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Harley Earl

Updated on June 1, 2013

The di Vinci of Detroit

Large, Garish tail fins on the 1959 Cadillac
Large, Garish tail fins on the 1959 Cadillac | Source

In the first part of the 20th century, cars were utilitarian, colorless and uncomfortable. Automobiles were a new invention that existed only to get people from one place to another. They had no style. At the height of the Model T’s popularity, the great industrialist, Henry Ford said “Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants, as long as it is black”.

To counter this, a new industry came to be. All across the country, there were small companies which built customized bodies and parts for assembly line autos. One of these companies was the Earl Automotive Works of Southern California. Established in 1908 by JW Earl, they had built such a good reputation, that they became very popular among Hollywood stars in the silent movie era. They built custom bodies and modifications for many stars and studio bigwigs including Tom Mix and Fatty Arbuckle.

JW’s son, Harley (born 1893) had joined his father’s company soon after dropping out of Stanford and by the early 1920s had taken over the company. Harley Earl was kept on as the manager of the company when it was purchased by a local Cadillac dealership. In the mid 1920’s, Cadillac GM Lawrence Fisher was so enamored of Earl’s work, he commissioned him to design a sister car for the Cadillac.

A 1927 Dealer ad for the new LeSalle
A 1927 Dealer ad for the new LeSalle | Source

The result was the 1927 LaSalle. This car was widely regarded as the beginning of American automotive styling. A smaller, less expensive companion to the Cadillac, the LaSalle was available in several colors and was one of the first cars to have two tone paint. It was unlike anything then in the American automobile market. It was agile and fast and more important to GM’s President Alfred Sloan, it sold well. He offered Earl a job at GM and created the Art and Color section for him. It was an offer that Earl happily took.

By 1940, the Great Depression had killed the LaSalle, but Earl was now the Vice President in charge of Styling for all of GM’s cars. He had renamed the Art and Color Section the Styling section. Alfred Sloan once said that Earl was the first VP in charge of style in any large company. Although this has never been verified, it was somewhat revolutionary. Earl’s job was to make GM’s cars look better than the competitions. To keep up, within a few years, both Chrysler and Ford (as well as several smaller manufacturers) had their own style departments.

Harley Earl
Harley Earl | Source

Earl was groundbreaking in design techniques. He pioneered the use of free form sketching and the use of modeling clay to build mock ups of automotive designs. He and Sloan also pioneered an annual design change for each car. While that is common today, in the first third off the 20th century, it was revolutionary. Compare this to Ford. Modifications to the Model T were made grudgingly. Only an expert can tell the difference between a 1915 Model T and a 1922 version.

Harley Earl was the head of the Style Section at GM until he retired in 1958 after overseeing the design of GM’s 1959 line.(but he remained a consultant with the company until his death in 1969). But in his long career, he had designed (or supervised the design) of many automotive design features we take for granted today. Some of them were:

Wrap around windshields

In dash radios

Telescoping Radio Antenna

Hidden Spare Tires

Crash test dummies

Steering Wheel horn

Heated Seats

Tinted Glass

Turn Indicators

Integrated headlights

Electric Windows and locks

And much more…..Here are a few more innovations that Earl is famous for. I have listed them in detail below:

Women in design

It was well known that Earl would hire anyone who could help him design a car that the public would like. He hired many women (and openly gay men) to his style team. In 1956 he said “Of all the useful and beautiful products designed by Stylist’s, the best known and most appreciated is the American automobile, which comes in second only to women’s fashions…”. Clearly he knew that many of the cars GM would sell would be family cars and would have to pass muster with women..(according to a GM press release in 1957, females cast the “deciding vote” on 7 out of 10 car purchases) But he did not hire women to just get the female point of view on things. Several women reached supervisory positions in the Style Department. To say this was revolutionary in the overwhelmingly male dominated auto industry is an understatement. Earl receive much criticism (from within GM as well as outside the company) for this but held his ground.

Unfortunately, upon Earl’s retirement in 1958, his successor, Bill Mitchell, arrogantly demoted all the “Design Damsels”. “No woman is going to stand next to me or any of my senior designers.” he said.

Harley and six of his "Design Damsels"
Harley and six of his "Design Damsels" | Source
a photo of the Buick Y Job taken in 2003
a photo of the Buick Y Job taken in 2003 | Source

Concept cars and Auto Shows

In the mid 1930s, Earl and the Style Department designed the Buick Y Job. This car was a one off model and the automobile industry’s first “concept car”. It was designed to test the public’s reaction to many new features. Many of these new features, like hidden headlights, wrap around bumpers, flush door handles and electric windows were features of many of GM’s cars in later years. Harley Earl drove the Y Job as his personal car until the early 1950s.

World War 2 delayed the development of “concept car”,(Earl spent the war years working on camouflage designs for military planes and ships) but Earl and the design department made up for it by producing many in the 1950’s. These cars were shown at the annual Motorama autoshow. Some, like the Buick Wildcat, Pontiac Bonneville Special and Cadillac LeMans were, like the Buick Y Job, built to show the public the new features GM had developed. Others like the turbine driven Chevrolet Firebirds were futuristic designs that used new technologies and materials.

Alfred Sloan was instrumental in creating the GM Motorama Shows. Held from 1949 to 1960, These extravaganzas were full of glitz and showmanship. They were designed to display General Motors “concept cars” as well as their market cars and to whet the public’s appetite for this years model. The Show was usually held in conjunction with the New York Auto Show, and in later years went on tour to 4 or 5 cities.

An LA Examiner advertisement for the 1955 Motorama
An LA Examiner advertisement for the 1955 Motorama | Source
1954 Corvette
1954 Corvette | Source

Chevrolet Corvette

In 1951, Harley Earl drove a concept car, the LeSabre to Watkins Glen, NY for display. While there, he enjoyed the sports car races that took place on the local track. He was greatly impressed by the foreign sport cars he saw there. He went back to Detroit determined to design an American counterpart. In it’s early development it was known as “Project Opel” and a prototype appeared as a concept car at the 1953 Motorama. Later that year, the first production models were made available to the public. The rest is history. The car is now in it’s seventh design generation and has been continuously in production for 59 years. It is GMs biggest success story. Nearly 1.3 million Corvettes have been produced and an estimated 900,000 still exist today!

Tail Fins

Tail fins were an American Icon of the 1950s. Garish, chunky and impractical, the heyday of the tail fin was about 1950 to 1962 (although similar design embellishments existed before and after this time period.) Earl has been credited with bringing them to the forefront in American automobile design. In the late 1940’s, he approved a design by Style Department employee Frank Hershey for the 1948 Cadillac that had small tailfins inspired by the twin tailed Lockheed P-38 fighter plane of World War II. Fins caught on and were seen on many GM models through the 1950’s. Other car manufacturers in the United States and abroad soon followed suit and for a time it seemed like there was a competition between GM, Ford and Chrysler as to who could have the biggest, most garish tail fins on their cars. The high point for tailfins occurred in 1959, with Cadillac (see photo below). Tailfins will always remain a symbol of the 1950s.

1957 Cadillac
1957 Cadillac | Source
1959 Cadillac
1959 Cadillac | Source

Harley Earl was a visionary. By constantly looking for new design components his Style Department brought car design forward. Sue Vanderbuilt, former “Design Damsel” once said, the Style Department “grabbed engineering kicking and screaming into the 20th century.” Earl was known as the “Style Czar” and has been called the “da Vinci of Detroit” Both of these are well deserved accolades. One can only imagine what automobiles would be like today without his innovations.

Harley Earl at the wheel of the Buick Y Job
Harley Earl at the wheel of the Buick Y Job | Source


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