The Earl Of Detroit
HARLEY J. EARL WAS NOT THE FIRST CAR STYLIST; HE WAS JUST THE MOST IM portant. Today, 40 years after his retirement from General Motors and thirty years after his death, he remains the pre-eminent figure in the history of automotive design: a legend, a super ego among towering egos, the man who gave structure and order to an industrial art form that didn’t even have a name before he started.
When GM’s president, Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., hired Earl in 1927, he set him up in what Sloan called the Art & Colour Section (that was Colour with a u , to give it a tony British flavour). The fancy title gave Earl’s detractors one more reason to smirk. For several years GM’s engineers referred to Art & Colour as the Powder Room or the Beauty Parlor. But Earl won their grudging respect and eventually established GM as the mother church of auto styling, the university that graduated designers and styling vice presidents for nearly all the other car companies in America. Dick Teague, who became chief stylist for Packard and then design vice president of American Motors, worked at Art & Colour in his younger years. “Mr. Earl had charisma in spades,” Teague recalled. “Everybody called him Misterl , all one word. You never called him Harley to his face.”
Misterl commanded tremendous authority, but he also became his staff’s bogeyman, the boss who gave designers the work they loved and then kept them at it for 80 hours a week. He drove them crazy, drove them to drink, and drove them into divorce court. He threw lavish parties and picnics at which the designers’ wives—those still riding out their marriages—would meet this ogre their husbands had told them about and then return to their mates and mew, “Oh, but he seems so nice!”
He was tall, just over six feet four inches, and had a soft, velvety voice. He sometimes stuttered, and he mispronounced certain words. Chromium became chronium , aluminum was alunimum , narrow came out nare , and he pronounced LaSalle as L’Sawl . He could be charming and funny, especially to women. Yet he had a rough side, and many of his staff lived in fear of him. Sometimes he fired people for no apparent reason and had to have his assistant chase them down the hall and rehire them. Leonard McLay, Earl’s personal auto mechanic, said he got fired at least once a year.
Earl had the absolute, unqualified backing of Alfred Sloan, so he feared no one. If opinion went too much against him, Earl would pick up the telephone, scowl at his antagonist, and mutter, “Let’s see what Alfred has to say about this.” Rarely did he actually have to make the call.
He also had a tremendous, almost crusading conviction about how automobiles should look. He was constantly striving to make GM cars appear longer, lower, and wider. A great salesman and an even greater showman, he knew instinctively what a Chevrolet should look like, what a Cadillac should look like, what a Buick should look like, and so forth, year after year.
Alfred Sloan hired Earl because he recognized that by the 1920s, with the basic mechanical arrangement of automobiles pretty much standardized, more and more people were buying new cars for their style. Henry Ford had put America on wheels, but it took Sloan and Harley Earl to give the automobile that potent next step, the sales stimulant that the humble Model T so sorely lacked.
Harley Earl was born in Los Angeles in 1893 and grew up in Hollywood when Hollywood was still a dusty little farm community among Southern California’s citrus groves. In 1889 Harley’s father, Jacob William (“J.W.”) Earl, opened the Earl Carriage Works in downtown Los Angeles, about five miles east of his Hollywood home. As carriages gave way to motorcars, he renamed his shop the Earl Automobile Works in 1908 and began designing, fabricating, and selling car bodies and automotive accessories.
Harley and his younger brother, Art, would often ride their bicycles from Hollywood to the Earl shop in L.A., and both got thoroughly caught up in the early Southern California passion for automobiles. According to Art Earl, Harley began to design cars when he was still in high school. One day around 1910, he recalled in a 1980 interview, “we were up at Bailey’s Ranch, camped in this canyon. It started to rain, and we ended up having this big flood. The whole canyon flooded, and it filled this hollow with clay. Harley and I made these little saws out of wood, and we went over to the clay, and Harley started designing cars out of clay. … I guess we had 20 or 30 of these little cars of different shapes—roadsters and touring cars…. But [then] it started to rain again. We got two and a half more inches of rain in about half an hour, and it melted all our clay cars.” Clay as a design medium, however, stayed with Harley, and he later put it to good use.
After graduating from Hollywood High, Harley entered the University of Southern California, but he tended to be more interested in sports than academic subjects. He played rugby, ran track, and even set a pole-vaulting record. After a year or so he left USC and went to work for his father, who soon shoved him out the door once more, this time to Stanford. Here again sports won out over scholarship. Two years later, in 1916, Harley injured a leg playing rugby and was sent home with a serious infection. That marked the end of his college career.
