CAROFTHECENTURY.COM Shook Things Up
In 2003, when the internet was still young and gaining traction, a popular magazine, "Automobile" reported on, "an enormous stock" (see page-shot below) or archival trove of U.S. auto scene documents and historical photos uncovered and being posted, for the first time, online.
Our carofthecentury.com website started doing something new and different and instantly became groundbreaking, controversial and successful at attracting a solid new online fan base of car lovers.
2002 until 2005 were extremely good years. I was displaying a traveling museum quality HJE photo exhibit, had a popular new car website and had just penned a contract (representing the Earl Family) with the Buick Motor Div. of General Motors to use Harley Earl's "name, likeness and image" in a major TV and print advertising blitz entitled, "The Harley Earl Ad Campaign."
Modern pitchman Tiger Woods stared in many of the ads and this is when Woods was marketing gold. Click a little video clip, above, to see the first ads and a mini-documentary on the campaign we created. But by far, my biggest personal achievement in life, up to this point, was being an Earl working with GM again! It's hard to describe the feeling I had continuing my family's century-plus auto legacy going into the 21st Century. At the time, I believed I'd found my calling and would never leave Detroit.
But back to creating the website, and why this area ended up getting me into a lot of hot water with certain top leaders of GM. Notice the following screenshots of carofthecentury.com below. Here was a website aimed at car lovers spun around GM's modern A-team business players of the mid-twentieth century era that essentially created a winning dynasty of consumer products using Design Leadership, that sky-rocketed GM to the very top of the business world. So new "modern" audience members, getting their info off the web for the first time, loved rediscovering this new angle on the auto business.
After Harley Earl's name and look-a-like actor, John Diehl, started popping up on TV in Buick ads in 2002, this new website became successful and surpassed 500,000 unique visitors in the first three years. Putting two and two together, audience members started rallying around seeing the true side of Detroit's story for a change. Once people figured things out, it was easy to spot the invidious comparisons between Harley's sexy, gorgeous and graceful designs, done a half a century ago, versus the current crop of styles (remember, we're not talking about the C-5 Corvette style here...that was beautiful) but the millions of cars GM, Ford and Chrysler were notoriously known for producing in the dawn of the 21st Century that had lost their focus on representing "Design & Innovation Leadership" in all Detroit manufacturer's cars. It was a giant disconnect.
And, in as far as GM was concerned it became the main stumbling block why America's No. 1 car maker would go bankrupt in 2009. By not "designing" the same heart and soul (always designed inside every Corvette that'd ever been made) into all this auto maker's cars allowed for the majority of their products to become "far less-relevant" in the market place. Period. Design Leadership is everything to the success of a modern car company; all the highest paid auto execs these days knows this reality. So, moving forward it's essential for General Motors to build-in the modern heart and soul of Corvette into every product design this company creates. Doing so is key to becoming cutting-edge design and innovation leaders again, thus cementing GM at the top so this company remains America's No. 1 car company long into the future. It's that simple.
Anyway, back to the ad campaign and where it was going into 2005: No Where. Regardless of famous names like Tiger Woods and Harley Earl hawking Buick's new products, modern audiences saw right through this tinny ad campaign. Many auto industry experts thought, Here we go again, just like back in the 1980s, looks like a bunch of out of touch auto leaders are back behind the wheel at GM and churning out millions of cars that Americans will end up staying away from buying in droves. It was a carbon copy of the fumbling mistakes that started sinking America's largest auto maker and Detroit's car industry fortunes right after Roger Smith took the helm as GM's CEO and became known to industry insiders as, "GM and Detroit's wrecking ball." For example, Smith actually tried to have Detroit's most famous modern work of art, Harley's one-and-only Le Sabre concept car, crushed and destroyed because he didn't believe it was worth GM paying the expensive annual insurance premiums on this artistic motoramic masterpiece.
Peppered with vintage news article and over a 1000 historical photos giving car lovers what they wanted most "The Money Shot" (a photo in living color or vintage reel footage), word traveled fast and people kept coming back. Modern audiences were accustomed to seeing GM's champion players rise up off the online pages of this new website, and people could dream all about the good old days when America's identity was "a GM car design by HJE" from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Naturally, the website caused a visceral knee-jerk reaction in most people's minds, Why can't GM's leaders these days get another Harley Earl or at least re-spin their greatness (past designs and history) into their new products? Our online viewers were familiar with GM's winning players and/or heroes that used to hit home runs year-in-and year-out for decades of time! Again, the website begged the question, How come GM's current leading players, who are highly paid professionals, always seem to strike out or hardly ever even get on base?
