Heaven on wheels: Exhibit celebrates Lansing-born auto designer Michael Burton

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Ralph Riddle had the TV on one night in May 2007 when a quietly confident baritone voice took over the room.

“We designed it to wake up the senses, to please your eye and invite your touch.”

Riddle knew that voice. He first heard it in the early 1970s, growing up on West Main Street on Lansing’s near south side.

Back in the day, Riddle would walk half a block to see his friend Adolph Burton on nearby St. Joseph Street. Adolph’s quiet younger brother, Michael, was usually off to the side someplace, drawing cars on a sketchpad.

Nearly 40 years later, Michael Burton, the first African-American to design automobiles for Ford, Chrysler and GM, was star of a high-end Buick Enclave TV spot, at the peak of his power as an artist, industrial designer and suave screen presence.

“I look up and I see him shaving,” Riddle recalled. “And I’m like, ‘What?’ That guy is just savoir faire everywhere, man.”

In the spot, Burton wakes to morning sunshine streaming into a mid-century-modern house. A sleek dashboard panel winks to life.

“We designed it to move you,” his voice beckons.

For a golden 30 seconds, Burton pitches wheels and woo, capping his rise from blue-collar Lansing to the highest echelons of the design world. A garage door opens to the joyful throb of “Feeling Good,” immortalized by Nina Simone: “It’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good.”

The shifter knob alone is a concerto in leather, brushed metal and wood.  Burton picks out a watch that matches it, lightly caresses the steering wheel and drives off into the sunrise. Design and designer are one.

“I’m Michael Burton,” he signs off. “We designed it for you. Buick Enclave. The finest luxury crossover ever.”

Riddle was amazed, but not surprised. No matter how successful Michael Burton became, nobody who knew him was surprised at his success. Even his mother named him Michael Angelo Burton, expecting great things.

Now his work is in an art museum.

‘I called him Spock’

From Jan. 15 to Aug. 15, the lower level of MSU’s Broad Art Museum is home to a ravishing set of original Michael Burton drawings, tied to the museum’s massive exhibit on car culture, “Interstates of Mind.”

The exhibit opens with a quote from Burton: “Your first reaction when you see a car is how it makes you feel, how it strikes you from an emotional perspective.”

It’s a shock to see Burton’s brief lifespan in cold print. He was born in 1957 and died of cancer in 2016.

But the sketches show how brightly he burned. His red-hot rendering of the Dodge Copperhead, in solidified waves of dragon breath, shows the designer in virtuoso seduction mode. The Copperhead concept car debuted at the 1997 North American Auto Show in Detroit. It never went into production, but it steals the show at the Broad exhibit, a selection of Burton’s Chrysler and GM designs from the 1990s.

Broad Museum Curator Stephen Bridges jumped at the chance to showcase Burton’s work, on loan from his family.

“The draftsmanship and skill of these drawings is just unbelievable,” Bridges said. “Even that minivan — that’s a sexy minivan.” He shook his head, surprised at his own words. “You look at a Michael Burton minivan and you say, ‘Dang.’”

Some roads are straighter than others. In the early 1970s, Burton and big brother Adolph Burton sat on the porch and watched the big auto carriers head west from the GM plant on St. Joseph Road, toward the nearby Howard Sober trucking plant, on their way to be shipped across the United States.

At first, they’d point and say, “That’s my car,” but the game quickly got more specific: “That’s my Cutlass 442, that’s my GTO.”

At 5, Michael spelled out “O-L-D-S-M-O-B-I-L-E.”

Diane Sulayman, Burton’s oldest sister, said their mother had a premonition he was going to be an artist.

“When he was barely learning to talk, he’d stand up in the back seat and say, ‘Lin-kin Co-co-nental,’” Sulayman said.

Growing up, Adolph Burton tried to lure Buron into mischief, to no avail.

“I’d say, ‘Mike, Susie likes you. Come outside,’” he recalled. “’We got a great pickup game going.’ He’d just put his head down and keep drawing. I thought, ‘What’s the matter with you? You don’t like sports? You don’t like girls?’ He was always in a different place.” He laughed. “Now I kind of wish I was him.”

LeAyne Nash, one of Michael’s two younger sisters, recalled struggling with a homemade kite for a Girl Scout Brownie kite contest.

“Michael kind of took over,” Nash said. “He painted it and drew graffiti letters on it that said ‘Katie the Kite.’ It was beautiful. I won the contest.”

