Maybe Corporations Should Inspire Creativity Rather Than Sustainability

Back in the 1930’s and through the 1960’s GM. Fisher Body ran a program and a competition to get young, mostly boys but I don’t think girls were excluded, inspired into making and creativity.  This was the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild.

The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild Model Car Competition, truly a lifelong enriching experience filled with automotive-vehicle design creativity, excitement and rewards!

I first learned about the Guild through an “ad” I saw in “Boys Life Magazine” which I got through a subscription offered at school. I was 10 years old. A friend, Robert Marshal and I drew cars together, each continually trying to best each others designs. We did this all through Grade School and on into High School. During my Sophomore year at Lane Technical H.S., I enrolled in a class called Model Shop and the Instructor, Mr. Max Miller, let each student make a model of his own choice. Some students built ship models, others built model airplanes and several of us built model cars. I was the first student in his class to actually enter the Guild Competition and win an Award. In this case, my first try as a Guildsman earned a 2nd State Award, $100 dollars and the motivation to try again the following year. I had tasted success, became a Guildsman and I intended to keep building model cars until I had one that achieved National Award Winner status. My dream of course, was to become an Automobile Designer/Stylist, and work for General Motors Design Staff, required a good college education. The way to underwrite the expense to achieve this, was to build a winning model car for the Guild Competition.

My dream, to build a winning model car for the Guild Competition took me 5 more trys, with each of the next 4 models winning 1st State and 1st Regional Awards for my home state of Illinois, however, winning a National Award or Styling Award eluded me. I had one more year left, 1966, before I was too old to compete in the Guild. By this time, I was a Sophomore in College, carrying maximum credit hours and yet found/made time to design and build a new radically advanced design model car.

One clear advantage to being a Regional Award Winner was that you attended the Guild’s National Convention in Detroit for 4 days. During this time, you toured GM Styling and talked with designers on the job, but most importantly, you got to see all the other Jr./Sr. Regional Awarded model cars. Selected from these, the National and Styling Scholarship Awarded model cars were announced at a gala Awards Banquet. This was really something special and an exciting event. By being there, each of us got to see the “winning cars” and this gave us a clear indication of what it took to design and build a winning model car. For those of us who didn’t win that year, we had another possible chance to try the next year.

In my case, applying all that I had learned from my 4 previous “Regional Award” trips to Detroit, I began my best and final attempt, designing and building my 1966 “Open Category” Guild entry. This was a 3-wheeled, tandem seat, twin turbine powered “high speed” Medical Emergency Dispatch Vehicle that looked like it was moving while standing still. Headlights were integrated into the twin-turbine air inlet cones, which moved in/out of the air inlet annulus to control air-flow into the turbine engines and the taillights were integrated into the trailing edge of the “aero struts” that attached the turbine engine pods to the central car body. The nose of the car was low to the ground and the tail was high, giving the car an aggressive stance which visually suggested its name, SCORPION.

As I mentioned, this was my last chance at becoming a Guild National Award Winner and much to my surprise, delight and good fortune, my perseverance and hard work finally paid-off. My 3-wheeler was awarded 2nd National Award, Senior Division! My dream had come true and with the scholarship funds received from this, I was able to complete my Junior and Senior years of college and was offered a designer job at GM Styling after graduation from art-design school in 1968.

In all, I built 6 model cars which were entered into the Guild Competition from 1961-1966. With each new year came a new and different designed model car and with each new model car came new skill sets learned from the experience of the previous years model entry/competition and from seeing first hand the winning cars from the previous year. This was an ongoing, invaluable and tremendous learning experience and process. The outcome of this was practical experience gained in design, planning/time management, materials selection and part fabrication/assembly, craftsmanship, attention to details and project completion. All of these skillsets have become an integral part of the way I think and work as a professional “creative designer” today.

I grew up with exceptional, dedicated parents and grandparents who were always there to lend support and encouragement for me. Always! My Father is a “mechanical engineer” and an avid model airplane builder/flyer and my Grandfather was a tool and die-maker and inventor. We were all very close, and from an early age, I learned from both Dad and my Grandfather how to build and fly model airplanes, how to use power tools in our basement machine/wood shop. Building things became a passion we all shared and enjoyed together. Both men whole heartedly encouraged my involvement in the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild Model Car Competition and were there to council me as I was confronted with design and building challenges that each years new Guild model car’s design presented.

Upon completion of each of my models, all 3 of us drove to Detroit and delivered my model personally to C.W. McClellan’s Guild office at Fisher Body Division Headquarters in Warren, Michigan to insure its safe delivery. These trips were highlighted with either Mac McClellan or Rolf Amundson giving us a tour of some interesting area of the Fisher Body Engineering facility which we really enjoyed and talked about on our drive back to Chicago. (Not forgetting my Mother and Grandmother, they too gave their love, support and understanding.) Their gifts of knowledge and skills taught to me is something I treasure and use every day. My Dad, Grandfather and the Guild Experience helped fashion who I’ve become and what I’ve done with my personal life and professional career in Design.

Regrettably, the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild Model Car Competition is no more! I would have liked to have had the chance to introduce my children to the Guild Experience and give them the same support that I had as a young Guildsman, so they too could have had the opportunity to participate and come to realize their “dreams” much as I had through this positive life enriching experience.

One thing remains certain and it’s that the Guild was something very special, and it influenced and changed the course of many of our lives in a positive way!

Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild ad


1966 Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild ad


1966 Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild Competition ad’s_Guild_Model_Car_Competition

Counterpoint: Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild Was Ended Due to Lack of Interest, Not Racism & Sexism

The fact is that car design still hasn’t changed since the 1960’s. It’s still done with clay and making shapes.

