Father of the Phantom Car

Harley Earl’s Legacy

Story John Gunnell / Images courtesy of GM Archives - October 10, 2013 10:00 AM


Earl with the 1951 Buick LeSabre – an idea car he drove for many years.


Harley Earl’s thoughts on style didn’t stop at the automobile. 


Earl is at the wheel of a 1927 LaSalle with his Cadillac boss Larry Fisher standing nearby.


Started in 1937, the Y-Job was introduced as a 1938 Buick idea car. 


Earl with a furistic model in 1948.


GM design chief Harley Earl (left) shows off a 1951 LeSabre experimental show car to Michigan State Fair General Manager Jim Friel.


Earl’s team was always looking outside automobiles for ideas that could be used at GM. 


The early braintrust for design. From left to right: Howard O’Leary, J.S. McDaniel, Bill Mitchell, Harley Earl (seated), Ned Nickles. Things were about to change.


Earl (center) was the first auto executive to hire female designers. The “Damsels of Design” were well known in 1956 and 1957 and had a distinct impact on GM products of the era.  


The scene is the Desert Proving Ground. The cars are Firebird I, Firebird II and Firebird III. They were used in the Motorama shows of 1953, 1956 and 1959.

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During the parade of GM’s greatness, the ’50s and ’60s, design ruled and the finance people ran behind to re-establish order and pick up the pieces

“Our father who art in styling … Harley be thy name!”

General Motors lured Harley J. Earl to Detroit in 1927 to rule over car design until his retirement in 1959. Earl brought styling to mass-produced cars, shaped the design industry, invented the “idea car” and helped GM rule the market. Earl helped make GM America’s powerhouse automaker.

Historians peg Earl as an artist who surrounded himself with talent and pushed great ideas through a stifling corporate culture. Fans of Earl — like his grandson Richard Earl — give him large credit for GM’s success. Bob Lutz is quoted as saying “During the parade of GM’s greatness, the ’50s and ’60s, design ruled and the finance people ran behind to re-establish order and pick up the pieces.”

Harley Earl was born November 22, 1893 in Los Angeles. His father, Jacob W. Earl, had been a lumberman in Cadillac, Michigan, before moving west and establishing a carriage manufacturing business called Earl Carriage Works. His factory employed about 500 body builders and painters.

Jacob wanted Harley to become a lawyer, but it wasn’t his cup of tea. After World War I, Jacob retired and Harley made carriage bodies for about six months. Jacob took sick and went on vacation, so Harley moved into automobiles, selling pricey custom body jobs. By the time Jacob returned, Earl Automobile Works was making “Hollywood hot rods” for wealthy clients.

Harley went to Stanford and earned an engineering degree. In 1919, Don Lee Corporation purchased Earl Coachworks. Don Lee was the West Coast Cadillac distributor. Earl became an employee. When closed cars started outselling open cars in 1926, GM Chairman Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. began to worry about the “high, ungainly” appearance of his coupes and sedans and sensed the need for styling.

On July 8, 1926, Sloan told Buick general manager Harry H. Bassett that the new Chrysler had smaller wheels that made it look better than GM cars. “Are we as advanced from the standpoint of beauty of design, harmony of lines, attractiveness of color schemes and general contour of the whole piece of apparatus as we are in the soundness and workmanship and other elements of a more mechanical nature?” he asked.

GM had its Cadillac companion car, a model called the LaSalle, in the works. Sloan had discussed its appearance with Lawrence F. Fisher of Fisher Body. While visiting Don Lee Cadillac, Fisher met custom body director Harley J. Earl. As Sloan wrote in his book, My Years With General Motors, “It was an important meeting, for Mr. Fisher’s interest in this young man’s talent was to result in actively influencing the appearance of more than 50 million automobiles from the late 1920s to 1960.” Earl became a Cadillac consultant.

