If you’ve ever loved the design cues, body lines, or silhouette of a vehicle – even if it’s custom, you owe thanks to Harley Earl. The first ever head of a factory design department, Earl changed the style, class, and character of automobiles from the very beginning of his career. But, what led to Earl becoming GM’s design wizard? Answering that takes us back to the year he was born!
Born in Los Angeles, in November of 1893, Earl had a jump-start on what would soon become the automotive industry, and the Hollywood motion picture industry. Born a year before the first motion picture was produced, and two years before Henry Ford came out with his first production car, Earl quickly became intrigued by both increasingly-popular industries while growing up. Earl was also a born artist, one that was born into a family of coach builders.
With an eye for style and a mind for the unique, Earl began modeling cars out of clay at an early age, but these weren’t just models of production cars. Rather they were futuristic designs – concepts that Earl had crafted in his imagination. Part of this interest in unique designs stemmed from spending time with his father in the family’s shop, Earl Carriage Works. It was here that Earl got an unofficial education, and a ton of experience in designing, drafting, and ultimately creating unique vehicles. But Earl’s formal training in arts and science came from Stanford University.
At the close of WWI, Earl Carriage Works was sold to the Don Lee Corporation, owner of a large Cadillac dealership in the Los Angeles area. Though the company was no longer his father’s business, Earl continued a relationship with the coach building company as the director of Don Lee’s body shop.
It was through this position that Earl put his formal and informal training to work, building custom vehicles for Hollywood’s A-listers. One of the first custom vehicles Earl built in his position at Don Lee’s, was a custom Pierce Arrow for star Fatty Arbuckle.
Quickly gaining notoriety as the coach-builder for Hollywood’s finest, Earl began to garner attention from even bigger companies than Don Lee’s. After the dealership purchased several Cadillac chassis’ from GM, Earl met president of General Motors, Alfred Sloan, and general manager of Cadillac, Lawrence Fisher. Both extremely impressed by Earl, so much so, that they asked the talented young designer to do some contract work for Cadillac.
Through this contract position, Earl helped redesign the entire Cadillac lineup, starting with the design and creation of the 1927 LaSalle. Earl’s design and engineering work with the LaSalle, resulted in him being offered a position as the director of the newly-formed Art and Colour Section of GM. This was the first in-house design studio of a major automotive manufacturer.
Earl remained in this department for the extent of his career, but in the beginning, he had to share control of designs with the Fisher brothers, and make concessions to the company’s engineers and builders. Earl found it difficult to create the unique designs he wanted, and when his designs were put into play, some didn’t turn out well. One of those was the Silver Anniversary Buick, which became known as the Pregnant Buick due to its bulged post-production appearance.
Despite these set backs, Earl persevered, and regained his popularity within the ranks of GM with his design and creation of the Cadillac Aerodynamic Coupe for the 1933 General Motors Pavilion at the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. It was this car that solidified the need for designers to be in charge of how vehicles look. Earl’s next major design success came in the form of the Buick Y-Job, a futuristic two-seat sports car that not only had bigger, bolder styling cues than cars of its time, but also, the latest in state-of-the-art features like electric windows, a concealed convertible top, and disappearing headlights.
In 1940, Earl was promoted to vice president of General Motors. Through this position, he became known for his ever-changing contributions to the industry, like the tailfins of classic Cadillacs, pillarless tops found on some of GM’s high-end models, and the two-seater Corvette produced in 1953. Earl was also a champion of women working in the industry, hiring many women designers for GM.
Earl was a true visionary and a design pioneer, not only for General Motors, but for automotive design throughout the industry. For more information on Earl’s accomplishments and projects within GM in his later years, be sure to check out the GM Heritage Center website!