The design of a car, among other things, is what distinctively sets it apart from other vehicles. But while we’re spoiled today by the designs coming out of the biggest automotive manufacturers in the country, the automotive world wasn’t always about style. If it wasn’t for automotive great Harley Earl, we may have never seen the iconic car designs that define whole eras even today.
To celebrate Earl’s influence on automotive culture, the Temecula Valley Museum is holding an exhibit about the man and his many automotive contributions through the end of April. And according to U T San Diego, this exhibit might just be the cultural experience you need following the Temecula Rod Run, held earlier this month.
While there were many greats in automotive history, too many to count in fact, Harley J. Earl set the industry up for what it is today as far as design and styling goes. The son of J.W. Earl, an early coachbuilder, Earl began working on automotive design early on in life, leaving college prematurely to help his father at the family’s Earl Automotive Works business.
After Earl Automotive Works was bought out by Cadillac dealer Don Lee, Harley Earl stayed on as the director of the custom body shop. When Lawrence Fisher of Fisher Body and Cadillac’s general manager visited Lee’s dealership on his tour of Cadillac dealerships and distributors, Fisher met Earl and was impressed with his automotive designs and use of clay for modeling purposes.
Fisher was so impressed that he commissioned Earl to design the 1927 LaSalle for the company. It was the success of this car that led to General Motors establishment of the Art and Color Section of GM with the backing of company president Alfred Sloan. Earl became the first director of the Art and Color Section.
Before then, design and styling had all been based on functionality rather than aesthetic appeal. GM, among other “luxury” car companies, even opted to build cars with bodies from other coachbuilders rather than supplying their cars with their own bodies. Although Earl’s ideas were seen as flamboyant and excessive by many, it was his contributions that gave the industry its stylized dedication today.
In 1939, the Art and Color Section (renamed the Styling Division) styled and built the industry’s first concept car built by a mass manufacturer to determine the public’s reaction to certain ideas. The concept car was call the Buick Y-Job and became Earl’s daily driver after its debut. Other contributions that Earl made to the automotive industry include the development of GM’s Camouflage Research and Training Division during World War II and the introduction of tail fins on such iconic cars as the 1948 Cadillac.
Earl also played a hand in the creation of the Chevrolet Corvette. Having seen the European sports cars, Earl approached GM with “Project Opel,” which turned into the secret design project of the famous 1953 Corvette concept car.
While Earl died of a stroke in 1969, his design influences can still be seen today in the industry. If you’re in the Temecula area, touring the museum display paying tribute to all of Earl’s automotive contributions would be a fabulous way to start off your 2013 season.