MotorCities National Heritage Area
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By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of Robert Tate
Posted: 02.06.2017


file 20170206205445 Early Years Harley J Earl
When you look back at the remarkable automotive design history for General Motors, the first person that comes to mind is the late Mr. Harley Earl (November 22, 1893-April 10, 1969).

Some people have called him the man who brought automotive styling out of the custom-car body age. With his passion and talent, he helped to develop the standard practice for automotive design as we know it today.

Author Michael Lamm once said this about Earl, “He was, if nothing else, a supremely dominating figure. When Detroit finally gets around to building its Auto Designers Hall of Fame, the statue guarding the main entrance will be of Harley J. Earl.”

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Harley Earl was born Nov. 22, 1893 in Los Angeles, Ca. Earl’s father had built and developed the “Earl Carriage Works Company” where later Harley Earl began building accessory windshields for his father’s company. By 1910, the company, which was rebranded as “Earl Automotive Works,” had branched out into the repair and construction of car bodies. Later Mr. Earl would take an interest in design.

Mr. Earl’s journey started in earnest during the early days of the 1920s. That was a time before the days of automotive styling as manufacturers mainly relied on their engineers for body development. His passion for design and styling, however, started much earlier when he developed a custom body works program for his father’s company in 1911.
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By 1918, Earl had taken over its management from his father’s business. The creative skills that Earl had developed as a great designer were now being applied to designing the entire vehicle. Mr. Earl was now designing custom cars for movie stars such as the late actor Fatty Arbuckle and Tom Mix and later Mr. Don Lee.

In 1919, Don Lee hired Harley Earl as the general manager for the Don Lee Coach & Body Corporation where Earl’s creative style was attracting even more business and even more attention for his creativity and talent for custom autos. Later, Earl had customized a Cadillac model that began to capture the attention of General Motors top officials that included the late Alfred P. Sloan Jr. and the popular Fisher Brothers, who had built great looking bodies for the General Motors Corporation.
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On a historical note, it was Harley Earl’s automotive designs that were on display at New York’s Commodore Hotel Salon Auto Show where many consumers thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit of many of the great looking automobiles that were on display. The show highlighted many of the world’s leading custom car designers and their great looking car designs.

Harley Earl’s relationship with General Motors began when Alfred P. Sloan visited the Don Lee Coach & Body Corporation along with Mr. Fisher. They believed that Earl could take the GM product line to the next level, and Fisher in particular was confident they needed Earl’s talents to boost GM sales.
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These two top automotive officials knew right away that Mr. Harley Earl was the right person to help move General Motors forward because Earl did not confine himself to the body design along but instead could design the entire vehicle. “Shaping the body” was the starting point for the future of General Motors products.

Harley Earl used clay models rather than the traditional wood and metal models for many of his design projects. As Harley’s career continued, the top officials from General Motors persuaded Mr. Earl to come to Detroit in 1926 to help design a new Cadillac model. Earl’s job at the time was to establish the identity of the car as a truly new design for the consumer market.
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Mr. Earl responded with a great looking car that was introduced in March 1927, called the Cadillac La Salle. The 1927 La Salle was Earl's first design for General Motors and his most famous. Mr. Sloan was so impressed with Earl's design that he persuaded him to become the director of GM’s new creative design department which was called “Art and Colour.” Many automotive historians believe this historic touchpoint marks a major milestone in our automotive heritage.

Other famous automotive designs from Earl included the 1938 Y-Job, which was developed to test both styling and engineering along with the 1948 Cadillac tail fin designed. Earl’s other credits include the General Motors Le Sabre show car model and the popular Chevrolet Corvette, which was the first American mass-produced vehicle along with many other models as well.

For further reading and history on Harley Earl, please read “A Century of Automotive Style 100 years of American Car design,” by Michael Lamm and the late Dave Holls.

A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for contributing this story to the MotorCities Story of the Week Program.

For further information on photos please visit http://www.detroitpubliclibrary.org/ or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Please do not republish the story and/or photographs without permission of MotorCities National Heritage Area. (Bibliography: Lamm Michael & Holls Dave. “A Century of automotive 100 years of American car design,” 1996; “Styling History – Historic Files” GM Design Staff information center; Holliday Barbara. “Harley J. Earl, the Original car stylist how one man’s ideas reshaped our entire industry,” The Detroit Free Press, May 25, 1969.)

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