Harley Earl – Legendary Auto Designer


Several years ago General Motors aired a series of commercials featuring a ghostly, fedora-wearing figure whom it identifies as Harley Earl, GM’s legendary chief stylist. The implication is that the spirit of design which Earl once exemplified has returned to a company whose products have been lacking panache during that time.

It’s an interesting touch, using a long-dead designer to symbolize a return to past glories, though both the automotive press and the ad journals criticized the commercials at the time as having no relevance to younger buyers or, in fact, anyone lacking a knowledge of automotive history.

Still, it is assumed that most of us respond positively to the idea of individual presence in a huge corporation.

So who was this man, and why is he still revered among designers and those in the know? Simply put, Harley J Earl was the first head of General Motors’ Art and Color Section which, itself, was the first automobile styling department ever developed within a car company. During the 32 years Earl held the job, he was responsible for the appearance of more than 50 million cars and influenced the look of millions more.

Earl had been working with the Don Lee Studios in California, designing custom bodies for wealthy movie stars, when GM boss Alfred Sloan became aware of his talent and brought him to Detroit. His first assignment was the 1928 LaSalle. Influenced by the Spanish luxury car Hispano-Suiza, Earl introduced subtle curves and superbly balanced masses to make the LaSalle, in its time, an elegantly beautiful motor car and a trend-setter for America.

By the mid-1930’s Earl decided that all GM makes, according to their position in the hierarchy, should bear some resemblance to the current Cadillac, with shared body panels and design features trickling down to the lowest-cost Chevrolets. This concept worked wonders for General Motors for decades and was copied, often with less success, by most other manufacturers.

In 1938 Harley Earl caused a sensation with his landmark Y-Job, the industry’s first “dream car” (we call them concept cars nowadays). Built on a Buick chassis the Y-Job was so named because every new car was a “job” and Earl was fascinated by prototype fighter planes identified by the prefix “Y”.

Amazingly the car still exists. It is now being displayed by GM at major concours in the United States. Bob Lutz, GM’s vice-president of North American product development and a charismatic individual himself, says “the Buick Y-Job exemplifies the elements of great design… its compelling and pure form provokes an emotional response that says ‘I want to drive this automobile.'”

Perhaps Harley Earl’s most influential production automobile was the 1948 Cadillac, which featured tiny fins sprouting from the back of the rear fenders. Still impressed by aircraft design, Earl got the idea from the WW2 P-38 fighter plane’s unusual twin booms with their dominant tail fins. Cadillac’s fins subsequently grew to the point of absurdity but the idea influenced American — even European — vehicle design well into the 1960’s.

In the years following the war cars became, to quote Julian Pettifer and Niger Turner in their excellent book Automania, “a fantasy symbol for gratification and an expression of power, of youth, of escape… and the very centerpiece of an affluent society.” Meanwhile, Harley Earl had learned that the public rejects designs it perceives as too far advanced and so he reasoned, correctly, that if a vehicle was displayed as a lavish and unattainable dream it would become desirable by the time it went into production.

This philosophy led to the famed GM Motoramas: splendid displays of dream cars sitting alongside production models “with all the pageantry and glitter of a Hollywood first night.” The initial Motorama appeared at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria but in subsequent years became, literally, a travelling road show and an opportunity for Earl to prove his theory.

Among the 39 dream cars eventually produced for Motorama was the Le Sabre, which had a radiator opening like a jet engine nacelle, the world’s first wrap-around windshield, a water-sensitive top that raised automatically when moisture fell, and a magnesium and aluminum body. The Le Sabre was one of Earl’s favorites and he frequently drove it himself.

Another of Harley Earl’s fantasies was the GM Firebird 1, a delta-winged, single-seat, gas-turbine powered machine, built as a rolling laboratory to test new concepts in styling and engineering. Though never intended as a car for the street, the Firebird has been preserved and like other GM dream cars that somehow managed to avoid the crusher (many such cars were spirited into secret hiding places by designers and engineers unwilling to see their projects destroyed) is again on the show circuit.

Perhaps Harley Earl’s most long-lasting accomplishment was the Corvette, envisaged by him as an affordable sports car for college-age buyers. With the enthusiastic backing of chief engineer Ed Cole, Earl initially developed the Corvette as Chevrolet’s contribution to the 1953 Motorama, but it was more street-ready than most of his dream cars and soon went into limited production. Once the initial Stovebolt Six and 2-speed Powerglide was replaced with a V-8 and manual transmission, the Corvette became “America’s Sports Car,” a title it never relinquished; not even to the limited-production Viper.

The Harley Earl post-war design era was often one of exaggeration, noted for lavish applications of chrome, “Dagmar” bumper guards (named for a film actress whose forward extremities were notably large), instrument panels inspired by airplanes, cars so large they were referred to as land yachts, the aforementioned wraparound windshields that eventually went out of fashion, huge fender fins, and dozens of useless design gimmicks. Earl was a major player in this orgy of excess, and yet he deserves full credit for adding style, romance, and yes… dreams, to a machine that is often described by the transportation-insensitive as just a device for getting from A to B.

Underlings called him bullying and dogmatic, and photos show him as the kind of guy you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. Yet Harley Earl dressed with flair, ruled with style, and helped make GM the giant it used to be.

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