It Doesn't Happen Overnight
In 1996, Richard Earl began soft-pedaling an idea in America's auto capital of enthusiastically: "Seeing General Motors, along with the rest of the American auto industry, turn around and become design and innovation leaders again. Part educational, it’s about spreading awareness on a winning team of dynamic leaders at GM from the mid-twentieth century era who were, among other things, legendary players at winning in business and gaining market share like no other American auto team has ever done. What did these indomitable leaders do that was so remarkable? Simply put, in numbers, stats and finance they created the greatest company of the 20th Century and, most importantly, the inside track of this strangely alluring universe has never properly surfaced over the last half century."
The key team players were Larry P. Fisher (Fisher Body family, financier and visionary); Alfred P. Sloan Jr. (financier and GM's CEO who lived in NY); Bill S. Knudsen (GM President and ace engineer); and Harley J. Earl (a maverick engineer from L.A. who became the first designated head of design at a major business corporation). Together they produced a loyal, dynamic creative alliance.
It's critical to share new insight on how this captivating business team worked together, for what they achieved goes way beyond being a Detroit auto making story in the heartland of America.
It's certainly controversial that the public, the auto journalistic community and especially most of the top execs behind today's global automotive scene are unaware of the most seminal facts surrounding this compelling story and its main character: the birth of the modern car.
This Detroit Free Press cover story, at right, from a May, 1969 rotogravure section (a month after Harley's death) helps frame this forgotten story, but obviously it wasn't just "one man" who created "the Modern Car." Also, in the title of a Detroit News obituary, "Harley J. Earl Dies: Car Design Pioneer" provides more insight on how, back in 1969, there wasn't any controversy in the minds of most auto industry execs, for they not only understood HJE was some kind of a mythical auto industry hero, but he and his team created unlocked a whole new language behind minting millions of remarkable cars and other important transportation products.
Everyone who was anyone inside the industry -- 50 years ago -- knew a thing or two on how Engineer-Earl, along with his team, were legendary at "doing" big things and not grandstanding and "talking the talk." Further exposing Pioneer-Earl's true identity in 1969, one of this industry's top trade magazines, Ward's AutoWorld, did an extensive cover story entitled, Harley J. Earl: The Man Who Invented A New Profession.
The Team that was the Very Epitome of Detroit's Golden Era
How and why the story behind the team of leading players who created one of America's greatest leadership/success stories went on to be marginalized, dismissed and re-spun "entirely another way" in the history books (starting in the early 1970s) opens a kettle of questions.
Ever since Richard started his mission in 1996, controversy followed. In the very first article, below, he pitched to a local Detroit area newspaper writer, auto journalist Dick Wright went on to describe how most people viewed auto leaders behind the U.S. auto scene's gut-wrenching power dive since the 1970, "history is often controversy in this industry of high-rollers, giant egos and big money." At the time leading up to the 20th C’s end, the media was having a field day lampooning Detroit's Big Three automakers, especially leaders of GM who'd lost the most ground to foreign auto makers, for becoming the laughing stock of the global automotive economy. Many GM execs were miffed or could care the least by any feel-good newspaper stories, like the one below, emerging in 1997 out of the negative fueled U.S. auto world cuture. One reason had to do with foolish pride, for up until then GM's top leaders always believed they owned Harley Earl's story lock, stock and barrel and how dare some outlier -- a damn Earl family member, too, touting a hundred year auto-pedigree -- come into their town and try and tell their GM history story another way!
While going around with a tape player doing first-hand interviews, a strange thing started to happen when Richard would meet and talk with GM execs. Many had heard through the grape vine what he was doing and a number of this company's top leaders began chanting a familiar chord, "Why are you researching Harley Earl's story, it has already been told?" That's when it became crystal clear to Richard how GM's leaders, since the 1970s, had more out of stupidity and petty professional jealousy turned Harley Earl's brand, message and dramatic accomplishments into a footnote in history by the end of the 20th Century. Cutting off your nose to spit your face is the most apt term describing this common human nature trait and/or behavior. Richard then realized it was no wonder GM's leaders were in such hot water and didn't want to let the authentic real story out.
A 2002 New York Times article, shown below, quotes Richard's vision, "GM could recapture its past verve but it doesn't happen overnight." Here's a selection of spotlighted news stories:
• Yahoo Financial News January 30, 2005
Emerging victorious from an intense bidding war that ultimately shattered a long-standing single-bid record at the Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction in Scottsdale, AZ, the Hendricks Car Collection has acquired the keys to a one-of-a-kind "dream" car -- the 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 concept car. On Saturday, January 29, 2005, this rarest of rare cars sold for an amazing $3 million.
