DETROIT'S DA VINCIS
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
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.