By this time Hollywood had turned from a sleepy little village into a booming movie colony, and the Earl Automobile Works had found a lucrative sideline fabricating Roman chariots, stagecoaches, and other rolling stock for use in films. Movie producers and stars were also buying luxury cars with custom-built bodies, some of them from J.W. Earl’s shop.
Down the street from the Earl Automobile Works was a Cadillac distributorship owned by a man named Don Lee. Several of Lee’s customers wanted special bodies for their Cadillacs, so to meet that demand, Don Lee bought out J.W. in 1919. The shop at that time employed 90 to 100 craftsmen and produced some 250 custom cars a year, making it—according to the San Francisco Chronicle —the sixth-largest coachbuilder in the nation.
Don Lee immediately put Harley in charge of designing and overseeing the construction of all coachbuilt bodies. But instead of sketching ideas and presenting them to customers on paper, as most coachbuilders did, Harley began to use clay. He would design a car body, make a small clay model of it (or have it made; no one knows how good a modeler Harley actually was), and show it to the client for approval. These three-dimensional presentations, along with Earl’s easy give-and-take, delighted Lee’s customers, and the lanky, outgoing athlete from Stanford soon found himself designing cars for Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Tom Mix, Fatty Arbuckle, and the oil heir E. L. Doheny, Jr. He had also, by that time, married his high school sweetheart, Sue Carpenter, and enthusiastically taken up golf. Among his golfing buddies was a Stanford acquaintance named Andy Baldwin. Baldwin’s father, a Chevrolet dealer in Toledo, Ohio, often played with Fred Fisher, one of the seven GM “Body by Fisher” brothers. Eventually Harley, Andy, and Fred started chumming around together at the Los Angeles Country Club during Fisher’s frequent California vacations.
Through Fred, Harley met another Fisher brother, Larry, the president of GM’s Cadillac division in Detroit. At the same time, Alfred Sloan had begun to notice some of Harley Earl’s Cadillac body designs at the coachbuilder shows (“salons,” they were called) in New York City. Sloan was impressed by Earl’s work, which was more eye-catching and daring than that of the conservative East Coast coachbuilders.
Cadillac needed a smaller, sportier model to rival the hot-selling Packard Six. Larry Fisher had named this car LaSalle, but thus far Cadillac’s body engineers had not given him a LaSalle design he liked. Just before Christmas 1925 Earry Fisher called Harley Earl in Los Angeles and asked him if he would like to take a crack at styling the new LaSalle. You bet, said Earl.
He took a leave of absence from Don Lee and spent three months in Detroit, in the experimental workshop area at the rear of the Cadillac plant on Clark Avenue. Earl designed, and his three assistants built, four concept models: a roadster, a coupe, a sedan, and a four-door open touring car. They sprayed these full-size clay-over-wood “cars” with black Duco lacquer and mounted them on wheeled chassis. All four clay models looked absolutely real.
Earl made no bones about his inspiration for the LaSalle design: He’d copied one of his favorite European luxury cars, the Hispano-Suiza, and simply scaled it down. When Sloan and the Fisher Brothers saw Earl’s four prototypes, fullsize and looking so convincing, they were bowled over. The LaSalle went into production very much as Earl styled it and became an instant hit.
Earl had figured that when the LaSalle assignment was over, that would be the end of it. It wasn’t. Nine months later, in May 1927, Larry Fisher phoned Earl again, this time from Alfred Sloan’s office in New York, and offered him the Art & Colour job. Sloan’s idea was for Earl to lend his styling know-how to all five of GM’s main car divisions—Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac. The president of each division, as well as Fisher’s body engineers, could call on Earl. Sloan told Earl that he expected him to build up a staff of about 50 people by the end of the first year, but he offered no advice or guidelines. Sloan would back Earl to the hilt, but Earl would have to find his own way. Earl accepted the job and moved into an office on the tenth floor of the GM Building in Detroit.
After a slow start—Earl received no visitors at all during his first three days on the job—the divisions began to assign him jobs like choosing paint colors and upholstery fabrics. Then Larry Fisher asked Earl to help face-lift the 192829 Cadillacs, and O. E. Hunt assigned Art & Colour to style Chevrolet’s first six-cylinder car, the 1929 model. Buick likewise commissioned A&C to design its new 1929 line.
