Harley Earl was the first designated design head of General Motors Company, who later became its vice president. He achieved the feat of becoming the first top executive to land a design job of a major company in the history of America. He bore attributes of a pioneer for modern designs of transportation, and that of an industrial designer. Earl was responsible for pioneering the use of hand made clay models and freeform sketching as techniques of designing automobiles. Subsequently, Earl fostered the “concept car” as an ingenious marketing device and a design process tool (Bayley, 45). Earl also began “Project Opel” that was eventually renamed the Chevrolet Corvette. He was also responsible for the authorization of tailfin introduction in the styling of automobiles. Born in November 1893 Earl indeed made outstanding achievements as a designer in his career until his passing on in April 1969.
Harley Earl’s birthplace is in Hollywood California. His father, J. W. Earl, had an early career of building coaches. However, he later shifted his focus custom bodies from hoarse-drawn automobiles. He also specialized in customizing automobile parts and accessories, eventually opening the Earl Automobile Company in 1908. After completing high school, Earl began to study at Stanford University. However, he had to leave early to work at the family company with his father. The company by this time had grown and was building automobile bodies for movie stars in Hollywood such as Tom Mix and Roscoe Arbuckle (Bayley, 72).
Among Earl’s outstanding contributions was the Buick Y-Job. In 1939, it was through Earl’s design and instructions that the Buick Y-Job was styled and made. This was the first concept car of the motor industry. Even though other one-off automobiles had already been made, the Buick Y-Job became the first car to be made with a sole view of establishing how the public would react to new ideas of design. In 1942, Earl went on to establish a division of training and camouflage research at General Motors. Additionally, Harley Earl was responsible for authorizing the 1948 Cadillac Frank Hershey design. It was this design that was incorporated with the first tailfin for automobiles. This particular style became popular in the whole of Detroit. Eventually, it sparked competition between Virgil Exner and Harley Earl in terms of complexity and size of car tailfins.
Another major contribution by Earl includes the Chevrolet Corvette. This achievement was mainly influenced by European and English sports cars racing on circuits when World War II ended. Earl immediately felt that General Motors had to produce a racing car. The design work of this project was done secretly. The project when finished was offered to the then general manager of Chevrolet Ed Cole who accepted it without much hesitation. The car was eventually released to the public for sale in 1953 (Coates, 37). After a successful and groundbreaking career, Harley Earl decided to retire in 1958. He did so after overseeing automotive designs in 1959. His role as vice president was taken up by Bill Mitchell (Sloan, 104). Notably, vehicle designs at General Motors became less appealing after Mitchell’s takeover.
Harley Earl died in April 10, 1969 in Florida West Palm Beach after suffering a stroke. He died at age 75. To this day, he is remembered as the first chief of automotive style and design in the US industry. He is the originator of tail fins, wraparound windshield, clay modeling design method, and many others. In 1954, He stated that his greatest intent was to lower and lengthen the design of American vehicles. The years of 1960 and 1970 indeed serve testament to Earl’s vision with vehicles in this era exhibiting his desirable design.
Bayley, Stephen. Harley Earl. London: Trefoil, 2004. Print.
Coates, Richard. Harley Earl and the Dream Machine. New York: Knopf, 2003. Print.
Sloan, Alfred P. My Years with General Motors. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 2004. Print.
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