Mister Earl comes under the DTW spotlight.
The idea of designing or styling cars is almost as old as the industry itself. Stemming from coach and carriage works, in the beginning the car was made and effectively styled by those same engineers whose only goal was a mechanically powered carriage. Short framed, high bodied creations, and rudimentary in weather protection, imbuing style was barely considered. Wealthy customers hired craftsmen to create a unique automobile – America had dozens of such custom builders but even with Henry’s Model T, mass production barely stirred the creative soul.
Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr wrote a letter to the general manager of Buick, H.H. Bassett in 1926 expressing his interest in styling a car in order to sell more. Cadillac general manager, Lawrence Fisher concurred with Sloan’s and Basset’s ideas on appearance. On a trip of Cadillac dealers in California, Fisher was introduced to Don Lee who aside from flogging Cadillacs ran a custom workshop in Hollywood. Contained within were those craftsmen building film stars their dream cars. Fisher was impressed by not only the workmanship, but by the young fellow directing the designers – Harley J Earl.
Earl’s father ran a carriage works which Don Lee subsequently purchased. With a keen eye along with such ideas as clay modelling, which allowed for fenders to blend with the whole car, Earl was immediately invited by Fisher to the Cadillac division in Detroit with the sole idea of creating a mass produced car with the styling of a custom job. March 1927 heralded the launch of the La Salle, a breakthrough not only in appearance or sales success, but easily mass produced. Sloan had found his stylist.
But from that initial triumph, the road became rocky. Sloan took up the initiative by inaugurating the Art & Colour Section(1), headed by Earl in June 1927. Fifty people – ten designers, the rest being admin and clerical workers would do Earl’s bidding. Reluctance though to Earl’s very presence was strong, not to mention finding suitable design candidates, forced Sloan to send Earl and Fisher on a month long European tour of car manufacturers to gain ideas. The rumour mill of copycat cars led to GM introducing strictly locked design divisions leading to a competitive edge, overseen by Earl.
Earl’s first A&CS creation was a sales nightmare – the 1929 pregnant Buick. Highly opinionated, full of fresh impetus and having the main man’s ear, Earl could do no wrong. But for a small armour chink regarding his immaturity in the whole mass production process, years later he admitted to “roaring like a lion” on seeing this enceinte Buick. His original plot lines had been altered by manufacturing, adding vertical height along with adding a further inch and a quarter ‘roll’ from the belt line, causing the bulgy effect. Lessons learned, Earl took to a more vocal role not only with design but the entire process.
Nevertheless, Sloan maintained his admiration of Earl, encouraging him onto larger, longer creations. 1937 saw the Art & Colour section renamed Styling and on September 3rd 1940, Sloan made Harley Earl the Vice President of the Styling Section. An imposing 6′ 4″ figure with oddly disproportionate voice, Earl insisted on getting the drawings correct before attempting clay mouldings. Designers not following his strict protocols were subject to verbal lambasting. And woe be tide the fool showing any form of inclination towards the competition.
Harley Earl stated in a 1954 interview, “My main purpose in those twenty eight years was to lengthen and lower the American automobile. My perception was that oblongs are more attractive than squares.” This he did by using the penmanship of others, for Misterl chose not to and was never actually seen to sketch. Thus, his frustration on seeing what his teams produced caused Earl to use strange vocabulary to get his point across.
Widely regarded as having the keenest of eyes, Earl would often gesticulate towards adding a “blitz line” with a sweeping hand across a drawing. Or maybe getting that edge to “deflunky by looping” or “why not put up a hook, maybe make a Zong or Rashoom, there.” The poor underlings were expected to interpret these tirades, facing mortifying, foul-mouthed rants when matters clearly were not going Earl’s direction. But he needed his design team to rise to his cry of “give me something new!”
And direction change was something of an Earl speciality; contradiction and plain awkwardness were daily occurrences but to a man(2), even in his macho pomp, the majority were impressed by his attention to detail – spotting a pencil line had not been lowered as he’d insisted upon from thirty to forty feet away. Due to his loftier position, he could envisage the cars’ appearance from above. And when a lower aim was in order, Earl had a chair – rather similar to that of a Hollywood film directors.
The results came. And whilst many found Earl insufferable and left, others learned to understand his ways and managed to allegorise those expressions. Yet he commanded and received respect but over time became increasingly detached from his teams, preferring to talk through his trusted enclave of yes-men studio directors even when critiquing a drawing with the stylist in question by his side.
Harley would think nothing of taking an idea from the Pontiac studio, for example and trading it off in the Chevrolet, preferring solitary evening rambles through the various studios, ascertaining current work, planting seeds or creating merry hell the next day. This competitive edge, along with that astute sense of direction and knack of understanding trends made for car sales in the millions. Harley Earl made Alfred Sloan a happier, wealthier philanthropist.
Time, added chrome and tail fins wait for no man. Earl’s last big projects were overseeing the Tech Center along with the third and final Firebird before handing over the styling reins to protégé Bill Mitchell. Harley Earl was lifelong car enthusiast – we conclude with one of his more pithy quotes, “You design a car so that every time you get in it, it’s a relief, a little vacation for a while.” Ethics, ego and excess aside, the car design world (alongside those interested within) owe Harley Jefferson Earl a respectful tip of the hat.
(1) The English spelling of colour was deemed sophisticated at the time
(2) Female designers were employed by Harley; the “Damsels of Design”, mainly on interiors but upon his retirement, they were jettisoned.
Data sources: Dean’s Garage/ C. Edson Armi’s book, The Art of American car design: the profession and personalities/ Alfred P Sloan Jr’s book, My Years With General Motors.