This last job did not turn out well, giving Earl a temporary setback. The 1929 Buick had a stylistic device known as a “rolled beltline.” This meant that the line around the bodv iust below the windows—the beltline— “rolled,” or puffed outward, ever so slightly. When Walter P. Chrysler caught his first glimpse of the 1929 Buick, he snickered and said the car looked “pregnant.” The press repeated Chrysler’s remark, and within a week the entire country was calling it the Pregnant Buick—this at a time when the word pregnant was rarely used in polite society. The nickname stuck, and Buick sold 56,000 fewer cars in its 1929 model year than it had the year before. Buick blamed Earl, and Earl later blamed the Fisher Body Division, which, he said, had changed his body drafts.
And it’s true: Earl’s earliest problems had to do with Fisher Body’s engineering establishment. Fisher engineers didn’t like to be told how to bend sheet metal. They’d done nicely before Earl came aboard and didn’t see much need for his services now. So when Earl suggested styling changes, like the slightly different beltline, Fisher’s engineers told the car divisions that such things would add to production costs. It took Earl a while to learn the game, and some of the lessons—the Pregnant Buick in particular—were hard.
In self-defense Earl hired his own group of body engineers to anticipate can’t-be-done or too-expensive objections. He also insisted that Fisher’s designers show him all major revisions if they intended to make styling changes. The strategy worked: Art & Colour was never caught off guard again.
One of the key body engineers Earl hired was Vincent D. (“Kap”) Kaptur, Sr. Kap came over from Packard in 1928 and was put in charge of checking specifications and making sure that everything fit. In 1931 he was comparing body dimensions and noticed that there were only fractional differences between, say, a Chevrolet, a Pontiac, and a small Oldsmobile body. The large Buick and small Cadillac were also virtually identical in size.
This being the case, he thought, why not make just three or four core bodies, designate them A, B, C, and D, and hang onto them the parts that identified the different nameplates: radiator grilles, hoods, lamps, fenders, bumpers, and so on? Earl relayed Kap’s idea to GM’s executive committee, and the A-B-C-D body plan went into production almost immediately. It saved GM billions of dollars over the years, and variations are still used by auto makers worldwide.
As Sloan had mandated, Earl’s staff numbered around 50 by the end of his first year at GM. It kept growing steadily, and so did Earl’s reputation. As an administrator he experimented with ways to keep his craftsmen working in an orderly fashion. At first everybody occupied one huge room. Earl separated the different design groups with large, movable blackboards on which the designers drew full-size chalk outlines of cars. The groups could hear one another speaking, and Earl could easily walk from one to another, but no design group was allowed to look at the work of any other, the idea being to keep each group original and uninfluenced by the rest.
In addition to the five “studios” that worked on production cars (six including GMC trucks), there might be one or two smaller design clusters assigned to dream up more futuristic vehicles. Their advanced sketches and clay models didn’t necessarily apply to specific production cars. They were theoretical, or “blue sky,” intended to provide styling themes and details that Earl could draw on in years to come.
Early on, Earl instituted a series of competitions between the various groups, asking them to design such things as “a future small fastback sedan” or “an owner-driven luxury car.” All designers took these competitions very seriously. The prizes most often consisted of paid trips to places like the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. Earl staged competitions throughout his GM career, and they gave birth to a number of production cars, such as the 1935 Pontiac and the 1936 Cord 810 (designed by Gordon Buehrig, who then left GM and took his design with him).
Another thing Earl would do: hire young stylists, anyone who showed talent with car design, and put them to work in an advanced studio. They were ordered to sketch variations of just one component of a car: grilles, door handles, tail lamps, whatever. Earl theorized that a young designer would show his best thinking at the beginning of such an assignment, so Earl would get the benefit of the novice’s most original work, possibly something useful. If the novice didn’t crack, if he showed that he could stand the endless grind of sketching the same part over and over, it meant he had grit. Grit was important. But if he lacked the requisite combination of talent and staying power, Earl would let him go. This process got to be known as “Harley Earl’s revolving door,” and many designers who made good at other car companies passed through it.
Earl felt very much at ease as a showman, and he liked to introduce new designs on the stage of the General Motors Building auditorium. In one presentation of the mid-1930s, Earl wanted to show GM executives how the company could make its cars lower without sacrificing headroom. Alfred Sloan was watching, along with the Fishers and others. Sloan later wrote that Earl “made one of the most dramatic demonstrations I have ever witnessed. He had a Cadillac … on the stage before us. There were a number of workmen who, after lifting the [unattached] body from the chassis, proceeded to cut the chassis frame apart with acetylene torches. Proceeding very quickly, they welded the frame back together in such a way as to lower its height by a good six inches. When they replaced the body on the makeshift frame, Mr. Earl had proved a point—not only could the body be lowered but, in its revised form, [the car] looked 100% better.” Earl always believed that lower looked better, and the average height of a GM sedan decreased from 72 inches in 1930 to 56 inches by 1958.
