Call it what you may - ART & COLOUR, GM STYLING or the term used today by professionals in the automobile design manufacturing business: "GM DESIGN." Read a seminal three page 1956 Press Release, below, outlining the world's first "dream cars" and/or "concept cars." Discover how Detroit's first modern design superstar, and his powerful troops churned out numerous one-of-a-kind show cars that set the standard for how ever other auto manufacturer in the world would jump on the bandwagon.
Earl's paradigm-busting shift (creating auto design and/or the very first pre-engineering department at GM) wouldn't have ever happened if he hadn't moved from Hollywood to Detroit. Starting in 1927, Earl began to detonate his driven-by-design juggernaut in GM and this is what led the way to industry-wide recognition that appearance and function are of parallel importance. From there, he went on to build up and organize the motor car world's epicenter of modern car design. Truth be told, it was Harley Earl who turned Detroit into the auto design capital of the world by the 1950s and this also earned him a feather in his cap of knowing he had created the American auto world's dependency on design. Did this man talk about it or write an autobiography on it. No, because by the end of the 1950s, Earl's revolutionary design/engineering work was highly classified and GM's new cadre of execs moving into the 1960s ultimately chose to burry all this sensitive information on why millions of people were buying cars annually. The following 2009 Modern Magazine quote helps establish breadth behind Earl's reach:
“It is entirely appropriate to speak of automotive design as “B.E.” and “A.E.” (Before and After Earl)…If Augustus found Rome made of brick and left it of marble, Earl found the American automobile made of wood and lacquer and left it of brightly painted steel and chrome.”
Being the first-mover, gave GM and its largest shareholders a huge advantage over other auto makers who did not yet understand the importance of Earl's vision of how Auto Styling would play a giant role moving into the 1930s in dramatically increasing GM's sales figures. Attacking Ford's lack of design and this company's leading market share position became the highest order by GM's top leaders. The entire workings behind the "body politics" storyline relating to Earl and the genesis of his creating the auto design profession inside GM radically revolutionized the way this company built all their products. The narrative arc of GM's complete design history has never before been released because of what Earl originally formed and how it went on to become the company's greatest modern trade secret.
In the early 1930s, Earl hatched the first mold of standardizing "automobile design secrecy" throughout the entire auto making world. This accomplishment, in its own right, was a business coup that up to this day has never been properly examined in history. From this time forward, all of GM's most important product designs relating to transportation were cloaked over and locked up in secrecy and GM's new "Styling Boss" held all the keys. Even legions of GM's employees were kept out of the loop and Earl and his primary backers (Fisher, Sloan, Knudsen, etc...) helped in creating misinformation to protect this innovative new GM department. Controlling all of this sensitive information was vital to Earl's continued success and that's why GM's largest shareholders protected Earl and all of GM's new auto designs from ever falling into a competitor's hands or reaching any members of the auto journalistic community. From this period on, Earl had an edge over other GM execs and that's why he started winning all the main internal body politics battles concerning GM's new "more-modern" body development studios he controlled with an iron fist and first formed.
BIRTH OF MODERN DESIGN IN THE 1930s
1934 Cadillac Aerodynamic Coupe
Harley Earl pioneered the use of a more sophisticated math-based method of pre-engineering the car ahead of time. In doing so, his visionary process simply displaced the previous way engineers in Detroit went about it. Choosing an all-new material known as modeling clay (this man would trail blaze and go on to use many other innovative composites in the following decades) was a truly revolutionary medium, and more importantly, all of General Motors creations of transportation would then be originally formed this way - to fantastic effect - under Earl's more modern guidance. This radical process has held the test of time too, for it hasn't changed much since HJE originally invented the idea, the pictures above and below proves this point. IMPORTANT TO NOTE: This was one of the most important ENGINEERING innovations of the Twentieth Century auto world...but Earl, along with GM's other top cadre of leaders of the day, chose to keep this information under the radar screen rather than capitalize off the publicity.
Because talented car designers at GM today, along with all other major auto makers, still use the exact same three dimensional process Earl originated over 70-years ago. Why? On account no large car company can afford to risk billions of dollars creating a new line of vehicle (volume production for large auto makers often translates into millions of units), without first eyeing and touching the very seminal concept in its full-size envelope form. In another words, no car company's going to risk so much money based on a final design done of a digital cartoon of an automobile. Don't be fooled by what the high-tech pundits of the digital design / virtual reality world heavily advocate, for often enough, these newcomers are just selling their narrow self interests and doing their best to try and muscle in on selling their expensive software, and or, computer-aided innovations to certain execs in the auto industry who are often geeked by some notion of how this new technology or, future ideology based on computer graphics, could one day surpass using clay in the final stage of the design. The bottom line is that the newest cool toys on the technology scene - no matter how fast the processor is - still can't measure up to H. Earl's winning tradition of how to build prototypes. Essentially, the computer tech crowd uses all the tricks in the book to muddy-up the process and minimize the importance of the clay model by discussing using computers. The truth is, using computers in styling is rather like getting some better lighting or a different perspective on the clay model, not a replacement for the clay!
