When Jerry Palmer was asked what he thinks automotive companies need most, he answered with two simple words: compelling design.
Celebrating a career of more than 37 years at General Motors, the industrial design alumnus believes designers hold the keys to helping revive Michigan’s endangered industry.
“Experience has taught me that it’s design that drives an entire company,” explained Palmer. “Without compelling design, you’re not going to be in business. This is always a struggle, and it’s important that designers are successful. They need to be persistent and committed. It’s in everyone’s interest to bring the Big Three back to prosperity. There’s so much responsibility on designers to make this happen. It is an extremely exciting business, but very demanding.”
Palmer retired in 2002 as the executive director of design for General Motors (GM) North American Operations. In this position, he oversaw the interior and exterior design of all of GM’s production vehicles.
“On average, we’d work on 10-15 cars and 10 trucks at any given time,” he said. “I met with each team once or twice a week to review, listen, suggest or do whatever was needed to be done to move the project forward to be the best design solution and release it for the production process.
“I was involved with the inception of the vehicle as well as problem solving, providing direction and ensuring the voice of the customer was incorporated in the vehicles. The job often required 12-14 hour workdays and weekends; nothing that turns out to be a great design ever comes easy. But when we hit on something hot, it was well worth the effort.”
In 1966, Palmer was hired as a young designer in GM’s design development studio. Within seven years, including US Army active duty, he was promoted to the position of chief designer at the Chevrolet III Studio where he helped bring back the pony car of the day, the 1978 Z/28 Camaro, and led his talented team in designing the award-winning ‘82 Camaro and ‘84 Corvette. In 1986, his success landed him the challenging position of director of advanced design, a total of seven studios, and shortly thereafter added the advanced concept center in Thousand Oaks, California, and all of the Chevrolet and Pontiac studios to his responsibility before eventually moving into the executive director of design position.
“At the time, there wasn’t that much focus on advanced design,” Palmer said. “Designers were down on themselves and didn’t feel like they were making big contributions to the organization. I am proud to say that by encouraging teamwork and out-of-the-box thinking, we helped make advanced design the place to be. It was amazing how many breakthrough designs emerged as sculptors, engineers and designers worked in an enthusiastic environment to make it happen.
“Of course, I’m only one among hundreds of people who played a part in GM’s success. But it’s fulfilling to see cars and trucks that we were involved with out on the road—to know all of the stories involved to bring them to the market brings back memories.”
Palmer was involved in every Corvette design from 1974 until his retirement in 2002, including the all-new Corvette C-6.
While he was a student, Palmer witnessed tremendous changes at CCS. The Yamasaki Building had recently been built and Homer LaGassey helped establish the College’s reputation as a design powerhouse among those in transportation design. Palmer was the first graduate of the program to be hired by GM as an exterior designer.
“Because of CCS, I knew what to expect in the real world. The quality of preparation was excellent back then, and the caliber of designers the school turns out now is remarkable."
"The experiences, expectations and professionalism of the faculty has led to the college’s ability to produce some of the foremost designers in the world.”
Although Palmer has retired, he and his wife of 40 years, Rita, continue to immerse themselves in high-paced activities at his home near Lake Leelanau. They enjoy cruising in his ’32 Ford Highboy roadster, a lot of boating (sail, power, ice), collecting antique tractors, motorcycling, downhill skiing, snowmobiling, golf and model railroading. He still loves hot designs; designs that turn him on.
“I had a great career,” said Palmer. “I’ve worked with some extremely talented people from all disciplines and was fortunate to have had some great mentors both at CCS and at General Motors.”