This historical photo at right (click to enlarge) is actually very revealing for prior to 1945, this all-new hybrid art and engineering team, the Styling Section, had no rivaling team like it inside General Motors, or for that matter, anywhere else in the auto industry. Since 1927, Pioneer-Earl was backed implicitly by his patron saints who were the largest shareholders of this company. They were the ones running the company and knew how close-mouthed the work being done behind Earl's studio doors was and how tightly interwoven the auto-innovations, being born in this new department, were to GM's fast growth and market share explosion. Harley Earl's STYLING SECTION housed the company's most intimate trade secrets on a revolutionary new auto world profession and pre-engineering transportation technology: Automobile Design. Another critical part of this man's story, that's remained concealed all these years, is that Harley Earl perfected his state-of-the-art car design building technology in California, before moving to Michigan to work with General Motors.
First introduced in 1953, the Motorama was the groundbreaking precursor to today’s modern auto shows, and a staple of post war American pop culture. Ingenious marketing and merchandizing devices, these traveling shows lured audiences en masse through the collective display of concept cars, grand theatrics, and larger-than-life exhibit displays. During their eight-year run from 1953 to 1961, an estimated 10-million people attended these special events, clamoring for a free peek at the engineering innovations and automotive artistry in Earl’s experimental dream cars. Intrinsically linked to the next milestone, the Motorama allowed GM to be the very first auto maker in the world using waves of Earl's concept cars/dream cars to dramatically increase sales figures. After witnessing the 1955 Motorama, one auto journalist said, "Harley Earl is located somewhere between God and the president of GM, but without the latter's limitations."
The Concept Car
A brilliant marketing and merchandizing device for all global car makers today, concept cars boost general interest in the auto industry, exponentially increase auto sales and car show attendance, and enabled manufacturers to test and gage consumer reactions to new style and engineering ideas. This timeless innovation (Concept Car Building) was another exclusive business world first by HJE allowing his company, General Motors, the edge over competitors. This milestone also effectively demonstrates how auto-pioneer-Earl was GM's head of research and development directly before, during and after WW II, having an unlimited budget to finance and build dozens of important, and expensive, dream cars at GM. Though the Buick Y-Job was his first concept car, perhaps his best recognized was the Firebird I; as the car in miniature sterling silver is resting on the legendary Harley J. Earl Daytona 500 Trophy seen annually by NASCAR's goliath fan base. See an unbiased never before published '56 press release on Harley Earl and America's very first concept cars.
Women Car Designers
A powerful advocate of women's rights, Harley's hiring of an all-women design team was groundbreaking, controversial, and extremely successful. The "Damsels of Design" was a fitting term the media adopted. Earl's departure from G.M. marked the departure of women from positions of power and influence in the automobile design profession for decades to follow.
Outrageous and wildly popular, Earl’s tailfins are an instantly recognizable icon synonymous with one of the most beloved decades in American history, the 1950s. Many detractors believed they were impractical, but sales statistics proved otherwise and that is why literally every major auto maker in the world, by 1959, had copied the idea and built their cars with variations of the fin streamlining the tail ends of all their automobiles, too.
One of the 20th century’s greatest untold stories is the true genesis of the Corvette and Harley Earl’s role as its visionary designer and inventor. Coupling Chevrolet’s greatly enlarged manufacturing program with GM's unparalleled resources, Earl created one of the most enduring popular sports cars of all time (now over 60 years old!).
Clay Modeling and Graphic Engineering
Using artistic techniques to help build and engineer cars, while industry standard today, was revolutionary when first introduced by Harley Earl, and two of his most influential methods were clay modeling and graphic engineering. The latter uses two-dimensional art and graphics to help engineer products (namely through cut-away images) and the former is the use of clay to create life-size, three-dimensional models of automobiles. Over 95% of the world's cars and trucks built during the last 80-years began as clay models. For example, Wards Auto World's comprehensive Aug., 2011 article titled, World Vehicle Population Tops 1 Billion Units.
Interior Design and Color Studio
Earl’s entry into the auto industry spelled the end of Henry Ford’s infamous motto, “the customer can have it any color he wants as long as it’s black," as well as Ford's no-frills crackerboxes-on-wheels. By employing some 75 interior designers, color stylists, fabric and plastic experts, and other craftsmen within a brand new Design Building at the GM Technical Center (designed with Eero Saarinan), Earl introduced the very first modern Interior Design section of any car company. Right away after moving from Hollywood to Detroit, he began colorizing America's drab and dreary auto world by adding to production cars such features as multi-colored steering wheels, luxurious color-coordinated interiors, and exterior colors with serene names like Glacier Blue. Earl's all-new Interior Design and Color Design Studios spurred a paradigm busting shift for automobiles that emphasized consumer comforts once found only inside modern homes.
Annual Model Change
Harley Earl initiated a tradition of recognizing and anticipating an automotive buyer’s wants and needs, something from which creating regular changes in design and style naturally evolved. Not only did this create the used-car market, it created a business paradigm that’s shaped products throughout American industry, from can openers to tractors to iPhones. Not only have annual styling model changes ensured the continual advancement of products, they’ve stimulated the continual sale of them, thereby becoming a key factor in our national economy and the lifeblood of the American automobile industry.
American Automobile Design Profession
In sheer size, scope, and influence, Earl’s greatest accomplishment is creating what’s now the backbone of the entire global auto industry: Automobile Design. Without the unified central nervous system of a modern car design profession, the world as we know it today would be radically different. Before Harley Earl, the auto design profession wasn’t on the business map. He was the industrial pioneer who revolutionarily merged art, science and engineering in the auto world. His insistence that appearance and function be equally important influenced the design of every single GM product moving forward, as well as those of all automakers. By turning mass produced cars into rolling works of art, Earl became the first million seller artist, and, like any great contemporary artist, he spawned schools of devotees. And by introducing landmark "Auto Design" scholarship programs, he propagated this new profession (often referred to today as, "Car Design") in academia and produced thousands of new jobs. Designer-Earl was largely responsible for turning G.M. into the greatest company of the twentieth century, and, as such, he left an indelible imprint on American pop culture, the national economy and the international auto industry.
The Modern Automobile
Fathering the modern car may seem like a grandiose claim until you add up the features Earl invented and imagined: first autonomous cars, onboard computers, telescopic power radio antennas, heated seats, tinted glass, electric windows, keyless entry, power convertible and pillarless tops, hidden spare tires, turn indicators, crash test dummies. He streamlined cars by eliminating running boards and integrating headlights, fenders, the grill and trunk on production cars and, perhaps most important, he predicted, promoted and instituted the small car trend. Basically, “Engineering’s Hottest Advances” in America’s auto world, from the late-20s up to the end of 1950s, came directly out of Earl’s advanced dream factory hidden away inside GM. This magazine article lists 40 different design and engineering innovations of the modern automobile by HJE.