By David Mann, July 15 2015
Originally published in Business First

If someone asked you to describe the 1968 Pontiac GTO in one word, how would you do it?

Sporty? Slick, maybe?

After the conversation I had on Monday with Bill Porter, the artist who designed this iconic car, I suppose I would use the word “speedy” to describe it. Porter, 84, told me about how speedy things — jets and trains — inspired him as a child.

He grew up in Louisville and remembers watching stories about the air war that was part of World War II. A lot of kids at the time were fascinated by stories of pilots and airplanes, he told me.

“Pilots were neat,” he said. He decorated his childhood bedroom, which was located in the Highlands neighborhood, with black cutouts of airplanes. He also spent his leisure time building model airplanes in his youth — something that again reflected that speedy design he appreciated.

Later, he learned to appreciate streamlined design in buildings. In his younger years, he worked nights at the Greyhound Bus Station that used to stand at the southeast corner of Fifth Street and Broadway in Louisville. That building, like many other Greyhound structures at the time, had a very streamlined look to it with rounded edges, he said. This started feeding into his experience while he attended Manual High School and as an art student at the University of Louisville.

All of his appreciation of that style was reflected in the design work that he did as an adult — not only on the GTO but also on the 1970 through 1973 Pontiac Firebird 400.

Of course, I’m giving you just the highlights. You can hear Porter’s story for yourself at an upcoming program called “A Joy Ride through Decades of American Culture & Automobile Design.” The program takes place at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 22, at The Henry Clay, 604 S. Third Street in Louisville. There’s a reception at 5:30 p.m.

The program is part of a series presented by Kentucky to the World Inc., a nonprofit organization that showcases prominent achievers who claim strong Kentucky ties.

Porter led the design studios of Pontiac and Buick — both General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) brands — during his career. He started there in 1957 while working on an industrial design degree from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He retired in 1996. He spent the majority of his career designing the exterior of vehicles for GM.

He plans to speak about his influences as well as a brief history of automotive style during next week’s event. He’s made these sort of appearances before. The New York Times had an article about Porter in 2012. In that story, he spoke about how today’s designers take a lot of inspiration from nature, rather than from the aerodynamics that sparked his imagination years ago.

“The Mazda Taiki concept of 2008 resembles a cartilaginous fish, a ray, for instance,” he’s quoted as saying in that piece.

Tickets for the Louisville event are $25 and can be purchased on Kentucky to the World’s website. That price includes appetizers from Wiltshire Pantry, and a cash bar is available. No tickets will be sold at the door.

It’s probably safe to say Porter is the only designer of an iconic vehicle from Kentucky, but you never know. We do live in an automotive industry state. Kentucky boasts four assembly plants, including two Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) plants in Louisville, a Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE: TM) plant in Georgetown and GM’s Corvette plant in Bowling Green. According to Gov. Steve Beshear’s office, Kentucky has more than 400 automotive industry businesses.

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