Harley Earl’s Expansive American Dream

There are many ways to look at cars, but it is difficult to get people to really look at them as an amalgam of design decisions and stylistic tools that deal with what is an essentially awkward form. While he might have found such analysis by amateurs annoying and best left to professionals like himself, Harley Earl (1893-1969) certainly made them look. Earl established a system for designing automobiles at General Motors in the 1930s and after that was akin to Thomas Edison’s “invention of a process of invention.” Before Earl, mass-produced automobiles were created in a haphazard process that varied widely from manufacturer to manufacturer, with their aesthetics, such as they were, largely determined by engineers. By the end of World War II, most American manufacturers (at least those that survived) created design departments very much along the lines that Earl had innovated over a decade earlier. It is entirely appropriate to speak of automotive design as “B. E.” and “A. E.” (Before and After Earl). Earl was literally the transitional and bridging figure between the world of 19th century coachbuilding and 20th century design for mass production. He was probably the most influential designer of the 20th century; his designs were ubiquitous in the 1950s, when General Motors products captured nearly 50% of the American market. At least 50 million automobiles had their final appearance determined by Harley Earl. Yet he was never accepted by the “Good Design” community centered around The Museum of Modern Art and its promotion of a narrow view of modern design that eschewed the decorative and flamboyant in favor of the aesthetics of the Weissenhofseidlung held at Stuttgart in 1927—the point at which most historians contend we entered the age of High Modernism. Their suspicion was grounded in Earl’s orientation towards popular appeal based on novelty—such as new forms initially arising from the public’s fascination with speed and its visual analog, streamlining—and nowhere was such novelty more readily found than at the Motorama displays of the 1950s that were Harley Earl’s showcases of swank. Clear plastic bubble canopies, gold-plated details, and experimental gas turbine engines were just a few representative elements of Earl’s “Dream Cars” shown next to GM’s production models. Earl had his finger on the pulse of post-War America and its desire for escape from the harsh realities that had followed hard on the heels of victory. If Augustus found Rome made of brick and left it of marble, Earl found the American automobile made of wood and lacquer and left it of brightly-painted steel and chrome. His influence in shaping Americans’ acceptance of modern design was commensurate with his 6′ 4” former athlete’s frame—outsize, impressive, and perhaps a bit intimidating.

Henry Ford’s dominance of the domestic automotive market had ended even before his son Edsel drove the 15 millionth Model T off the assembly line in 1927.  Ford’s strategy was the opposite of the ethos of “an automobile for every purse” as outlined by President (later Chairman) Alfred P. Sloan’s master plan for General Motors mapped out in the 1920s, when Sloan was attempting to create a modern and unified corporation out of founder Billy Durant’s spree of buying automotive and other manufacturers. Earl and his growing stable of designers became absolutely essential to the GM system of broadly-related product lines (Cadillac, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, etc.) addressing a range of economic levels, always with the goal of encouraging consumers to reach for the next level—perhaps from an Oldsmobile or Chevrolet to a Buick, and then on to the pinnacle, Cadillac. And it was just at the end of the Model T age that Earl made his way to Detroit from his native California, forever changing the aesthetics of the American automobile with his design for the 1927 LaSalle, the first mass-produced automobile to be purposely (and successfully) styled.

Earl might never have played the enviable role he did had he not been sidelined by a rugby injury and septicemia while attending Stanford University (he had been encouraged to pursue a law degree). Upon recuperating, he began working for his father, J.W., who had established the Earl Carriage Works in Los Angeles many years previously, rechristening it the Earl Automobile Works in 1908. “Coachbuilding” (as the creation of custom bodies was known) was transitioning from the shaping of horse-drawn vehicles to the creation of custom bodies for automotive chassis at this juncture, and there was a tremendous demand for unique or highly individualized bodies from the Hollywood stars and moguls of the second decade of the 20th century. Don Lee, who owned the distribution and sales rights to Cadillac automobiles in six cities ranging from San Francisco to L.A., bought out J. W. Earl in 1919.  He was eager for access to his clientèle and his remarkably talented son, who seemed to understand these people. In fact, Earl was learning showmanship himself during this era which would stand him in good stead over the coming decades. For the rest of his life he would boast a tan, hundreds of tailored suits, and some of the most remarkable custom automobiles of all time—including the “Y-Job” and the LeSabre—as his “daily drivers.”

Earl created a modern vernacular of forms derived from flight and auto racing, with a priority on “longer, lower, and wider” automobiles. 1927, the year Earl’s LaSalle scored a huge hit, was also the year of Lindbergh’s flight over the Atlantic. This jump-started the public’s fascination with what can be called “pseudo-scientific streamlining”—a smoothing of forms into flowing shapes, initially based on the teardrop. Earl’s earliest achievement was to take GM’s products out of the rectilinear, sheet-metal aesthetic of the early 1920s so pronounced in the early enclosed versions of the Model T, and to create a vehicle that could capitalize on paved roads—and to draw the attention of customers looking to trade up from what was probably their first automobile. Early American automobiles made use of prodigious amounts of wood in their frames until the advent of the all-metal body demanded by the T’s high rate of production (the high temperatures of the ovens baking on the “japanned” black enamel paint would have caused wood to burn—even encased in metal as it was—and was also the reason for Ford’s comment that the public “could have any color it wanted as long as it was black” (it was the only finish that dried fast enough to keep up with Ford’s rate of production). DuPont’s introduction of Duco paints in the mid-1920s opened up a world of color for mass-produced cars…just about the time Earl moved to Detroit. He had arrived at the right place, and at the right time.