Some time in the 1960’s the country started to change. Some people blame TV for some of it, but I think it was a top down effect from high level educators who took many of the ideas and theories going around the halls of government and academic circles and ran with them.  The central them of all those theories was that making wasn’t cool anymore.

Indeed, hostility toward mass-production manufacturing goes back to its earliest days. Remember Blake’s “dark satanic mills?” And then there was the Arts and Crafts Movement inspired by William Morris and John Ruskin (circa 1850), which was partly a reaction to the perception that mass-production methods created a dreary uniformity among everyday objects.

There was certainly some validity in many of the critiques. But there were also threads of criticism which were driven by an aristocratic contempt for people doing useful tangible work…an attitude that goes back at least to the ancient Greeks. Whereas Morris/Ruskin respected the craftsman, there were others who regarded anyone working with his hands as a “menial”…and often extended this attitude to the owner or manager of a large factory. To many aristocrats, banking and trade were considered inferior to land-owning…and manufacturing was considered inferior to banking and trade.

My perception is that by 1900 or so…at least in the United States…mass-production methods were increasingly accepted by the Criticizing Classes, and the focus of criticism moved more exclusively to wages, working conditions, and ownership. Many socialists were quite happy to see the continuation and expansion of mass-production manufacturing as long as it was run by the workers or by “society”–indeed, Lenin was a strong supporter of Taylorism. And the famous Fabian socialsts Sidney and Beatrice Webb were very strong supporters of what they called the Machine Age.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, this attitude among intellectuals and social critics–general support for technology in general and mass-production manufacturing in particular, combined with a desire to change the ownership and control of those activities–largely continued. But in the 1960s, something changed. Technology was now often regarded as threatening or outright evil, and mass-production manufacturing was viewed as “dehumanizing.” The term “anomie,” popularized by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, was frequently used to describe the spiritual environment created by industrialization.

A revealing and bizarre example of this hostility to industry is provided by the fate of the GM-Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild. This was a nationwide contest which encouraged boys to make a model Napoleonic-era coach(during the first phase of the program, 1931-1947) or a model car (1947-1968). Substantial prizes, including college scholarships as well as cash amounts up to $5000 (in 1933!) were awarded to those judged to have done the best work. Ruth Oldenziel describes the kind of craftsmanship that was involved:

Contest rules demanded that all parts be handmade, which necessitated the ability to build a miniature Napoleonic coach..from scratch, to read complicated patterns, to draft accurately, carve wood painstakingly, work metal, paint, and make upholstery with utmost care…(a typical model) demanded an extraordinary amount of dedication and time–about three hours a day over ten months…

By 1960, eight million American boys and young men had participated in this contest. GM undertook this effort for PR reasons, of course, but also as a sourcing vehicle for the skilled workers that they needed. Schools were heavily involved in promoting the activity.

But in the mid-1960s, many schools became hostile to the program. One winner recalls that “when GM came to my high school principal and requested permission to make a presentation to an assembly of 2000 in my honor, the corporation was turned down.” Oldenziel:

By the sixties male teenagers no longer projected their future years into corporations, as canvassing corporate representatives were shocked to find out. Someone close to the organization remembers that “in the late sixties, [GM’s] presentations at inner-city high schools were not that well received.” He thought that “often the disillusioned, turned-off young of that era felt little motivation to exercise the kind of self-discipline required for the creativity and craftsmanship it took to win even a college scholarship” and concluded, “I hate to say it, but I think a few of our Field Representatives felt fortunate to escape from some of those school assemblies in one piece–it got that bad.”

The program was terminated in 1968.

Faux Manufacturing Nostalgia

Since the 1960’s the  trends in corporate outreach an PR have followed the trends of the narrative that media, academia and government have been pushing in constant PSA ads and endless TV shows and movies all promoting ecological disaster and “sustainIbilty.”  It seems like you can’t go to any corporate website and be bombarded by how sensitive the company is to sustainability.  To the point that the company’s actual products take a back door.  The whole site is typically nothing but virtue signaling on the front page.  Meanwhile the chattering classes are talking about an innovation slowdown.

The problem with sustainability is that it requires nothing to be “sustainable.” It’s all about feel good stuff and maybe doing a little trash clean up.  Then you call it making a commitment to the community.  Cleaning up a trash pile doesn’t require that anybody develop skills or actually improve themselves very much.  You just put on some old clothes and gloves and away you go.  Been there, did that. Other than the occasional trash cleanup, sustainability seems to mean whatever the person pushing it thinks it means, which end up being more or less just nonsense.

The Craftsmen guild was the perfect example of how PR could be used to grow skills that the country and the world needs. That coach was just in the range of a what a young person could do if they used a lot of dedication and exploration of new skills.  Doing that even for the losers forced them to develop the very kinds of skills that truly help somebody when they are creating and innovating.   Building a model on that kind of scale requires discipline, attention to detail, a willingness to try and fail, creativity and sheer determination .  These are the absolute skills that anybody embarking into innovation needs.

These are also the kinds of skills that add to a company’s bottom line. Which is why GM fostered them in the first.  For too long the ability to make and do have been suppressed by almost every media and educational institution in favor of things that don’t really mean very much.  The country has suffered for that. Fortunately the tide seems to be turning and maybe we are returning to the maker culture that we once were.

Fortunately things are turning around.

Lots of people making stuff.







  1. penneyvanderbilt · November 16, 2016

    Reblogged this on KCJones.


  2. BLS-MSS · November 16, 2016

    The DARPA Grand Challenge circa 2004-6 had a similar effect on generating interest and careers in autonomous vehicles. I suspect many of the people behind the current crop of “self-driving” vehicles in development had their start in high school or college with the Grand Challenge.


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