Duane L. "Sparky" Bohnstedt

by Thomas Allen Bohnstedt, California USA
     (the text of this page is my intellectual property. Please do not copy and repost without my written permission)


First generation Corvette (1953) designed by Duane Lloyd "Sparky" Bohnstedt, and a seventh generation Corvette (2014)


The Second World War and the 15th Air Force

In 1943 one of Theodore Bohnstedt's grandsons, Duane Lloyd “Sparky” Bohnstedt, entered military service with the United States Army Air Forces. From July to October of 1943, he was assigned to the 471st Bomb Group, 85th Squadron, which was using B-24 'Liberator' bombers.

He was then sent to the European war theater with 460th Bomb Group, 760th Squadron, also a B-24 bomber unit. He was an ordnance handler, loading bombs aboard an aircraft nicknamed “Blue Mike” by it’s crew. The 760th was in Spinazzola Italy in action against Germany from February 1944 to June 1945.

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1. Duane "Sparky" Bohnstedt (upper right) with his parents, Duane Townsend Bohnstedt and Evelyn Irene (Brinton) Bohnstedt
2. Sparky Bohnstedt in Italy with the 15th Air Force, circa 1944 - 1945
3. "Panther" emblem of the 460th Bomb Group.

Pilots, air crews and aircraft of the 460th bomb group attacked oil refineries, oil storage facilities, aircraft factories, railroad centers, industrial areas, and other objectives in Italy, France, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Greece. It received a Distinguished Unit Citation for leading the wing formation through adverse weather and heavy enemy fire to attack an airdrome and aircraft facilities in Zwolfaxing on 16 July 1944.

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1. A B-24 'Liberator' bomber of the 460th Bomb Group over their base in Spinazzola, Italy
2. Vienna Waltz, by Jack Fellows depicts B-24 bombers from the 460th Bomb Group flying through intense anti-aircraft fire around the Wiener-Neustadt target area, just outside Vienna, Austria, May 10, 1944

In August of 1944 the 460th participated in the invasion of southern France by striking submarine pens, marshaling yards, and gun positions in the assault area. They hit bridges, viaducts, ammunition depots, railroads, and other targets to aid the advance of Allied forces in northern Italy.

After the war Sparky was transferred with his unit, first to Trinidad for a brief period, and then to Brazil for three months where he was involved in bringing aircraft home from Europe via West Africa. Sparky was a Corporal when he left military service, but remained in the Air Force reserves until 1977.


Airman Turned Auto Designer

In February 1946, Sparky began attending school at Kansas State College to train for his civilian career as an Automotive Designer. After a brief period at Kansas State, he moved on to the University of Colorado for another two and one half years. In 1948 Sparky took a break from his academics and married Betty Jean Fralin in Beatrice, Nebraska.

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1. Wedding picture: Duane L. "Sparky" Bohnstedt and his new bride, Betty Jean (Fralin) Bohnstedt, 1948
2. Back to the beginning; even as a boy Sparky was fascinated by cars. Sparky's dad, Duane Bohnstedt Sr. is in the driver's seat of this early racer.
A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design by Michael Lamm and Dave Holls, 1996

After University of Colorado, Sparky attended the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles for a full four years. In 1951 Sparky went to work for General Motors as a junior designer, working on Oldsmobile and Chevrolet design. According to Sparky it was a very frantic, intense time to be working in the automotive industry. A Century of Automotive Style quotes Sparky's recollections of his experience as a new designer at GM:

Designer Duane (Sparky) Bohnstedt remembered that, “…when I first came here (in 1951), I worked for 40 days straight, nonstop. I’d go home, take a shower, put on a clean shirt and I’d come back.   I’ve seen guys in the shop so tired that they’d sit down on a bench, go to sleep and fall on the floor. It was just a tremendously driving, exciting time, but it was hard on people, really hard…”

Within two years Sparky Bohnstedt found himself working on a project for General Motors that would quickly become one of the great legends and icons of the automotive world; the Corvette.


Corvette; America's Sports Car

General Motors wanted a sports car of it's own, an American sports car that would rival European sports cars like MG, Triumph and Jaguar. The man picked by General Motors to head the design effort for it's new sports model was it's chief designer, Harley Earl.

