75 years of Innovators: Harley Earl

Jan. 8, 2004
American car design owes its due to Harley Earl. Earl left Stanford University in the early 1920s to study design at his father's custom coach-building shop. It catered to Hollywood celebrities such as Cecil B. De Mille.

In the 75 years since Machine Design began publication, here are some of the people who have changed the way we live.

Harley Earl
America's first car designer

When the business was sold to Don Lee, Cadillac's west coast distributor, Earl joined General Motors to supervise the newly created Art and Colour Section. The department was the brainchild of GM President Alfred Sloan Jr. who wanted to add style and color to mass-produced vehicles, as well as topple Ford Motors' dominance over the automobile industry.

In 1937, the Art and Colour Section morphed into the Style Section with a focus on design, including creating and modeling. By the mid-1930s, Earl decided all cars should take styling cues from the current Cadillac, with shared body panels and design features trickling down to the lowest-cost Chevy.

In 1938, he introduced the industry's first concept car, the "Y-Job" that was built on a Buick chassis. Another concept was the GM Firebird 1, a delta-winged, single-seat, gas-turbine-powered machine, built as a working laboratory to test new ideas in styling and engineering.

Getting the public used to such designs was another story. Earl's theory was that if the concepts were presented as "dream" cars, the stuff of lavish lifestyles, the public would want them by the time they hit production. This led to the GM Motoramas. These were decadent affairs where dream cars sat alongside production vehicles and were revealed to the public like a Hollywood opening night. One of Earl's favorite cars produced for the Motorama was the Le Sabre that boasted a radiator opening that looked like a jet-engine nacelle; the world's first wraparound windshield; a water-sensitive top that rises automatically when rain falls; and a magnesium and aluminum body.

The most influential production vehicle he designed was the 1948 Cadillac, which featured tiny fins jutting out from the back of the rear fenders. It is claimed Earl got the idea from World War II P-38 fighters that carried twin booms with dominant tail fins. It was one design style quickly copied by both American and foreign car companies.

Earl is responsible for two design methods: 2D rough sketching and 3D clay mockups. Also, after World War II, Earl convinced GM it needed a sports car. The result: the 1953 Corvette. Upon retiring in 1959, his design legacy included using chrome, two-tone paint, tail fins, hardtops, and wraparound windshields. And, most impressive of all, Harley Earl was responsible for the design of over 50 million cars.

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