Not only did Harley Earl design the Corvette, but he also was the brains behind such wonderful inventions as cheese whiz, squeezable cookie dough, roll-on deodorant, nylon playpens and putting his beloved tailfin on vacuum cleaners. He epitomized "sizzle" over steak. He made the ordinary special, with that atomic age lovin' that revolutionized consumerism. He was "image is everything."

My name's Harley Earl, and I've come back to build you a great car.
          -- 2002 Buick advertisement

Harley Earl
b. 1893, d. 1969

Who was Harley Earl?

Look at the automobiles you see every day. Have you ever wondered why they look the way they do? The answer to that is probably best answered by one name: Harley Earl.

Harley Earl was the head of the Art and Colour Section (later the Style division) at General Motors from its inception in 1927 to 1959. During that period, his department was responsible for the development of nearly every significant element of automobile exterior design, from the uses of color to windshield shaping to fins and the use of chrome.

Beyond that, the man developed many of the concepts of the modern automotive industry, from the use of trade shows to exhibit new product lines to the automotive press (resulting in essentially free advertising for auto makers) and the idea of concept cars, automobiles which are created not to actually reach production, but to instead demonstrate design ideas and concepts.

In short, Harley Earl invented modern automobile design.


Harley Earl was born November 22, 1893 in California. His father, J.W. Earl, was a coach builder in California whose business later evolved into Earl Automotive Works. Earl's mother was originally from California; she was the daughter of a civil dignitary.

Earl was a sharp student and began studies at Stanford University in 1911; however, Harley decided to leave the university and study design with his father at Earl Automotive Works. Earl Automotive Works was a custom design shop which claimed many of the biggest movie stars of the 1910s and 1920s as clients. The clientele were always looking for distinctive and stylish automobiles which they could show off to their friends, so Harley got a crash course in design and development of new automobile concepts.

By 1925, Harley's name was widely known in Hollywood circles and eventually word of Harley's work spread back to Detroit, where General Motors caught wind of his name. He was brought to Detroit for a three-month stint in 1925, during which Harley contributed to the design of virtually all of the car lines under the General Motors umbrella, but, missing his family and the environment of Earl Automotive Works, he returned to California in the middle of the year.

In 1927, however, bad business decisions led to the closing of Earl Automotive Works; when word of the business failure spread to the east, Harley was offered the position of head of the new Art and Colour Section at General Motors, which he accepted.

The creation of the Art and Colour Section was the first department of its kind in the automotive world. GM President Alfred Sloan's goal was to establish style and colors of cars which were mass produced; the goal of the new department was to focus on the exterior style and color of automobiles. In essence, the department was entrusted with the goal of developing styles in a company that was developing a very procedured process for the development of automobiles; in essence, the birth of the modern automotive corporation. Sloan's goal was "a car for every price and purpose;" Harley would help him reach that goal.

          "longer, lower, wider"
            General Motors design mantra from 1930s to 1950s

Earl spent the first 10 years at General Motors establishing the outlines of an automobile designer; during this period, Earl's primary contribution to automotive design was that of the early LaSalle and the Buicks of the 1930s (commonly referred to as Y jobs due to their distinctive shape).

In 1937, seeing that automobile design went beyond mere color and art, Earl changed his Art and Colour Section name to Style Section, reflecting the new general focus on design -- including modeling and drafting. This revision in approach would lead to what is now described as the golden age of the American automobile. Earl helped formalize and lay down the rules which still guide car design today.

The heyday of Earl's designs appeared in the late 1940s and 1950s, in which some of his automobile designs first appeared and revolutionized the marketplace. Among these designs are the Chevrolet Corvette and the Buick LeSabre, along with most of the design elements that would make up the classic 1957 Chevy.

When Earl retired from GM in 1959, he left behind him an unparalleled design legacy. Earl founded the GM Design and Styling Department in 1927 and by the time he retired it had grown from a staff of 50 to 1,100, and from an idea in one man's mind to the central department at one of the largest corporations in the world.


Harley's legacy is twofold. On the one hand, his legacy can be expressed in the individual contributions he made to automobile styling still prevalent today. But his legacy goes far beyond that.

Perhaps his single greatest contribution is the incorporation of art techniques in the development of automobile styles. He approached automobile design as a true mix of art and engineering, incorporating a mix of three dimensional clay sculptures of cars alongside two dimensional sketching, in addition to the expected design documents and drafts. Prior to Earl, cars were designed mostly by engineers focusing on function before form; Earl brought form to the forefront.

Individual contributions to automobile design from Earl include chrome, two-tone paint, tail fins, hardtops and wraparound windshields, among countless others. In essence, the definition of the classic American car is a product of the mind of Harley Earl.


The largest criticisms of Harley Earl revolve around the fact that much of the idea of modern automotive design came from his desk.

Earl is today criticized for bringing about some of the more negative elements of modern automotive design, such as the seeming push for style over substance, while at the same time producing cookie cutter designs. The argument is that since he developed modern automobile design, he is thusly responsible for many of the products of the modern design process.

Is this critique fair? It depends on whether or not you believe that design is the result of the creativity of the designer or the flexibility of the process. If you believe that the process bears the greatest responsibility, then the blame clearly goes towards Harley for the development of a problematic design method. However, if you believe the creativity of the designer is the primary influence, then the lack of vision of the current generation of car designers is to blame. Obviously, the truth is somewhere in the middle; the fault of flaws in modern automotive design depends upon which side of the fence you fall on.


Perhaps the most telling sign of a creative man such as Harley is what he found inspiration in. From late 1950s General Motors-produced documentaries comes a telling picture of some of the man's design influences.

Sharks - Harley found great use for the elegance of movement of these aquatic creatures
Airplanes in flight - The aerodynamics of planes in flight contributed much to Harley's later designs, particularly World War II bomber planes
Bubbles - Bubbles of all sorts inspired the man, who focused on the smoothness and strength of bubbles for many of his design concepts

The culmination of these inspirations can be seen in Earl's late-1950s series of concept cars known as the Firebird series. These automobiles are like something out of a science fiction film; the vehicles used a multitude of fins, highly aerodynamic designs, and alternate steering devices (such as a joystick in the Firebird III) clearly placed these in the realm of concept car, but provided probably the best peek we'll ever see into the man's mind.

Harley's Return -- The Big Pitch

Some mention has to be made of the 2002 Buick advertising campaign featuring "Harley Earl". In this campaign, Harley is basically a character representing the romanticism many feel towards the 1950s and the classic age of American automobile. He's dressed to the nines in a classic 1950s-style suit and is interspersed with imagery from that area.

The campaign features John Diehl as Harley, and introduces the Buick tagline The Spirit of American Style, which they hope will fare better than the previous advertising campaign, which flopped by targeting younger car buyers with the tagline It's All Good.

If nothing else, the advertisement campaign is very distinctive and memorable; however, it suffers from the unneeded and confusing intermingling with appearances from Buick spokesman Tiger Woods. What exactly Harley Earl and Tiger Woods have in common is a mystery (except for a focus on aerodynamics, perhaps?).

Regardless, the campaign has probably done more than anything else to bring the attention of the American public to this vitally important automobile designer. What is probably shameful is that advertising is responsible in this case for educating the public on the history of the automobile.

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