What's Good For General Motors is Good For America

1957 photo shows Harley with a prototype of an underarm aerosol deodorant for the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA).

Does this old adage, above, still hold true?  

The flames of the U.S. auto capital along with the design legacy of GM were both burning low at the beginning of the 21st Century. But, after 2009's bottom the spirit and influence of Detroit's winning heritage began to turn and rise up. Former GM vice chairman Bob Lutz drove the point home during a candid CBS 60 Minutes TV interview in 2006 saying, "During the parade of GM’s greatness in the 50s and 60s, design ruled and the finance people ran behind to try and reestablish order and pick up the pieces. We just lost the focus on design." Lutz also acknowledges to CBS's Steve Kroft, "that GM became complacent over the years producing too many anonymous cars with uninspired designs and delegating the design process too low in the corporate structure." 

This type of honest and soulful declaration coming from a top GM leader, to a major "investigative journalist" on prime time TV in front of millions of America, on the true history and current condition of GM's powerful Car Design legacy was a pivotal moment. Why? For a leading GM exec hadn't gone out on a limb (for Design) in over 40-years. The announcement showed that GM could, and actually would, change moving forward! 

Here's a couple of quotes about America's Car Design Pioneer, "His (H.J. Earl) importance in US business history cannot be overstated, with many parallels to the way Steve Jobs' leadership's blend of aesthetics, marketing, and technology blazed a trail of innovation" wrote Oliver Marks in ZDNET.com's tech article, Harley Earl's Influence On Steve Jobs"His drive to execute his vision turned Harley Earl into a car industry disruptor, 70 years before disruptors became cool. GM's competitors didn't want to redesign their cars every year. But Harley Earl's success forced them to," wrote Thom Patterson in a special transportation article for CNN, Steve Jobs and the King of Stylish Cars.

Basically, if GM starts promoting "Design" much higher in the company's corporate structure, again, they can quickly get on the right path to return to greatness. After which, America’s largest auto maker would immediately reap the benefits – sending out the right signal/message to savvy consumers and the global business audience how, "although we (GM) lost our design edge for some time, we've clearly got it back and intend to use it from now on to create cutting edge design and excellent enginered products."

Design Capital

“Detroit is the design capital of the U.S.A.," wrote founding editor of Industrial Design (I.D.) magazine, Jane Thompson (formerly Mitarachi), when summing things up in her editorial for the Oct. '55 issue; mag's cover story reads, "Design In Detroit  – a special report on design in a major industrial center." Articles inside boils down how Harley had created Detroit's Dependency on Design and how this new juggernaut was now directly impacting the national economy year-in-and-year-out so it's easy to say now that back in the 50s and 60s, many top journalists and leaders in and outside the worlds of design and automobiles, knew all about the fact sheet of America's greatest car designer.

Overall base of clients (abbreviated list) all bore the Earl stamp of tasteful, quality design.

Overall base of clients (abbreviated list) all bore the Earl stamp of tasteful, quality design.

Manufacturers who were giants in their particular fields turned to GM's design czar, Harley Earl, to style some of their most important products...products of immense diversity.

That's why Mr. Earl established his independent design firm, the Harley Earl Corporation, outside of General Motors in 1945 and a decade later located his unique company directly across the street from the GM Tech Center. Walking inside his design firm, people could see a client roster board, on left, that read like a "who's who" of American industry. 

In 1956, the one-of-a-kind Styling Section Design center building was heralded as the command post of the entire GM Tech Center and leading business leaders of the era also recognized GM, Detroit and America’s auto industry as the crown jewels of the business world. Back then, the evidence was everywhere for General Motors and Ford Motor Co. (these crosstown rivals were both headquartered in all places, Metro Detroit), were best-known as the No. 1 and No 2 largest companies in the world. But the most astounding statistic of all was that GM was twice the size of Ford, the No. 2 largest company in the world! These were amazing times of promise and great possibilities for America’s auto capital.

Here's a bit of scholarly evidence that was withheld all these years: The Car Design Profession is the No. 1 reason GM and Detroit became so enormously successful throughout the golden heyday years of the 1950s and 1960s – and it's the number one reason America's auto world tanked so badly afterwards.

Organizing the Automobile Design Profession turned out to be a field that revolutionized the auto world and permanently changed the face of capitalism. Harley Earl's accolades include such iconic business milestones as the annual model change, the world's first concept car, dynamic obsolescence, first to introduce clay modeling to the auto world, the Corvette, the first-ever onboard computer in an automobile, and – the standardization of secrecy in car design.

"Few every have the opportunity to see the inside of a professional design studio, since secrecy is a necessary part of the process," said Harley in the late 50s. This was right before the auto design profession would go on to become a global phenomenon starting in the 1960s, for ever worldwide automaker adopted HJE's technologically savvy way of pre-engineering and/or building modern cars and trucks using his new design sword of power.

From industrial espionage to crash test dummies, from heated seats to turn signals, Americans unknowingly interact with Pioneer-Earl's lifestyle creations every day and his automotive DNA runs through us all.  In 1927, Harley Earl put "design" on the business map by creating the very first corporate department, Art & Colour, committed entirely to expertly designing all GM's products. By 1937, Earl's department was the primary reason this company was rapidly gaining new market share and totally displaced Ford Co. and become the No. 1 auto maker in the world. Soon after, Earl was elevated to corporate vice president status and consequently he renamed his new department the GM Styling Section.

Harley's timeless mantra (which he was ridiculed for saying after first arriving in Detroit's auto world): "appearance and function are of parallel importance."  Now, design powers the business world of sales. 

Early 60s Chevy Studio

HJE made all GM's modern designs famous.