April 27, 2012
1927 Lasalle. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
By the mid-1920s automotive engineering was well enough advanced that cars were pretty reliable. Motorists were ready for more comfort, performance, and style. Even the conservative Henry Ford recognized rather belatedly that the days of his sturdy but spartan Model T were numbered. He discontinued it in 1927 and began design on its replacement, the more glamorous Model A.
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 that had arrived in the late teens and were now established, motorists were becoming accustomed to trading in their old cars for new ones. Sloan wanted to hurry the process along by making motorists dissatisfied with their current cars a little sooner.
What better way to entice them to trade up than to offer new styling. It complemented his annual model change perfectly. Even though engineering may be only marginally improved, at least give a fresh new look. This led to the formalization of automobile styling.
While all of this was developing in Sloan’s mind, a young man named Harley Earl was out in Hollywood, California, working for local Cadillac distributor Don Lee. Earl had a natural styling touch and Lee had him busily engaged in lengthening, lowering, and rounding off the square corners of stock cars on commissions from movie stars and other wealthy buyers wanting something more distinctive than the boxy designs of the day.
On a business trip to the west coast Cadillac general manager Lawrence Fisher discovered Earl’s work while visiting Lee’s establishment. Fisher wasn’t very happy with Cadillac’s appearance, which he regarded as dumpy, and was very impressed with Earl’s handiwork. Upon his return east he enthusiastically reported to president Sloan what young Earl was doing out in California.
The timing was propitious because it fitted perfectly with Sloan’s annual model change philosophy. He decided to give Earl a try, and in 1926 invited him to Detroit on a contract to help style the new 1927 LaSalle, a new Cadillac “companion car” being developed by Cadillac to offer buyers some Cadillac prestige without the Cadillac price. It would also fill in the price gap between Buick and regular Cadillacs.
The new LaSalle “junior Cadillac” was introduced in March, 1927 and Earl’s styling made it an immediate sensation. Using all of his imaginative Hollywood techniques he had created a body with gently rounded curves, deeply drawn fenders and beautifully harmonized colours. It suddenly made other cars look old fashioned.
To give the appearance of speed, Earl had lowered the LaSalle’s silhouette, giving it an overall impression of elegance never before seen in an American car. Earl had been deeply impressed by European cars, and the fact that he had borrowed heavily from the Spanish Hispano-Suiza’s styling was either not noticed, or was simply ignored.
With his work at GM finished, Earl returned to California from his contract assignment. But it wasn’t long before Sloan had sold his board of directors on the importance of styling. Earl was invited back to Detroit on a permanent basis to head up a newly created Art and Colour Section of General Motors reporting directly to Sloan. Styling was now no longer a sideline for the engineers, but was recognized as a significant enough element to be a separate activity.
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. In 1940 Earl was made a General Motors vice president, the first stylist to achieve such elevated status in the auto industry.
Harley Earl would set the styling model 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 be remembered for the wraparound windshield, jet plane inspiration, and, most of all, the tailfin craze that reached its zenith in the 1950s. They came about because Earl was so captivated by the twin fuselages of the Lockheed P-38 airplane that he tried vestigial fins, little more than raised rear lights, on the 1948 Cadillac. They took off from there and became an American styling trait for a decade.
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 V8 engine, except from 1934 to 1936 when for cost reasons it received an Oldsmobile straight-eight.
By 1940 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 GM family. Although it lasted for only 14 years, the LaSalle secured its place in history as the car that, more than any other, formalized automotive styling.