To everyone's surprise, the first car designed by General Motors' new Art and Colour Section under Harley Earl was — well, a disaster.
Earl's team's initial effort came to be known as the "pregnant" 1929 Buick. The car had a bulge just below its belt line, and thus looked pregnant — but it wasn't because of Earl's design. Production engineers at Fisher Body and their cost-conscious allies within GM decided to change the car's shape to make it easier to produce.
To modern eyes, used to flowing curves and aerodynamic rounded auto bodies, the slight belt line bulge of the '29 Buick is almost invisible. But given the styling of the time — all flat surfaces and right angles — the car was a shocker. Walter Chrysler was the first to use the "pregnant" wisecrack, and it stuck.
A battle ensued — and the saga of the bulging Buick ended well for Earl and his fledgling department.
Earl, who had Alfred Sloan's ear, won the right to be consulted about any changes to designs that would be requested by the production department.
Because of Sloan's support, Earl's power grew to legendary proportions. Chuck Jordan, who spent 40 years in GM design and retired as its leader, notes that when Earl "had a problem with a (division) general manager who said something like, 'I don't like that front end, Harley,' Earl would just go to the phone.
" 'Alfred,' he'd say, 'I have this fellow here who doesn't like this design we did. ... Yes, I'll tell him.' "
The battle over the '29 Buick not only solidified Earl's status within GM, it made him realize that he needed engineers within styling to help head off such problems before they occurred.
Thus Earl brought integrated vehicle design to GM and to the auto industry.
He also made sure everyone — designers, engineers and executives — would know how a car would look long before it rolled off an assembly line.
One way he did so was by making sure two-dimensional drawings were transformed into full-sized clay models, so everyone might see the vehicle's proportions in proper scale.
Such clay modeling would become the industry standard and allowed better development of shapes and surfaces than was possible by simply trying to interpret a shape directly from a drawing into a metal form.