Harley Earl, father of the 'dream' car

The 1934 LaSalle was one of Harley Earl’s most successful designs.

The 1950’s became known as the era of the dream car, and it was no accident. With the restraints of war and depression gone, big engines and flashy tailfins took the auto industry by storm. And the person most responsible for this was a man named Harley Earl.

Born in Hollywood, Cal., in 1893, Earl grew up no stranger to dreams. His father, J.W. Earl, was from Michigan and had worked there as a lumberjack. In 1889 the senior Earl moved his family to the west coast and became a coach maker, building carriages, wagons, and racing sulkies.

Harley Earl with a clay model of the LeSabre dream car.

      With the advent of the automobile he founded Earl Automobile Works in 1908 and began making customized parts and accessories for cars.

After attending Standford University, Harley Earl joined his father’s business and by the 1920s he was designing custom auto bodies for movie stars. His first job was a $28,000 streamlined auto body for Fatty Arbuckle. One of his more famous designs was a custom body with a saddle on the hood built for cowboy star Tom Mix.

By 1927 his Hollywood dream cars had attracted the attention of General Motors. GM had introduced the LaSalle that year to fill the price gap between the Buick and the Cadillac, but the car was a sales disappointment. Earl was lured to Detroit and styling of the LaSalle was removed from the engineering department and put in the hands of a new design department headed up by Earl.

The new LaSalle caused a sensation. Coupled with a 303 cubic inch 75 hp V-8 engine, it became a performance car able to average 95.3 mph, just a few miles below the Duesenberg which had just won the memorial Day 500 race at Indianapolis. Nearly 50,000 LaSalles were sold by the end of 1929. but sales never recovered from the depression years and production was discontinued after the 1940 model year.

During the 1930s Earl continued to refine the LaSalle and Cadillac but one of his most famous designs of the era was the Buick “Y Job,” widely recognized as the first “concept” car. (Buick officials said the division called it “Y” because so many makers dubbed experimental cars “X”),

The Buick “Y Job” is one of Earl’s most famous designs and is widely considered to be the first “concept” car.

      Styling and mechanical features of the “Y Job” showed up on GM products, particularly Buick and Cadillac, through the 1940s. Created by GM Styling and Buick Engineering, the “Y Job” was designed by Earl and built on a production Buick chassis modified by Charlie Chayne, then Buick’s chief engineer. Earl drove the “Y Job” as his personal car during World War II years.

The car reflected Earl’s principles of longer and lower. It featured disappearing headlamps, flush door handles, a power-operated convertible top that was concealed by a metal deck when down, electric windows and wheels with airplane-type air-cooled brake drums.

Another Harley Earl creation, the 1950 LeSabre, embodied many design and styling concepts which would appear on GM cars throughout the ’50s. Including the name, which became a Buick car line name in 1959.

Buick had so many ideas that it wanted to try out in 1951 and it built two dream cars, the LeSabre, the brainchild of stylist Earl, and the XP-300, which reflected engineer Chayne’s approach. Both cars made impressive splashes with the press, but the LeSabre, with its jet fighter-inspired styling and flashy technical innovations — such as a rain detector which actuated the convertible roof to go up — made it a hit on the auto show circuit.

GM and Earl tested new ideas on the public with a traveling Motorama that toured the U.S. from 1953 to 1961. Among the ideas displayed were the prototype Corvette, the Chevrolet Nomad, and the Eldorado Brougham.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower inspects the LeSabre in Paris in 1952.

      The “fabulous fifties” saw some of the most beautiful and some of the most outlandish vehicles ever made.

One observor lamented, “styling became tyrannical” and another said, “Chrome was god, and Harley Earl was its prophet.”

Olds designer Richard L. Teague once told a story of having two sets of chrome designs for Earl to choose from. By mistake both sets had been put on the same design and Earl said, “Fellas, you got it.” The car was produced with both sets of chrome overlays as the stylists shrunk in horror.

Teague said employes 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.”

At six feet four, he dressed colorfully, favoring light blue suits and two tone shoes. He loved to get his long body into his low prototype cars that he designed to accomodate himself.

The long pent up demand for cars caused by the Depression and World War II burst into exuberant excess in the 1950s. If a small tailfin was good, then a big one had to be better. If a little chrome was good, then lots of chrome was better.

New expressways were built to accommodate all the new automobiles. They led to new suburbs with drive-in theaters and drive- in restaurants that allowed patrons to remain in their comfy cars.

But the 1950s and ’60s were also a shaking out period for the manufacturers. Ten car companies became four. The casualties included Studebaker, Nash, Kaiser-Frazer, Hudson, Packard, Willys and Crosley.

The powerful influence of Earl for “lower, longer, wider” and with flashy fins beat down those who could not compete.

But the excesses of the era began to fade and the symbol of a new day dawning was the utilitarian Volkswagen beetle. The Earl era had ended. But it had been a good run.

The tailfin, a brainchild of Earl’s, was first introduced on the 1948 Cadillac.

      Earl held his stylist job for 31 years, his staff growing from 50 to 1,100 designers.

At his retirement in 1957, Earl reflected on his career:

“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.”

He said his most famous design, the fender tail fin on the LeSabre dream car, was inspired by an army airplanehe had seen at Selfridge Air Force Base in Mt. Clemens during the war — a P38 Lightning-fighter:

“When I saw those two rudders sticking up, it gave me a postwar idea. When we introduced it, we almost started a war in the corporation.”

The tailfin grew until it became a futuristic parody.

By the time of General Motors’ 50th anniversary in 1956, Earl had directly supervised the design of more than 35 million cars. All told he indirectly influenced the designs of more than 60 million cars.

Earl died April 10, 1969, at age 75 after a stroke in West Palm Beach Florida.

The 1953 Corvette is one of the most successful designs to come out of Harley Earl’s GM design studios.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.) By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News