HARLEY EARL: FATHER OF MODERN AUTOMOTIVE DESIGN
With the mechanical part of the restoration nearing completion, we are preparing to start our body work. We feel that the design of the '53 Buick Riviera is the culmination of the Harley Earl post-war design philosophy: Lots of chrome, long hoods, sweep spear and port hole styling, and that Buick confident "grin". It would be hard in three hundred pages, let alone three pages, to sum up the major design influences Mr. Earl had on automotive design. So, this will be a thumbnail sketch, to be followed by other entries as they apply to our restoration projects.
Harley Earl was born in 1893 in Hollywood, California, and lived there until he left to spend two years at Stanford, and subsequently went to work for his father at Earl's Automobile Works. The company designed cars for the silent movie stars of the day: Mary Pickford, Fatty Arbuckle, and cowboy star Tom Mix, among others. Earl enjoyed playing golf, and on the links met Larry Fisher of the Fisher Body Compa-ny. Fisher worked for General Motors President, Alfred P Sloan, whom he told about Earl upon his return to the GM offices in New York City. Mr. Sloan called Earl and asked him to come to New York to design the 1927 LaSalle. This was to be the first "styled" car for GM, meaning that the car was to have rounded fenders, smooth hood contours and a special paint scheme that would cause the car to favorably contrast with the oth-er, boxy cars of the day. Sloan had already created the "Art & Colour Section"--a special division to create artistically designed cars that would stand out from the competition. The LaSalle was an instant success and lead to the hiring of Earl to run the Art & Colour Section for all GM cars.
Earl quickly set up A & C in an open format, where all of the different GM marques were designed in the same area, separated only by black boards, giving the car designers a sense of motivation and energy in playing off each other's designs. The teams were made up of black board men, clay modelers, wood & metal workers and office staff. The black board designers would draw the cars, then the modelers would render the designs in clay, both quarter size and full size. The full size models were wood armatures, with lath that was covered in clay and sculpted to form the car shape. It then could be primed and painted to look like the fin-ished car, while the clay could be heated and re-shaped if any changes were needed. In the early '30s, "streamlining" was the direction of the Earl design team. Streamlining meant longer hoods, lower center of gravity, flowing fender lines and a look of movement, even when the car was sitting still. This influence brought about major design changes in the industry during Earl's 33 year reign. The typical car in 1926 was 75" high and 65" wide. In 1963 (5 years after Earl's retirement), the average car was 51" high and 80" wide. Of course, he was not responsible for all of the changes, but played a major role in giving automobiles a somewhat symmetrical, uniform shape. The Art & Colour team employed some of the best automotive de-signers of all time. They included William "Bill" Mitchell ('38 Cadillac 60 Special, '41 Cadillac, '63 Buick Riviera, and instrumental in the design and production of the Corvette), Frank Hershey ('35 Pontiac Silver Streak, '48 Cadillac), Ned Nickles, head of Buick studio (sweep spear, port holes, hardtop convertible), and many other talented designers.
Another system put into place by the Earl team was to standardize auto bodies. This would save GM hundreds of millions of dollars. It was a system created by Kap Kaptur, wherein the different divisions would share bodies. The body designations were A, B, C & D. The "A" body was used by Chevrolet, standard Pon-tiacs and small series Oldsmobiles. The"B" bodies were the large Pontiacs, mid-sized Oldsmobiles and small Buicks. The "C" bodies were the big Olds, big Buicks, La Salle and small Cadillacs. The "D" bodies were Cadillacs and Buick limousines. With his department staffed and organized, Earl began to implement the streamlining concept. To introduce streamlining to the public, show cars would be built and displayed for public viewing. One example of this was the 1933 Cadillac Aerodynamic V-16 Coupe, displayed at the World's Fair in Chicago. It was a low-slung fastback with pontoon fenders, which would lead the way for the next creation: the prototype for the 1935 Pontiac. This was made in 1933 and introduced the trademark Sil-ver Streak design. The streaks were ribbed chrome bands that ran down the hood from the front bumper to the windshield. It had built-in headlights, flowing fenders, fastback styling and no running boards! Changes were made before production, but the streamline direction was set.
In 1937, The Art & Colour Section became a "closed studio" system, with each division a separate entity. Although Earl would borrow ideas from one section and use them in another, most of the concepts stayed in their own sections. The name was changed to General Motors Styling. Earl was involved in every part of the studio's designs. He worked with the black board artists and clay modelers, moving lines up or down until he got exactly what he wanted. Part of his management style was to give vague instructions and see how the designer interpreted them, lending greater freedom and creativity to the designs. He would tell his stylists to "go all the way, and then back off".
As the United States entered into WWII, Earl was very influenced by the airplanes that were being built for the war, especially the fighter planes. In 1941, he took his team to Lockheed to see the P-38 fighter plane--a twin fuselage plane with a bubble turret. This plane would be the inspiration for the post-war cars for which he would be most remembered. The P-38 was responsible for the 1948 Cadillac tail fins, the wrap-around windshield of the cars of the '50s (inspired by the bubble turret), and other innovations. Toward the end of the war, the jet aircraft were influential with their cockpit designs and air intake systems. You can see this influence in the 1949 Buick dash, and the under-headlight air scoops of the '50s (ie: 1957 Chevy). And who can forget the 1949 Buick port holes that were inspired by the P-51 Mustangs. The prototype had lights in the portholes which were wired to the engine's spark plugs and fired on and off as the car ran, giving the look of the P-51's engine firing at night.
The post-war design goal was to reflect the public's attitude of optimism and prosperity, and to design those concepts into every GM car. They would have long hoods to show power, lots of chrome, badges, spe-cial hood ornaments, flow through fenders, and each make was to have a "face"--a unique front end treatment that the public liked. By 1948, Cadillac had its fins. 1949 Buick had its port holes, sweep spears and gun sight hood ornament. Pontiac had its Silver Streaks and Chief Pontiac hood ornament leading the way to sub-urbia. As GM entered the '50s, they were on top of the world, having earned the title "The General". De-signer Ned Nickles' 1949 "hardtop convertible" was the hit of the industry, and continued into the '50s in all divisions. The '50s cars were an essential part of America's reflection of itself, and the '53 Buick looked like fun, confidence and success. The Harley Earl look of fat-fendered, chromy cars would continue through 1957. In 1958, car designs were squarer and more angular, and the torch was being passed to another genera-tion. Harley Earl retired in December of 1958, following 33 years of changing the world of automotive de-sign and overseeing some of the greatest designs in automotive history. GM's "planned obsolescence" to provide a car designed for the times, but always to leave the public eager for the new models has not totally lived up to its goal; we still love the old ones! Even Harley Earl could not have imagined how many of us would love, admire and restore his cars so many years after they were built. A half-century later, we can feel like we are part of the Art & Colour team as we restore these cars to their former glory! Keep restoring and keep 'em driving!
C. Edson Armi, 1988. The Art of American Car Design.
University Park and London, Pennsylvania State University Press
Michael Lamm and Dave Holls, 1996-97, A Century Of Automotive Style:
100 Years of American Car Design. Stockton, CA, Lamm-Morada Publishing Co. Inc.