Cars From the Start: Industrial Arts Education in America

Ronald Will

If you’ve sent a child off to elementary school at any time in the last 20 years, you know that educators diligently prepare every student for college from the minute they walk through the door in first grade. But there was a time in America when we invested just as much — both privately and publicly — in Industrial Arts education.

One program to encourage young people into the automotive field was the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild. The Guild was an indicator of how important building things was to American progress, and an inspiration for kids in America that no longer exists in any form.

Craftsmans Guild Brochure

The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild was an automotive design competition at the regional and the national level. For 32 years, General Motors used the competition as a sort of farm team for automotive design talent. The promise of college scholarships kept interest on the boil through the 1960s. During the 1950s, the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild was second only to the Boy Scouts in enrollment.

“Today, I think the Guild process would fit into the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) educational philosophy,” says John Jacobus, more or less the unofficial historian of the Fisher Body Guild. He’s written two books on the subject and he competed in the Fisher Body Guild competition himself when he was younger.

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In the halcyon days of General motors, The Fisher Body Company — a true coachbuilder in the 1920s, which became a division of General Motors in 1926 — would attach brass plates carrying the words “Body by Fisher” along with an image of a Napoleonic Coach to all the cars for which it supplied bodies. That emblem would eventually move to the sill plates of almost every GM car built in the 1950s into the 1970s.

1932 Fisher Coach

The Napoleonic Coach symbol became the model which Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild members would build as part of the program in between 1931 and 1937, and again between 1945 and 1947.

Fisher Kit

This was no snap-together, plastic model kit. It came in a kit that contained a few blocks of wood, aluminum stock, some metal castings and glue. It was a model car essentially built from scratch with the aid of nothing other than intricate instructions and blueprints.

“The idea,” says historian John Jacobus, “was to employ common household objects like chrome kitchen cabinet knobs for hub caps, ice cube trays for aluminum sheet parts, HO gauge railroad track for brass window trim, and golf tees for bumper guards. Mom’s oven was used to shape clear acetate…windshields,  [and the positive pressure end of] Mom’s torpedo shaped vacuum cleaner…was used to spray paint real automotive lacquer colors.”

The Chicago Herald, and newspapers like it around the country, ran scores of tips in the paper to encourage contestants preparing their models for competition. “If one has access to a lathe, either metal or woodworking,” reads one such instruction, “the singletrees will present no difficulty. ”

That first year, 145,000 Guild members enrolled, but only 600 models were submitted for competition, largely because the model itself was so challenging.

In the 1940s, the Guild changed the competition to focus on automotive design, rather than model-building. In 1948, the Napoleonic Coach competition disappeared, and automotive design became the focus.

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The work invested in these competitions was– by modern standards– obsessive. Children spent an average of 471 hours perfecting their clay model designs for competition. Judges evaluated the work on both Craftsmanship (Fidelity to Scale, Workmanship, Painting and Finishing) and Design (Originality, Artistic Merit, Practicality of Design). Boys all over the country turned in their work in specially-designed “crash-proof” containers shipped by Railway Express, signing over creative and intellectual property rights to their work for the chance to win a college scholarship.

Some of the work is amazingly detailed and has the feel of a clay model designed right in the studio. Some of it is primitive and crude, but not less charming in its own way.


“Harley J. Earl (Vice President in charge of Styling, GM  1938-1958) …was a major advocate and corporate supporter of the Fisher-Guild,” says Jacobus. “He needed auto designers and stylists and the Guild competition gave him away to find new, raw talent for his styling studios.”

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The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild lasted until 1968, when the Guild was disbanded. The reasons it went away are up for some debate, largely due to lack of interest during a time when high school kids were more concerned about learning to play Jimi Hendrix licks and not being shipped to southeast Asia than they were about lengthy careers with General Motors.

In the heyday of the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild, though, a generation of the world’s most notable designers got their start by winning scholarships in the program: Virgil M. Exner, Jr. (Design Executive, Ford Motor Company, son of Vice President of Styling, Chrysler Corporation), Charles M.  “Chuck” Jordan (Vice President of Design, General Motors), Robert A. Cadaret (Corvette Nomad, Mako Shark I and II, XP-819), Richard Arbib (industrial designer, 1955 Hudson, Hamilton Ventura watch), and many more.

Ron Will– the creator of the futuristic model at the beginning of this post– went on to become the Manager of Planning and Design at Subaru of America. John Jacobus adds: “Tom Semple and Allan Flowers, both top national winners, 1964 and 1962 respectively… joined Jerry Hirshberg (a Guild Judge), and founded Nissan Design in San Diego, California.”

And what about the kids that didn’t win scholarships? At the very least, they put their hands on wood or clay and built cars of their own design, and felt like they were part of something bigger than themselves.

Now what is there? Not a heck of a lot. “In the 1950s and 60s, the Guild was part of the industrial arts educational philosophy which got phased out,” Jacobus says. “School budgets shrank, cuts were made and Industrial Arts programs got chopped. Music got chopped. Art got chopped.”

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What’s the industry doing to inspire a new generation of model-builders and future designers? Essentially nothing, and they’re wondering why kids aren’t interested in cars anymore.

General Motors is currently sponsoring an interactive design competition, which is great, but it’s for students already studying at design schools. There’s little to no outreach– and nothing remotely on the scale of the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild– to get young people in their early teen years involved in the building and designing of automobiles.

When NPR interviewed Richard Gottlieb, CEO of Global Toy Experts, and Publisher of Global Toy News on July 19, 2013, he opined: “I don’t think children aspire to drive as much as they used to. I think they aspire to have a cell phone.” In the same story, the chief designer of Matchbox and Hot Wheels for Mattel said, “What we’re finding … for kids is that driving is not — it’s not an appetizing prospect. It’s very difficult. It’s very costly. It’s dangerous … They’re more connected now than they ever were before.”

[Please hold, while we attempt to choke ourselves with an ethernet cable.]

Ok, we’re back.

Come on, automotive and hobby industry: Step it up! You’re all bellyaching to NPR that kids don’t buy cars anymore. Instead of complaining, why not give them some way to get their hands dirty instead of paying some contracted marketing company to come up with a mindless Facebook game (see the pathetic “Driverville” created for the Mazda2 launch) or licensing your images for the latest edition of Grand Theft Auto?Sharf Collection4

We’ve presented several images of models in this article that came from Diana Zlatanovski’s Typology blog. She photographed several models in the Fred Sharf collection. For volumes more information on the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild, visit John Jacobus’s website at and purchase his book, The Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild from McFarland Publishing, or

Image Credit:,,, Rancid Polecat Photography, Maryland Automotive Modeler’s Association

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