He also insisted that all GM cars be instantly recognizable by small children from a block away. He gave each marque a family resemblance, and throughout the 1930s all five divisions were recognizable by their “faces”—their grilles and front ensembles. After World War II Earl gave the divisions even stronger identifiers: tail fins for Cadillac, portholes for Buick, the rocket for Oldsmobile, and Pontiac’s silver streak. Each division also had secondary distinguishing marks: Cadillac’s chrome V and faux air intake at the leading edge of the rear fender; Buick’s gunsight hood ornament and “sweepspear” side trim; Oldsmobile’s globe and fishmouth grille; Pontiac’s Indian and round tail lamps. (Chevrolets were so numerous that Earl thought they didn’t need specific identifiers.)
Earl believed in long, tall hoods because a massive hood implied power. He had a profound appreciation for the entertainment value of glitter and chrome, and he developed a theory of the “light value” of chrome trim: that it should capture the maximum brightness of daylight and throw it directly into the eye of the beholder. To make this happen, Earl pressed his designers to bevel or tilt chrome trim at a 45-degree angle to the horizon so that reflections would bounce up into the viewer’s face. He also loved automotive jewelry: cloisonné badges, hood ornaments, spears, finned wheel covers, anything that flashed and glittered in the sun.
He couldn’t sketch to save his life, and he chose not to sculpt clay during his days at GM, probably because he realized that his own abilities didn’t meet the standards he had set for his stylists and modelers. As he settled into his work, however, Earl developed ways to get the most from his staff. For example, he rarely dictated and never gave clear, concise instructions. He purposely resorted to hand waving—vague and ambiguous orders.
This seemed illogical and was terribly frustrating to some, but his sharper people soon figured out what Earl was doing. If he dictated, his designers would get to know exactly what Earl wanted and would tailor their work to suit his tastes. By remaining vague and ambivalent, and by changing direction often and unexpectedly, Earl gave his designers the fullest latitude to use their imaginations. That may be one reason he never personally tried to model clay or make a sketch.
In keeping with his penchant for showmanship, in the early days of Art & Colour, Earl outfitted his designers and clay modelers with uniforms so that they would be recognized as they walked around the General Motors Building. The uniforms looked neat and smart and provided much-needed publicity for Earl’s fledgling styling section. Earl himself dressed more like a movie star than a corporate executive. In the summer he would wear light-colored suits to set off his tan, typically with pastel silk shirts, bright solid-colored ties, matching handkerchiefs, and suede loafers. He usually kept a second, identical set of clothes in his office closet so that on hot, clammy Detroit days—this was before universal air conditioning—he could shower and change at noon to look crisp and unruffled while everyone else wilted. Earl intentionally set himself apart from the other GM executives, who wore ordinary, dark, nondescript suits, conservative ties, and shoes that resisted oil from the assemblyline floor.
He also used Hollywood razzle-dazzle to sell his ideas to management. When the Depression threatened to kill the LaSalle, Earl took it upon himself to rescue it. His Cadillac designers developed an exotic front ensemble with a tall, thin radiator patterned after Sir Malcolm Campbell’s land-speed-record Sunbeam. They then added circular Art Deco hood louvers and two-tier “biplane” bumpers modeled along aircraft lines.
Earl put a full-size wooden model of his proposed 1934 LaSalle on the GM auditorium stage with the curtains drawn, then called a meeting of the executive committee. “This,” he said as he pulled back the curtains, “is the car you’ve decided not to build next year.” The audience sat stunned for a moment, then immediately approved the design. The LaSalle continued in production through the 1940 model year.
Buick was also on the skids during the early Depression. In October 1933 Sloan named a new general manager to pull that division out of its nosedive, Harlow H. (“Red”) Curtice. Curtice had been with General Motors’ AC Spark Plug division, so he needed a quick course in body design and asked Earl to give him one. Earl was flattered and took Curtice under his wing. The two became fast friends, and since Larry Fisher had retired from Cadillac a few months earlier, Earl began lavishing the attention on Buick that he had previously given Cadillac. Buick prospered, and by 1935 it was out of the woods. In surveys taken at the New York Auto Show in 1936, 1937, and 1938, Buicks were voted the best-looking cars in America. Earl’s acquaintance with Curtice would pay off when Curtice became president of GM in the 1950s.
