Facing Disaster with a Smile: The Dick Teague I Knew

Facing Disaster with a Smile: The Dick Teague I Knew

First pub­lished as “The Teague I Knew” in The Packard Cor­morant, 2023.  A longer ver­sion was pub­lished in The Auto­mo­bile (UK), Jan­u­ary 2024. The quote below is from “Hor­atius at the Bridge” in Lays of Ancient Rome, by Thomas Babing­ton Macaulay.

“And how can man die better than facing fearful odds…”

Franklin, Michi­gan, April 1971— “Don’t touch it!”

On the garage floor next to a huge Pope-Tole­do, a tiny elec­tric com­pres­sor was going chuf­fa-chuf­fa-chuf­fa, inflat­ing a tire on this enor­mous tour­ing car. Richard Arthur Teague, Vice Pres­i­dent for Design of Amer­i­can Motors, was on his knees watch­ing it.

“Isn’t it neat?” Dick enthused. “Found it at a hard­ware store. Look at it go!”

“Yeah, Dick,” I said, “and it’ll be about fin­ished in a week or so.”

I final­ly tore him away, but I’d no soon­er begun ask­ing how he planned to style AMC out of its lat­est predica­ment than he lunged into a card­board box and began haul­ing out Packard literature.

He held up a bound vol­ume of the ultra-rare Packard Mag­a­zine: “Did you ever see one of these before?” He’d res­cued the trove from destruc­tion at the East Grand Boule­vard fac­to­ry dur­ing Packard’s last days in Detroit.

When tumbrels rolled

“Good Lord, it was awful,” Dick remem­bered. “There were only a few of us left, they were emp­ty­ing the factory.

Every hour the tum­brels would roll—you know, like the French Revolution—hauling that aris­to­crat­ic her­itage to the dump. I final­ly hired a truck, loaded as much of it as I could, and drove it out of there.”

Dick Teague restored the beau­ti­ful 1904 Packard Mod­el L at the Ford Muse­um. (Joe Ross, Cre­ative Commons)

Dick was a Packard styl­ist from 1951 to the con­sol­i­da­tion at South Bend in 1956. His last pro­duc­tion effort was the 1957 “Packard­bak­er,” where he clev­er­ly gave a Stude­bak­er body a fam­i­ly resem­blance to the “real” 1956 Packards. Iron­i­cal­ly it was Stude­bak­er, which had dragged Packard down, that sur­vived longer.

Most car design­ers in those days—I don’t know what they do now, click com­put­er keys?—passionately loved the auto­mo­bile. Most of them could recite auto­mo­tive his­to­ry and recall the great names of the indus­try, from hard­boiled exec­u­tives to rac­ing drivers.

But Dick Teague was unique. He was wide­ly read, brought up to appre­ci­ate every­thing on wheels, devot­ed to his­to­ry and restora­tion. The fab­u­lous 1904 Packard Mod­el L at the Hen­ry Ford Muse­um, orig­i­na­tor of the radi­a­tor shape he applied to the last pro­to­types, was Dick’s car.

His col­lec­tion ran from his Pope-Tole­do to a 1961 Fer­rari Berlinet­ta and the AMX III show­car. He placed his library at the dis­pos­al of Auto­mo­bile Quar­ter­ly for our book, Packard; A His­to­ry of the Motor­car and the Com­pa­ny.

“More rivals than a big city tomcat”

His back­ground wasn’t always cars. A prodi­gy at five, Dick had played Dix­ie Duval, the young girl in a low-grade spin-off of Hal Roach’s “Lit­tle Rascals.”

A year lat­er he’d lost his right eye in a car acci­dent, and with it his depth per­cep­tion. (He used to appall us by remov­ing and jug­gling his glass eye or tap­ing it with a pencil.)

His con­cept car, a revival of the Mer­cer Race­about, graced the cov­er of Road & Track and won Dick imme­di­ate fame.

His dis­abil­i­ty nev­er affect­ed his tal­ent. He grew up sketch­ing cars and air­planes. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, inel­i­gi­ble for the draft, he served as a tech artist for Northrop Avi­a­tion.

After­wards Dick joined the indus­tri­al design firm E.H. Daniels, who had a con­tract with a fledg­ling car com­pa­ny, Kaiser-Fraz­er.

It seemed a plum of a job, since K-F had bar­rels of cash and a clean-slate design pro­gram, unbur­dened by pre­war “bag­gage” like the oth­er manufacturers.

The prob­lem was that they hired lots of com­pet­ing styl­ists, such as Dutch Dar­rin and Brooks Stevens, even a com­pa­ny that made car seats. “We had more rivals than a big city tom­cat,” Dick remembered.

Then in 1948, Gen­er­al Motors came to L.A. look­ing for artists, inter­viewed fif­teen of them, and chose Dick Teague. He head­ed for Detroit, where he con­tributed to the air­craft-inspired 1949 Oldsmo­bile.

