SMALL CARS & ALTERNATIVE FUELS

"In 1957, my father [Harley Earl] liked to say import cars had 'saltwater splash' after arriving in the United States on massive freighters," said James M. Earl, in a 1997 interview. We enthusiastically thank James (Jim) Earl for providing in-depth viewpoints and family photos, some of which are used below. 

To this day (Oct., 2012), Jim and his wife Connie continue to contribute relevant info on the behind-the-scenes activities of GM and the unique periscope Harley Earl used in the modern auto industry of that era. For example, further down, Jim tells a personal perspective of how his father was first in the late 1950s to have GM examine and test alternative fuel sources like ethanol and peanut oil, and build GM's first hybrid vehicles, too. (A 1958 TIME magazine article, at bottom, reports that this experimental car could, "run on peanuts.")

The double-page ad directly below, from a 1956 issue of LIFE magazine, sketches out how a massive foreign car invasion would later be transported to the U.S.A., by sea, on giant ships. In the decades to follow -- for over fifty years now -- trillions of dollars have changed hands because of the millions and millions of foreign cars brought to and sold here in North America . Backed by numbers and statistics, it's probably the biggest business battle America's ever lost in the history of world commerce. No wonder so many Americans today have an ax to grind with auto execs in Detroit. These leaders notoriously lost a annual popularity contest going on in this country (in sales) that the Big Three won every year since the Car Design profession was born in the late 1920s all the way up to the early 1960s. 

Double-page '56 print advertisement was in many magazines of the day and this was right before TV  became the leading way to market products starting in 1959. The visual metaphor of this one print ad must have stirred up the minds of many hungry European and Japanese auto execs; car shipping foretold their future success.

Starting in the 1970s, the next generation of Detroit's auto execs began to throw out the concept of beauty and the notion of Detroit being the undisputed Car Design Capital of the World being a factor in auto sales moving forward. This was like handing the keys to the kingdom over to their foreign competitors. Thereafter, a decade's long pursuit towards building millions of ugly and poorly engineered American cars made the America's cash cow -- the auto industry -- very sick and that's when Detroit really started tanking and giving away the U.S.'s crown jewels of business. This was in the mid-1980s and giant chunks of America's auto industry, market share, prestige, money and power began to escape and go overseas.  

Of course Detroit's leading execs over the last forty odd years deny any wrongdoing and/or will disclose any historical information on the foreign car invasion that obviously was never intended to dethrone America's auto capital (Detroit) from it's lofty perch by the end of the 20th century. Not to mention all the embarrassment these auto execs must have harbored. But that's what happened. Nowadays, current Motown auto execs ignore the ominous decade's long downtrend in market share and only worry about watching the billions of dollars changing hands every 90 days out at the end of the quarter. This narrow vision could ultimately cost America's capital a lot more pain moving forward.  

JIM EARL UNFOLDS MORE ON THE CREATION OF THE SMALL CAR IN MODERN AMERICA   

"I remember it vividly," said Jim Earl, "It was around the summer of 1957 when my father, everyone in the family called him 'Pops' sniffed the winds of change and his next big idea came via a 'bouquet of the sea' so to speak and he knew it could be potentially be a giant new trend for the industry. He envisioned how consumers were going to want to be driving 'small cars' going into the 1960s. As usual, he began working on the idea about 3 or 4 years prior to when the actual Styling Section product designs would start showing up in volume production from the factory assembly line floors. I always liked the 'saltwater splash' phrase and it did portend all the millions of imports that would arrive on U.S. shores on massive freighters later on."  

Before Jim continued telling his unique story of how the small car trend began in this country, he spoke a little about two other famous cars Pops designed (picture below hangs on the wall of Jim's office), "Like it's predecessors Firebird I and II, the 1958 Firebird III came loaded with new auto innovations that would become standard features on the cars of the future we all drive today. Firebird III had the first on-board computer in a car, antilock brakes, cruise control, keyless entry, and climate control powered by this car's unusual alternative 10hp engine. This is the precursor to today's modern version which all you have to do is push a button on the key, from inside your home for example, and you can adjust the temperature inside the car (warm or cold depending on where you live) a couple of minutes before climbing in. Firebird III's hybrid motor was the very first car to allow this modern idea to unfold that's just now happening in the 21st century. Then  you could start your journey in absolute comfort."

Pictured here in 1956 are the titanium shelled Firebird II and jetcar Firebird I. These were first American cars with sexy "aluminum wheels"  and naturally, GM's more expensive car brands were first to introduce them later on in the early 1960s (now every car company offers them). This is a perfect example of how 'a trend ' got started in the auto business back then!

Jim went on to say, "When it came to heading the Small Car charge in this new direction, Harley Earl was on a mission and hired some of the top aerodynamicists and engineering talent in the country during the late 1950s and personally saw to it that Bob McLean and Dr. Peter Kyropoulos of Cal Tech fame (pictured above with HJ Earl at GM's desert proving grounds), were brought into GM Styling." The following 1957 Los Angeles Times article titled, National Figure, elaborates on the partnership between the two. 

