Harley Earl: From Coaches To Corvettes

When you take a look at the story behind many successful people, it is rather remarkable to see the twists of fate that helped to propel them to the realization of their true potential. There may or may not be such a thing as “destiny,” but there is certainly sufficient evidence out there to make its existence a distinct possibility.

The path that Harley Earl took toward becoming perhaps the most influential automotive designer of all time is a case in point. Earl’s father was a coach builder in Hollywood, California when Harley was born in 1893, and shifted his focus to building automotive bodies and providing attenuate equipment in 1908. As a young man Harley Earl went to Stanford for a while but left before graduation to join his father at Earl Automotive Works.

Eventually a Hollywood Cadillac dealer by the name of Don Lee bought Earl Automotive Works, and he offered Harley Earl the opportunity to stay on board overseeing the creation of custom automotive bodies. As fate would have it, Lawrence Fisher, a top Cadillac executive, was touring the dealerships who were carrying the Cadillac line, and he happened upon the work Earl was doing for Don Lee. Fisher was particularly intrigued by Earl’s use of modeling clay to depict design concepts. He assigned Earl the task of designing the new LaSalle for the 1927 model year.

The car was a success, and as a result GM created a new department, the Art and Color Division, naming Harley Earl its director.

This was the beginning of a new concept that became the driving force behind the automotive industry: “planned obsolescence.” This was the notion that the company’s models needed to be continually updated stylistically to create the incentive for buyers to consider purchasing a new car annually. Previous to this, cars were designed by engineers aiming for cost effectiveness and pure utility without regard for aesthetics.

Earl was behind many of the evolutionary alterations that we see in the General Motors lineup from the late 1920s all the way through to his retirement in 1958. The tail fins that became the craze in the 1950s were first approved by Earl on the 1948 Cadillac, and Earl was the catalyst for Project Opel, which resulted in the car that we now know as the Chevrolet Corvette.

Harley Earl passed away in 1969 at 75 years of age, but his legacy is firmly embedded within the industry that he helped to shape for some three decades. Pondering terms like “fate” and “destiny,” you have to wonder what cars might look like if Lawrence Fisher didn’t make the trip to Don Lee’s Hollywood Cadillac dealership back in the 1920s.

Contributed by Fossil Cars Staff Writer

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