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Harley J. Earl, the Designer of Many of GM's Most Famous Cars

Harley J. Earl of GMHarley J. Earl was the first official car designer at General Motors, later becoming Vice President, the first top executive ever hired to become an exclusive automotive designer of a major corporation in American history. Before then, engineers were normally chosen to do much of the design on most vehicles, but Earl started a trend. Today, if you're a car designer or work in some capacity in vehicle design, you should give much respect to Harley Earl and his groundbreaking designs.

At D&V Autobody, we love cars, and that's why we occasionally share interesting facts about the great innovators in automotive history. Here in Sterling and throughout the state of VA, we see a ton of Cadillacs and Corvettes, two of the most well-known iconic American cars designed by Harley J. Earl.

Here are some interesting factoids about Earl, courtesy of Wikipedia:

  • Known as an industrial designer and considered a leader in modern transportation design, Earl set many standards in the car design world that we still see today. A second-generation coachbuilder, Earl was the first person to use freeform sketches and hand sculpted clay models as part of his automotive design approach.  
  • Earl started "Project Opel", which ultimately became the Chevrolet Corvette, and he authorized the introduction of the tailfin to automotive styling.
  • During World War II, he was a major contributor to the Allies' research and development program in advancing the effectiveness of camouflage.
  • Harley Earl's father J. W. Earl, began work as a coachbuilder in 1889. The senior Earl eventually changed his business model from horse-drawn vehicles to custom bodies and customized parts and accessories for automobiles, founding Earl Automobile Works in 1908.
  • Harley J Earl with a car modelEarl attended Stanford University but left before graduating to work with his dad at Earl Automotive Works. By now, the shop was building custom bodies for Hollywood movie stars, including Tom Mix and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.
  • Lawrence P. Fisher, the general manager of the Cadillac division, first encountered Earl at Lee's dealership and saw him in action, Fisher was impressed with Earl's designs and methods, including the use of modeling clay to create the templates for his designs.
  • Fisher commissioned Earl to design the 1927 LaSalle for Cadillac's companion Marque. The success of the LaSalle persuaded General Motors President Alfred P. Sloan to start the Art and Color Section of General Motors, and to name Earl as its first director.
  • Before Earl retired, General Motors became the largest corporation in the world and design was recognized as the leading sales factor within the automotive industry.
  • Harley Earl suffered a stroke and died in West Palm Beach, Florida on April 10, 1969. He was 75 years old.
  • Earl is best remembered as the first styling chief in the US automobile industry, the wraparound windshield, the hardtop sedan, factory two-tone paint, clay modeling of automotive designs and tail-fins. In 1986, he was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.

So, the next time you look at a classic Cadillac or a Corvette, or see one driving around Sterling, think about Harley J. Earl, the designer and innovator who made our cars longer and sleeker and more fun to drive!

Sources: Wikipedia, Time and CNN

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