For decades of time, it's been there all along in the annals of automotive history of how, " 'Design' is the No. 1 reason for car sales in America," but the secrets behind exactly why this business calling is so vitally important to the long-term success of all major auto makers worldwide is often kept down or highly distorted. This is on account of, "Secrecy is a necessary part of the process and undoubtedly why this is one of the reasons why there is so little printed material available on this glamorous activity" said Harley Earl, in 1956 and who is generally accepted as the founder of the automobile design profession. 

Thankfully the media echoed the facts on what the main driving force in car sales was all about, and continually printed it in news stories over the last 60 odd years. Notice some of the examples supplied below, like a comprehensive 1954 LIFE magazine article saying, "In auto sales, appearance is everything, or almost everything. It is certainly the most important single factor in a consumer’s decision to buy this or that make."  Then fifty years later, in 2004, Business Week publishes the same kind of wisdom in an article titled, Designing Cars (featured at bottom of this section) asserting the same time-honored credo, "Now a decade-long drive to close the quality and engineering gap among car manufacturers around the world has left the companies competing increasingly on, well, looks." Then there's James Kelly professor of Transportation Design at the Pforzheim University of Applied Sciences in Germany who says, " 'Design' is the No. 1 selling point…" Notice a comprehensive New York Times article from 1997, further down, on the American auto industry's well-traveled road through their 100th anniversary 1896-1996 stating the facts on design supremacy in the auto world.

It's a real problem though when the U.S. auto industry has to follow the imports after being overtaken by small cars built in Japan, Europe and Korea. The Motor City's Big-3 auto makers have choked so badly in the last fifty years related to the biggest trend in the auto business over this time period. Of course it has to do with most of Detroit's auto execs reluctantly deciding, decade after decade, to remain on the fence whether or not the 'DESIGN' of automobiles is an enormous factor in car sales. Because of this reason, the Big Three are now in the battle of their lives to stay in the business and survive making it to 2020.


The saddest part of this story is that the leading execs at foreign automakers came out of the fog on what's the most important area related to car sales and/or how today's "modern" auto industry is rooted in the tradition of car designing success like Earl achieved at GM in the mid-twentieth century. They seem to get it and understand how Car Design is the central universe of auto making. 

Detroit's finest car execs of the golden era of auto making, the 1950's, were never confused by the modern ideology of design when it came to car sales. Principal company execs at GM such as Alfred Sloan, Harlow Curtice, Lawrence Fisher, C.E. Wilson, William Knudsen, etc…all remained loyal to Mr. Earl's principle business philosophy and held fast to what had become the foremost rule of the automobile manufacturing industry before WW II and moving into the post war era. It was GM's next rein of leaders that took charge in the forth quarter of 1958 who went on to turn everything upside down by believing "design" was a necessary evil (how many leaders in Detroit thought about Design during the 1920s) so they marginalized and/or discard it moving ahead. With the benefit of hindsight, we all are familiar today with the loosing decades created by these leader's legacies of failure. Of course they were never-ever going to admit they once made some kind of mistake. 

Here are a few unbiased media reports, below, providing hard evidence on how today's worldwide auto industry is driven-by-design. We start with an eight page 1954 LIFE magazine article, only the first three pages are illustrated, which touches on GM's Styling Section domain. The article details the specifics on how the modern design of millions of Buicks came to life. Anyone can see that the entire car design process done today hasn't really changed that much from the innovative rules and principles introduced in the historical articles provided below. 

Even from 1997, the New York Times properly credited Harley Earl with two of his greatest milestones (founder of auto design profession, and creating No. 1 reason for car sales) in the following report, "He [Earl] goes on to become the dean of auto design and makes styling the driving force in car sales..."

The Power and the Glory

Here's a couple of timeless quotes by Earl. The first is from a 1949 article he wrote titled "Styling For Leadership." Harley Earl's industrialized art movement still dramatically impacts our modern day society, culture and landscape, but the millions of assembly line cars today are less likely to be valued as rolling works of art 25 years from now by collectors. 

