industry have come new techniques that
have within themselves the ability to
create an entirely new pattern and setting
for the life of the world."
This month's designer helped to pioneer the use of freeform sketching and
hand-sculpted clay models as design techniques. Affectionately referred to as "The Father of the Concept Car," his work as a coachbuilder led him to influence and help position design as an engine for his company's product success – finally becoming what many consider the first styling VP at a large corporation.
Harley J. Earl (November 22, 1893 – April 10, 1969), was born in Hollywood, California to the son of a coachbuilder. The senior Earl eventually changed his practice from horse-drawn vehicles to custom bodies and customized parts and accessories for automobiles, founding Earl Automobile Works in 1908. Earl attended the University of Southern California in 1912 and studied engineering at Stanford University from 1914 to 1917, but left prematurely to work with and learn from his father at Earl Automotive Works. By this time, the shop was building custom bodies for Hollywood movie stars. Harley designed the first complete car produced by the firm in 1918.
Don Lee, West Coast Cadillac distributor, bought the Earl Automotive Works (including Harley) in 1919. Earl's talents were soon recognized by Larry Fisher, Cadillac Division president, and he was sent to Detroit in 1925 to work at GM. Harley Earl’s first design for GM was the 1927 LaSalle, and its success lead to the foundation of the Art and Color Division of General Motors, later renamed Styling Division in 1937, of which Earl became the director. For the first time, a manufacturer began to recognize the importance of a car’s design beyond functionality and cost. But of course, a creative mind as Earl was confronted with other GM executives in the engineering departments that had a more pragmatic point of view on the functionality of a car.
However, for Earl, there was no contradiction between his design work and the work of the engineers. Rather, he aimed to incorporate all aspects into the development process, assuming that a car appealing in design would also be more functional to the driver. An beyond beauty and functionality, he regarded the design was essential ingredient to a brand’s commercial success: "It's a matter of record that poor styling or improperly timed styling has proved financially disastrous to some automobile manufacturers."
In 1939, the Styling Division, under Earl's instruction, styled and built the Buick "Y-job" the motor industry's first concept car. While many one-off custom automobiles had been made before, the "Y-job" was the first car built by a mass manufacturer for the sole purpose of determining the public's reaction to new design ideas. After being shown to the public, the "Y-job" became Earl's daily driver. In 1940, Earl became a VP of GM in 1940, an unheard of level of corporate design until then. His pre-war concept car, the Buick "Y-job" became the template for all GM's postwar styling innovation.
In 1945, while continuing as head of GM styling, he established his own independent consulting firm, Harley Earl. Inc., to design many successful products not competitive with GM. In 1964 his consulting firm merged with Walter B. Ford Design Associates, Inc. to form Ford & Earl Design Associates. Later in the mid-50's, Earl is regarded as the first to introduce women to high paying jobs within the auto industry, establishing his "Damsels of Design."
Earl pioneered in the process of building full-scale clay models and in dozens of innovative designs including the hardtop convertible, wrap-around windshields, two-tone paint, heavy chrome plating, and tailfins. Earl's work materialised in a number of ground braking models, some of which have lived over generations until the present day – One example being his "Project Opel", which eventually became the Chevrolet Corvette. Earl dominated GM design policies (and thus the entire industry) until his retirement in 1958, naming William Mitchell (PE 1958) as his successor. By then, GM styling had passed its time and was criticized as excessive and wasteful. The tone soon turned to a more conservative direction.
Want to know more? Learn all about Earl, including rare photos and newspaper clippings, at the official Harley J. Earl website, or the GM Heritage Center website. Both feature rich stories, about this iconic designer.