Har­ley J. Earl

(Gen­eral Mo­tors: 1927–59)


Many car en­thu­si­asts know Har­ley Earl’s name and his nu­mer­ous con­tri­bu­tions to the au­to­mo­tive land­scape, but even be­fore those iconic de­signs danced off the tip of Earl’s pen, he was chang­ing the way the auto busi­ness was done. Earl got his start at his fa­ther’s Los An­ge­les–based coach­build­ing busi­ness, which was sub­se­quently ac­quired by a lo­cal Cadil­lac dealer, and through which Earl de­signed cus­tom coach­works for the celebrity elite of Hol­ly­wood’s Golden Age. That brought him to the at­ten­tion of Al­fred P. Sloan Jr., CEO of Gen­eral Mo­tors, and Lawrence P. Fisher, Cadil­lac’s gen­eral man­ager. They hired Earl as a con­sult­ing en­gi­neer and put him to work on the cre­ation of the orig­i­nal LaSalle in 1927. Based on its suc­cess, Earl was ap­pointed full-time as the first di­rec­tor of the Art and Colour Sec­tion—the first time such a de­sign depart­ment would be brought in-house, which rep­re­sented a fun­da­men­tal change in the struc­ture of Detroit’s largest man­u­fac­turer.

Many of Earl’s early projects fo­cused around GM’s flag­ship-brand Cadil­lac—in­clud­ing the 1933 Aero­dy­namic Coupe for the Gen­eral Mo­tors pavil­ion at Chicago’s Cen­tury of Progress Ex­po­si­tion. This car’s for­ward-think­ing de­sign would presage many de­sign el­e­ments that would be­come Detroit sta­ples in the fol­low­ing years. But the car that is gen­er­ally her­alded as the world’s first con­cept car would be built not for Cadil­lac but for the Buick brand. The so-called “Y-Job” is cred­ited, by many, as Earl’s most im­por­tant de­sign; it is cer­tainly a stylis­tic tour de force and was far ahead of its time. It in­tro­duced such in­no­va­tions as power-op­er­ated hide­away head­lamps; elec­tric win­dows; flush door han­dles; and an au­to­matic fold­ing con­vert­ible top, which dis­ap­peared com­pletely un­der a metal deck cover. It also in­tro­duced

the “wa­ter­fall” ver­ti­cal bar grille, which re­mains a Buicksig­na­ture styling el­e­ment to this day. De­spite be­ing a con­cept car, it was a fully func­tional Buick in ev­ery way. Earl him­self loved the car and used it for his per­sonal ve­hi­cle for sev­eral years, re­port­edly clock­ing more than 50,000 miles on it. Earl was pro­moted to vice pres­i­dent, di­rect­ing the de­sign di­rec­tion of the en­tire com­pany from his new po­si­tion, and ap­pointed his pro­tégé Bill Mitchell to fill his old seat as the chief de­signer at Cadil­lac (and would later ap­point him di­rec­tor of styling for all of GM).

New car pro­duc­tion was halted shortly there­after for World War II, but Earl drew in­spi­ra­tion from its fight­erair­craft de­signs. Leg­end has it he was so taken with the twin boom tail on the P-38 Light­ning fighter that it be­came the in­spi­ra­tion for the emer­gence of tail fins on the 1948 Cadil­lac—GM’s first new post­war de­sign on which he col­lab­o­rated with Mitchell and fel­low Earl pupil Frank Her­shey (who would go on to de­sign the iconic 1955 T-Bird for Ford). Those fins would grow quickly— al­most as quickly as the fin trend would sweep across the in­dus­try. By the mid-1950s, nearly ev­ery Amer­i­can car had them.

