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Tom Peters, Born to Design

Tom Peters photo -Courtesy GM Authority

TOM PETERS 6/7/2021

Tom Peters, the now retired Director of Design for General Motors Performance Car Studio, has lived what he describes as a “car life”. It’s a life that led him to The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. From college he was offered a position at GM; a couple years later he followed his college sweetheart to Texas Instruments.  But in 1983 GM called and wanted both he and his now wife, Carolyn, to come on board… and the rest as they say is automotive history.

Peters built his legend designing The Corvette, Camaro, Cadillac XLR, Corvette Indy Show car, Chevrolet Silverado and more. He’s recognized as one of the most influential automotive designers of his generation; resides in the National Corvette Hall of Fame and received a Lifetime Achievement award from his alma mater in 2013. His resume stands alone, and he couldn’t be blamed for asking us mere mortals to kiss his Corvette ring, but that’s not Tom Peters. Tom Peters is a car guy and once upon a time a wide-eyed car kid.

“I was getting off the school bus (number 39 he amazingly remembers) I was in third grade and this spaceship lands. It was a ‘63 silver Split-window and this kid gets out. It was just amazing to see that. So, we would get off the bus on subsequent mornings and wait for this car to show up.” 

We all get bit at some point by the car bug, but significantly fewer get to become the head of design for the car that did the biting. It wasn’t just that 63 Split-window.  Growing up in Lake Minnetonka, MN Tom hung out with kids that talked about cars and worked on cars and when he wasn’t old enough to drive them, he found friends that could. Ripping down a country road in the backseat of a ‘63 Impala, jamming the gears of a pulse-pounding 327 as the nose starts to lift, and a missing console exposes the road below; that’s the kind of fuel that feeds a man who claims to have gasoline running through his veins. “You’re scared and excited and having fun at the same time. Those are the impressions that leave a mark and fuel the enthusiasm for these cars.”         

Tom Peters, Courtesy of Autoweek

In over 35 years at General Motors, the enthusiasm of that kid burning rubber and blaring music in the backseat of that 63 Impala never waned. “At the end of the day, I couldn’t wait to wake up. I’m retired now but I’m every bit as inspired and can’t wait to get out and work on cars and be with people who develop them. I’m still in touch with my team at GM and the cars are important but it’s the social, human interaction that makes them super special.”

1988 Pontiac Banshee Concept

Car guy yes, but Tom is more of a people person. He even describes his design philosophy that way. “I tried to create individuals, not just machines. To me I think, I learned that’s what makes certain cars magic and just resonate with people because they become personalities. They’re part of the family and you want to see them and share them with others.”

Tom considers himself blessed that way. Surely, he’s a man of many talents but with a coffee in hand on a Saturday morning at Pasteiner’s he’s surrounded by friends and cars and at peace living in a world he always believed was his destiny. “There’s this link that brings us all together and to me that’s the magic of cars. It carries you through a lifetime, you know, whether you’re having fun with it or difficulties in building a car or designing a car or manufacturing a car, incredibly difficult situations, with knuckle busting stuff going on, but it’s all worth it. That’s it, in a nutshell.”

1986 Chevrolet Corvette Indy Show Car GM Media Archives

Retired is a relative term as its applied to Peters. When he’s not being invited to speak at or share his story at any number of auto related events, he’s busy as the Consulting Curator of Exhibits at the National Corvette Museum. At the end of June, he’ll be celebrated as The Guest of Honor at the prestigious St. Ignace Car Show Weekend.

“I’m looking forward to going up to St. Ignace. People are just ready to bust out and have these events. Everybody has wonderful stories to share, or technical knowledge—St. Ignace is neat. Here’s this remote place with hundreds if not thousands of fabulous cars—where do these people come from? It’s like this exotic resort, it’s just amazing and a great place to be, and that the town embraces that, is just marvelous.” 

Tom Peters design sketch 12-87 GM Media Archives

It all adds up, doesn’t it? The love of a 63 Split Window, a budding young artist drawing in a bedroom decorated with car posters and Rat Fink cartoons. The thrill of speed on a back country road in rural Minnesota — the college education in southern, California’s hot rod hot bed and a dream realized to create wonders in the Motor City… 

Aren’t we lucky Tom Peters did what he was born to do.

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