» GM Design Pioneer Harley Earl: More Than Just The Father of Tailfins

Henry Ford was believed to have once said about his Model T, “you can get it in any color you want, as long as it’s black.” A hearty joke that became ironic; in the late 1920s, GM gave that punchline a counterpunch. Unlike Ford, GM began offering vehicles in all shapes, colors, sizes and especially designs (inside and out). As a result, GM surged ahead of Ford, leaving its Model T in the dust. The designer behind that revolution: Harley Earl, the first head of design at GM.

Auto enthusiasts remember Earl as the pioneer of the “concept car,” as well as the originator of clay modeling of automotive designs. He also introduced the wraparound windsheild, the hardtop sedan, two-tone paint design, and, of course, tailfins. A major component to his wheelhouse was the desire to lengthen and lower the design of the automobile, which came to pass. Oh, and he also created the Corvette.

Today, the Harley J. Earl Trophy goes to the winner of the season-opening Daytona 500 NASCAR race. The award features a miniature version of one of his concept car designs: the turbine-powered Firebird I.

Writer William Knoedelseder, author of I’m Dying Up Here, traces Earl’s high tide that lifted all the boats at GM: Fins: Harley Earl, The Rise of General Motors, and the Glory Days of Detroit.

Here, we ask Bill to fine-tune Earl’s legacy and shine some perspective on it:

If people know Harley Earl at all, it’s for his innovation of tailfins in postwar automobile design, but he was on the vangard of more than just that. 

It was the least of his accomplishments.

What did he do before he came to General Motors? 

Harley Earl, because of his unique background, grew up watching both cars and movies being made, side by side [in 1920s’ Hollywood]. He wound up making dream machines for this group of young people [silent film stars]. They had come from other parts of the country to become more rich and famous than anybody could have imagined. They were his clients and he was hired to indulge them in anything that they wanted. That had never happened before. That carried him forward: he found out what people’s aspirations were. Everybody wanted to be young and rich.

How did General Motors see a need for a designer like Earl? 

GM chairman and CEO Alfred Sloane had this idea of the only way to compete with Ford. He couldn’t underprice Ford. The only thing he could do was offer something more, maybe make the cars look different more often. It was a very daunting task that could have cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but Harly Earl devised a system in which you could do that [cheaply and effectively]. Do it gradually and continually so GM cars would look different every year, and in the third year, they would look a lot different. That literally blew open the car business, because it played to America’s aspirations.

How did an industry leader like Ford not envision this strategy first? 

GM came up with the key to what turned out to be the future of the car business. Henry Ford had a genius manufacturing mind, but he didn’t have an artistic bone in his body. He didn’t have much of an idea beyond making a self-propelled vehicle that carried you and your shit from one place to another economically and efficiently. And to make it as cheaply as possible so that everybody could afford it. Beyond that, he didn’t have a vision.

The Model T was already on its way out. Henry Ford wouldn’t make any changes: “That’s it. It’s perfect. Leave it alone.” Model T sales just hit a wall and GM was ready. GM took over the lead and had it for the next 30 or 40 years. There was this window and GM moved into it. They basically ended Ford’s dominance.

At GM itself, Earl was not exactly welcomed with open arms. Why was that? 

The car buisness was built by mechanics. It had a mechanical engineering culture. And this guy comes along with his wild clothes — they thought he was a “pansy;” they called him “Hollywood Harley” — and he was going to take the design out of their hands. They didn’t want to hand that power over to him. So they fought it. With his will and fearsome temper, and the backing of Sloan, Harley won out.

He took a huge industrial enterprise, and changed the focus from mechanics to aesthetics. He was like Steve Jobs by asking, “How should it look?” Looks are just as important as function.

He was reportedly hell to work for. True? 

He had a vision that not everybody shared. He pushed it through. This runs among great men who are trying to accomplish things that haven’t been done before. They’re trying to get their troops in line to get it done. And you don’t have time to deal with someone who doesn’t get it or is pushing back. They have to go. Plus, he was impatient. He would fire people at the drop of a hat, and he had that kind of power back then. You could fire people back then for something like not liking their suit. Harley was a man of the age. And he knew he had the backing of Albert Sloan and there wasn’t anything anybody could really do about it.

How did the tailfin design of the late 1940s and 1950s catch on? 

Airplane imagery was the imagery of the future. It was exciting. We had just won a global war. It seemed that anything was possible. Also, fins on a fish or a whale is all about power and stability and maneuverability. Then it just took off. Nobody forced that down the public’s throat. People just liked them.

The ‘59 Cadillac was the fin that ended all fins. The only one keeping fins after that was Cadillac. They slowly but steadily reduced them, but Cadillac defined the car by its fins. It took a few years for them to disappear.

The ‘59 Cadillac could be the single defining image of the 1950s. You can’t look at that fin and not think of the 1950s.

Although the public carries an ongoing love affair with the ’57 Chevy, designers actually prefer the ’55 Chevy. Why is that? 

The designers who made it just loved that car; that was their favorite car they ever worked on. They actually liked the ‘57 the least, but the public liked it the most. The designers liked the ‘55 better because it was cleaner, it was unadorned. It appealed to their designers’ aesthetic.

The ‘57 is the collectible; that’s the car that Eric Clapton sang about, not the ‘55. I like the ‘57 better. There was something about it. It had more pizzazz. It had more panache. Buying a ‘57 Chevy is much more expensive than buying a ‘55 Chevy today.

Harley’s job was to make sure that what they designed appealed to the public. 

What was his inspiration for the Corvette? 

His mantra was always longer, lower, wider. At some point, he had gotten there. He couldn’t make them any longer, lower or wider. The only way to go was to go smaller. And he saw all the college kids driving around in MGs, Triumphs, and Jaguar XK 120s. That’s how the Corvette came about.

How would you describe Harley Earl’s legacy? 

After Henry Ford, he should be remembered as the most important person in the development of the American car. He changed the game forever to focus on styling over mechanics. There was a problem with that after a while, but it took the car business to the heights because it did appeal to America’s aspirations.

Click here to devour Fins.

Click here to find out more about author William Knoedelseder.

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