It is our Mona Lisa, stated John S. Hendricks (founder of the Discovery Channel), new owner of the car and the museum's creator. This GM dream car uniquely embodies the revolutionary design spirit of the legendary Harley Earl, the 'da Vinci' of Detroit. The 1954 Olds F-88 concept vehicle is, I believe, America's finest example of rolling art to emerge from the post-war era, said Hendricks.
• The New York Times October 10, 2002
"I always believed Harley Earl could be brought back so the American public could finally embrace this one-of-a-kind Renaissance man," said Mr. Earl's grandson, Richard Earl, who consulted with Buick and is working on a biography of his grandfather. Asked if Harley Earl would have liked the modern Buicks in the commercials, the younger Mr. Earl said he thought G.M. could recapture its past verve. But, he said, "it doesn't happen overnight."
David Lewis, a professor of business history at the University of Michigan, said "Before Mr. Earl came from Hollywood, there was more to the industry than Model T's, but any artful design was done by outside consultants. "He introduced formalized styling into the automobile industry," Mr. Lewis said. "He came in from the West Coast and brought in California styling. His cars were very attractive and a breath of fresh air insofar as Detroit is concerned.”
• The Detroit News Fall 2002
Earl still casts the longest shadow in the auto design field. He’s by far the greatest figure in the industry, the giant among giants, super ego among sizable egos, larger than life, legendary.
Hollywood director Tony Scott, known for such movies as “Top Gun” and “Crimson Tide,” directed the five new Buick television spots in a campaign called “The Spirit of American Style.” The GM division has made some inroads in capturing a younger market. Golfer Tiger Woods appears in the new GM ads to be shown on the season debut of “Survivor” and the Emmys.
• The Boston Globe Spring 2004
When the ads appeared, most Americans doubtlessly asked, "Who's this Harley Earl guy?" All showing the influence of a man who some argue was the most important figure ever to emerge from Detroit. He took us from the mass-produced boxes of Henry Ford to the low-slung, long-wheelbase cars that endure to this day. GM wants to dismiss Harley Earl as just a designer...he was also an engineer.
• Detroit Free Press Spring 2004
"I can't tell you how many phone calls I get asking who Harley Earl was," said Jeff Taylor, curator of collections at the Alfred P. Sloan Museum, which includes the Buick Gallery. "I tell them he's the guy who began the art of car design."
• U.S. Auto Scene Winter 2003
Recent independent research on the campaign is positive, Buick officials said, and plans are to continue to use him “as a metaphor for the inspiration that drives Buick design” and “to create an emotional connection between consumers and the brand."
People of the world see the art he created every day and don’t know it. You don’t know the name Harley Earl, for instance, but you know the Corvette. He always wanted the object of beauty to get the credit.
• The Oakland Press Summer 2004
Harley was a contemporary artist. He created art in moving metal, he created rolling sculptures and today many of his artworks are what people are lusting after at auto shows and cruises," his grandson said. "He was the da Vinci of Detroit, and the Corvette was one of his masterpieces. He was really the first million-seller artist."
• Palm Beach Post Fall 2002
On TV, Harley Earl is a ghost, peddling Buicks with Tiger Woods. But in real life, the Palm Beacher and 'da Vinci of Detroit' was the brains behind some of America's greatest cars.
• Daily Tribune Summer 2004
The world as we know it would be a duller place if Harley Earl never moved to Detroit. The auto world was black and white until he left Hollywood and colorized it.
• Monterey County Weekly Summer 2005
Along the way, according to Clyde Hensley, product expert at GM’s media archives in Detroit, “he single-handedly designed 50 million GM products.” In automotive circles, he’s known as “da Vinci of Detroit.” Hensley gives Earl a nod over one of history’s most celebrated artists when speaking of the recent auction of Earl’s F-88—one of his original concept cars, which Earl called “dream cars”—sold for a record $3 million in Arizona last January.“ They pay much more than that for a Picasso and you don’t know what it is,” Hensley says. “I can’t understand that. The F-88 was a one-of-a-kind rolling piece of sculpture, of American history. I don’t see how you can put a price tag on it. It’s priceless.”
Every effort was aimed to shed new light on the quarterback and other leading business players responsible for creating the long-term success of the greatest company of the 20th Century: General Motors. Richard says, "the leadership rules and principles originally used by GM's forefather's can be re-spun in order to get GM to quickly turn around and become highly competitive again! This iconic corporation has the greatest winning history of any American company and it needs to use this ace-in-the-hole now."
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