After ten years on the job, Earl had come into his own. In 1937 the name GM Art & Colour was officially changed to General Motors Styling, and Earl was given new and larger quarters on the four top floors of the Argonaut Building, just behind the GM Building. Here he organized formal studios—one room for each car division plus several for advanced designs. The studios were locked so that, again, design groups couldn’t crib ideas from one another. Only a handful of people had keys.
Dick Teague recalled that “when he’d come back from Florida with his white Palm Beach suit and this terrific tan, the drumbeats would start in the studios. Miss Ramshaw [Earl’s secretary] was pretty good about alerting the troops… . We’d kind of track him like on a radar screen. That’s when we’d be all asses and elbows.”
One day Earl returned from vacation and dropped in on Bob Lauer’s Pontiac studio. Teague recalls: “Misterl looks across at this clay model of a Pontiac and stares at it for a moment, and finally he says, ‘No, Bob. It’s two or three years from now and you’re out in Pasadena or wherever, and this little old lady comes into the showroom, and she’s standing about this distance from the car, and she’ll look it over, and do you know what she’ll say?’
“Lauer says, ‘No, Misterl, I don’t know.’
“She’ll say, ‘I wouldn’t buy that son of a bitch!’”
And the Pontiac team started from scratch.
By the mid-1950s Fisher Body’s engineers and the heads of GM’s five car divisions trusted Earl’s styling abilities enough to give him virtually limitless power within the company. In 1940 GM took the unprecedented step of making Earl a corporate vice president. He became the first, and for many years the only, auto designer accorded that distinction by a major car company. Everyone now recognized the importance of GM Styling. They knew that a car designed under Harley Earl’s direction would be at the leading edge of automotive chic and other car companies would scramble to follow. As the veteran styling instructor Strother MacMinn observed, “Harley Earl designed so you could walk around a car and be entertained the whole trip.” Earl took equal care in tailoring the cars he drove himself. In 1938, with the backing of Red Curtice and help from the Buick engineer Charles Chayne, he and the designer Paul Meyer created the Y-Job, a low, rakish, boattailed convertible that became Earl’s personal car for the next dozen years. The “Y” was copied from aircraft terminology used to designate an experimental plane, such as the YB-17. The Y-Job had hidden headlights, a disappearing power top, push-button door handles, and electric window lifts. Its horizontal grille, flowing front fenders, lack of running boards, engine-turned instrument panel, and gunsight hood ornament anticipated GM cars, especially Buicks, years in the future.
The shutdown of consumer car production during and just after World War II gave GM Styling time to ponder some highly original and influential postwar car designs. These began to see production with the 1948 models. That was the year Cadillac came out with its first tail fins, one of the most successful and copied styling features of the next 20 years.
The idea of tail fins was not new. Several land-speedrecord cars had sported tail fins before the war, as did the Italian Cisitalia in 1946. But Earl was constantly looking for novel concepts to make his designs stand out, and in 1941 he took a group of his top designers on a field trip to look at the new Lockheed P-38 “Lightning” twin-boom fighter plane. Everyone on that trip got excited about the possibility of grafting fins onto the rear fenders of cars, and throughout the war, in between designing military items such as manuals, shoulder patches, camouflage, and a tank destroyer, Earl’s staff knocked out designs using the tail-fin motif. Tail fins were so popular that within a very short time nearly every car in America sprouted a variant of Cadillac’s hallmark.
By this time Earl’s Y-Job was beginning to show its age, so in 1951 he replaced it with his ultimate personal car, the GM LeSabre. The stylish and highly advanced LeSabre convertible bristled with technical innovation, including a supercharged 335-horsepower aluminum V-8 engine, cast magnesium body panels, wraparound windshield, all-independent suspension system, inboard brakes, fuel tanks in both rear fenders, rain-sensine power top. single-leaf rear springs, remote-scanning rearview mirror, semibucket seats with console, and on and on. The car stood only 50 inches high, versus 60 inches for the average 1950 GM model.
Stylistically the LeSabre took its cues straight from jet aircraft, particularly the North American F-86 “Sabre.” Jets were still pretty gee-whiz at that time. The LeSabre’s high-mounted air intake, tall tail fins, and large, central fake “exhaust” in the rear came directly from jet-fighter imagery. Earl put nearly 45,000 miles on the LeSabre, but its true significance lav in its role as a show car, because it became the starring sensation of GM’s Motorama exhibit of 1951.
