Styling, once an afterthought, became important sales tool
Boxy and black was out; the Earl era was curvy and colorful
"What Harley J. Earl began in the clay of Bailey's Ranch, he later shaped into an industry of tremendous economic and social importance," Automobile Quarterly said in 1982.
Earl, wrote automotive historian Michael Lamm, "wasn't the first man to 'style' a car, but he did create the business or industry of designing cars," during his reign, leading General Motors styling through four decades.
He "saw its tremendous potential in terms of car sales, and ... Harley Earl had the personality to convince the engineering-dominated auto industry to recognize its importance.
"Making styling more than the frosting on the engineer's cake was Harley Earl's great contribution to the American economy."
Hollywood style in Motown
Before GM hired Earl in 1927, cars were designed either by engineers and technicians or by coachbuilders — people such as Earl's father, who added some artistic style to the production cars.
Earl's father, J.W. Earl, was a lumberjack and sawmill operator in Michigan who moved to Los Angeles, where, at age 23, he opened a carriage shop. In 1908, Earl Carriage Works became Earl Automobile Works, producing windshields and other components for motorcars.
Three years later, Earl Automobile Works began doing custom body work, especially for the stars of Hollywood's budding film industry. Many of them were his neighbors in Hollywood, then still a farming community.
Harley Earl was born in Hollywood in 1893. He was a good athlete and set a pole-vaulting record at the University of Southern California before his family sent him to Stanford with the hope that he would turn his attention from sports to law. Instead, he sustained a serious leg injury on the athletic field and returned home to recuperate and to work for his father.
In 1918, Harley Earl started designing custom coachwork — long, low and racy styling that appealed to movie stars and other wealthy clients.
Enter Larry Fisher
J.W. Earl sold his business to Don Lee, Cadillac's West Coast distributor, and in 1919 and 1920, Harley Earl designed more than 100 custom bodies for Don Lee Coach and Body Works and for clients that included film stars Mary Pickford, Tom Mix and Fatty Arbuckle.
In 1921, Lee introduced Earl to Cadillac President Richard Collins, who asked Earl to design six scale models that Collins could show to his dealers. Collins left Cadillac before the models were finished.
Larry Fisher became Cadillac president and visited California to see Lee and Earl, who won the flamboyant Fisher's favor by introducing him to several movie stars. Encouraged by his brother, Fred, a co-founder of Fisher Body, Larry Fisher hired Earl to design a car GM wanted to fill a gap between its Cadillac and Buick brands.
For three months, Earl and a GM model maker worked to create what would become the 1927 LaSalle, which is considered the first car from a major automaker designed with an artistic rather than an engineer's eye.
Taking on Ford
Like Fisher, GM President Alfred Sloan liked Earl. Sloan was eager for GM to overtake Ford, which had ridden its black and boxy Model T to become the world's largest automaker. Sloan was convinced that people wanted something more colorful — something with style, something fashionable. He also recognized that changing designs encouraged people to buy cars more often.
In 1927, Sloan established within GM an Art and Colour Section and hired 34-year-old Earl as its head. Earl would lead GM design until his retirement at the end of 1959.
Earl filled his 50-person section with talent. Among his early hires were Gordon Buehrig, who later designed much-heralded Cords; John Tjaarda, who later did Lincolns and Packards; Frank Hershey, who long before designing the 1955 Thunderbird at Ford did the 1935 Pontiac with Earl; and Virgil Exner, who in the 1950s led Chrysler's design studio and become perhaps the only challenger to Earl's supremacy among American car designers.
Tom Hibbard, of Hibbard & Darrin in Paris, was recruited. Richard Teague, who would become chief designer at Packard and then design vice president at American Motors, worked in Earl's studio. So did Strother MacMinn, whom many consider the most influential of all designers because of his long reign as chief instructor at the Art Center College of Design in California.
Mitchell, Jordan sign on
Early on, Earl hired Bill Mitchell, a 23-year-old racer and advertising illustrator who would design a succession of outstanding GM vehicles before succeeding Earl as head of GM's design department.
In 1940, Earl was promoted to vice president, an unprecedented title for an auto designer, though his primary title remained the respectful "Mistearl," as he was known within the GM studios.
"He didn't sketch, but he had this wonderful intuitive sense of where to go and what to do," recalls Chuck Jordan, now 80, whose 40-year career in GM design studios began under Earl.
Jordan, who retired in 1992 as head of GM design, remembers how Earl preferred to work in front of a large board using full-scale tape lines to create a car's design.
"He would have a gang of engineers and designers around him and he would put together the car," Jordan says, remembering how nervous he was the first time Earl turned to him and said, "Young fellow, go up there and lower that roofline an eighth of an inch."
Flights of fancy
Earl reigned over GM design through the fin era. He was responsible for millions and millions of cars that carried Americans across town and across the continent, and he inspired Americans by building cars that pointed toward an optimistic future.
Earl's first dream car — generally recognized as the first true concept car — was unveiled in 1938 as the Buick Y-Job.
Earlier design-exercise vehicles had been created primarily to explore aerodynamics. But Earl's dream cars were design studies that incorporated futuristic technologies. The Y-Job took its name from experimental aircraft and was the first car with a power convertible top and electric windows. And it was Earl's daily transportation.
After World War II, Earl and his team designed concepts for GM's annual Motorama shows. The Chevrolet Corvette was a Motorama concept in 1953, but perhaps Earl's most astounding concepts were the 1954, 1956 and 1959 Firebirds, ground-bound jets with huge fins and canopy tops, cars that epitomized Earl's vision of blending automotive and aerospace design and technology.
Earl's vision of the future wasn't limited to the highways. He worked with architect Eero Saarinen on the design of the GM Technical Center in suburban Detroit.
Before his retirement at 65, Harley Earl, who first fashioned cars out of clay, had a hand in the creation of about 50 million GM vehicles. More significant to the auto industry, he developed the techniques and organizational structure that would produce seemingly every mass-produced car for the past eight decades and for decades still to come.
You can reach Larry Edsall at firstname.lastname@example.org.