Earl designed and created the 1927 LaSalle. According to The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and the Personalities by C. Edson Armi, it was a copy of the highly regarded Hispano-Suiza. The LaSalle is often credited with being the first styled production car, though Sloan’s book noted that Raymond Dietrich and Ralph Roberts of LeBaron had done design work for Murray and Briggs and R.P. Williams and Richard Burke of Locomobile had also styled cars. Still, there was no formal styling industry until Earl arrived.

“I was so impressed with Mr. Earl’s work that I decided to obtain the advantages of his talent for other General Motors divisions,” Sloan said. “On June 25, 1927, I took up with the Executive Committee a plan to establish a special department to study the question of art and color combinations in General Motors products. Fifty persons make up the department, 10 of them designers and the rest shopworkers and clerical and administrative assistants. I invited Mr. Earl to head this new department, which we called the Art and Color Section.”

“It’s my opinion that, in the sense of an orchestra, Earl should be viewed not as one who played a particular instrument, but as the maestro that led the band,” says dream car collector Joe Bortz. “As far as Harley Earl as an artist, in all my travels, I have yet to see even one sketch that was made by his hand.”

Earl created the GM system that became the basis for the automotive styling industry in the early ’30s. There was no way to become a car designer then without going through the GM system.

Earl strengthened his reputation with the Cadillac Aero-Dynamic Coupe created for the GM pavilion at Chicago’s 1933 “Century of Progress Exhibition.” It was virtually a concept car with a contoured, one-piece steel roof that inspired the famed Fisher “Turret-Top.” It convinced GM that the appearance of passenger cars should fall to stylists and later even went into limited production.

Art and Color became GM Styling in 1934. Despite the name, until the fall of 1936, things were very informal and designs for different brands of GM cars were displayed in a central studio. Then, Earl broke the space up into divisional studios so each brand could work secretly and securely on its own designs.

Richard Earl says Harley shared credit with designers under him because he learned to avoid publicity from his movie star friends and preferred the spotlight be on others. Experts believe the reason for the wide range of talent was GM’s desire that cars from different divisions have different styling. Decades later, GM got severely criticized for its look-a-like “cookie-cutter” designs.

The 1937 Buick Y-Job was the predecessor of Motorama “dream” cars. It showcased the “styling and engineering of tomorrow” with many state-of-the-art features including fender extensions over the doors, disappearing headlamps, flush door handles, a concealed top and electric window regulators. Earl drove the Y-Job over 50,000 miles himself.

Because of his training in two-dimensional drawing, Earl came to think of a car’s front end as its most important design element. He stressed the importance of grille styling and he liked long, low, chrome-laden cars. “Earl could gather up ideas and bring them to the creation of a final product accepted by consumers as great design,” says Bortz.

On Sept. 3, 1940, Earl became a GM vice president and locked in his reputation as a design guru. He was taken with the design of the P-38 Lightning fighter plane and told his designers to incorporate jet-like features into the 1948 Cadillac. The tailfin grew in popularity and ultimately reached its apex in 1959.

By the end of World War II, GM brass concluded that post-war buyers would be most interested in styling, automatic transmissions and high-compression V-8s in order. Sloan was upset by Earl’s design facilities. “Different staff operations were then scattered all over the Detroit area, in a wide variety of rather makeshift quarters,” he wrote. “I was especially struck by the unhappy situation of the Styling staff, whose fabricating shops were located in an old Fisher Body building several miles from the staff headquarters. This building was adjacent to some heavy engineering work we were doing, especially with diesels. Earl’s men were oppressed by the noise and did not have enough room.” GM’s Tech Center resulted. It housed research, all GM engineering activity and Earl’s Body Design group. Earl even picked the designers of the futuristic facility.

GM’s “dream cars” became Earl’s calling card. The Buick LeSabre and XP-300 drew massive attention. His designers created 37 experimental idea cars, dozens of memorable production cars and numerous styling innovations. As Bortz says, “In the good old days, Americans were proud and their ‘if you got it flaunt it’ attitude was summed up in the design legacy of Harley Earl.”