seater proposal design The Elia Russinoff Collection RESIZED 8A two seater proposal design (The Elia Russinoff Collection)

Russinoff died two weeks ago on November 11 at the age of 90. When I heard the news that he had passed away, I was listening to a 1965 hit song by the Byrds called “Turn! Turn! Turn!” The lyrics echo a passage from the book of Ecclesiastes: “And a time to every purpose, under heaven.” Rest in peace, Elia Russinoff.

 

Bibliography

A special thank you for images of Elia Russinoff at his home from Eva Corvair Lady McGuire creator Historian Corvair Preservation Foundation.

Smith, Gary. “GM Designer Elia Russinoff.” Dean's Garage.

Strohi, Daniel. “For 40 years, Elia Russinoff passed up promotions just so he could keep designing cars at GM.” Hemmings Feature. November 17, 2020.

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