In the post­war pe­riod, Earl would dra­mat­i­cally ramp up the pro­duc­tion of GM show cars and con­cepts, be­liev­ing them to be one of the best ways to show­case both the cut­ting-edge styling and the tech­no­log­i­cal prow­ess of GM’s ve­hi­cles. For 1951, Earl per­son­ally over­saw the de­sign and con­struc­tion of the Buick LeSabre, the spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor

to the Y-Job. In­spired by early jet-fighter air­craft, like the F-86 Sabre (from which it de­rived its name), it was the launch­pad for sev­eral tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tions, in­clud­ing the 12-volt elec­tri­cal sys­tem, heated seats, a rain sen­sor to raise the con­vert­ible top, and elec­tri­cally op­er­ated built-in jacks for chang­ing tires. And like the Y-Job be­fore it, Earl used it as his per­sonal ve­hi­cle af­ter it had com­pleted its show tour.

Start­ing in 1953, he cre­ated a trav­el­ing ex­po­si­tion called the Gen­eral Mo­tors Mo­torama, which toured across the coun­try, and from those shows sprung some of the most in­flu­en­tial ve­hi­cles in GM’s lineup. The in­au­gu­ral event saw the in­tro­duc­tion of Amer­ica’s first pro­duc­tion sports car: the Corvette. 1954 brought the world a 2-door sport wagon called the “No­mad,” which would en­ter pro­duc­tion the fol­low­ing year as one of the body styles for the ’55 Chevy

Bel Air. The Earl era came to a close in 1959, but it is fit­ting that the fi­nal Cadil­lac re­leased un­der his stew­ard­ship would fea­ture the pin­na­cle of the styling trend he es­tab­lished more than a decade ear­lier. Lead de­signer Chuck Jor­dan—an­other Earl dis­ci­ple—penned a tail fin on the ’59 to put all oth­ers to shame, per­haps, in part, as a trib­ute to his de­part­ing men­tor.

Har­ley Earl’s first as­sign­ment at GM was the de­sign of an all-new car: the1927 LaSalle. It was such a re­sound­ing suc­cess that he was put in charge of the Art and Colour Sec­tion, GM’s first in-house de­sign stu­dio.

Har­ley Earl’s first show car was the 1933 Cadil­lac Aero­dy­namic Coupe for the Gen­eral Mo­tors pavil­ion at Chicago’s Cen­tury of Progress Ex­po­si­tion. It may not look that ad­vanced by to­day’s stan­dards, but for 1933, this was cut­ting-edge de­sign; fea­tures like the rounded tur­ret-style roof would grace many of GM’s pro­duc­tion mod­els in the com­ing years.

With the 1948 Cadil­lac, Har­ley Earl brought tail fins to the au­to­mo­tive world (with a lit­tle styling help from pro­tégé Bill Mitchell). 1949 added the per­for­mance of a mod­ern OHV V-8. Neo pro­duced this beau­ti­ful 1:18 ver­sion we re­viewed in Spring 2016. The jet fighter–in­spired 1951 Buick LeSabre con­cept was the spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor to the Y-Job and one of the orig­i­nal Mo­torama cars. Minichamps made an ex­quis­ite one in1:18 resin.

Sun Star makes ’59 Bon­nevilles and Olds 98s in hard­top and con­vert­ible forms. 1959 was the fi­nal model year in which Har­ley Earl had de­sign in­put. The full­size cars from Buick, Chevro­let, Olds, and Pon­tiac shared a new X-frame chas­sis and body shell that was lower, wider, and longer.

The Mo­torama events weren’t just for show cars. They also in­tro­duced pro­duc­tion mod­els, like the very first Corvette in 1953.

Widely con­sid­ered the most stylish Cadil­lac of all time, the ’59 El­do­rado Biar­ritz was the ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion of Earl’s affin­ity for tail fins. It’s fit­ting that it would be the fi­nal Cadil­lac re­leased be­fore his re­tire­ment. AUTOart re­leased this 1:18 ver­sion a few years back.

Earl’s sig­na­ture fins were grow­ing, the chrome was spread­ing, and the el­e­gant ’57 Cadil­lac El­do­rado Brougham was the ul­ti­mate ex­am­ple. Hand-built and fea­tur­ing ex­clu­sive trim, it was the first use of quad head­lights. At a price tag of more than $13,000, it was more ex­pen­sive than a Rolls-Royce!

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