Affiliation: South Jersey Postcard Club
Written: April 2003
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 Earl to the Rescue
In the late 20s, General Motors executives began to take notice of
Earls 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
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 Earls 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 Earls 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.
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
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