Showing people the more authentic side of this automotive story rubbed the-then current ultra-sensitive top leaders and middle managers at GM the wrong way. Carofthecentury.com struck a chord and hit the public in the heart exposing what real winning team players looked inside America's auto world versus second-string bit players.
Harassment in the Shadows
As General Patton said, "America loves a winner and won't tolerate a loser." This goes double for American's loving winning car designs! So, going into 2005 everything started to change for me and working with GM's leaders became increasingly hostile. I'm not saying I was perfect I was far from it, but to make a long story short, I'd found out through the grapevine (Detroit's auto world has a reputation for being insular, so word-of-mouth traveled fast), that I'd been invited to leave Detroit. The good guys I knew inside GM, my sources, told me the talk inside this company was, "Richard Earl will never work in this town again!" Until this time, lots of GM insiders knew what I was trying to do and the long-term implications, especially when it came to inspiring and fostering design education to change the company's culture in a positive way. For, by this time, I'd learned how modern audiences wanted to see and find out all about GM's best role model executives I'd uncovered from doing years of research and posting my findings at the new website. My audience didn't care that GM's greatest role models, and most successful leaders, were long-deceased. Instinctually, they knew if Detroit's auto execs could see the authentic side of the story, they'd then be able to learn something new and meaningful about GM's greatest age and/or era (the mid-twentieth century) and perhaps take an authentic shot at turning GM around...for real.
After finding out I was being torpedoed by GM's vice president of global design, Ed Welburn, I was not only disappointed but felt threatened, too. My sources in Detroit's car design universe said Welburn loathed the Harley Earl ad campaign and thought if General Motors was going to enhance a car designer's image, in a TV ad campaign, it ought to be the one it was centered on now: Him!
So, when I realizing I'd created some powerful enemies and certain GM execs were gunning for me, that's when I might have gone overboard a bit and send back a parring shot to Ed and his ultra-sensitive gang of GM leaders. Personally, I think Harley and his team of leaders at GM, from long ago, would have been on my side in this fight. It was a newspaper story for I had friends in the auto journalistic community who knew how GM's leaders were threatened by Harley Earl's legacy of success.
It all went down around the 2006 Detroit Auto Show and I'd even had the opportunity to speak with Toyota's leaders who expressed great interest and respect towards GM's leadership story of the mid-twentieth century. They understood that cutting-edge design is key to market success in the auto world and so that's when I pitched the news story, below, to a local newspaper reporter exposing what I believed had to be done to change GM's fortunes moving forward. Regardless of whether it was right or not, my going against the grain inside GM proved very unpopular. But I'd done many newspaper stories and there were also many GM employees and execs who supported the hard line change I was trying to implement. Plus, these people knew why having an Earl working with General Motors, again, was positively a good thing.
With the benefit of hindsight, the stupid bitch-off I had with Ed Welburn led me to leave Detroit, go into exile in Florida, and regroup. So, in October, 2006 I moved away knowing General Motors and America's auto industry was in for some rough seas ahead.
Emperor's New Cloths
Never had this insightful quote by Harley Earl, directly below, been so meaningful than in the handful of years leading up to GM's 2009 bankruptcy:
"It is a matter of record that poor styling or improperly timed styling has proved financially disastrous to some automobile manufacturers."
From the 1980s all the way into the new century, GM's top execs didn't appreciate and/or even know about any of Harley Earl's leadership quotes. Of course the irony of this kind of denial or oversight is the No. 1 reason why General Motors (and everything attached to it in and around America) experienced an epic gut wrenching fall from grace.
Read the short 1949 article, with this quote, by Harley entitled, Growing Stops For Automobiles (it's pictured further up in a screenshot of the carofthecentury.com website). Finally, notice the news article from 2005, below, whereby Richard clued in another Michigan business reporter, Rick Haglund, who put Harley's quote in this article: