Harley Earl made styling important, a crucial element in the design of every new car. When General Motors established its Art & Colour section in 1928, Earl (1893-1969) became its first director, and he made GM a design leader until he retired in 1958.
Jacob Earl, Harley's father, came to Los Angeles in 1889 to build wagons for the region's grain farmers; he began to specialize in motor vehicles (largely trucks) in 1908. Harley grew up in Hollywood, where his father had settled, and he watched as the movie industry moved into town after 1911. He drifted through college at USC and Stanford with vague aspirations of becoming a lawyer but came back to his father's business, where he designed and built specialty cars for the newly rich movie stars.
Don Lee, the local Cadillac dealer, bought the lucrative business from the Earls in 1919, and Harley Earl stayed on as its general manager. Soon Cadillac took notice of the huge number of bare chassis being shipped to the West Coast, and Earl was eventually invited to Detroit in 1926 to help finalize the design of the La Salle, a new entry-level model in the Cadillac line. Its success persuaded GM chairman Alfred Sloan in 1928 to establish the Art & Colour Section, which later became GM Design.
As the director of the first formal design studio at a major car manufacturer, Earl popularized the use of clay in the design process. He helped develop the technique of changing a car's front-end appearance to distinguish model lines. He hired all the best young designers in the country, and indeed every important designer in the American car industry until 1970 could say that he had worked for Harley Earl at one time. Earl also helped institutionalize the principles of good design throughout American consumer culture thanks to GM's involvement with Eastern Airlines, Frigidair refrigerators and GMC buses.
Harley Earl stood 6 ft, 4 in. and weighed 235 lb, and he used his size and his prestige to intimidate both chief executives and junior designers. His volatile temper and colorful profanity, acquired no doubt while working with teamsters in his father's wagon shop, often shocked his colleagues. He was never known to actually lift a pencil and design anything. Yet his taste determined the course of modern car design. His 1939 Buick Y-job, a spectacular exercise in Streamline Moderne, popularized the notion of concept cars. His 1951 Buick Le Sabre, which perfectly expresses Mid-century Modern, advanced both automotive style and technology. Earl helped make the GM Motorama car show a cultural explosion of automotive enthusiasm, something we still see today in the Detroit, Frankfurt and Tokyo auto shows. Even the concept of the Corvette came from Harley Earl's imagination.
My camera caught Harley Earl at the 1958 Paris auto show with Harlow Curtice, the GM engineer and executive who had commissioned the Y-job and Le Sabre. Since the 1920s, Earl had frequently visited the European auto shows and brought back design trends to America. For 30 years, Earl had promoted the look of longer, lower and wider-and integration of an automobile's bodywork into a dramatic, aerodynamically stylized whole. But as Earl looked around the Paris auto show that year, he must have realized that things had changed. Ever since his Buick Le Sabre had been seen in public for the first time at the 1951 Paris auto show, European designers had been copying him, not the other way around. It was an important moment in the story of automotive design.