John Perkins ‘64 always knew he wanted to design cars for a living. He began drawing cars at 5 years old growing up in Lansing, Michigan.
The subject of cars was a family matter. His father and uncle both had careers at Oldsmobile in Lansing.
“I was an Oldsmobile kid,” said Perkins, who retired from GM in 1999 after 37 years in automotive design with General Motors (GM). “Everyone we knew in Lansing worked at Oldsmobile or Fisher Body.”
Perkins’ father rose through the ranks at Oldsmobile to become the Chief Chassis Engineer while his uncle became Chief Body Engineer. His dad would often bring new prototype vehicles home for testing.
John Perkins: Selections from the GM Design Archive and Special Collections will be on display at the Humanities Art Center at Kettering University starting on February 2. To visit the exhibit, contact Regina Schreck at 810.762.7828 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Like a lot of little boys, I just loved cars. Cars were just in my blood,” Perkins said. “Even in my teenage years, I just kept drawing. I would be inside drawing cars while the other kids were playing outside.”
Before he pursued his career for design, Perkins’ father informed him about Kettering University (then General Motors Institute) and suggested that he take a nontraditional path to pursue his art form.
“Dad said something to the effect that ‘before you go out and draw cars for a living, you should get an engineering degree,’” Perkins said.
With his father’s advice in mind and drawing pencils still in hand, Perkins set out for Kettering University in 1959.
Perkins majored in Mechanical Engineering at Kettering and started his co-op at Oldsmobile in Lansing. Perkins completed his freshman and sophomore co-op terms on the engineering side of the operation. He continued drawing cars and trucks to develop a portfolio during the first two years of his collegiate career. During his junior co-op term, he was able to present his work to GM Design Staff.
“They liked my work well enough and told me I could come to work next Monday,” Perkins said.
Design Staff is responsible for all product designs of cars and trucks for GM. After completing his final two co-op terms with the creative department and finishing his five-year degree at Kettering, Perkins immediately joined Design Staff full-time in the Cadillac Studio in Warren, Michigan.
“To walk right out of college to a great job as a young designer and getting paid to draw cars -- that wasn’t too bad,” Perkins said. “I really enjoyed it.”
At the Cadillac studio, Perkins worked on overall designs of vehicles as well as the details such as bumpers, grilles and wheels. Perkins stayed at the studio for four years before transitioning to Pontiac Studios in 1968 to work on sporty vehicles like the Firebird and GTO.
“As a designer, the change from stately Cadillacs to sport cars, cars that were closer to what I liked to drive myself, was marvelous,” Perkins said.
Throughout his career, Perkins was an artist as well as an engineer. The engineering expertise he gained at Kettering helped qualify his designs.
“Having an Engineering degree as my background was beneficial because I could work with engineers to come up with a compromise of what looks good and what is buildable,” Perkins said.
The upward trajectory of Perkins’ design career continued in the decades ahead as he was influential in the design of vehicles that became cultural icons including the Cadillac DeVille, Buick Riviera, Chevelle, Pontiacs and Cutlass Supreme through Oldsmobile Aurora. Perkins retired in 1999 after 37 years in automotive design with GM.
“I look back fondly on having such a wonderful career because I was following my dream,” Perkins said. “I was doing something I loved as a profession.”
A showcase of Perkins’ work will be on display at the Humanities Art Center on the campus of Kettering University beginning on February 2, 2017. The exhibit includes Perkins’ original renderings from his career at GM and many childhood drawings that laid the foundation for his passion for art and cars.
The collection was originally put together by the GM Design Archive and Special Collections.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to showcase my work,” Perkins said. “We had some beautiful examples of renderings I had done. Once they were de-classified and the cars were already on the road, we had creative ways to release the sketches.”
Perkins looks back at his time with GM fondly and with boundless enthusiasm. He speaks of his work with heightened sense of ownership and accomplishment that is only possible when an individual is able to combine a personal passion with a professional pursuit.
“Nothing in my 40-year career was less than top-notch. That’s just how we worked,” Perkins said. “We showed the world how car design could be done and how it should be done.”
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