Charles M. ‘Chuck’ Jordan dies at 83; former GM vice president of design
Charles M. “Chuck” Jordan, a former General Motors vice president of design whose early successes as a chief designer included the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, a space-age icon with enormous tail fins, has died. He was 83.
Jordan died of lymphoma Dec. 9 at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, said his wife, Sally.
In his 43-year career at General Motors, Jordan was involved in designing vehicles such as the 1958 Chevy Corvette and the 1968 Opel GT. In 1986, he became the fourth man in GM history to be named vice president of design.
When he retired as design chief in 1992, one design staffer reportedly called Jordan “the last of the great design dinosaurs.”
“He was a strong creative force at GM design, and a passionate leader,” Ed Welburn, GM vice president of global design, said in a statement.
“It always felt as if every new project he was leading represented a new mountain to climb and was a fresh opportunity to create new trends and statements in automotive design,” Welburn said. “He had the charisma and passion of few others in the industry.”
A Whittier native, Jordan launched his career in 1949 as a junior engineer in GM’s design division after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In the 1950s, he moved to the advanced design studio, where he designed noteworthy dream cars for GM’s “Motorama” concept showcase, including the 1955 Cameo truck and the 1956 Buick Centurian. He also was instrumental in the design of the XP-700 “Phantom” Corvette concept.
In 1957, the 30-year-old Jordan assumed the prestigious position of chief designer for Cadillac.
Jordan, who appeared in the 1996 PBS documentary “America on Wheels,” noted in an interview with The Times before the documentary aired that contemporary vehicles lack the personality of cars in the 1950s.
“People back then were more conscious of cars,” he said. “With the new generation, their cars are not as passionate a thing as they were back then. Now, people want minivans. They are driving a lot of trucks. In those days, people were expecting some fabulous cars.”
Jordan once likened the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado’s enormous pointed fins to “letting a tiger out of a cage — saying ‘go!’”
“The original Cadillac fin was higher than the roof of the car on the coupe,” he recalled with a laugh in The Times interview. “But even before the ’59 hit the street, we had already completed the ’60 design where we cut the fins off. That tells you we recognized that we probably overcooked it.
“But people loved that car. I think they probably love it more today because it was a reflection of that culture back in those days.”
In 1962, the year Jordan was named executive in charge of automotive design, with responsibility for the exteriors of all GM cars and trucks, Life magazine named him one of the 100 most important young men and women in the nation.
Jordan’s positions during his rise through the design ranks included a 1967-70 stint as design director for GM’s Opel subsidiary in what was then West Germany. In 1977, he was named director of design for the entire GM design staff.
Jordan’s “impact on the world of automotive design,” AutoWeek writer Wes Raynal wrote at the time of Jordan’s retirement in 1992, “is likely to be debated for decades to come.”
“For some, he will be remembered best for cars early in his career, most notably the ’59 Cadillac,” Raynal wrote. “To others, successes like the Pontiac Bonneville and Cadillac Seville. To his critics, the poor-selling Chevrolet Caprice and APV minivans.”
Although sensitive to the criticism, Jordan stressed that there are no hard-and-fast rules in his profession.
“We deal with design, an intangible and emotional subject,” he told AutoWeek. “There are no rules or steps to success. It’s a matter of opinion. This isn’t research or engineering with computer programs and hard data. Words may not communicate it exactly.
“You gotta see it and feel it. We deal with emotion.”
The son of a citrus rancher, Jordan was born in Whittier on Oct. 21, 1927. He developed an early interest in drawing cars, and his grandmother is said to have supplied him with paper and a pencil during church services so he could sketch on his hymnal.
Jordan, who began driving pickup trucks in his father’s orchards at 11 and bagged groceries at Richard Nixon’s family’s store while in high school, was a 19-year-old sophomore at MIT when his mother encouraged him to enter the national Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild automobile model design competition sponsored by the Fisher Body Division of GM.
He spent 700 hours on his winning project, which earned him $4,000 and a trip to Detroit.
“I’d always planned on working at Ford,” Jordan, whose childhood hero had been Henry Ford, said in an interview with Newsmakers, a biographical reference source. “If I hadn’t won that contest, that’s where I’d be.”
After retiring from GM, Jordan volunteered to teach an automotive design class at Valhalla High School in El Cajon and later at La Costa Canyon High School.
“I’ve done what I’m going to do, and it’s a matter of record,” he told Automotive News in 2001. “Now I enjoy and want to work with young people. Promoting their creativity and exposing them to the opportunity design offers is very satisfying.”
In addition to his wife of 58 years, Jordan is survived by his children, Debra Bryan, Melissa Hall, and Mark Jordan; his sister, Ruth Keneley; his brothers, John and Stan; and four grandsons.