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Sales Ad Saturday- Remembering Harley Earl

A confluence of events brought about this week's 'Sales Ad Saturday’. Today in 1969, the legendary Harley Earl died in West Palm Beach. In the 29 years Earl was at GM, the automaker produced over 50 million cars, and Earl’s influence as the company’s first head of design touched nearly all of them. As luck would have it, I spent yesterday with some of Earl’s best work, a 1957 Eldorado Biarritz. Better still, a few weeks ago I acquired a large collection of Cadillac ads and dealer literature and this beautiful ad for a ’57 Biarritz was found among my new collection.

Entire books have been written about Earl’s profound influence on automobile design. Like many early automotive executives, Earl could be a complicated, forceful personality. His determination and grit would prove valuable in his early days at GM, as his input was not universally appreciated by many of his colleagues when he formally arrived as head of the newly formed ‘Art and Color’ department in 1927. Despite some early challenges with engineers at Fisher Body, Earl had a close ally in GM Chairman Alfred Sloan. By the time the Art and Color division evolved into the ‘Styling Section’ in 1937, Earl’s power and influence over the responsibilities of his department was unquestioned. It is interesting that given his incredible eye for style and design, Earl could not draw and had no formal education in art or engineering. Despite this, Earl found ways to communicate his visions and is accepted to be the first designer to pioneer the use of clay mockups in automotive design. As reported by his brother, Harley’s first experience with modeling cars came from camping with his brother as a teenager at Bailey’s ranch in the mountains north of Los Angeles. With clay found in the ground, the brothers would pass the time building miniature mock-ups of cars. Earl would go on to use this medium in full scale and in time would lead the automotive industry into the practice of producing ‘concept cars’ as a means of gauging the evolving tastes and desires of the motoring public.

Many of Earl’s concepts were as flamboyant as he was and he had the power to capture the public’s imagination with forward-thinking cars like his legendary Buick Y-Job, LeSabre, and Firebird series concepts. The iconic tailfin that defined so much of the American automotive landscape in the 1950s may not have ever happened had Earl not bought into the vision of one of his senior designers, Frank Hershey, who recognized the potential of the tailfin in automotive design before WWII. It would be nearly a decade before Hershey’s ideas finally materialized with Earl’s cautious blessing in the bespoke tailfins of the 1948 Cadillac, which would slowly grow in size and influence over the next eleven years. The concept of the iconic wrap-around windshield was taken directly from Earl’s LeSabre concept and appeared in differing forms on GM vehicles throughout the 1950s. It’s difficult to think of a designer who had a better eye for the usefulness of chrome in the era. Without Harley Earl, there may never have been a small open-cockpit roadster initially known in 1951 as Project Opel, designed to compete with the developing European sports car market. Today we know Earl’s vision as the Corvette. At the height of his influence on the automotive industry Earl’s eye for style and design was a major factor in defining an entire era of American motoring.


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