A biography of Harley Earl, the master designer who made cars sleek and pointy.
‘Fins,’ writes William Knoedelseder, are ‘beautiful, sleek, and shiny,’ everything ‘a modern automobile should be.’
Nov. 16, 2018 6:07 p.m. ET
It’s hard to believe that there was once a time when cars were designed by humans. For the better part of the past 40 years, design work has mostly been done by machines—from wind tunnels to computers—as manufacturers have struggled to meet fuel-economy standards and safety regulations. Automobile brands may still sport their own hood badges, but visually a Honda is a Volkswagen is a Volvo is a Tesla. Technically brilliant, no doubt. But dream cars they are not.
The first, and probably last, of the American dream machines were created by the great Harley Earl. From the 1920s to the 1960s, Earl conjured up compelling designs that put Motor City on the map and left the public eager for the next year’s models. At 6-foot-5 he was, literally, a man of stature, and he could be a generous friend. He could also be a real son of a bitch, as we learn in William Knoedelseder’s terrific biography “Fins: Harley Earl, the Rise of General Motors and the Glory Days of Detroit.”
Earl, the grandson of pioneers who had arrived in California by covered wagon, dropped out of college to work at the family’s coach-building shop in the sleepy village of Hollywood. By 1905, automobiles were replacing horses nationwide. When customers in that era bought a “motorcar,” they usually left the shop with an engine mounted to a frame on wheels. Then they sent the skeletal chassis to a coach builder who added the body. You handed them function, they bolted on form.
Over time, Earl Automobile Works began adding grace notes: tilted windshields, fancy wheels, two-tone paint jobs. These flourishes caught the eye of celebrities working in the movie studios. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Tom Mix became customers, as well as an actor named Wallace Reid, who specialized in car-racing movies like the 1920 silent favorite “Excuse My Dust.” It was Cecil B. DeMille, Mr. Knoedelseder says, who encouraged Harley Earl to push his artistic instincts toward new design possibilities.
Before long, Earl’s talents received wider notice. A visiting executive from General Motors lured the designer to Detroit in 1926. By then manufacturers were providing their own bodies, and the company was in search of a look that would set it apart from the ubiquitous Model T. GM was eating Henry Ford’s dust in sales.
Earl quickly had a hit with the sleek, moderately priced 1927 LaSalle, thus launching his 30-year tenure as company golden boy. As his reputation grew, so did his ego. He favored boldly colored suits and a perpetual tan. Underling designers called him “Hollywood Harley”—when they weren’t nervously addressing him as “Mistearl.” He was “hell to work for,” Mr. Knoedelseder writes, “with a hair-trigger temper and a seemingly bottomless reservoir of profane invective that he drew from whenever he felt the need to tell [a junior designer] that his carefully rendered drawing of a taillight ‘looks like a baboon’s assh—’ ” Still, he had a knack for spotting the key element that lighted up a design. Said one apprentice: “He really knew a good line when he saw it.”
He was also a wizard at manipulating the customer. GM’s brands included the bottom-of-the-line Chevrolet; Pontiac for the middle class; Oldsmobile aimed at the rising executive; Buick for the well-to-do; and Cadillac when price was no object. “Harley developed an ingenious process for delivering gradual, carefully planned change” each year, the author notes. “He introduced major styling innovations . . . in the Cadillac, then passed them down in succeeding years to the less expensive makes, first to Buick, then to Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and finally . . . to the low-priced Chevrolet.” Wrote one historian: “Consumers of the lower makes were persuaded that their cars were getting better because they looked more like Cadillacs.”
The end of World War II brought on a new consumer thirst for designs that reflected the jet-age future. The tall tail fin was just the styling cue Earl was looking for. The idea was originally the notional musing of a colleague, but Earl elevated it, making the fin the highlight of the 1948 Cadillac. Says Mr. Knoedelseder: “Fins were wondrous creations of nature—beautiful, sleek, and shiny, streamlined and symmetrical, the embodiment of power, speed . . . everything that a modern automobile should be.”
The taller fins became, the more the public bought them. Earl added chrome everywhere, producing more glamour, more weight and more hyperbole. For the opening of a 1953 auto show at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, GM celebrated its product line by hiring an orchestra and a ballet troupe to dramatize what the public-relations material said was “the story of engineering progress from the discovery of fire . . . to the present day.” The press release added that the performance “is believed to represent the first effort to tell an industrial or engineering story through the medium of ballet.” One assumes the record still stands.
The last fins disappeared at GM in the mid-1960s, marking the end of the “Mad Men” era at the company. Small European cars like MGs and VWs were gaining in popularity. GM stylists would build the Corvette (to rival Ford’s Thunderbird), but Harley Earl’s reign was coming to a close. Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed,” a condemnation of the auto industry, proved a spike in Detroit’s heart. New vehicle standards were set by two sweeping acts of Congress in 1966, and GM’s design studio began seeing less of it’s one-time wunderkind.
Mr. Knoedelseder is a car guy’s car guy who has written a fine tribute to “Mistearl,” an artist so self-assured that he once signed off on a GM press release that described him as “a man of towering genius.” And was he ever! He knew that every car design must have a prominent feature to thrill its owner. “Fins” should prove a valuable history to have on hand as we enter the age of the autonomous vehicle, a car whose most prominent feature will be that the driver himself is gone.