GM designer Dick Ruzzin sketched the future with imagination and drama
After his stint as Cadillac design chief ended in 1991, Dick Ruzzin was asked to become director of design for GM Europe. Preparing for the move from Detroit to Germany, he inventoried his drawings from his long career at GM Design.
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“I had a really bad feeling about leaving my stuff,” Ruzzin recalls about packing up his things. “So my boss, Dave Holls, wrote me a pass, and I took 200 pieces home, about a third of my collection.” Five years later, Ruzzin returned from Europe to become director of design for Chevy. He soon learned the rest of his drawings had been sent to a warehouse in Pontiac, Michigan, that GM had closed while he was in Europe. The other two-thirds of his collection had been thrown away.
To hear this story today is to be dismayed by his loss yet grateful that Ruzzin had a hunch to save a good chunk of his work. We present some of it here, with commentary in Ruzzin’s own words. The drawings are a peek into one man’s work at GM Design in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was the undisputed global design leader.
As you can see, conceptual renderings of future cars are not just product-design drawings; they are themselves pieces of art. Ruzzin’s work is colorful, imaginative, fanciful, and dramatic: “I like Calder and Miró,” Ruzzin says. “I like to do high contrast and bright colors.” His drawings are precise, professional, and full of movement. In them we see ideas and forms that made it to showrooms.
After graduating from Michigan State University in 1959 with a degree in industrial design, Ruzzin joined Fisher Body, the longtime body assembly company for GM, where he worked in the Trim and Hardware Styling Department. From there, he made the big leap to GM as a junior designer in the Oldsmobile Exterior Studio. It was the beginning of a four-decade career in which he worked at all the domestic GM brands except GMC and also at overseas brands including Opel, Vauxhall, Holden, GM do Brasil, and Bitter.
It was the Bill Mitchell era at GM, when the legendary vice president of the Styling Section presided powerfully over a variety of studios and held sway over major product decisions. The Preliminary Design Studio, where Ruzzin worked for years, created concepts for the various GM divisions to consider, and ambitious designers competed with one another in the hope of creating something that would catch the attention of Mitchell—or a division chief—and perhaps see their ideas turned into sheetmetal.
“I liked to have fun with sketches,” Ruzzin says. “I often put glasses on the drivers of the cars in my sketches, because in the 1930s, guys wore divided goggles. The only guy in the building who knew that was Bill Mitchell.”
In 1988, Chuck Jordan, vice president of GM Design, gave Ruzzin the most important assignment of his career: Take over the Cadillac studio and deliver two sensational cars. “If these cars don’t succeed, I was told, the corporation is going to shut Cadillac down,” Ruzzin recalls. The resulting 10th-generation Eldorado and fourth-generation Seville sedan for 1992 were a striking duo that reaped awards and recognition while saving GM’s luxury division and setting it on a path to success that continues today.