Insider Louisville: A look back with legendary automotive designer and Louisville native Bill Porter

By Cameron Aubernon, July 21, 2015
Originally posted on Insider Louisville website

Louisville native Bill Porter — a designer behind the 1968 Pontiac GTO and other iconic American cars — will visit his hometown this week to give a presentation on the intersection of design and culture. The event on Wednesday is open to the public and is sponsored by Kentucky to the World Inc.

Prior to his visit, Porter spoke with Insider Louisville from his home in Detroit about growing up in Louisville, his decades-long career at General Motors, and helping young designers see the link between design and culture.

Our conversation began with Porter describing how Louisville played a role in developing the design skills he would take with him to Detroit years later: It all started when, as a child, Porter won an art contest, and the prize was free weekend classes at the Louisville Visual Arts Center.

Porter praised both his older classmates and the professors who taught at the center for mentoring him and helping him improve his burgeoning art skills.

After graduating from duPont Manual, Porter enrolled at the University of Louisville, during which time he made a living by “slinging baggage and selling tickets, sometimes answering the phones on the weekends” at the original Greyhound station on Fifth and Broadway, where his father worked as the station’s manager.

Despite having a tough time adjusting to college, Porter remained enrolled at U of L, ultimately graduating second in his class with a fine arts degree and a minor in personnel psychology.

Following a stint as a part-time neon sign designer, Porter was drafted near the end of the Korean War; his job was to interview new naval recruits for tugboat crews. It was during his two-year service when Porter took second place — which included a King Midget microcar — in an automobile design contest held by a national automotive publication, a sign of his future to come.

Upon completing his military duty in 1955, Porter returned to Louisville for a brief time before boarding a Greyhound bus to Detroit to start his automotive design career with help from connections his father had made with a few higher-ups at General Motors.

Porter managed to further his education — at the suggestion of one of the automaker’s chief designers — while juggling his new career, obtaining a master’s degree from Pratt Institute in New York.

During his graduate studies, Porter delved into the influence of early jets on the automobile.

“I wrote a thesis called ‘The Aircraft Image in American Automobiles.’ In the 1950s, the American automobile had lots of bombs and fins all over them; wings and all sorts of scoops and things, mostly sort of caricatured derivations from aircraft forms, in many cases jet fighters and WWII fighters,” he explains. “I wrote a thesis on that development, and how those forms found their way into the automobile industry.”

It was the first of many times Porter would analyze the influence culture has on design, and vice versa.

After grad school, Porter landed as a junior designer for the Pontiac division, quickly working his way up to senior designer before GM assigned him to recruit new designers at colleges around the United States; he returned to the design studio in the mid-1960s.

With market segmentation in full swing over the same period, Porter created a design proposal in 1964 that eventually led to the semi-fastback Pontiac GTO, Tempest and LeMans for the 1968 model year. The success of the design led to Porter’s promotion as chief designer at the division’s design studio through late 1972, when he was moved to advanced design work.

While working on new vehicles, he began teaching industrial design part-time at Wayne State University in Detroit. Eventually, he developed a new course to help aspiring designers.

“In the late ’70s, a friend of mine… and I got to talking about the fact that young designers didn’t seem to have any sense of their own history, of what the history of design was all about. We were all standing on the shoulders of giants, and a lot of these young people had no idea whose shoulders they were standing on,” he says.

With advisement from fellow educators throughout the country, Porter created a design history course that was “very broad in character” and focused on nearly every facet of design work.

In 1979, Porter moved into the Buick division’s studio. There, Porter finished out his career with GM, penning the 1985 Electra T-Type, 1995 Riviera, and 2000 LeSabre, the last car he designed before his retirement in 1996.

Porter’s presentation, “A Joy Ride Through Decades of American Culture & Automobile Design,” will be held at The Henry Clay on 604 S. Third St. on Wednesday, July 22. Presented by Kentucky to the World Inc., the event will have a reception — with appetizers from Wiltshire Pantry and an available cash bar — starting at 5:30 p.m., followed by the presentation at 6:30 p.m. A limited number of tickets are still available, $25 per ticket; no tickets will be sold at the door.

In addition to his upcoming presentation at The Henry Clay, Porter will talk about his time as a designer for Pontiac at the Crowne Plaza on July 23 during the 2015 Pontiac Oakland Club International Convention, which is in town this week. The POCI Convention is in its 43rd year, with the 2015 edition marking the first time Louisville has hosted the affair.

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