1949 - "Styling [design] is the modern art of industry. Styling puts punch into modern merchandizing. It is the subtle stuff of sales leadership in today's style-sophisticated world. For in the American market place, style means beauty...and beauty means value. Design and beauty not only command attention, but they are the very foundation of living, changing progress...not only in automobiles but in all man's handiwork."

1956 - "The art of automobile design has progressed, until today it is regarded as one of the most important factors in the marketing of the automobile." 

1956 - This last quote is from the Collier's article below where Earl relates his simple orders on design obsolescence...that is very much today's fast paced design world order, "Do all you can. Don't hold anything back. If you do, it will be obsolete tomorrow."

Even before WW Two, Harley Earl had created the No. 1 reason for car sales in America. The news stories detailed here at this section of the website are just a drop in the bucket as far as supporting evidence is concerned, and no doubt, this significant "Harley Earl Milestone" is going to open up a kettle of new questions. And, since design or styling has been the leading factor in motor car merchandizing for seventy years now, it's really kind of strange that most people don't understand how great automobile designers in history are contemporary artists. The following 4-page COLLIER'S article provides more evidence of Harley Earl's titanic role (the Motorama was the precursor of today's modern car show). Mr. Earl once said, "The Motoramas are a new way of merchandizing." Well, notice what this article says in one of the billboard paragraphs below, "Motorama is show business on wheels, it's General Motors' top salesman." 

It's incalculable to venture how much money this dramatic new enterprise not only made for GM, but also for Detroit and the entire auto industry. Now that all this evidence is coming to the fore, one could go a step further and say Harley Earl still remains the Motor City's top salesman...even though he's been dead for almost forty years now, "auto design" still rules the car world kingdom. Or, it’s not a coincidence that the Mecca of today’s modern auto world continues resting on the soul and spirit of Harley Earl.

On the last page of the Collier's article, below, on America's auto pioneer the writer put it this way, "All the work that goes on in Earl's styling section for Motorama is in addition to the regular work of designing and styling assembly-line cars." No doubt Harley probably thought about this quote a little differently than how it was printed. 

What we mean is, Harley Earl probably knew that the millions of assembly-line cars he'd designed for GM were just as artistic as his Motorama dream cars and would hold their value, in the future, just like the artistic Motoramic Masterpieces he designed for the Motorma shows of the 1950s. Earl's "cars are the stars" notion took the nation by storm during the 50s, and his auto design juggernaut was in full bloom. GM further legitimizing the absolute concrete importance of "styling and design" in industry. 


Below is a recent Business Week story supplying more hard evidence on how CAR DESIGN is often heralded as the No. 1 reason for car sales. After examining the compilation of material at this section, one can now better understand how this time tested philosophy of merchandizing and selling automobiles, based on the original rules and principles Harley Earl first fully established, has remained the order now in business success for over 50 years. Just because certain leaders in Detroit's auto world went on to loose control of the Design/Styling Leadership reins to foreign competitors doesn't mean for a second that this modern Driven-by-Design selling paradigm [invented by Harley Earl] was ever replaced or superseded by some other great marketing or sales tool that came along.

CONCLUSION: On account of self preservation, GM doesn't have a choice and will have to fully improve [heavily invest in] their company's transportation designs in the coming decade. Otherwise, this company will continue to spiral down, be bought out or merge with a foreign car company to bail them out.

Although this company has made strides at improving many of their new car designs -- anyone can see the Pontiac Solstice, shown below in the BusinessWeek article -- has traces of the sexy curvaceous designs Harley Earl once created. But, there is no denying it, the cast of characters (teams of GM leaders since the 60s) bet heavily on DESIGN "not being" the vehicle to GM's long-term success. This thinking robbed GM of some of their most valuable treasures. Corporate leaders whose main rule was to suppress all the archival evidence on how Earl was the creator of America's automotive design legacy has set Detroit's auto world back for decades of time. 

The good news is, when Harley Earl's story comes out in full bloom, America's auto industry will probably turn around. Hopefully, if it's not to late, after the financial crisis going on in Detroit's auto world due to spiking gas prices and other blunders by the powers that be in Detroit...something new and beautiful might rise through the ashes.