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.

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2002 until 2005 were extremely good years for 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 6-min clip, at left, to see first ads and 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 players. This was the business team during of the mid-twentieth century that essentially created a winning dynasty of consumer products using Design Leadership, that sky-rocketed GM to the very top of the business world. People liked rediscovering this new angle on the auto business. 

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After Harley Earl's name and look-a-like actor, John Diehl, started popping up on TV in Buick ads, 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 the true side of Detroit's story. 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 General Motors and the industry were notorious for producing in the dawn of the 21st Century.

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 when Roger Smith took the helm as GM's CEO and became known to industry insiders as, "GM and Detroit's wrecking ball." Smith for example tried to have Detroit's most famous modern work of art, Harley's one-and-only Le Sabre concept car, destroyed because he didn't believe it was worth GM paying the expensive annual insurance premiums on this artistic motoramic masterpiece. 

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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 for most people of, 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 a real winning team players looked like versus the 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 GM's greatest role models and most successful leaders were long-deceased. 

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, he ought to be the one it was centered on. 

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 I that's when pitched the news story, shown 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.

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Emperor's New Cloths

Finally, check out the quote by Harley Earl in a short article he'd written on "good design" in 1949, Growing Stops For Automobiles shown above in the carofthecentury.com screenshot. Another Detroit reporter, article below, used Harley's poignant quote, too. The irony is a revelation on how this once-great auto leader and visionary would call out, over half a century prior, why GM would eventually go bankrupt:

"It is a matter of record that poor styling or improperly timed styling has proved financially disastrous to some automobile manufacturers." 

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