Article Data
Author: Ray Hahn
Affiliation: South Jersey Postcard Club
Written: April 2003

Publication history:
            First: SJPCC Newsletter, July 2003

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Number of words: 1049 including captions on illustrations
Illustrations: 3 photographs and 2 postcards

They Called Him the DaVinci of Detroit

            First stop: the 1950's. The economy of the depression was in full recovery, the war was over, the GI had come home to find prosperity and now it was time to purchase a dream automobile. So what did they do in Detroit? They hired a man by the name of Harley Earl to design, engineer and build cars with big engines, flashy fenders and lots and lots of chrome.

Say hello to Harley Earl

            Born November 22, 1893, in Hollywood, California, Earl was the son of J. W. Earl, a Michigan native who had earned his living as a lumberjack. In 1889, J.W. moved his family to the west coast and invested in a Los Angeles body shop where he made coaches, carriages, wagons, and racing sulkies. Business was good and with the introduction of the automobile J. W. founded the Earl Automobile Works.

            Harley was a brilliant student with a innovative mind. He enrolled in Stanford University and after graduation he joined his father’s business. By the mid 20s he ran his own branch of the Earl Auto Works making custom automobiles for the movie stars. His first job was a $28, 500 sleek profile auto body for none other than Fatty Arbuckle. Another of his customers was the movie cowboy Tom Mix.

Harley Earl to the Rescue
            In the late 20s, General Motors executives began to take notice of Earl’s work. The LaSalle had just been marketed but the sales were dismal. GM had too much invested to abandon their newest division so it was Harley Earl to the rescue. GM paid Earl a signing bonus (unheard of in those days) and took the LaSalle away from the GM engineers and gave it to the new design department – you guessed it, headed by Harley Earl.

            The new car was sensational. It had a V8 engine that could develop 75 horsepower and could average 95 mile per hour. At the end of the 1929 sales season 49,300 LaSalles had been sold. Unfortunately, after the depression sales never recovered and the LaSalle was discontinued in 1940.

            During the 1930s Earl continued his refinement of the LaSalle and introduced some striking changes to the Cadillac, but his most famous design became known as the Buick “Y-job” – the first truly original “concept” car. Y-job styling and features began to show up on other GM products all through the 1940s. Longer and lower was Earl’s principal design concept. The Y-job had folding headlights, flush door handles, an electric convertible top and windows, and wheels with air-cooled brake drums. For the man who could have any car he wanted, Earl decided it was the Y-job Buick that he wanted to drive as his personal car when production was suspended for the war years.
When Chrome Was God . . . Earl Was Its Prophet

            The "fabulous fifties," as some people called that decade, saw some of the most beautiful and some of the most outlandish cars ever made. The newest of Harley Earl’s creations was introduced – the 1950 Buick LeSabre. One observer lamented, "styling became tyrannical" and another said, "Chrome was god, and Harley Earl was its prophet." The LeSabre made such an impression on the public that within the decade Buick made it a permanent production line. Buick still makes thousands of LeSabres every year.

            R. L. Teague, a designer for Oldsmobile, wrote, “ . . . the employees always called the boss Mr. Earl. He demanded respect and he got it. All us young guys were afraid of him. He kind of scared everybody half to death but he was still a terrific guy." Teague remembered in his biography that Harley Earl firmly believed that if small tailfins were good, then a big ones had to be better and if a little chrome was good, then lots of chrome was better still.

            Earl was six feet, four inches tall. He was a poster-boy for male fashion – dressing in blue suits and colorful neckties. His fashion trademark was two-toned shoes. He had over a hundred pair. He was proud of the fact that he could fold himself into a long, low car, ride comfortable and be seen by people who admired his design and engineering handiwork. After all, lower, longer and wider was what America wanted and he, along with GMs backing would make sure that companies like Studebaker, Kaiser-Frazer, Hudson, Nash, Packard, Willys, and Crosley were never heard from again. Harley Earl made only one miscalculation – Americans grew weary of the excess.

            When the era faded the symbol of the new day was the Volkswagen Beetle. The Earl era had ended, but it had been a terrific run.

32 Years On the Job . . . 35 Million Cars

            Earl worked for GM for 32 years, and directly supervised the design of over 35 million automobiles. He stared with 39 employees in his first design office, but when he retired in 1957, eleven-hundred designers, engineers and concept artists worked for him. When he reflected on his career, he said, "My primary purpose has been to lengthen and lower the American automobile, at times in reality and always at least in appearance. Why? Because my sense of proportion tells me that oblongs are more attractive than squares, just as a ranch house is more attractive than a square, three-story flat-roofed house or a greyhound is more graceful than an English bulldog.”

            LaSalle, LeSabre, Corvette, Cadillac Eldorado – we all know this man’s work. It’s a shame America forgot his name.

            Harley Earl died in West Palm Beach, Florida, on April 10, 1969, at age 75.

Harley Earl, in 1953, with his Buick Y-job, the Firebird II, the Firebird I and LeSabre