Harley Earl gave us concept cars, giant tailfins, and the Corvette.
Harley Earl isn't just a contender for the title of the most influential designer of the 20th century; there's a legitimate argument to be had that he's the most significant of all time. His projects and innovations shaped the automotive industry of the 20th century and still resonate today. He was born in Hollywood, California, and the son of a coachbuilder. When a Cadillac dealer bought out his father's business, Harley Earl stayed on and was later seen at work by the general manager of the Cadillac division, Lawrence P. Fisher. Fisher himself started out as a coachbuilder, and took note of Earl's techniques for design, particularly how he used modeling clay to develop his visions.
Fisher commissioned Earl to design the 1927 LaSalle, and its success led General Motors (GM) to make an important move forward. Little attention was given to paint color on cars at the time, but GM's president was convinced to create an "Art and Colour Section" and install Earl as its director. Later, Earl was promoted to Vice President, and his influence began to grow strong. Earl kept control of GM's styling department until he retired in 1958. He started his career by introducing clay modeling as a tool of car design and stated in 1954 that "My primary purpose for twenty-eight years has been to lengthen and lower the American automobile, at times in reality and always at least in appearance." That he achieved, and so much more.
The concept car is still a staple of the automotive industry as a way of grabbing headlines and testing the waters for design directions. It has practical uses within a company, but the concept car is also an extremely effective marketing and merchandising tool. Automakers had made one-off cars before, but when Earl introduced the 1939 Buick Y-Job, it was the first built by a major automaker to gauge the public's reaction to new design ideas. The concept car was something that gave the company an edge until the rest of the industry caught on to the idea.
We give old cars model years now, but they weren't a part of the automotive cycle until the chairman of General Motors, Alfred P. Sloan, came up with the idea of "planned obsolescence." Earl's task was to create the desire in customers to update their cars through style, something he achieved to create the annual model change and the more aggressive "refresh." It's a practice that has become commonplace in pretty much every sales-based industry. In the automotive industry, it encourages innovation and improvements in aspects like styling, comfort, technology, and safety.
The first and most obvious result of GM's "planned obsolescence" strategy was the automotive tailfin, which figuratively and literally became a big deal in the 1950s. The idea originated with Earl's protege and student, Frank Hershey, who suggested to Earl they put an aircraft-style fin on a Cadillac. World War II had ended a few years ago, but the American public was still fascinated by the evolution of aircraft, rockets, and space flight. It's often believed Earl was thinking of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning and its dual tailfins when he put the idea on paper and into clay, but an alternative report is that Hershey came up with the whole idea of twin fins. An up-and-coming designer, Virgil Exner, liked the idea and took it to a wind tunnel, but it was the looks that won through. It became globally fashionable in automotive design and led automakers to put bigger and bigger fins on their cars.
There are conflicting reports on who actually came up with the idea and first designs, but Earl definitely had the last word. The tailfin wars of the 1950s ended in 1959 with the Earl-designed Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz and its massive sharp tail fins with dual bullet taillights built-in. It was pure excess and marked the end of the tailfin as a design feature.
It's a story that deserves its own article, but for now, we'll give you the short version. Following World War II and women being brought into the workplace en masse, GM's PR department realized the value of promoting a group of ten industrial designers they dubbed "The Damsels of Design." It's a terrible name, but Earl realized early on that women had much more buying power after the war and were making decisions on large purchases. He took six of the group from GM's Frigidaire for his Interior-Design Department (Marjorie Ford Pohlman, Peggy Sauer, Sandra Longyear, Suzanne Vanderbilt, Jeanette Linder, Ruth Glennie).
GM promoted the women designers as decorators, but the reality was that the female group was designing interiors from the ground up. Lasting landmark moments from the team include, but aren't limited to, introducing the first retractable seat belt, mirror lighting, and the glove box.
Unfortunately, sexism won that round. Earl once said, "I believe the future for qualified women in automotive design is virtually unlimited. In fact, I think that in three or four years, women will be designing entire automobiles." However, he was wrong as his successor was Bill Mitchell, a professional bigot who said, "No women are going to stand next to any senior designers of mine on any exterior styling of Cadillac or GM's other major brands."
The history of the Chevrolet Corvette is long and wouldn't still be with us and as good as it is now without some key people, the most notable being Zora Arkus-Duntov. Arkus-Duntov championed the Corvette and pushed for it to become a world-class sports car, but it was Earl that recognized a two-seater sports car was what America needed in the first place. He saw that soldiers were returning from Europe after World War II and bringing European sports cars home. Nash worked with Italian designer Pininfarina and British sports car maker Donald Healey to create an American-built sports car. However, Earl saw the value of an all-American roadster and work started on Project Opel (Named after GM's German brand) in 1951.
Development was hampered by bean-counting from executives, and the first Corvette debuted with a six-cylinder engine, drum brakes, and only an automatic transmission was available. Earl's sports car was almost a footnote in Chevrolet's history as GM considered dropping it after poor sales. Fortunately, with the introduction of a manual transmission, the development of a new Chevrolet V8, Ford throwing down a challenge with its first Thunderbird model, and the persistence and vision of Arkus-Duntov, the Corvette became an American icon.
Earl's most enduring legacy is in how he merged art, science, and engineering in the automotive industry to create the car designer. He insisted that appearance and function were as important as engineering in creating a unified product, and it's the car designer that does the unifying. He turned cars beyond being purely utility-based vehicles and into desirable, functional works of art on wheels. His approach ranks him as one of the best-selling artists of the 20th century, and the role of car designers became standard in every automotive company. He also introduced "Auto Design" scholarship programs to perpetuate the profession, which extended out of the US and shaped the automotive world we live in today. It's been claimed that GM invented the modern car, but the key to that was Harley Earl, his vision, his forward-thinking, and his savvy understanding of people.