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Wednesday, July 21, 2021

A Brief Review of Henry Dominguez, "The Cellini of Chrome: The Story of George W. Walker/ Ford Motor Company's First Vice President of Design"

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The Cellini of Chrome: The Story of George W. Walker/ Ford Motor Company's First Vice President of Design (Boston: Racemaker Press, 2020) was an absolute pleasure to read. The illustrations, photographic images, and accompanying captions comprise a thoughtful story unto itself. Family photographs, in addition to material from brochures, and public relations materials result in a rich visual experience.

This book tells several stories starting with the life, career, personality, and eccentricities of one of the most important automotive (and other durable product ) designers of the 20th century. During the Golden Age of the automobile in America we normally first think of Harley Earl (1893 - 1969) as the person who transformed automobiles to be longer, lower and wider -- until we get to the late 1950s when the "dinosaur in the driveway" became commonplace in suburban driveways.

But there were many other designers who played a role in this aesthetic transformation of trasnportation. Raymond Loewy (1893-1986), for example, with his 1947 and 1953 Studebakers; Virgil Exner (1909-1973) and his "Forward Look" Chrysler Corporation Models; and George W. Walker (1896-1993) at Ford, with his 1949 and 1957 Fords. Walker was a designer and illustrator, but in the case of automotive design he was more of a manager and salesman, first working as a consultant and then as the first Vice President of design at Ford. He may not have worked closely on the models, but the cars were his.

Dominguez's book is a biography of Walker but much more. It covers an important history of one aspect of automotive design and an insider's tale of working at Ford. Virtually every important model of Ford, Mercury, Lincoln and pick up trucks are examined with a careful eye to detail.  I found myself learning so much about aspects of design as I turned the pages.

The man Walker was always tanned and looked like a designer. He had a great smile and a way with the ladies, so much o that he was described as a "cocksman" who -- it was claimed -- had sex with his secretary in his office on every birthday. Yet. it was also claimed that he was a family man who placed his wife Freda first. He was a complex individual working in a complex business setting. Walker trusted his lieutenants and rewarded those who worked for him who were successful. But he could be harsh, petty, and vengeful as well.

While this book gets a bit laborious in details at times - The transcript to Walker's episode on the TV show "To Tell the Truth" could have been omitted -- the details can also bring out a human side that is rarely found in any book in automotive history. For example, the last months and days of Walker's life are quite touching, and bring out the best of Dominguez as an author.

I have two issues that need to be addressed, however, because I read this book.  First, there are no references or tags that can help us reconstruct what the author was saying in his writing. What were his sources? How did he put this story together?  There are many, many quotes of various designers and others, but how can we get a sense of how authoritative they are? Yes, this is a "coffee table" book, and not a work oof academic scholarship. But it will also be a starting point for future scholars, and it is a history that should be respected as such. Secondly, the cost of this book and its target consumer market will probably result in this book not making it to online few at best  university or public libraries.  That is a shame, because this knowledge is very important, and interested readers need to take the content of this work in. 

If you are lucky enough to get this book, you most likely will heartily enjoy it. It is a must read for those interested in the American automobile industry during the 1950s and early 1960s.

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