Years later, Burton’s older sister, Lisa Williams, spent hours hanging in his room, soaking up his brother’s reassuring presence and watching “Star Trek.”

“I called him Spock,” Williams said. “He was cool with it. He was always older than his years.”

Williams puts her brother in the firmament of Black icons, along with “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman, film legend Cicely Tyson and Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhuru on “Star Trek.” She named her daughter Nichelle, after Nichols, and picked Burton to be her godfather.

Deuce and a quarter

The vibrant Black neighborhood that centered on Main Street (now Malcolm X Street) and Logan Street  (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard), was all but wiped out by the I496 freeway in the late 1960s, but when the Burtons were growing up, the neighborhood was home to many pioneering African-American professionals, from physicians to insurance agents.

Nevertheless, the neighborhood was overwhelmingly blue collar. Hourly pay was often good, but the work was punishing.

Michael’s mom, Jessie Richardson, worked at GM until she hurt her back lifting a fender. His dad, Penison Burton, worked long shifts at Federal Drop Forge, where GM brake parts were hammered out. After a shift at Federal, he would come home, arms scarred from flying sparks, ears ringing from the forge. He opened a newspaper at the dinner table and fell asleep with food still on his fork.

The forges pounded like an anvil chorus all over Lansing, day and night. A white-collar job seemed beyond the reach of most south siders. But Burton’s stepfather, Frederick Richardson, was a pioneering African-American who worked in the GM front office. He brought home heavy miniature model cars that fascinated Michael.

Burton’s sisters agree that in his religious and moral steadfastness, he modeled himself after a beloved grandfather, Jessie B. Green, a minister everyone called Papa.

But if Burton was a straight arrow in his personal life, his design work pushed some hot buttons. A very un-Spock-like relative, “Uncle Pete” from Detroit, may have influenced Burton’s penchant for high style.

“He was one of those black dudes who was just the opposite of Michael,” Brother Adolph Burton said. “He was flashy, he was debonair, he was the man.”

Uncle Pete drove a Buick Electra 225.

“He pulled up in that deuce and a quarter, Michael’s jaw was on the floor,” Burton said. “He had a sparkle in his eye and you knew right then, when he was about 12, something would happen with Michael and cars.”

Full circle

As a young teen, Burton built a portfolio of impressive drawings that drew the attention of Robert Riddle, director of the Urban League’s Labor Education Program.

“Uncle Bob” steered Burton toward drafting classes and suggested the bold step of writing directly to GM. He offered to help Michael with spelling, but insisted that it had to be in the boy’s own handwriting — a sure attention grabber for a busy executive sifting through mountains of mail.

A GM rep wrote back to Burton, praised the sketches and advised him to go into industrial design, a subject he’d never heard of.

On a scholarship from the Ford Motor Co., Burton earned a degree in industrial design at Detroit’s Center for Creative Studies. He went straight from school to work at Ford, only to be “restructured” out of a job when the domestic auto market bottomed out in 1980.

Burton took that setback as a sign to follow his deeply felt calling to the ministry. He studied at Rhema Bible Training Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, designing letterheads and other graphics to exercise his artistic muscles while working as a janitor and “busting suds” (washing dishes) to make ends meet.

To Burton’s surprise, an old friend from Detroit checked in with him in 1984 and told him there was still a lot of buzz among the automakers about his design abilities.

Burton took that as another sign, came back to Michigan and interviewed with all three automakers. Lee Iacocca’s resurgent Chrysler Corp. took him on.

As the first African-American designer at Chrysler, Burton worked on the Dodge Intrepid, the experimental Copperhead and several other models. His stylish and distinctive designs, whether they went into production or not, began to get national attention.

Burton was featured in a USA Today story on up-and-coming African-American auto designers.

“African American designers have provided their John Coltrane, Michael Jordan, and Basquiat touch to the designs of the brand new Ford Taurus, the Chrysler 300C, and Chevrolet Malibu,” declared a story in Regal magazine in 2010.

Burton’s work at Chrysler in Auburn Hills attracted the attention of GM chief designer Ed Welburn. GM made Burton a dream offer — a generous salary, a new GM car of his choice every six weeks and condos in Las Vegas and Florida.

After signing with GM, Burton was the first African American to work as a designer at all three domestic automakers. For Burton, it was just as meaningful for to play a key part in GM’s roaring reboot of Lansing auto production, at a new Grand River facility, only two years after GM nearly left Michigan’s capital for good.

