top of page

Harley J. Earl: America's Automotive Design Pioneer

His name may mean nothing to you, but his realization will surely tell you, that it is not his style that of his techniques of realization. Harley Earl is considered one of the three most important figures in the history of the American auto industry (Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan, GM of GM, are the other two). We will tell you the story of the man who revolutionized automotive design in America.


If Henry Ford began the history of the American automobile gloomy with his black on the Ford T and its industrial process, Harley J. Earl, a colorful man, will give it his letters of nobility by making it attractive by its beauty and its passion.

Harley J. Earl was born in 1893, he joined the General Motors Corporation in 1925 as a designer when the General Motors Corporation planned to start manufacturing a car called LaSalle. It would be sold through Cadillac dealers, but at a price slightly lower than the cheapest Cadillac. Larry Fisher, general manager of Cadillac, was looking for a designer and found his man in the custom body shop at the Los Angeles Cadillac dealership: Harley Earl, son of a Hollywood bodybuilder, who began making vehicles pulled by cars. horses before moving on to auto bodies in 1908. Earl in his early thirties had gained a reputation for building unique autos for wealthy Hollywood movie stars. Hollywood was just starting to set the fashion and style trends. His car for cowboy star Tom Mix, for example, was painted with stars bearing Mix's "TM" logo and a leather saddle on the roof. His car for comedian Fatty Arbuckle, while much more understated and sleek, cost Arbuckle an astounding $ 28,000, at a time when a new Ford T model was selling for under $ 300. It was his first industrial creation.

There were then many stylistic achievements that gave another look at the automobile such as the long fins of the 1950s. Its influence was such that it went beyond the strict framework of design. Before building the final product, Earl made life-size models of his vehicles using plasticine, he was the creator of this technique in the world of automotive design, before him the models were made with sheet metal or with wood, the clay was faster and easier to work. For example, if Earl was not happy with the shape of a door he made, instead of spending hours making a new one out of wood or hammering one by hand, she no longer had than to add a little more clay or scrape off a bit, repeating the process as often as needed until it gets exactly the look it wanted. The ease of use of clay allowed Earl to be very ambitious and creative in his designs and, equally important, to think of the car as a single integrated unit.

Upon arriving in Detroit, Earl designed four different versions of La Salle: a coupe, a roadster, a sedan and a passenger car. He borrowed heavily from the Hispano-Suiza, a popular European luxury car of the time, and then implemented what would become a design principle that would last a lifetime: longer, lower cars seemed more visually appealing than shorter cars with high rooflines.



What Earl's story will also remember is that he created automotive marketing as we know it today in the United States with styling changes every three years. Consumers were eager to trade in their old cars for the latest styling. He created programmed obsolence!

He also introduced chrome painting in addition to the use of plasticine for the design of his models.

He created at GM the Art and Color section, which boosted sales and gave joy to the CEO of GM who hoped to exceed the sales of Ford who had always remained in Black. That was the reason for Earl's hiring.

THE BRIDES OF GM DESIGN

"I think the future of skilled women in automotive design is virtually limitless. In fact, I think in three or four years women will be designing entire automobiles."


Harley Earl was one step ahead of the concept of diversity in the workplace. In fact, he assembled the first all-female design team in the mid-century US industry and enjoyed the unwavering support of GM's senior management every step of the way. Four of the designers were actually victims of GM's subsidiary, Frigidaire, where they had worked on the concept of the kitchen of the future.







He builds a unique prototype predicting a stylistic trend of the future (the first concept car assumed this role in 1939, the Buick Y-Job), such as the drift or a completely disappearing roof, and discovers what excites the public, then adapts with what the public did at the unveiling of the concept car. He would create these dream cars and unveil them on a traveling tour (complete with leggy parades), called Motoramas, which would take place in cities across the country.


From 1930 to 1968, Fisher Body and Earl conducted a talent search, encouraging boys and teenagers to develop their own sketches and designs of vehicles. The response was overwhelming: in 1930 alone, there were over 145,000 entries and over $ 50,000 in awards (around $ 734,000 today) were given out. In the early 1960s, the competition was comparable in size to Boy Scouts: future designers were creating sketches, terracotta models, and other repetitions of their ideas.


Then he would drive the show cars himself after their careers, like the million dollar LeSabre. Sometimes he (even!) Would even give a show car to a friend or once to a businesswoman named Marie "The body" MacDonald (I wonder what his wife thought of this gift…?)



However, the man is described as an authoritarian autocrat, which explains that over the years he lost his grip on society to the dependence of his subordinate Chuck Jordan. He retired in 1959 and died in 1969, on the other hand his achievements will remain engraved forever like the Corvettes ...


and the Cadillac Eldorado.


DESIGN INNOVATIONS

Here is a partial list of some of the innovations that are part of the Harley Earl heritage, things we take for granted for vehicles today:

  • Elimination of steps

  • Chrome body molding, window frames, moldings

  • Contoured and flush fenders and bumpers

  • Headlights mounted on the front fenders

  • Steering wheel horn button

  • Flush door handles

  • On-board computer (in concept cars)

  • On-board radar to avoid collisions (in concept cars)

  • Annual style changes and "dynamic obsolescence"

  • Separate grilles and fascia to differentiate makes and models

  • Wider, lower body and lower center of gravity

  • Heated seats

  • Electric windows

  • Keyless entry

  • Needle tachometer

  • Complete and integrated dashboard

  • Integrated car radio and speakers

  • Contoured rear window and wraparound windshield

  • Hidden filler cap

  • Hidden spare tire

  • Integral trunk and roof design

  • Interior sun visors

  • Crash test dummies

  • Integrated parking lights and indicators

____________________


If you want to know more about the life of Harley J. Earl, I recommend the book: "FINS" Harley Earl, The Rise of General Motors and the Glory Days of Detroit by William Knoedelseder