There he met and mar­ried Mar­i­an, the love of his life, and reeled off the odd free­lance project. Many first heard of Dick for the “mod­ern Mer­cer” he con­ceived for Road & Track in 1951. It was the best cov­er R&T had yet published—Dick’s revival of great­est sports car of its era, the T-head Race­about.

Packard highs and lows

The Packard Cor­morant records all he did for Packard, so it isn’t nec­es­sary to repeat that here. But no car lover can fail to appre­ci­ate the orig­i­nal­i­ty of Dick’s mind.

It was he who first rea­soned: why does a back­light have to slant back? Why not let it slant for­ward, elim­i­nat­ing glare, afford­ing rain pro­tec­tion, even slid­ing down for ven­ti­la­tion? That idea (less the slid­ing fea­ture) appeared on Dick’s 1953 Bal­boa show­car, and was lat­er swiped (with the slid­ing fea­ture) by Lin­coln and Mercury.

Packard Bal­boa-X show­car intro­duced the industry’s first reverse-slant back­light. (Stu­art Blond)

Many of us know his most famous sto­ry, from what he called his “last days in the bunker,” when the “tum­brels rolled” for “Black Bess.”

That was the 1957 Packard pro­to­type (com­plete with the slant-back rear win­dow). Dick said it was “made with a cold sol­der­ing iron and a ball peen hammer…a very spar­tan mule.”

One day, Engi­neer­ing Vice Pres­i­dent Herb Misch said, “Find it,” and Dick brought it up to a lit­tle showroom.

“I can’t do it myself,” Misch said, “so I’m going to make you the exe­cu­tion­er. Cut the thing up…it’s all over.” Let Dick him­self fin­ish the tale:

“My God, Red, what have you done?”

So I called Rex Lux, an old welder in the stu­dio, who had been around since the cor­ner­stone. There were two or three oth­er cars in the stu­dio, includ­ing anoth­er black one, a Clip­per. I said, “Okay, it’s offi­cial, cut the black one up.”

Red had been there since he was a kid and was hang­ing on by his thumb­nails. I came back around 4 p.m. and he was just fin­ish­ing. The pieces were lying all around like a bomb had gone off.

It was prob­a­bly the dirt­i­est trick I ever played but I said: “My God, Red, what have you done? Not this one, man—the one over in the corner!”

The poor guy had to have had a strong heart, because if he didn’t, he would have died right there. His face drained, and when I told him I was just kid­ding he chased me around the room. You’ve got to have a sense of humor in this business.

With Packard gone, Dick went to Chrysler: “the worst year of my life.” He refused to talk about it—“too painful to remem­ber.” He worked awhile for his old Packard boss Bill Schmidt, then an inde­pen­dent consultant.

In 1960 Amer­i­can Motors design chief Edmund Ander­son asked him to come aboard as a styl­ist, and Dick joy­ful­ly signed on with anoth­er com­pa­ny head­ed for the bunker. But this time he put up an extend­ed fight.

“Ruddy ordnance vehicle”

Dick Teague with his smooth­ly styled ’64 Ram­bler Amer­i­can. (Stu­art Blond)

Dick’s first task was to restyle the 1961-63 Ram­bler Amer­i­can: “You remem­ber, that dumpy thing with the con­cave body side mold­ing? An Eng­lish design­er had been hired around the same time. ‘My God, Dick,’ he said to me, ‘it looks like a rud­dy ord­nance vehi­cle.’ It did, too!”

Dick’s 1964 replace­mentl was a quan­tum leap forward—the first Ram­bler Amer­i­can that could hon­est­ly be called good looking.

When Ed Ander­son retired, Dick was named to replace him. He start­ed with projects already on the books, like the 1965-67 Mar­lin, a hasty attempt to ape the Big Three “glass­backs.” But once he could pro­duce ground-up designs, Dick cre­at­ed sleek, flow­ing shapes, the dia­met­ric oppo­site of con­ven­tion­al Detroit cars.

From a styling stand­point, the 1968 Javelin, his answer to the Mus­tang and Camaro, best­ed both of them. Then, cut­ting a foot off the Javelin wheel­base, he cre­at­ed the AMX, more of a sports car than any­thing in Detroit oth­er than the Corvette.

When I joined Auto­mo­bile Quar­ter­ly in 1970, Dick was at his apogee. Every time AMC was count­ed out, he would reach into his bag of tal­ent and pro­duce Salvation.

In 1970 it was the Hor­net, a clean-limbed com­pact, and the Grem­lin sub­com­pact, which Dick made by cut­ting off the Hornet’s back end. It was a des­per­ate tac­tic, but it worked. The Grem­lin sold like nick­el hot dogs because with V8 pow­er it wasn’t your typ­i­cal buzz-box.

“Elephant foreskins”

1978 Mata­dor Barcelona. (Greg Gjerdin­gen, Cre­ative Commons)

The 1975 Mata­dor coupe was his purest work. Ele­gant and smooth­ly inte­grat­ed, it looked like 100 mph stand­ing still. I vis­it­ed him that year dri­ving a new Grana­da from Ford’s press fleet.