It’s called ‘it’

Michael Burton’s design style was a heady blend of fine art, material science and human psychology, with a hint of OO7.

One week, he mystified his brother by showing up in a Mercedes Benz. Another week, it was a Jaguar.

“You’re going to shoot yourself in the foot,” Adolph said, chiding him for disloyalty to GM.

“No, man, they gave me this car to see how it drives,” his brother explained. “Then they tear it all up to see how it’s made, put two crash dummies into it and crash it into a brick wall. Until then, I get to drive it.”

Filtering the feel of the most stylish cars in the world through his own artistic sensibility, Burton’s brush conjured richly appointed crossover cabins that drew national notices. Automotive critics held the Enclave’s high styling up to high-end European competition.

Burton made a mark on several GM divisions, as lead exterior designer for the Cadillac SRX and STS, design manager for GM’s prestige and performance platforms, interior design director for extended range electric vehicles and director of interior design for the front-wheel drive platforms of GMC, Saturn and Buick.

Adolph Burton compared his brother’s work to that of an architect or a clothes designer.

“You have to know about textiles, color, material, down to locks and door handles,” Burton said. “It’s more than drawing a box with wheels on it.”

The dark arts of high style had to harmonize with life-and-death practical requirements. A speedometer placed too far to the left or to the right would be a distraction. Controls had to be reachable and intuitive.

At the Broad exhibit, Burton’s sketches for interior consoles and pedals lovingly detail every rubber friction bump. A sequence of three preliminary drawings, with slight variations, shows the head-spinning array of choices Burton faced at the drawing board.

“It’s a glimpse into the studio, the mind of the artist, and that’s really special,” curator Stephen Bridges said. “Usually all we see is the finished product.”

“Should it be copper, aluminum, or steel?” Adolph Burton mused. “Leather or cloth? Should it be round or oval? Hub caps or spinners? You have to have an eye for it and a feel for it. That’s what makes you Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci. You can’t teach it, you can’t buy it, you can’t sell it. It’s called ‘it’ and Michael had it.”

Burton put a top note on his life’s major chord when he married his wife, Darnell, in Detroit in 2005.

“They had a beautiful relationship,” Michael’s sister, Lisa Williams, said. “She is such a sweetheart, and he totally loved her.”

At the wedding, Burton’s family and friends weren’t at all surprised to find him playing and singing a nuptial song he composed. From an early age, Burton was almost as avid a musician as well as he was an artist.

“He excelled in gospel, R&B and jazz,” Adolph Burton said. “He played mostly in the church, but he did some side stuff on his own. He didn’t want to be Michael Jackson, but he was good at it.”

The success never went to his head. His loyalty to friends and family, and his religious faith, were rock steady. He never refused when mothers called him and asked him to mentor their sons.

“He was the best of us,” Sulayman said. “I’m the oldest and I should know.”

Twice as good

There is no hint of struggle, other than the artistic striving for excellence, in Michael Burton’s work at the Broad. The accompanying text does not mention racial discrimination or prejudice.

That’s how Burton and his proud family prefer his story to be told. Burton’s work stands on its own, not as a civil rights parable.

But Adolph Burton readily recalled that by the time his brother made it at GM, he’d been through the “college of hard knocks.”

“He went through all the racism and bigotry of getting to the glass ceiling,” he said. “We’re supposed to be the ones that make the cars and drive the cars, not draw the cars. You can work in the factory all you want, but there’s no way we’re going to get you into a suit and tie. But he did.”

The formula goes that if you are Black in corporate America, you have to be twice as good to get half as far, even if you’re Michael Burton.

“And he was,” his brother said. “But the good thing is, he didn’t know he had it. He thought of himself as just another nerd from Lansing.”

Riddle remembers him the same way. “He was so quiet and introverted, you could never imagine he had all of that inside him,” Riddle said.

In mid-January, members of Burton’s family gathered in front of the glass vitrines at the Broad Museum to kick off the exhibit and celebrate Michael’s legacy.

Michael’s younger sister LeAyne Nash was there. “It melted my heart. I was just full,” she said. “Michael was very modest. A lot of those pictures, we had never even seen.”

Riddle, who was reluctant at first to leave the house because of COVID, was glad he made it.

“The fact that his name is Michael Angelo Burton makes me feel there’s some divinity involved here,” Riddle said. “For somebody we know to have an exhibit at the Broad is just beyond my imagining.”

He thought for a few seconds.

“Well, Michael could have imagined it.”

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