GM had been presenting small Motoramas since the early 1930s. Earl turned them into show-biz extravaganzas that eventually traveled in large truck-and-trailer convoys to major cities around the country. Motoramas toured the four corners of America during most years from 1951 through 1961. With their free admission and Broadway-like stage revues, they attracted some 10.5 million spectators in all. Most of the people came to see Harley Earl’s latest GM dream cars. The LeSabre led that parade. In addition to being Earl’s personal car, it is now considered the godfather of all GM Motorama concept vehicles.
Earl used feedback from Motoramas to reinforce his own notions about how production cars ought to look. Back then GM didn’t hold product clinics or focus groups; Earl intuited what the public wanted. Motoramas allowed him to extend feelers into the future. GM’s wraparound windshields of 1953-55 came directly from his Motorama experience, as did the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette, the 1955 Nomad station wagon, and the 1957-60 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham. Many lesser bits and pieces of everyday GM cars also had their beginnings in Motorama dream vehicles.
The Motorama years put a greater than normal strain on everyone at GM Styling because in addition to designing or facelifting each year’s production cars, the staff, which now numbered around 650, had to work nights and weekends on dream cars. A designer named Duane (“Sparky”) Bohnstedt recalled that in 1951, “when I first came here, I worked for 40 days straight, nonstop. I’d go home, take a shower, put on a clean shirt and come back. I saw guys in the shop so tired that they’d sit down on a bench, go to sleep and fall off on the floor.”
The years 1954-55 stand out as perhaps Earl’s best, in terms of aesthetics as well as the number of GM cars sold. The 1954 Buicks and Oldsmobiles were among the industry’s most refined—very carefully wrought, clean, and totally appropriate to their markets. So was the 1955 Chevrolet, with its Ferrari-inspired grille and new V-8 engine. Earl peaked in those two seasons. Then, sadly, his Midas touch got mired in chrome.
By the 1957 model year, Harley Earl seemed to be groping, and by the next year he had lost his way. Good as he had always been, he couldn’t stop adding more chrome and ornamentation. He ordered one designer, Stan Parker, to put a hundred pounds of chrome trim on the 1958 Buick. Parker balked but tried to do as he was told. The next time Earl came into the studio, he raged, “I said a hundred pounds! That’s only eighty!” He wasn’t joking.
The 1958 Buick and Oldsmobile became overstuffed, overchromed parodies—cartoons, dinosaurs. And they sold poorly. It wasn’t totally Earl’s fault; the economy was in recession that year. But word got out that Earl was losing his touch. Many designers become stuck in an era, and Earl’s era had passed.
GM’s 1959 models, which represented a total break with Earl’s philosophy of rounder/fatter/chromier, resulted from a subtle but very definite rebellion on the part of GM’s studio chiefs in the summer of 1956. A number of them had managed to sneak a peek at Chrysler’s fresh new 1957 cars, designed under Virgil Exner. Exner’s twodoor hardtops, particularly the Plymouth, had delicate, shallow roofs; low, clean beltlines; lots of glass; nicely proportioned fins; and a general lack of ornamentation, all of which shocked GM’s designers. They saw a major threat to GM’s styling leadership and realized that Earl’s chromed locomotives were headed in the wrong direction.
So the design chiefs rallied behind Earl’s second-in-command, William L. Mitchell, and went back to their studios. Then, with Earl away at the European motor shows, they developed their own lower, slimmer, more sharply defined models, which ended up becoming GM’s 1959 cars. When Earl returned and recognized the validity of the insurrection, he walked from studio to studio but didn’t utter a word to anyone for three days. Finally he approved the new design direction. It must have been especially galling because it made him realize that the age of Earl was over.
Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., whose vision had shaped General Motors and who had been Harley Earl’s patron and friend for 31 years, retired in 1956. Two years later GM’s mandatory retirement age required Earl to leave too. As a going-away gift, GM designed and built one final Motorama-like roadster for Harley and Sue Earl. They retired to Palm Beach.
In his last interview, in 1969, Harley Earl told Barbara Holliday of the Detroit Free Press : “These days I go duck hunting, fish for marHn off the coast of Bimini, go deer hunting —everything I didn’t have time to do when I was working.” Immediately after talking to Holliday, Harley Earl suffered a massive stroke. He died on April 10 at the age of 75.
Most of the people who worked under Harley Earl had a love/hate, fear/respect relationship with him. But they all agree that no one could have done his job better. Sloan picked absolutely the right person. Misterl gave rise to an industry that has pumped more money through the American economy than any other commercial art form except perhaps advertising. He also left a legacy of some mighty fine-looking automobiles.