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1. Harley Earl was the chief automotive styling designer for General Motors from about 1926 to 1958
2. The first Corvette concept car was unveiled to the public at the General Motors "Motorama" car show at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in January, 1953
3. Rendering of an early Corvette concept car, circa 1954, by Duane Lloyd "Sparky" Bohnstedt

Harley had a reputation as a snappy dresser, was famous in the Automotive world for his skills as an automobile designer, and was the man who is generally credited, for better or worse, with creating tail fins for cars in the 50's and 60's. Harley was also known within the General Motors design staff for being impatient, even causing the dismissal of a man for disturbing him with his squeaky shoes. According to Sparky, Earl later felt remorseful for this rash act, and used his influence in the automotive industry to get the man he had fired a position with another automotive company.

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1-3. Corvette Fifty Years by Randy Leffingwell, 2002, Corvette: America's Sports Car: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow by Jerry Burton, 2006, and The Corvette Dynasty, by Matt DeLorenzo, 2007, discuss Duane "Sparky" Bohnstedt's contributions to early Corvette design

Sparky remembers that he himself had once had a confrontation with Earl. Even so, it was Harley Earl who hand-picked Sparky to work on the design team for the new Corvette. According to Corvette Fifty Years, by Randy Leffingwell:

While GM design chief Harley Earl supervised it’s appearance, he assigned Bob McLean to create it’s specifications and Duane “Sparky” Bohnstedt to style it’s appearance.

And in The Corvette Dynasty, by Matt DeLorenzo, 2007:

In early 1952 work began in earnest at Chevrolet on the car. Earl assigned Bob McLean to the project, along with Duane Bohnstedt, who created the body design.

1-3. Legendary Corvettes: Vettes Made Famous on Track and Screen by Randy Leffingwell and Dave Wendt, 2010 , Corvette Stingray: The Seventh Generation of America's Sports Car by Larry Edsall, 2014, and Corvette; Chevrolet's Supercar by Randy Leffingwell, 2021 discuss Duane "Sparky" Bohnstedt's contributions to early Corvette design

Corvette: America's Sports Car: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow by Jerry Burton, went into more detail about the new design team:

Earl first proposed that this type of car from GM could sell for about $1,800, close to Triumph’s or MG’s and about half the price of Jaguar’s $3,345 XK-120. He had a Jaguar moved into his body development studio as a design target. He assigned Bob McLean, a young California Institute of Technology graduate in both engineering and industrial design, to create a car. He tagged a recent hire, Duane “Sparky” Bohnstedt, to style the body for the project.

Earl wanted to use a V-8 engine, but only Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile produced them. Earl’s other parameters, including using Jaguar as a model, set McLean’s direction. In those days virtually every sports car followed the long hood/short rear deck characteristic of classic 1930’s sports cars. McLean and Bohnstedt were faithful to the convention.

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1. Corvette: Five Decades of Sports Car Speed by Tom Benford and Randy Leffingwell, 2003
2. A page from
Corvette: Five Decades of Sports Car Speed, showing Sparky's "bullet" taillights on a 1953 Corvette
3. Corvette: Seven Generations of American High Performance also by Randy Leffingwell, 2015

Corvette; Chevrolet's Supercar by Randy Leffingwell, published in 2021, went into greater detail about the design process for the first Corvette prototype:

Earl acquired a Jaguar XK120, more for it’s packging concept than it’s appearance. He installed it in a design studio and asked Bob McLean, a recent engineering and industrial design graduate of the California Institute of Technology to engineer the car. Duane “Sparky” Bohnstedt dre the assignment to create the body.

Earl and McLean wanted to use Cadillac’s or Buick’s 188-horsepower V-8. But the upper divisions, including Oldsmobile, with it’s own new 165-horespower engine, balked. Earl’s power extended only so far, and Olds, Buick and Cadillac fiercey guarded what they believed was their marketing and technological advantage. This left McLean with Chevrolet’s durable, but unexciting 115-horsepower inline “Stove Bolt” six.

Earl’s message to McLean and Bohnstedt was clear: The Xk120 was their target and should be their inspiration. McLean adopted the Jaguar’s 102-inch wheelbase, and, aware that contemporary sports car design favored long hoods and short rear decks, he penciled in the passenger compartment just ahead of the rear axle. Earl championed the “longer, lower, wider” look that GM’s advertising trumpted, so McLean and Bohnstedt complied, making their 69.8-inch car more than 8 inches wider (and 1 inch lower) than the Jaguar.

Bohnstedt’s body took influence from a small-production Italian car called Cisitalia more than from Jaguar’s Xk. Interior stylist Joe Schemansky created the passenger compartment with it’s symmetrically balanced instrument panel and inset seats. Body stylist Clare MacKichan put finishing touches on the car before its shape was “Frozen”, orior ro management’s final review in June 1952.

