Harley Earl. Click image to enlarge
By Bill Vance; photo courtesy General Motors
During his over 30-year reign as General Motors’ chief stylist, Harley Earl was the king of American automobile styling. He was a big, imposing, strong-willed man whose influence was so powerful and talent so great that he formalized the birth of auto styling. He nurtured it through its formative years, his genius coming to full flower in the optimistic and flamboyant 1950s.
Earl arrived on the Detroit scene in 1927 during a period of significant change. Ford’s utilitarian Model T’s time had passed and it was being replaced by the stylish Ford Model A and the smoother, more comfortable six-cylinder Chevrolet. Closed cars had taken over from open ones and GM’s astute president, Alfred P. Sloan Jr., recognized the changing tastes. He evolved the annual model change to entice motorists to trade in their used cars. And since this revolved more around appearance than engineering, Earl arrived at a propitious time.
Harley Earl was born in California in 1893, the son of prosperous carriage maker J. W. Earl, whose Los Angeles shop produced wagons and carriages for local farmers and ranchers. Recognizing the emerging automobile’s potential, he renamed the company the Earl Automobile Works in 1908.
After attending Stanford University, Harley joined his father’s business where he soon demonstrated a talent for styling. The company progressed from adding customizing modifications to standard cars, to building full custom bodies.
The business flourished as first generation nouveau-riche Hollywood movie stars like cowboy Tom Mix and comedian Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle were anxious to show off their wealth with a distinctive automobile. West Coast Cadillac distributor Don Lee catered to this movie crowd. He bought the Earl firm in 1919 and it became Lee’s custom-body wing, a perfect fit for Harley Earl’s styling flair.
Earl’s introduction to General Motors occurred in the mid-1920s when he met Lawrence P. Fisher, general manager of GM’s Cadillac division. Fisher was on a California trip making dealer visits and immediately recognized Earl’s talent. Earl was, for example, using clay to model his cars rather than the traditional wood or metal. And he was employing smooth, flowing lines and contours to mould the hoods, fenders, headlamps and running boards into integrated, organic shapes.
The Cadillac division was in the process of developing the LaSalle, a less expensive “companion” car for the Cadillac. Fisher was sure that Earl was the man to design it, and convinced Sloan to try Earl’s skill. Sloan agreed, and in 1926 invited Earl to Detroit on a contract to design the LaSalle.