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!