Earl, Harley J.

Harley Earl
GM's First Design Chief

Harley J. Earl commanded the Styling Staff of General Motors from its inception as the Art and Colour Section in 1927 until his retirement in 1959. He was a giant of a man both literally and figuratively as he would come to popularize and dominate the field of automotive design for decades.

Harley Earl was born November 22, 1893 in Los Angeles, California into a family of coach builders and body makers. His father pioneered and owned Earl Carriage Works. It was in his father’s factory that he received his early training and practical experience. It is also where he honed his designing and drafting skills. He received his education in the public schools of California and his formal training in the arts and sciences at Stanford University.

At the close of World War I, the Don Lee Corporation of Los Angeles, a major Cadillac dealer in the area, purchased the Earl Coachworks and employed Harley as director of its custom body shop which specialized in creating unique designs for open and closed cars on foreign and American chassis. Most of these cars were built for the wealthy celebrities. One of Harley’s first jobs for Don Lee was to customize a Pierce Arrow chassis for Fatty Arbuckle. As custom coachbuilder to the stars, Harley earned an enviable reputation as an automotive designer.

While employed with Don Lee, Harley met Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., President of General Motors, and Lawrence Fisher, General Manager of Cadillac, when the dealership purchased a number of Cadillac V-63 chassis for customization. The men from GM were so impressed with Harley during their visit to California that they secured his services as a consulting engineer for Cadillac. The result of this partnership was the design and creation of the original 1927 LaSalle as well as the redesign of the Cadillac motor car line.

In 1927, Harley was appointed by Sloan as director of a newly formed department of General Motors that was to be known as the Art and Colour Section (changed to Styling Section in 1937). By the end of that first year, Harley had organized a staff of fifty designers and draftsmen and directed them in the design and color work for all of General Motors product lines as built by Fisher Body. In the beginning, he shared control of design with the powerful Fisher Brothers but eventually he would gain complete control of automotive styling, both exterior and interior as well as embracing the design of auto exhibits, experimental dream cars, streamlined trains, home appliances, batteries, radios, and all other products and accessories manufactured by General Motors.

Despite garnering praise for the 1927 LaSalle and his early work on the Cadillac line, successes were few during Harley’s early days at General Motors. He found it difficult to work in an environment where he was forced to share control and make concessions to the engineers and body builders of the company. In 1928, Harley was asked by Buick to create a special model for its silver anniversary. For this design, he replaced the traditional belt line molding with a slight bulge sculptured into the sheet metal. Unfortunately, his original design directives were not carried out well in production and the resulting car would come to be known as the “Pregnant Buick.” Buick sales dropped and Harley’s reputation suffered a hit as he was an easy target within the company to blame.

Despite missteps such as this and the poor automotive market of the Depression, Harley regained his stature within General Motors and the automotive world in 1933 when Cadillac asked him to prepare a special model to showcase at the General Motors pavilion at the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. This car was called the Cadillac Aero-Dynamic Coupe and was unlike any other car of its time. This “show car” had a number of innovations including an all-steel, contoured, one-piece roof that would later lead to the famed Turret-Top. The Aero-Dynamic Coupe was a hit and helped to re-establish the idea within the GM executive ranks that the appearance of passenger cars should be left up to the designers. The Aero-Dynamic Coupe would later go into limited production.

Harley Earl and Harlow Curtice
In 1938, Harley introduced the world to another of his “show cars,” the Buick Y-Job. Harley had struck up a friendship with Buick General Manager Harlow Curtice and begun to favor the Buick models above all of GM’s products. Thus, the Y-Job was designated a Buick. The Y-Job was a showcase for future of not only Buick styling but for that of the entire corporation. The Y-Job was a two-passenger sports convertible built on a standard Buick chassis but because of its advanced exterior styling it appeared longer and lower than the cars of its time. It incorporated many state-of-the-art features including fender extensions over the doors, disappearing headlamps, flush door handles, a convertible top concealed automatically by a metal cover, and electric window regulators. Harley used the Y-Job as his everyday car for many years and eventually racked up more than 50,000 miles on it.

In 1940, Harley was elected a vice president of the General Motors Corporation further cementing his influence over the company’s design direction. The events of World War II curtailed automobile production for the first half of the 1940s but would also influence one of Harley’s most enduring styling triumphs. Harley was taken with the design of the P-38 Lightning fighter plane and it inspired him to incorporate jet-like characteristics into the design of the new Cadillac. For the 1948 model year, tailfins adorned the rear of Cadillac cars for the first time. The tailfin would grow in popularity and stature for the next decade and a half. They finally reached their apex in 1959 before bowing out in the mid-1960s.

Harley Earl in his LeSabre
Styling Section continued to design and build special show cars for various General Motors exhibitions but in the 1950s, “dream cars” really became Harley Earl’s calling card. Thirteen years after the Y-Job, Harley’s Styling Section introduced the LeSabre and its companion car, the Buick XP-300. The LeSabre would become Harley’s personal car just like the Y-Job before it. It took its styling cues from the jet-age and had an aluminum body, a wrap-around windshield, tailfins, and a unique front nose scoop. The XP-300 was another aluminum-bodied convertible and was the result of a friendly design competition between Harley Earl and Buick’s chief engineer Charles Chayne. It was powered by a supercharged V-8 engine that ran on a mixture of methanol and gasoline.

A couple of years later, the Motorama period of GM “dream cars” was initiated by Harley Earl. Under Harley’s leadership, Styling Section created dozens of unique vehicles that would travel the country, demonstrate the future of automotive design, and capture the imagination of the American public by showing them a futuristic vision of personal transportation. The Motorama dream cars include:

Chevrolet Corvette
Pontiac Parisienne
Oldsmobile Starfire
Buick Wildcat I
Cadillac LeMans
Cadillac Orleans

Firebird I
Chevrolet Corvette Nomad
Chevrolet Corvette Corvair
Pontiac Strato-Streak
Pontiac Bonneville Special
Oldsmobile F-88
Oldsmobile Cutlass
Buick Wildcat II
Cadillac Park Avenue
Cadillac La Espada
Cadillac El Camino

GMC L’Universelle
Chevrolet Biscayne
Pontiac Strato-Star
Oldsmobile Delta
Buick Wildcat III
Cadillac LaSalle II Coupe and Roadster
Cadillac Eldorado Brougham

Firebird II
Chevrolet Impala
Pontiac Club de Mer
Oldsmobile Golden Rocket
Buick Centurion
Cadillac Eldorado Brougham Town Car

Firebird III
Cadillac Cyclone

General Motors introduced many styling innovations onto their production models during the 1950s as well. During this last decade of Harley’s tenure, Styling Section created the classic Chevrolets of 1955-1957, designed pillarless hardtops on both coupes (1950 Pontiac Chieftain Catalina) and sedans (Buick Roadmaster, Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight and Cadillac Sedan de Ville) in 1955 and developed the first true, American sports car in the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette. He was also very active in the Firebird gas turbine program.

In 1959 when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 65, Harley Earl left General Motors and was succeeded by his protégé William Mitchell. He and his wife Sue left Detroit behind for the sunny climes of Florida but his legacy in the world of automotive design would be felt for decades to come.

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