Earl played showman, first inviting Harlow Curtice to see the car privately. He wanted GM’s president on his side in case anyone raised objections. He need’t have worried. After his preview, Curtice joined Chevrolet manager Thomas Keating and chief engineer Ed Cole. Their response was enthusiastic and immediate. They approved the mockup for Motorama in January 1953. They agreed to advance the project to Chassis Engineering, the next step toward provisional production.

McLean and Sparky Bohnstedt may have followed convention in some respects, but they introduced some fresh new styling ideas, such as Sparky's bullet taillights. According to Corvette: Five Decades of Sports Car Speed by Tom Benford and Randy Leffingwell:

Molding the plastic body to “Sparky” Bohnstedt’s bullet taillights caused fiberglass body makers terrible problems.

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1. The 1953 Chevrolet Corvette, the first production Corvette model, appeared on a 2005 U.S. postage stamp
2. Eighth Generation Corvette, a 2020 Corvette Stingray

The new body design may have been a headache to the fiberglass body makers, but the General Motors executives fell in love with it. According to Corvette: America's Sports Car: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow:

On June 2, 1952, he [Harley Earl] first showed Bohnstedt’s full-size clay model to a small group that included GM chairman Harlow Curtice (Earl had shown it to him privately already). Along with Curtice were Tom Keating, Chevrolet Division general manager, and division Chief Engineer Edward N. Cole. Cole and Keating were enthralled.


To Packard, and Back to General Motors

In 1954 Sparky left General Motors to work for Packard Automobile Company for a brief period as Chief Designer, directing the design of the Clipper. But he sensed that the Packard company was headed for problems and he went back to General Motors that same year.

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1. Packard: A History of the Motor Car and the Company, 2003, references Sparky Bohnstedt
2. 1955 Chevrolet Corvette

Once back at General Motors Sparky became directly involved in the design of the 1954, 1955 and 1956 model Chevy Corvettes, and the 1955 and 1956 Chevy Coupes, as well as other cars.

In 1961 Sparky was made Associate Professor of Design, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California. Two years later General Motors sent Sparky to Germany where he worked on the Opel automotive design.

1. The first significant design change to the Corvette appeared in the 1956 model

2. 1956 Chevy Coupe

In the mid-1960's Sparky and Betty were in Michigan where their daughter, Kara, was born. By the mid-1970’s Sparky was put in charge of one of General Motor’s design studios, and by 1979 was made Chief Exterior Designer for Commercial Vehicles for General Motors, a position he held until he retired in 1984.

Duane "Sparky" Bohnstedt's legacy to the automotive world; eight generations of Corvette design, from back to front: C1; 1953-1962, C2; 1963-1967, C3; 1968-1982, C4; 1984-1996, C5; 1997-2004, C6; 2005-2013, C7; 2014-2019, C8; 2020-Present



A Busy Retirement

Duane Bohnstedt got his nickname "Sparky" because of the boundless energy he always seemed to have.  This energy and drive to keep busy didn't let up after he retired from the automotive industry.  After leaving General Motors Sparky turned his attention to new projects.  One of those was genealogical and historical family research, including the Bohnstedt history.  We in the American branch of the Bohnstedt family are the beneficiaries of those efforts; it is because of the combined research work of Charles "Charlie" Bohnstedt in Texas, and Marvin Bohnstedt, that the American Bohnstedt family can trace it's lineage as far back as the mid-1700's in Germany.

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1. Betty (Fralin) Bohnstedt, and her husband Duane L. "Sparky" Bohnstedt; Son, Soldier and Airman, Auto Designer, University Professor, Family Historian, Military Historian, Devoted Husband and Loving Father.
2. United States Air Force and it's Antecedents: Published and Printed Unit Histories, by James T. Controvich, 2004, was a bibliography, a listing of printed books and works about various historical Army Air Corps and Army Air Force units and listed Sparky and Betty Bohnstedt's 460th Bomb Group History.

Sparky also dived into the history of his old Air Force division, the 460th Bomb Group. He became the president of the 460th Bomb Group Society, and with his wife, Betty, he wrote and published a book on the history of the 460th in 1996. His book; "460th Bomb Group History" has since been used as source material for a number of other books dealing with the subject of the air war over Europe, and is referenced in their bibliographies.  A copy of this book is now in the Library of Congress.