Jim went on to say, "Just as it is today, experimentation was the life blood of the auto industry in Harley's day. He became so powerful and was doing all sorts of blue sky innovations and research while vigilantly controlling the product design process of every GM transportation vehicle. Much of the time, what Harley was doing was aimed to bolster up his very own design team inside GM and/or the Car Design profession for which he was the king of after he had solidly created Detroit's dependency on design in the post world war era. Yes, Harley's ivory tower held complete creative control and he had every intention of taking the modern auto industry even further into the future. Of course all this money going into his department triggered all sorts of power struggles inside the corporation, which was no doubt had the most dangerous political environment because there was so much money involved in the running of the largest company in the world."

"But once again, he wanted to orchestrate [legitimize] one more of his historic business ideas in front of the entire automotive world by having each division of the 'famous five' brands [Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac and Oldsmobile] introduce a small car to be positioned in their respective line ups. It's why more and more highly talented engineers like Peter Kyropoulos were summoned to GM...to work on the development of this new trend. Plus, by this time it had long become hospital routine in America's auto capital for all Detroit's other major automakers to copy the big ideas Harley Earl started inside GM."

"This was the order of the day. Once the rest of the industry caught on to how heavily GM was investing in a new direction Earl was headed in ...the entire industry ganged on board and followed. Up until say 1958, it had been going on just like this for over 25 years. For example, the entire American auto industry copied Harley Earl's largest trend ever, having a centralized Car Design Department facilitating all the modern math based full sized clay modeling and pre-engineering (that's a mouthful); the Annual 'Styling' Model Change; the Concept Car; the Wraparound Windshield, Women's Rights Movement inside Detroit's Auto World; the Tail Fin. It's a certainty, if a car company didn't follow these above trends, it's a foregone conclusion they would have quickly gone out of business...because his 'Design Obsolescence' ways revolutionized the auto industry."

"So in the late 50s Harley once again began sending out the signal via his channels that the 'Small Car' was coming and GM would be the first to reinvest their capital to what was sure to be the next big mega trend to rest on top all the other successful ones previously mentioned. And all along the way Pioneer-Earl was creating ancillary trends, too. Like America's first sports car with the Corvette created in 1953. As one can see today, this trend ended up becoming meteoric and every major car company today has a sports car offering in their line up.  Remember, Ford Motor Co. would have never ever ventured out on their own and risked the capital to build the Thunderbird sports car if it were not for Harley's legitimizing sword of power having Chevrolet introduce the Corvette to the market in the first place." 

"My brother [more of Jim's pics are below] and I predominately owned small foreign cars in the early and mid-1950s. One of these cars I owned was a bathtub Porsche while my brother drove an MG and bought a Ferrari to race afterwards, but that's a long story. Anyway, I remember your grandfather [Harley Earl] telling me one day how he'd gazed out of his office window of the newly finished GM Styling building at the General Motors Technical Center into the parking lot where all his male and female designers parked. From his office, he had a commanding view of the whole new modern facility and anyway he noticed all the cars his young designers were predominately driving. 

Snapshots here of Jim's brother, Jerry, in his first small car in family's driveway. Another rare photo Jim supplied, above right, is of America's most famous "concept cars Y-Job and the LeSabre" in Earl's driveway in 1951. Scroll down further to read a 1951 newspaper article on how these two modern masterpieces were Harley's daily drivers. The writer proclaimed LeSabre as, "The World's Most Amazing Car." 

"This parking lot was not only filled with numerous Corvettes, (which size and weight was a significant departure from previous GM models or any other American-made car) and other smaller and light foreign cars like VW Bugs & Karmann Ghia, MG, Porsche, Triumph and Fiats, too. I remember it because at this time, 1957, I was working at the Tech Center. Back then almost everyone who was anyone in the auto world knew Harley had been a major industry trend-setter since arriving on the scene in 1927. He never stagnated -- his vision was his true genius and to this day he remains a great role model." 

                    

"The Small Car Trend was slated to become another one of Harley's familiar new roads that millions of American car consumers would want to travel down and enjoy by the end of the 1960s. He was right about it, for it certainly became one of the biggest trends of the second half of the 20th century and even going into the 21st century now that there is such concentration paid to fuel economy. Again, individuals like Dr. Kyropoulos were supposed to play big roles in the development of GM's small car trend, but then the next generation of GM's leadership (Donner, Gordon and Mitchell) quickly changed everything around. But that's another story...."

These two cars above are works of art, national treasures, and  are No. 1 and No. 2 on a list of 37 priceless drivable motoramic masterpieces created by the greatest car designer who ever lived (proven in numbers and finance). All of which go beyond the world of modern art and remain symbols of advanced automotive thinking.

Article below from time around first "oil shock" details  Bill Mitchell running opposite of Earl's "Small Car" trend.