In the rapidly-evolving and highly competitive world of auto design in the 1930s, Earl began to think ahead—and to put his thinking into three dimensions. GM had been hit by the Great Depression just as hard as most other automotive manufacturers, but had somewhat deeper pockets. Earl was willing to go out on a limb in predicting the further evolution of the motorcar and putting these predictions into three dimensions. There was the masterful Cadillac V-16 Aero Dynamic Coupe created for the “Century of Progress” World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933-34, but the greatest of Earl’s creations prior to World War II was the “Y-Job,” a one-off, a fully-functioning vehicle that pushed the borders of what was possible in manufacturing at the time with its concealed headlights, aerodynamic envelope, and a convertible roof that could be raised and lowered electrically and stowed completely in a compartment behind the driver. Its contours and grille treatment would reach the public years later in the post-war Buicks, known for their massive “dollar grins.” Earl and his designers had pioneered the concept car in these two examples—another Harley Earl first. But what made Earl’s  Art & Colour Section the darling of GM was the discovery that the wide number of body types produced by the different divisions varied only slightly—and could share common platforms, saving GM hundred of millions of dollars in the long run. The “A-B-C-D” body system, as it was dubbed, was an innovation that became an industry standard, just like Earl’s design studios. It seemed that benefits accrued when styling entered the picture, even beyond encouraging the public to buy.

The asymmetry of the emerging biomorphism in design in the late 1930s  was almost entirely inappropriate to car design, but its often large and rounded contours (e.g. Russel Wright’s American Modern dinnerware) are related to Earl’s aesthetic, which was an attempt to merge and even reconcile new elements from aviation and racing with elements derived from the natural world. There is a richness of form and decoration that is almost disorienting—as improbable as this may seem, the metalwork of Dagobert Peche is not an inapt comparison. Too often these designs were condemned for their supposedly superficial, “tacked-on” elements without an appreciation for the forms of the bodies beneath them. These swelling, non-geometric forms, coming together and sometimes colliding in complex manners, created a subtle interplay of form and light that was a constant concern on the part of Earl and his designers, but seemed to be ignored or condemned as “nonfunctional” by high-minded critics, often with a sneer. In retrospect, it was not that the International Style-based aesthetics promulgated by MoMA and others were truly ahistorical; rather it was the elements of early Modernism they chose to ignore that most characterized its sometimes severe, almost doctrinaire rejection of decoration. Earl’s LeSabre was the epitome of what these curators and critics found suspect in its celebration of the enthusiasms of the present over the timeless values handed down from the ancient Greeks. Blatantly inspired by the first combat-worthy jet aircraft fielded by the U.S., it featured a body crafted from cast magnesium and sheet aluminum and the first wrap-around windshield, or “panoramic windscreen” as it was dubbed, an innovation that Earl demanded in spite of the tremendous challenges of fabricating it. What was apparent in the Y-Job became blatant in the LeSabre—it was three-dimensional fantasy made flesh, with 360 degrees of appeal, no longer simply a frontal and side view. While Earl never drew while instructing his designers, and was notoriously inarticulate when it came to formal language, few of his designers questioned Earl’s ability to know exactly what he wanted when he saw it, and that the solution he was reaching for seemed almost inevitable once it had taken shape. There were very expensive, limited production cars like the early Cadillac Eldorados and the 1953 Buick Skylark, and there were affordable cars like the 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, which was referred to by some as a “baby Cadillac” (as the LaSalle had been) because it shared so many common mechanical components with its pricey sibling (and an “eggcrate” grille lifted from a contemporary Ferrari). These were large, powerful vehicles propelled by high-compression V-8 engines. They were ideally suited to the new Interstate Highway system. American kids played the game of identifying the makes and models of the cars they saw about them—most of them General Motors products and identifiable, as Earl wanted, from 1/4 mile away, and yet all unquestionably from the same “family.”

Even the bright post-war color schemes made popular by Ray Eames and Alexander Girard were eventually incorporated into the paint schemes and interiors of GM’s autos of the 1950s through the efforts of the female designers present in its studios from the 1940s on, culminating in the largely Pratt Institute-educated “Damsels of Design”—surrogates for the female American consumer who also brought a new concern for ergonomics to the design of auto interiors. Their finest hour was the 1959 Motorama, planned under Earl but taking place after his departure from GM. Earl supported them; in fact, for all of his reputation among some as a tyrant, Earl was willing to take risks on talent, and in educating and grooming young designers to professionalize this new pursuit called automotive styling. Car design is seen today as an area of early specialization in a designer’s career; it is a territory that has not been very successfully negotiated by generalists. This and other factors have kept us from discussing automotive design in the same breath that we consider all other design. It is a false distinction. And when automobiles are sold in the future, style will be part of the equation. It has been since 1927.

Earl began his career in creating custom bodies for the Hollywood elite. In his heyday, maybe Earl made motorists movie stars for a moment, if only in their own minds. He also defined the role of chief designer for decades to come in the automotive industry—in fact his influence extends demonstrably to the present. Chris Bangle’s departure from BMW in February 2009 has been regarded as a seismic event in the automotive styling world. The influence Bangle wielded over BMW’s design efforts during its florescence was at least partially determined by the system Earl established at GM Art & Colour over 70 years ago. Earl elevated design to the boardroom when he became a Vice President of GM in 1940.  It might be added that Bangle left behind his greatest concept car—the GINA Light Visionary Concept—as a roadmap of where he saw BMW’s design ethos headed in the future. Like Earl’s greatest designs, it is a stunning fusion of the mechanical and seemingly organic—which has caused it to be dubbed “the Seven of Nine Car” by one wag, referencing our own Star Trek-based fantasy world of today. I think Harley would love it. 

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