MotorCities National Heritage Area
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By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of Bill Porter; General Motors Archives; and David A. Mann
Published 1.1.2020    

Pontiac Bonneville rear design sketch 1963 courtesy of Bill Porter 1Pontiac Bonneville rear design sketch, 1963 (Courtesy of Bill Porter)

Throughout the history of automotive design, there have been many designers that made a positive mark from which we can learn a great deal.

I was introduced to Bill Porter when I was a student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, studying Industrial Design. I had taken a course in Industrial Design history taught by Porter, who was still designing automobiles for General Motors at the time. It was the best of times for me as a student because I learned so much from his class about automotive history and industrial design. Porter was one of the best instructors at the school because of his great talent and leadership in automotive design and for being a perfect gentleman and presenting his love for automobiles as well.

Front end design for the Pontiac GTO courtesy of Bill Porter 2Front end design for the Pontiac GTO (Courtesy of Bill Porter)

Porter’s career started when he received his Bachelors of Fine Arts from the University of Louisville in 1953. He once said, “I found no greater depth or sophistication than I had experienced in Louisville.” In 1960, Porter received his Masters in Industrial Design from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.

Front end Pontiac design courtesy of Bill Porter 3Front end Pontiac design (Courtesy of Bill Porter)

The General Motors design team hired Porter in 1958. In his early days with GM, he became a talented automotive designer, which would lead to the development of some of the most popular styling models that GM manufactured during the 1960s and 1970s. The 1960s introduced the popular muscle car era, which offered power as well as great automotive styling.

Bill Porter standing next to a 1970s GTO model GM Archives 4Bill Porter standing next to a 1970s GTO model (GM Archives)

Porter’s first assignment at GM was as a junior designer in the design studio, which was essentially a designer in training. Later, he developed a great idea for the 1962 Pontiac production models that became very popular and a four-element front grille design for the Pontiac Tempest compact, which many consumers thoroughly enjoyed.

A colorful front end design by Bill Porter GM Archives 5A colorful front end design by Bill Porter (GM Archives)

Porter was a part of the team that introduced the popular GTO design. The GTO became an icon of automotive styling among young people in that era. Even today, the 1968 Pontiac GTO models have a strong following. Porter became executive chief designer for Pontiac in 1968. Another popular design that came out of Porter’s leadership was the 1970 Pontiac Firebird, which was one of my favorite GM designs from the early 1970s.

Bill Porter and his GM Design staff with a Buick model GM Archives RESIZED 6Bill Porter and his GM Design staff with a Buick model (GM Archives)

Throughout Porter’s GM career, he developed a great interest in sketching radically advanced design concepts. He once said, “I was mastering the idioms. I could draw a new car that looked like it was out of the same stuff as a Corvette or Stingray, and the boss would come in and like it and so, I got transferred to Pontiac.”

After GM Chief of Design Bill Mitchell had retired, Irv Rybicki took over. It was Rybicki who had placed Porter in the Buick production studio, where he created many great ideas for Buick’s future designs. Porter was assigned to the Buick studio for the next 15 years. Porter’s most significant design in his career was the last generation of the Riviera coupe, which came out in the spring of 1994 as a 1995 model. The design proposal for the next generation Buick was a great looking design that many automotive consumers and enthusiasts admired. In 1996, Bill Porter retired.

Bill Porter in 2015 standing next to his design art Louisville Business First RESIZED 7Bill Porter in 2015 standing next to his design art (Louisville Business First)

In conclusion, Bill Porter left his mark on the automotive world with great designs for all to admire. He leaves a great legacy that will always be a part of our automotive history. For me personally, he will always be a great friend!

Bibliography

Mann, David A. “Louisville Native talks about designing the Pontiac GTO.” Louisville Business First. July 15, 2015.

Dean’s Garage. “The future is back” interview with Bill Porter Pontiac designs in the 60’s.

Boyce, Terry V. “William Porter Moving the Mainstream (Part 1).” Collectible Automobile. August, 2017. Vol 34, #2, page 72-81.