Harley Earl The “Da Vinci of Detroit"
Recently, General Motors resurrected an automotive icon from the past to help introduce the newly restyled Buicks for 2003. Today, Harley Earl is known only as a character in GM's television commercials, yet his legacy as GM's premiere design engineer is still very much alive. It is his vision that defines the lexicon of what "is" a Classic Car today.
Harley Earl was born on November 22, 1893 in Los Angles California, one of the first cities designed for the automobile. His father, J.W. Earl, was from Michigan and had worked there as a lumberjack. In 1889 the senior Earl moved his family to the west coast and became a coach maker, building carriages, wagons, and racing sulkies. With the advent of the automobile he founded Earl Automobile Works in 1908 and began making customized parts and accessories for cars.
The younger Earl attended Stanford University, but returned home before completing his engineering studies in order to focus on design and styling at his father's business. By the early 1920's Harley Earl was designing custom auto bodies for most of Hollywood's elite. His first notable project was a $28,000 streamlined car body for Rococo "Fatty" Arbuckle, Hollywood's brightest star at the time. One of his more famous designs was a custom body with a saddle on the hood built for cowboy star Tom Mix.
Cecil B. De Mille, who owned several custom body automobiles, believed the success of the movies and automobiles went hand in hand. De Mille said the success of movies and automobiles reflected "the heart of motion and speed, the restless urge toward improvement, expansion, and the kinetic energy of a young, vigorous nation."
During this same period, Earl Automobile Works also provided custom bodies for the large Southern California Cadillac dealership owned by Don Lee. Impressed with the Earl's success, Don Lee purchased the company. Becoming Don Lee Coach & Body Works, Harley remained as general manager, providing the design work and running the body plant.
The business of supplying coach-built bodies for the luxury car market was lucrative and the Lee-Earl partnership prospered. By the mid 1920s they were turning out 300 bodies a year, shipping some bodies as far away as India and Europe.In 1926 Harley's success with the Don Lee Cadillac organization attracted the attention of Fred Fisher, patriarch of the famed Fisher Brothers. His enthusiasm for Harley's success with luxury cars eventually prompted Larry Fisher, president of Cadillac, to phone Don Lee and request that Harley Earl be sent to Detroit for consultation regarding the LaSalle.
GM had introduced the LaSalle that year to fill the price gap between the Buick and the Cadillac, but the car was a sales disappointment. Upon Harley's arrival, the LaSalle project was removed from the engineering department and put in the hands of the newly formed design department headed up by Harley. The newly redesigned LaSalle for 1927 caused a sensation. Nearly 50,000 LaSalle's were sold by the end of 1929, but sales never recovered from the depression years and production was discontinued after the 1940 model year.
Eager to capitalize on their successes, Alfred Sloan was determined to establish styling and colors for mass produced cars and Harley Earl would be key to that success. Known as the Art and Color Section, the creation of a separate styling department was a first of its kind in the automotive industry. In 1937, Harley changed his Art and Color Section name to Style Section, reflecting the new general focus on design which including creating and modeling studios.
Harley was innovative in his approach to the deployment of a design by introducing two types of design methods. One was a two dimensional rough sketch which consisted of line drawings. The other was to mock-up a design in three dimensional clay models which were presented to management for selection. During the 1930s Earl continued to refine the LaSalle and Cadillac but one of his most famous designs of the era was the Buick "Y Job," widely recognized as the first "concept" car. (Buick officials said the division called it "Y" because so many makers dubbed experimental cars "X") The Buick "Y Job" is one of Harley's most famous designs and is widely considered to be the first "concept" car.
Styling and mechanical features of the "Y Job" showed up on GM products, particularly Buick and Cadillac, through the 1940s. Created by GM Styling and Buick Engineering, the "Y Job" was designed by Harley and built on a production Buick chassis modified by Charlie Chayne, then Buick's chief engineer. Earl drove the "Y Job" as his personal car during World War II years.
The car reflected Harley's principles of longer and lower. It featured disappearing headlamps, flush door handles, a power-operated convertible top that was concealed by a metal deck when down, electric windows and wheels with airplane-type air-cooled brake drums.
The tailfin, a brainchild of Harley's, was first introduced on the 1948 Cadillac. Another Harley Earl creation, the 1950 LeSabre, embodied many design and styling concepts which would appear on GM cars throughout the '50s including the name, which became a Buick car line name in 1959.
Buick had so many ideas it wanted to try out in 1951 that it built two dream cars, the LeSabre, the brainchild of stylist Harley Earl, and the XP-300, which reflected engineer Charlie Chayne's approach. Both cars made impressive splashes with the press, but the LeSabre, with its jet fighter-inspired styling and flashy technical innovations -- such as a rain detector which activated the convertible roof to go up; made it a hit on the auto show circuit.
GM and Earl tested new ideas on the public with a traveling Motorama that toured the U.S. from 1953 to 1961. Among the ideas displayed were the prototype Corvette, the Chevrolet Nomad, and the Eldorado Brougham.
The "fabulous fifties" saw some of the most beautiful and some of the most outlandish vehicles ever made. One observer lamented, "Styling became tyrannical" and another said, "Chrome was god, and Harley Earl was its prophet."
Oldsmobile designer Richard L. Teague once told a story of having two sets of chrome designs for Earl to choose from. By mistake both sets had been put on the same design and Earl said, "Fellas, you got it." The car was produced with both sets of chrome overlays as the stylists shrunk in horror.
Teague said employees always called the boss Mr. Earl. "He demanded respect and he got it. All of us young guys were afraid of him. He kind of scared everybody half to death but he was still a terrific guy." At six feet four, he dressed colorfully, favoring light blue suits and two tone shoes. He loved to get his long body into his low prototype cars that he designed to accommodate himself.
The long pent up demand for cars caused by the Depression and World War II burst into exuberant excess in the 1950s. New expressways were built to accommodate all the new automobiles. They led to new suburbs with drive-in theaters and drive-in restaurants that allowed patrons to remain in their comfy cars.
But the 1950s and '60s were also a shaking out period for the manufacturers. Ten car companies became four. The casualties included Studebaker, Nash, Kaiser-Frazer, Hudson, Packard, Willys and Crosley. The powerful influence of Harley Earl for "lower, longer, wider" and with flashy fins beat down those who could not compete. He said his most famous design, the fender tail fin on the LeSabre dream car, was inspired by an army airplane he had seen at Selfridge Air Force Base in Mt. Clemens during the war; a P38 Lightning-fighter: "When I saw those two rudders sticking up, it gave me a postwar idea. When we introduced it, we almost started a war in the corporation."
The tailfin grew until it became a futuristic parody, sparking a war with other manufactures, each trying to out-doing one another with ever-larger tailfins.
By the time of General Motors' 50th anniversary in 1956, Harley Earl had directly supervised the design of more than 35 million cars. All told he indirectly influenced the designs of more than 60 million cars.
Harley held the chief styling job for 31 years, his staff growing from 50 to 1,100 designers at the time of his retirement. At his retirement in 1957, Harley reflected on his career: "My primary purpose has been to lengthen and lower the American automobile, at times in reality and always at least in appearance. Why? Because my sense of proportion tells me that oblongs are more attractive than squares, just as a ranch house is more attractive than a square, three-story flat-roofed house or a greyhound is more graceful than an English bulldog."
Harley Earl died April 10, 1969, at age 75 after a stroke in West Palm Beach Florida. In his passing his legacy still lives in the Classic Car we love today and now we remember the man that help inspire the hobby we all love.