At Last, Harley Earl Gets Some Respect

June 26, 2012 | 5 books mentioned 1 8 min read

We are what we eat. We are what we read. We are also, according to Paul Ingrassia, what we drive.

coverIngrassia, who shared a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the long decline of General Motors, has just published an engaging book called Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars. As its title suggests, the book sets out to examine American aspirations through the prism of a few iconic automobile windshields. It’s a bewitching premise. The book, Ingrassia writes, “isn’t intended to be about great cars, fast cars, or famous cars, although it contains some of each. Instead it’s about the automobiles that have influenced how we live and think as Americans. The cars in this book either changed American society or captured the spirit of their time.”

This select group includes Henry Ford’s Model T, the Chevrolet Corvettte, the Volkswagen Beetle and Microbus, the Chevy Corvair, the Ford Mustang, the Pontiac GTO, the Honda Accord, the Jeep, the Chrysler Minivan and the Toyota Prius. Each of these vehicles was embraced by a specific tribe of Americans – restless farmers, speed freaks, the status-conscious, the status-averse, the wealthy, the thrifty, yuppies, soccer moms, and politically correct movie stars. Among the icons that fail to make Ingrassia’s cut are the streamlined Chrysler Airflow from the 1930s, an engineering marvel that was a commercial flop, and the 1957 Chevy Bel Air, which, Ingrassia contends, had timeless styling but lacked the “cultural impact” of the behemoth, be-finned Cadillacs of the late 1950s. By focusing on a wildly revered and reviled styling detail – the tail fin – Ingrassia brings to life one of the most interesting, influential – and largely forgotten – personalities in an industry that has always been loaded with outsized personalities.

We need to talk about Harley Earl. And about how he changed my life and the lives of millions of Americans who have never heard his name.

Harley Earl was born in Hollywood, California in 1893 and began his career in his father’s Los Angeles carriage shop, where he was soon designing custom car bodies for oil tycoons, real estate magnates, and the newly minted stars of the budding motion-picture industry. His customers included Mary Pickford, Cecil B. DeMille, and Fatty Arbuckle, who paid the kingly sum of $28,000 for a one-of-a-kind Harley Earl creation. For the cowboy star Tom Mix, Earl obligingly bolted a saddle to the car’s hood. As Earl dryly remarked about his movie-star clients’ cars, “They use them for publicity, you know.”

coverIn 1926 Alfred Sloan, the visionary head of General Motors, wrote a letter, included in his memoir, My Years With General Motors, that contained these prescient musings on the looming importance of automotive styling: “I am sure we all realize…how much appearance has to do with sales; with all cars fairly good mechanically it is a dominating proposition… Are we as advanced from the standpoint of beauty of design, harmony of lines, attractiveness of color schemes, and general contour of the whole piece of apparatus as we are in the other elements of a more mechanical nature?”

Sloan’s answer was no, and so he invited Harley Earl to come to Detroit to redesign the Cadillac LaSalle. As Sloan knew, Earl was doing unheard-of things in an industry that had always been dominated by engineers. “For one thing,” Sloan wrote, “he was using modeling clay to develop the forms of various automobile components… Also he was designing the complete automobile, shaping the body, hood, fenders, headlights, and running boards and blending them together into a good-looking whole.”

Earl’s LaSalle – “the first stylist’s car to achieve success in mass production,” according to Sloan – was a smash hit when it debuted on March 5, 1927. The timing was auspicious. Eleven weeks later, Henry Ford would announce that he was discontinuing production of that boring black box known as the Model T.

As Ingrassia tells it, “The cars weren’t direct competitors – the cheapest LaSalles cost nearly seven times as much as a two-seat Model T runabout – but the two events represented a passing of the guard. As America transformed from a rural to an urban nation, the dull was giving way to the stylish, the practical to the pretentious, and the old-fashioned to the modern.”