In other words, experts in holograms and virtual reality technology are simply talking their book and are, maybe even decades, away from walking-the-walk and bringing on any real breakthrough that could go beyond using clay in the ultimate end-design concept /prototype stage. But, of course, these technology savvy professionals never admit this truism on account, if they did, their technology companies that sell their various wares to the auto design industry might have another power dive in their stock prices rivaling the down trends many tech stock companies experienced just a few short years ago.
So, it's much easier to see now how the periscope of the man nicknamed today as "The da Vinci of Detroit" and his masterful team of talented craftsmen changed the normal evolution of automotive engineering. The examples, such as creating the V-16 Cadillac Aerodynamic Coupe, shown above, that was specifically built for the 1933-34 Chicago World's Fair, also known as "A Century of Progress" happened right around the time of a new beginning in Motordom. This vehicle, along with many of GM's elite cars that would follow, made a statement of prestige not only to the country's leading business-people of the day, but even average Americans began to easily understand Earl's dazzling new way of communicating his expressive automotive designs. It's no wonder why this company, using an all-new modern code or language invented by HJE, landed so far out in front of its competitors. Leading up into the dawn of the 21st century, it symbolizes generations of experience in designing and engineering—in combination with bold thinking and the most advanced techniques and tools. The result is the industry's standard for trend-setting design, and for fine craftsmanship as well.
As Harley Earl proved and proved again, eye appeal, to say the least, is a most marketable item.
To read GM's version of the story, click the picture above of the SSR clay model.
A brand new Corvette inside one of Earl's original design studios at GM Tech Center
Today, all auto makers (a Chrysler dream car concept is outlined above) still use Designer-Earl's ultra-modern rules and principles
Regardless of all the spin coming from graphic computer professionals these days, clay modeling is one of the most important steps used in modern car design at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Whether the car styles are Toyota, GM, Ford, Daimler Chrysler, Opel or even Ferrari and Pininfarina --- the story continues to live on and be connected to the traditions and original technology Earl introduced to the automobile profession prior to World War Two. Trevor Creed of Daimler Chrysler pictured below in a March 6, 2005 Detroit News story titled, "Risk-taking Design Chief Revitalizes Chrysler's Look" on success of the 300M.
The best part of Designer-Earl's maverick car architect story has yet to be told! The leadoff photograph in this newspaper story above is an excellent example of an area of the automobile business nobody dares talk about. For example, no senior vice presidents of design at any major auto maker today would be able to stand next to their sexy clay model car designs (the popular Chrysler 300 included) unless of course H.J. Earl had not originally introduced this cutting-edge technology to Detroit's engineering world in the first place. This invention wasn't limited to American car companies either, for all worldwide auto manufacturers follow the pattern today.
Yes, it's a giant oversight to say the least. As a matter of fact, burying this corporate bone is another misdeed spawned by the school of wisdom originally fostered by an ex-CEO named Roger Smith who clearly got this company's legal department behind tarnishing all Auto-Innovator-Earl's modern deeds and milestones. Why you might ask? Because without what Harley Earl created for GM (it goes way beyond clay models), this company wouldn't have become the world's largest company of the 20th century! The fact 9 out of 10 auto execs outside the car design profession don't even know Earl first created this hugely popular invention of clay modeling, that’s at the core behind where ever modern car comes from, is a major failure that only executives who consistently lose GM market share could ever attain.
As many of the visual metaphors demonstrate at this website, GM was the flagship of C O O L in America for decades of time. Why did a majority of the masses fall head over heals in love with a systematic modern language that translated into sophisticated new products flying out this company's dealer showroom doors in a broad array of mesmerizing new cars every year?
Because year in and year out, Harley Earl was winning (for his benefactor, GM) a mighty large popularity contest "IN DESIGN!" It was all so new...the public never even really got a chance to find out much about it and how it all was so closely knitted in with the entertainment industry. They still haven't. That's because the person driving America's great big design train, who worked out all the angles from a secretive behind-the-scenes capacity inside GM, is the same acknowledged pioneer of the Automobile Design profession and person who also created the "Annual Styling Model Change."
LIKE JAZZ, "AUTOMOBILE DESIGN" IS AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL
The following excerpts are from a July 1945 GM print ad, "An Exciting Look Into The Future of Automotive Design and Engineering...the mid-twentieth-century-years are times when the world cries out for new and finer things (like times have changed!). Ask the engineers where the good, new things come from and you may be surprised to learn that most of the big problems are solved first in people's heads."