Harley Earl's design innovations changed the auto industry
A 1927 LaSalle, the first production car designed by Harley Earl, at wheel, who is considered the father of automotive design.
The 1955 Buick Special was among the GM products designed by Harley Earl.
Harley Earl in the 1951 one-of-a-kind Le Sabre convertible that he designed.
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Before Harley Earl came to Detroit in 1926, function and utility ruled the day. Cars were boxy, drab, utilitarian things. But Mr. Earl, who did custom cars for the likes of Cecil B. DeMille, Fatty Arbuckle, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and others, transformed the auto industry by introducing style.
This year, as General Motors Corp. celebrates its 100th anniversary, attention is being paid to the importance of Mr. Earl's role in changing that company into an industrial titan.
Mr. Earl was the father of the annual styling model change, a decidedly bold and risky move in an industry that was cautious and accustomed to drab, "take no chances" automobiles.
"Before Harley came to Detroit, Henry Ford and his business paradigm was the heavyweight champion of the auto industry," said Mr. Earl's grandson, Richard Earl of West Palm Beach, Fla., an automotive historian who brokers sales of Harley Earl's "Motorama" concept car masterpieces. He also is researching an upcoming biography on his grandfather.
"Function and utility ruled the day, and everything else followed. You can barely tell the difference between horseless carriages and the cars of that era."
While at GM, Mr. Earl's design staff came up with innumerable innovations: chrome body moldings and trim, streamlined fender headlamps, built-in trunks, double taillights, streamlined coupe bodies and the removal of running boards from cars.
He also invented hardtop sedans, two-tone paint schemes, wrap-around windshields, and the idea of a concept or dream car that would preview coming styling trends.
And Mr. Earl will forever be remembered as the man who gave the world the tail fin, imprinted in minds all over the world as a symbol of the American automobile.
"Our big job is to hasten obsolescence," Mr. Earl said in 1955. "In 1934, the average car ownership was a span of five years. Now it's two years. When it is one year, we will have a perfect score."
To build suspense for the new designs, every late summer from the 1940s through early 1970s as the next year's models were trucked in, showroom windows were soaped over, sheets were installed on dealer storage lot fences and cars were delivered to dealerships covered in shrouds.
Weeks later, a public that was madly in love with the automobile would storm the balloon-festooned showrooms to see the latest automotive creations.
They had been whipped into a frenzy by teaser newspaper ads, pre-introductory television commercials with sneak peeks showing a fender or perhaps a grille, and magazines that would show conjectural -- and often wrong -- charcoal and pencil sketches of the upcoming cars in their August and September issues.
It was an excitement level that, after the early 1970s, would never again be duplicated for an industry growing short of cash -- and many would say imagination.
Today, at a time when an auto industry beset by falling sales and stiff competition could use some excitement and intrigue to stimulated interest, car companies routinely introduce new models at any time during the year. Thanks to the mixed blessing of the Internet, sneak photos of cars appear far in advance of their unveiling at auto shows, effectively defusing any chance to build excitement, interest or sales.
All of which is a huge change from Mr. Earl's vision.
"Bank presidents and rock and roll stars all wanted the same designs. Elvis Presley wanted the same Cadillacs that everybody else did. It was all about style and visual prestige," Richard Earl said. He noted that his grandfather's mantra was "Beauty for Everyone." "And back then, GM epitomized a standard of excellence. Everybody who wanted to have their products seen as the best wanted to cross promote them with Cadillac. That was the gold standard."
Mr. Earl's destiny took root in the early 1920s when his Hollywood company, the Earl Automobile Works -- founded by his father, J.W. Earl, a 19th century coach builder -- was bought by a local Cadillac dealer. Mr. Earl caught the eye of Lawrence P. Fisher, then general manager of Cadillac, who watched him at work at the dealer's custom body shop.
At Mr. Fisher's urging, Mr. Earl left Hollywood in 1926, took a train to Detroit and started work on the 1927 LaSalle, the first car expressly designed to focus on style as much as utility.
Mr. Earl was so successful that GM President Alfred P. Sloan created the Art and Colour Division at GM, and put Mr. Earl in charge. He became General Motors' design Svengali.
"Harley told the GM board, 'Those cars I design for movie stars and millionaires -- those one-of-a-kind custom cars -- I can have those coming off of GM assembly lines in volume production numbers," Richard Earl said.
"GM was a middle-of-the-pack company back then," Richard Earl said. "The Fisher Brothers (of Body by Fisher fame) realized that Harley was on to something, because they came from a similar coach-building background."
One of the things that most fascinated Mr. Fisher was Mr. Earl's use of modeling clay to develop his designs.
Back then, if you had a custom car you were building, you used sketches, blueprints and hammered out metal sheets. But once you built the car, if the prospective owner didn't like it, you'd just lost a lot of money.
Company executives decided to show off Mr. Earl's full-size clay models of the 1927 LaSalle to the board of directors.
"Picture it," Richard Earl said. "The showing was done in a courtyard setting, like a party. The GM board of directors reviewed this modern, sexy new car. They got in it and tried to start it, but they didn't know these cars were really works of art, made of wood and clay, with real wood wheels and an interior. They were flabbergasted that an individual could build these cars to look so real. They thought they were running prototypes."
Working in clay opened up all kinds of possibilities, and offered a number of advantages.
With a clay model, the company design team actually could see what a car looked like, and make any changes that were needed. As almost anyone familiar with automotive design will tell you, what looks good on paper can be a complete disaster when it's done in three-dimensional form, so using clay was a way to avoid serious mistakes.
Clay's softness and flexibility also encouraged designers to create interesting styling details.
Mr. Earl became a vice president of design and styling for GM in 1940, which "really legitimized the profession, and it signaled that design had become as important to GM management as utility or function," his grandson said.
Until he retired in 1958, Mr. Earl had his hand in just about every design that came from General Motors.
He died in 1969 in West Palm Beach, Fla.. A lengthy obituary in the Detroit News included tributes from the chief designers at the other two of the Big Three: Ford and Chrysler.
Wards Automobile World, one of the oldest trade magazines in the industry, had a cover story to mark his passing with the headline: "Harley J. Earl: The Man Who Invented a New Profession."
First Published October 16, 2008 12:00 am