1-3. The Final Mission of Bottoms Up: A World War II Pilot's Story by Dennis Okerstrom, 2011, Forgotten Fifteenth: The Daring Airmen Who Crippled Hitler's War Machine by Barrett Tillman, 2014, and Bombing Europe: The Illustrated Exploits of the Fifteenth Air Force, by Kevin Mahoney, 2015 reference Sparky and Betty Bohnstedt's 460th Bomb Group History

In 2007 Sparky was nominated by Dr. Stanley W. Bohnstedt, a Doctor of Dental Science and a Corvette enthusiast, to be included in the National Corvette Museum Hall of Fame in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He was officiallly inducted 2009.

 Sparky Bohnstedt, Corvette Hall of Fame
1.  In 2009 Duane "Sparky" Bohnstedt was inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame for his contributions to early Corvette design.
2. A short 5 minute documentary video about Sparky Bohnstedt's career in automotive design, and his induction into the Corvette Hall of Fame in 2009 (mp4)

Sparky's wife, Betty, passed away in 2014 and was laid to rest in Restlawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery, Port Charlotte, Florida.  In December, 2016 Sparky passed away at the age of 92 years in Punta Gorda, Florida.  He was laid to rest with his wife, Betty, at Restlawn Memorial Gardens Cemetery, in Port Charlotte, Florida.

1-3. Graves of  Duane Lloyd "Spark" Bohnstedt and Betty (Fralin) Bohnstedt in Restlawn Memorial Gardens cemetery, Port Charlotte, Florida

Duane and Betty's daughter, was born in 1954 in Lincoln Park, Michigan.  An airline reservationist, she was married in 1990 in Lee County Florida to Frank L. Yearty, but was divorced seven years later.  Kara struggled with the pain of fibromyalgia throughout her life.  She found some comfort in her love of music, her parents, and her closest friends.  She passed away on October 27, 2020, at the early age of 55 years.

1. Kara Lyn Bohnstedt, Duane and Betty's daughter, with her friend, Bella
2. Grave of Kara Bohnstedt Yearty in Restlawn Memorial Gardens cemetery, Port Charlotte, Florida



Book References:
- Lamm, Michael. Holls, Dave. A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design. Lamm-Morada Pub Co. 1996, 2nd edition. (ISBN 0932128076)
- Leffingwell, Randy. Newhardt, David. Corvette Fifty Years. Motorbooks International. 2002 (ISBN 0760311803)
- DeLorenzo, Matt. The Corvette Dynasty. Chronicle Books. 2007 (ISBN 1932855823)
- Burton, Jerry. Corvette: America's Sports Car: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. Hugh Lauter Levin Associates. 2006
- Benford, Tom. Leffingwell, Randy. Corvette: Five Decades of Sports Car Speed. Crestline. 2003. (ISBN 0760317305)
- Kimes, Beverly Rae, Editor. Packard: A History of the Motor Car and the Company. Automobile Quarterly Publications. 2003. (ISBN 0971146810)
- Controvich, James T., United States Air Force and it's Antecedents: Published and Printed Unit Histories, A Bibliography. The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2004 (ISBN 0810850109)
- Okerstrom, Dennis R., The Final Mission of Bottoms Up: A World War II Pilot's Story  Published. University of Missouri Press. 2011 (ISBN 0826272673, 9780826272676)
- Leffingwell, Randy. Wendt, Dave, Legendary Corvettes: Vettes Made Famous on Track and Screen. Motorbooks. 2010 (ISBN 0760337748, 9780760337745)
- Edsall, Larry, Corvette Stingray: The Seventh Generation of America's Sports Car. MBI Publishing Company. 2014 (ISBN 1627881352, 9781627881357)
- Leffingwell, Randy.  Corvette; Cevrolet's Supercar. Motorbooks. 2021 (ISBN 9780760368503, 0760368503)
- Mahoney, Kevin A., Bombing Europe: The Illustrated Exploits of the Fifteenth Air Force. Zenith Press. 2015 (ISBN 1627887377, 9781627887373)
- Tillman, Barrett, Forgotten Fifteenth: The Daring Airmen Who Crippled Hitler's War Machine. Regnery Publishing, 2014 (ISBN 1621572080, 9781621572084)
- Leffingwell, Randy, Corvette: Seven Generations of American High Performance. Motorbooks. 2015 (ISBN 1627886141, 9781627886147)
- Bohnstedt, Duane L. 460th Bomb Group History. Taylor Publishing. 1996 (ASIN B0006F77CI)


See Also:
3-8 /
The Descendants of Theodore Bohnstedt in Nebraska
3-29 /
Genealogy 3-3-1: America; Illinois and Nebraska


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