It was indeed a seismic shift. Sloan offered Earl a full-time job creating and running the industry’s first styling studio. Earl accepted, and for the next 31 years, as head of the industry’s biggest and most advanced design department, he took power away from the engineers and handed it over to his stylists, putting his unmistakable signature on more than 50 million vehicles. After 1927, the appearance of a car – and all other consumer goods – was every bit as important as its performance. Cars would now be sold not as drab utilitarian machines, but as exuberant, ever-evolving expressions of the buyer’s fantasies, status, and style. Earl, a flashy dresser and ruthless corporate in-fighter, helped accelerate that evolution by bringing out new models every year, a practice derided by many as wasteful “planned obsolesence.” Earl let the critics howl. He was having too much fun roaring around Detroit in otherworldly one-off “concept cars,” staging splashy Motoramas, and helping turn General Motors into the richest and most powerful industrial enterprise on the planet.


One of the most unforgettable cars in Ingrassia’s book was Harley Earl’s swan song, the 1959 Cadillac. (Two other Earl designs that made the cut are the sporty Corvette, which debuted in 1953, and the advanced, economical but ill-fated Chevy Corvair, which was designed under Earl’s watch but didn’t appear until 1960, shortly after he retired. These last two understated cars debunk critics like the industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who sniffed that Earl and his Detroit contemporaries were churning out nothing but gaudy “jukeboxes on wheels.”)

Inspired by the twin tail booms on the Lockheed P-38 airplane, Earl had been putting fins on Cadillacs since the late 1940s, and eventually they sprouted on the back ends of Chevrolets and Buicks too. But the 1959 Cadillac was the zenith of this expression of, depending on your tastes, giddy exuberance or galling excess. More than 21 feet long, slathered with chrome and powered by a 300-plus horsepower V8, the car’s most arresting feature was its soaring tail fins and bullet tail lights. It was Earl’s response to the hot-selling – and lavishly finned – “Forward Look” Chryslers designed by Virgil Exner. Nobody was going to out-Harley-Earl Harley Earl. The ’59 Cadillac’s tail fins, Ingrassia writes, “were so enormous that they seemed lifted right off a rocket ship.”

Ingrassia doesn’t delve into the cultural schism that Detroit’s tail fins exposed. It’s an unfortunate omission because the tail fin wars revealed, as tellingly as anything ever concocted by Detroit, how automobiles influenced the ways Americans lived and thought at that moment in history. As deftly as a John Cheever short story like “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow,” tail fins captured the two most telling emotions of the Cold War zeitgeist, exuberance and dread. The architectural historian Reyner Banham, in a paper titled “Detroit Tin Revisited” (collected in Design 1900-1960: Studies in Design and Popular Culture of the 20th Century), summed it up this way:

“Fins,” someone has said, “were the Vietnam of product design.” Everything that boiled over in American politics about Cambodia and Vietnam was, in a way, trailered or run through in rough form already in the argument about tail fins. Tail fins divided Left and Right, divided hawk from dove, divided everything from everything. Tail fins were a really good convenient symbol that everyone could get hold of. In the end tail fins were held responsible for the fact that America lagged behind in the space race: while the Russians had been developing Sputnik and pushing on into that great blue “out there,” the Americans had been debauching themselves with tail fins. More than chrome, more than the implications of sex, etc., the tail fin in the end…focused the whole issue.

Ingrassia acknowledges the issue, glancingly, by quoting Tom Wolfe’s description of Palo Alto, California in the ’50s: “Penny Lane was a typical 1950s bohemia. Everybody sat around shaking their heads over America’s tailfin, housing-development civilization, and Christ, in Europe, so what if the plumbing didn’t work, they had mastered the art of living.”

coverNot all bohemians were shaking their heads. The British artist Richard Hamilton, destined to become a Pop Art pioneer, used an ad for the 1957 Cadillac as inspiration for a collage he called “Hers Is a Lush Situation,” which reveled in the car’s rubber-tipped “Dagmar” bumper, curvaceous sheet metal and, of course, tail fins. In drab, rationed post-War England, glossy American consumer goods, especially cars, were irresistibly seductive. Hamilton said his car-influenced collages were “a search for what is epic in everyday objects and attitudes.” At the time Hamilton was creating “Hers Is a Lush Situation,” Roland Barthes was waxing euphoric about the Citroen DS in his book Mythologies, likening the sleek Gallic beast to a Gothic cathedral. Writing in the Museum of Modern Art’s catalog for a 1990 show called High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, Adam Gopnik noted that highbrows like Hamilton and Banham had ample room in their hearts for Harley Earl’s brash reversal of high Modernism’s form-follows-function mantra:

Hamilton recognized, as Banham had, that American cars embodied an altered kind of “functional” design. They were working within a new economy of abundance, which counted on relatively brief life spans and continual new versions for consumer machines – in short, an interdependence of staged novelty and planned obsolescence… The stylist made the product sell, and this meant knowing more about sexual symbolism than about drive trains or airflow engineering. To Hamilton, this manipulation of devices of show and symbolism was not a simple betrayal of more truthful values of narrowly defined “utility” and “function,” but a modern skill richly deserving of serious attention, as one of the keys to the functioning of a new mass society…

I grew up in Detroit during the city’s and the American auto industry’s golden age, the 1950s and ’60s. Years later I wound up buying a 1954 Buick, which is one of Harley Earl’s most highly praised designs. The car is distinguished by graceful lines, a relative dearth of chrome and gaudiness (no tail fins), a two-tone gumball paintjob, a pair of mammiferous bulbs on the “Dagmar” front bumper and, most spectacularly, a curvaceous sweep of glass known as the “wraparound” or “panoramic” windshield.

For a 2005 collection called A Man’s Journey to Simple Abundance, I contributed an essay about how my ’54 Buick became my muse, how it unlocked the door to the secrets of the world that made both of us, and how it eventually became the centerpiece of my first published novel. My research for that essay led me to an issue of Industrial Design magazine from the ’50s that stated:

The impact of the panoramic windshield was tremendous, and the whole appearance of the upper structure changed. Whether or not the panoramic windshield improved vision as much as it would appear does not alter the fact that it was a major achievement for automotive stylists and glass manufacturers; and it did more than any other single development to make last year’s models out of date overnight.

Cannibalizing Richard Hamilton (who in turn had cannibalized the automotive writer Deborah Allan), I called my essay “Hers Is a Lush Situation.” I wrote that the article in Industrial Design was a “revelation”:

This was the first time the Buick taught me something I would be able to put to use (in my fiction). There, in one short paragraph about the windshield, was a whole web of implications about the way America worked in 1954. If the wraparound windshield was a “major achievement for automotive stylists and glass manufacturers,” then it was also proof that form was now more important than function. Appearance was all. Whether the windshield improved vision as much as it would appear, Industrial Design conceded, was beside the point. (I knew for a fact that it didn’t improve the driver’s vision at all; it improved the car’s appearance, and that was the point.) …And as soon as it existed (the wraparound windshield) neatly achieved another of Harley Earl’s stated goals: to make cars seem hopelessly out of date as soon as the next year’s models rolled into the showroom.

While writing that essay, I was at work with a collaborator on a 90-page proposal for a biography of Harley Earl. Our working title, a bit of hyperbole our subject surely would have appreciated, was American DaVinci. No publishers were interested. The verdict of an editor at HarperCollins was fairly typical: “I think Harley Earl is an interesting figure but I don’t think he’s big enough to carry a trade biography.” Added an editor at Simon & Schuster (which published Engines of Change), “At first I found the proposal compelling, as Earl certainly shaped the design of autos, but he is an unknown figure and I fear the book is terribly small.”

Fair enough. There’s no doubt that Harley Earl is unknown to most people today. Which is just one of many reasons why Engines of Change is so welcome. It makes a convincing case that Harley Earl was one of the most influential forces in the industry that drove the American economy – and the American Dream – to dizzy, unheard-of heights. Harley Earl may be long gone, but he’s not entirely forgotten. For this Paul Ingrassia deserves our thanks and our hearty applause.

Image credit: Wikipedia

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.

One comment:

  1. Bill,
    Another damn nice job, on a subject near and dear to me: Harley Earl looms large in my own current project, as you know. I still can’t fathom why your biography of him didn’t take–it seems a perfect marriage of subject and storyteller. I’m hoping you give it another go someday.

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