“Good grief,” Dick said, ges­tur­ing toward its severe body creas­es. “Look at all that tor­tured sheet met­al.” Then, point­ing to the Mata­dor in his dri­ve­way: “Why don’t you get a real car?”

I promised him I’d bor­row a Mata­dor as soon as I was back in the graces of our friend John Conde, AMC’s pub­lic rela­tions manager.

A few days before, I’d met John at AMC head­quar­ters, where Dick’s newest cre­ation, the Pac­er, was on a turntable, observed by a host of com­po­nent sales­men and oth­er sup­pli­cants. I said it was cute.

“What? Just look at that ugly toad,” John fumed, as heads turned. “One door wider than the other…all that glass…doors full of air. I told Teague a hun­dred times, that lit­tle troll won’t do!”

I repeat­ed this to Dick, know­ing he’d laugh—he took nei­ther him­self nor any­one else too seri­ous­ly. Actu­al­ly, he’d been betrayed by the pro­duc­tion engi­neers. Had GM with its resources han­dled Pac­er engi­neer­ing, “the first wide small car” would have been a greater success.

Near­ing retire­ment in 1985, Teague was get­ting bored. The gov­ern­ment was in the design busi­ness big-time now, and con­trolled everything.

“What are you doing today?” I asked him once. “Gov­ern­ment crash tests,” he quipped. “That’s what we’re reduced to. Every day we swing the pen­du­lum at our bumpers, extend­ed out from the body with ele­phant fore­skins.” I cracked up, and he said: “Well, what would you call them?”

“J. Pierpont Teague” 

In retire­ment Dick was cel­e­brat­ed and in demand every­where. We expect­ed him to be around a long time, to regale us with his memories.

But then from his fam­i­ly, word began to fil­ter that Dick was ill, and that can­cer was one bunker from which he wouldn’t emerge, though as usu­al he’d fight like hell before he gave up.

“1992 Packard Caribbean”: Dick’s last design, com­plet­ed two weeks before the end. (The Packard Cor­morant magazine)

It made no dif­fer­ence to his enthu­si­asms. Two weeks before he died, he phoned me to say his last design—a “1992 Packard”—would be on its way for use in The Packard Cor­morant. By then his fam­i­ly said Dick was “func­tion­al” only twen­ty min­utes a day.

Yet a week after he died his friend Ken Eberts, the great auto­mo­tive artist, sent it along: “Dick want­ed you to have this. He asked me to help fin­ish it, but it is entire­ly his con­cept. I think it is his last design.”

Unlike many in his pro­fes­sion, Dick was nev­er pro­pri­eto­r­i­al about his work, quick to cred­it his col­leagues, always ready to light­en up. When wor­ship­ful Packard folk would praise his famous 1955-56 “cathe­dral” tail­lights, Dick would say:

“Yeah, I was a big hero—J. Pier­pont Teague. They raised my salary five dol­lars, which in those days was a great thing.” (Actu­al­ly, it was rather more than that, but such was the Teague humor.)

And that’s what I remem­ber most about my dear friend, who died far too young, for he still had so much to give. Every­body who knew Dick loved him. That’s a very large crowd. I’m proud to be a mem­ber of it.

More on Packard and its cars

“One Brief Shin­ing Moment: Packard and Its 1929-30 Speed­ster,” 2023.

“Queen Mary: We Love Our 1950 Packard Eight Club Sedan,” 2022.

“Why Packard Failed,” Part 1 and Part 2, 2022.

“Brooks Stevens: The Seer Who Made Mil­wau­kee Famous,” 2022.

“The Packard Mag­a­zine: Ne Plus Ultra of Auto­mo­tive House Organs,” Part 1 and Part 2, 2021.

“The Packard Adven­tures of Howard A. ‘Dutch’ Dar­rin,” 2017.

2 thoughts on “Facing Disaster with a Smile: The Dick Teague I Knew

  1. I wish I had met Dick Teague; he was a reg­u­lar at SoCal “old car” func­tions, but I nev­er had that chance. It’s odd, my first car(s) at 15 were a ’56 Clip­per and ’56 Patrician…total cost $75. My high school car was a ’65 Mar­lin (which I still have) and I own a ’74 Mata­dor coupe (which I have always liked since they were new). I’ve had many con­fronta­tions about that “ugly Mata­dor” from oth­ers. I don’t get it. In a sense, it was the last ves­tige of futur­is­tic design before the three box Mer­cedes look took over. I’ve con­tem­plat­ed chan­nel­ing the bumpers into thin blades, the only touch I can think of that would improve the design. I still sit and admire its design. Like Vince Geraci, a styl­ist at AMCM, Teague was very friend­ly and open, and would read­i­ly talk cars. Thanks for the delight­ful story.

  2. Richard, Great stuff. My par­ents had a 1954 Con­esto­ga wag­on, the first car I remem­ber. I learned to dri­ve on a 1965 Wag­oneer with the roll top roof. Then came Volvos. Then came Sub­arus. I still think of the Stude­bak­ers with affection.

    Doug, Studes to Volvos to Sub­u­rus! A steady down­hill spi­ral! RL 😂

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