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Harley J. Earl (November 22, 1893–April 10, 1969) was an automotive stylist and engineer and industrial designer. He is most famous for his time at General Motors from 1927 until 1959. Earl was instrumental in establishing the industry or business of designing cars and the rules and principles behind the "Automobile Design" profession when none existed before in America. His thinking brought out a certain talent that he was able to style such gems as the Buick LeSabre show car and other equally impressive firsts. They include, but are not limited to, being the father of the Corvette, introducing the annual styling model change, putting the first-ever onboard computer in an automobile, chrome trim, two-tone paint, hardtops, and wrap-around windshields, but he probably is best known to the general public for beginning the tailfin craze that dominated automobile styling in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The first car Earl designed was the 1927 La Salle, a smaller companion car to the Cadillac. His car quite resembled the Hispano-Suiza that various Hollywood celebrities and American nouveaux riches were buying at the time, a fashion that Cadillac executives resented. And, as the more expensive cars of that time were usually sold as chassis, drive-train, fenders, radiator, and cowling to be given a body by a specialized coachbuilding firm, it was the first car of that sort that was designed body and all by a professional in a motor firm. But what GM always kept hush-hush (and Earl wanted it this way while he was alive to protect his anonymity) is that he was a giant contemporary artist who literally got millions of Americans hooked on his designs created for GM.
Dave Hickey, author of "Air Guitar, Essays on Art and Democracy" (1998), whose writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, Art News, Art in America, ArtForum, Interview, Harper's Magazine, Vanity Fair, Nest, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times does a good job clearing up the picture on Earl's artwork in a segment titled, “The Battle of the Big, Beautiful Art Market.” He wrote: “after WW II, Harley Earl of GM turned the marketing of automobiles from being about what they do to what they mean." Hickey’s point was that as industries become commoditized, as is now happening in the computer market, intangibles play a greater role in product differentiation. Apple has been a pioneer in marketing computers for what they mean rather than what they do. Everything from the 1984 ad to "Think Different" speaks to the self image of the user who chooses an Apple product. In addition, Hickey went on to say, “The Leonardo of this new art market (or more precisely, its Monet) was an ex-custom-car designer named Harley Earl, who headed the design division of General Motors during the postwar period.”
Perhaps the following statement by Irvin W. Rybicki, a 42-year GM veteran who worked under Earl and later became the third vice president of GM Design (1977-1986), best explains the invidious comparisons people make these days between the great GM designs Earl once created versus the bland and mediocre vehicles GM cranks out today: "Harley Earl is responsible for more than half of GM's greatest 20th century milestones. The fact this company had exclusivity of all his work and was able to capitalize off his artistic efforts and innovative engineering ideas first, is perhaps why this man's story is so controversial and a kept secret today in Detroit."
Since he was responsible for the very first concept car - the Buick "Y" job of 1938, which had concealed headlamps and prefigured later Buick design motifs - Earl is credited as being the father of the concept car approach; i.e. the idea of making a car prototype to showcase a new vehicle's styling, technology and overall design long before mass production decisions have to be taken by engineers. But given the immediate postwar sales boom, his second concept car was prepared only in 1950. This was the Le Sabre (later a production car), the gimmick of which was its extreme lowness, by having the carburetor and air cleaner taken off the top of the engine and put alongside the cylinder heads. At first, Earl and the concept cars toured the United States in the GM Motorama shows.
Earl saw his contribution to auto design in more general æsthetic terms. He noted that all through his career his purpose had been to lower and lengthen the car, because according to his sense of modern proportions, oblongs were more appealing to the eye than squares. One auto historian put it this way: "Earl was responsible for the design of the modern American car while at General Motors in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s when the 'stock car' was born."
Today, a concept car designed by Earl, the Firebird I, is immortalized as one of the most prized possessions in sport, The Harley J. Earl Daytona 500 Trophy, which goes to the winner of that season-opening NASCAR race.
To celebrate the Buick nameplate going in a new direction leading up to its 100th anniversary in the 2003 model year, GM began airing commercials in the fall of 2002 featuring actor John Diehl depicting Earl as Buick's leading spokesperson. His catchphrase was, "My name is Harley Earl, and I've come back to sell you a Buick." In print advertisements he became known as the da Vinci of Detroit, and on TV, the company's cars were shown with Earl's trademark fedora on the hood with the accompanying caption "Harley Earl was here," and it was called "the company where Harley Earl hung his hat."
Earl instituted using "Oscar" (and also named this full-size test dummy after the Academy Awards Oscar statue that originally came from Earl’s hometown of Hollywood) as the first safety crash-test dummy. He took another giant step forward for the entire modern auto industry by later putting the first onboard computer in a car. Today, every passenger car and truck has one. Earl also pioneered the first all-steel “turret-top” design that went on to dramatically revolutionize how all American cars would be built after the late '30s. This one auto design innovation proved to be one of the most important pre-World War II milestones in the history of the auto industry at curbing deaths caused by rollover.
In addition, you could write the evolution of engineering safety in building American cars by writing a biography on Harley Earl’s largely unexamined story of inventing the modern auto design profession. Rather than try to list anymore safety innovations he and his GM Styling Section originally pioneered, let’s just quote the lofty title of a comprehensive nine-page Sunday magazine rotogravure article from a May 1969, Detroit Free Press that drills down on the facts, “Harley J. Earl: The Man Who Invented the Modern Car.” The story’s subtitle was, “How One Man’s Ideas Reshaped An Entire Industry”. Well, human engineering and safety design always were fundamental to how Earl built GM’s cars during his watch. The fact that GM's new management in the 1960s chose to disregard Earl's rules and principles of safety design is another story entirely.
Earl's idea for the perfect GM in the post WW II era was to ensure that women could achieve upper level positions within the organization. In fact, a number of newspaper stories from the mid '50s (to read them just click the pictured "Damsels of Design” link at the official Harley Earl Web site listed below) document his being a visionary and having a well-earned reputation in the car business. These newspaper articles confirm Earl as the very first modern pioneer to hire, promote and ensure women a formidable beachhead within the hierarchical strata of Detroit’s male-dominated auto industry. This high-risk/high-reward milestone by Earl caused other male leaders inside GM to be “apprehensive” as one 1957 Detroit News story reported. Not only did he largely contribute to advancing the women’s movement in Detroit, “Harley Earl was first to hire openly gay men and women designers to come work for GM Styling”, said Larry Falloon, a retired manager who worked at GM Styling/Design for more than 35 years.