DETROIT'S DA VIN­CIS

Die Cast X - - DETROIT'S DA VINCIS - BY MATT BOYD

Har­ley Earl, Bill Mitchell, Vir­gil Exner, and the golden age of de­sign

To­day, we take it as given that de­sign is an in­dis­pens­able pil­lar of the au­to­mo­tive busi­ness, in­ter­twin­ing ve­hi­cle en­gi­neer­ing and brand mar­ket­ing into a co­he­sive whole to el­e­vate sta­tus, stim­u­late de­mand, and—most of all—evoke pos­i­tive emo­tions in the con­sumer. It is the most high-stakes form of in­dus­trial de­sign out there to­day, with bil­lions of dol­lars and often the very fu­ture of a brand rid­ing on the suc­cess or fail­ure of its de­signs. But it wasn’t al­ways so. In the early days of the auto in­dus­try, body de­sign was a func­tion-driven af­ter­thought or, at best, farmed out to a sep­a­rate coach­build­ing firm that de­signed the aes­thet­ics long af­ter the ve­hi­cle chas­sis and run­ning gear had left the fac­tory. The per­son most di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for the tec­tonic shift in the in­dus­try was Har­ley Earl, both through his own ground­break­ing ef­forts and through the gen­er­a­tion of au­to­mo­tive stylists he men­tored—men like Earl-suc­ces­sor Bill Mitchell and pro­tégé-turned-crosstown ri­val Vir­gil Exner—that truly de­fined the Amer­i­can au­to­mo­tive cul­tural iden­tity for a half cen­tury. Let’s take a closer look at them and some of the mas­ter­pieces that de­fined an in­dus­try.

Har­ley Earl Bill Mitchell Vir­gil Exner

PHO­TOS COUR­TESY OF GM ME­DIA ARCHIVE AND FIAT CHRYSLER AU­TO­MO­BILES

Of all Har­ley Earl’s mas­ter­pieces, the 1938 Buick Y-Job may be his Sis­tine Chapel. Gen­er­ally re­garded as the first con­cept car, it was loaded with tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tions far ahead of its time, and it in­tro­duced the ver­ti­cal bar grille, which re­mains a Buick-sig­na­ture styling el­e­ment to this day.

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