1927 LaSalle
1927 LaSalle
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

If the birth of the modern concept of styling in the North American automobile could be time-dated, it would be placed at 1927. That’s the year General Motors introduced the LaSalle to fill the price gap between Buick and Cadillac.

By the mid-20s, the engineering of cars was well enough advanced that they were quite reliable. Motorists were ready for more comfort, performance, and, as it turned out, style. Even Henry Ford had recognized, rather belatedly, that the days of his sturdy but stark Model T were numbered, and was setting out to design its replacement, the Model A.

Over at General Motors its brilliant president, Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., was gradually evolving the idea of the annual model change. Encouraged by time-payment car loans, people were becoming accustomed to trading their old cars in for new ones, and Sloan wanted to hurry the process along by making motorists dissatisfied a little sooner.

While all of this was happening, a young man by the name of Harley Earl was out in Hollywood, California, working for Don Lee, the local Cadillac distributor. Earl was turning out to be a styling genius, and Lee had him busily engaged in lengthening, lowering, and rounding off the square corners of stock cars on commissions from movie stars who wanted something more distinctive than the boxy designs of the day.

Lawrence Fisher, Cadillac’s general manager, discovered Earl’s work on a trip to the west coast. Fisher wasn’t happy with what he regarded as Cadillac’s dumpy styling, and he was very impressed with Earl’s handiwork. Upon his return he enthusiastically reported to Sloan what young Earl was achieving out in California.

The timing was propitious. It fitted in with Sloan’s philosophy of the annual model change. Sloan decided to give Earl a try, and in 1926 he was invited to Detroit on a contract to help style the new car that was being developed by Cadillac to plug the price gap between Buick and the regular Cadillacs.

The new Earl-styled car, named the LaSalle, was a kind of junior Cadillac. Introduced in March, 1927, it was a sensation. Earl had used all of his Hollywood styling tricks to create a body that, compared with its contemporaries, had gently rounded curves, deeply drawn fenders, and beautifully harmonized colours.

He lowered the silhouette to give the appearance of speed, and over-all the LaSalle was an expression of elegance never before seen in an American car. Earl was deeply impressed with European cars, and the fact that he had borrowed heavily from the design of the Spanish Hispano-Suiza didn’t seem to bother anyone.

Earl returned to California from this contract assignment but it wasn’t long before Sloan had sold the board of directors on the importance of styling. Earl was invited back to Detroit to head up the newly created Art and Colour Section of General Motors. Earl reported directly to Sloan. Styling would no longer be the preserve of the engineers, but was now recognized as significant enough to be a separate function.

The LaSalle vaulted Earl into prominence, and under his influence automobile styling advanced rapidly. The Art and Colour Section evolved and expanded to become the Styling Department, and by 1940 Earl had risen to the position of vice-president, the first stylist to achieve such elevated status in the auto industry.

Harley Earl would set the styling mode for General Motors automobiles, and consequently the whole American industry, for three decades. And although it was the LaSalle that gave him his start, he will probably be best remembered for the tailfin craze that reached its zenith in the 50s. Inspired by the twin fuselages of the Lockheed P-38 airplane, Earl tried vestigial fins, really little more than raised rear lights, on the 1948 Cadillac.

The LaSalle would survive through the 1930s as a lower priced companion car to the Cadillac. It had Cadillac quality, and was also powered by a V-8 engine, except for the years 1934 to ’36 when for cost reasons it received an Oldsmobile straight eight.

By 1940, however, GM deemed it unnecessary to continue the Lasalle. Buick had moved upscale, and that, combined with Cadillac’s lower priced models, squeezed LaSalle out of the market. But although it lasted for only 14 years, the LaSalle has secured its place in history as the car that more than any other formalized automotive styling.

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