When General Motors introduced the 1927 Cadillac LaSalle, it not only marked a new brand of automobiles, it also marked the first production car to be styled by a professional designer.
The designer was Harley Earl, a man who would change the way automobiles were designed forever.
Until then, most cars’ appearance was determined by engineering-based dimensions, the limitations of contemporary metal forming and costs. Styling was not a major concern. As a result, most cars looked alike.
If a buyer wanted a car that stood out, they would order a chassis from one of the prestigious carmakers, like Cadillac, then send it to a coach builder to have their custom vehicle created.
If one were in Hollywood and wanted a bespoke car, chances are they would go to Don Lee, the exclusive Cadillac distributor in California.
Lee, recognizing that his client demand for custom-bodied cars had purchased Earl Automobile Works in 1919. Founded by Jacob Earl, he first built custom carriages for the wealthy. But by 1908, Earl saw the future was in automobiles, turning away from carriages to create Earl Automobile Works. In time, his son, Harley Earl joined the firm.
Stanford educated, Harley left school to join the family company which was now busy creating custom vehicles for Hollywood style-setters. When Don Lee purchased the firm, 25 year old Harley Earl was lead designer and director of the custom body shop.
Now fate intervened. Lawrence P. Fisher, general manager of the Cadillac Division, was visiting the Don Lee dealership and saw Harley Earl’s work. Given Fisher’s background in coach building (he was a founder the Fisher Body Company) he recognized the Harley Earl’s talents and envisioned a role for him.
Specifically, Cadillac was introducing a more affordable car line, LaSalle. To succeed, it would need to deliver style not offered in ordinary production cars. With the approval of General Motors president Alfred P. Sloane, Earl was brought on as a design consultant.
Introduced in 1927, the LaSalle was a resounding success, leading Sloan to create the Art and Color Section of General Motors in 1928, with Harley Earl its first director. This became the industry’s first formalized styling section.
The achievements during Harley Earl’s tenure as GM’s head of design could fill a book. He introduced clay modeling to the design studios. The concept of the annual model change, called “Dynamic Obsolescence” was pioneered. Concept cars, like the Buick Y-Job were introduced. A review of noteworthy cars created during his tenure fills of a book on its own.
Of all the firsts, the most important was the legitimizing of the role of design, and the designer.
When appointed a Corporate Vice President, Earl achieved a level of recognition and corporate authority never before seen in the industry.