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Harley J. Earl
Harley J. Earl; 1893-1969
Associated Builders
Earl Automobile Works; Don Lee Coach & Body Works

Jacob William (J.W.) Earl, a former woodworker and lumberjack from Cadillac, Michigan, and his wife, who was originally from California, moved their family to California in 1889 and established the Earl Carriage Works at 1320 S. Main Street, Los Angeles, to build and repair horse-drawn carriages and wagons.

Among Earl's first products were simple horse-drawn agricultural wagons used by local Mexican farmers in the "Valley of Smoke" as the Indians called the Los Angeles Basin.  

Earl soon started making bodies and simple accessories for the automobile and in 1908 he renamed the small shop to the Earl Automobile Works. A few years later the “Valley” changed forever when the Horsley Brothers made their fist motion picture in an abandoned tavern on Sunset Blvd. at Gower St. in 1911. Earl soon discovered that money could be made supplying the movie industry’s pioneers with Roman chariots, stagecoaches, buggies, fringe-topped surreys and other rolling stock for use in their productions.

That new industry brought the Earl Automobile Works a new line of work, customizing automobiles for the nouveau riche movie stars and industry executives that now made Hollywood their home. Earl also built some fuselages for the Glen L. Martin Company, an early Los Angeles airplane manufacturer (now Lockheed-Martin).

J.W. Earl’s custom-built automobile and truck bodies were well-known for their sculpted appearance and could be seen in numerous film studio’s parking lots during the day and cruising Hollywood Blvd. at night. 

J.W.’s son, Harley J. Earl (1893-1969), worked in the shop after school and wound up attending Stanford University to study engineering. 6’3” tall Harley was an outstanding athlete who excelled at pole vault, broad jump and shot-put as a member of Stanford’s track & field squad. Much to his father’s chagrin, Harley excelled on another type of track as well.

A favorite story of Earl’s friends is the time when Harley’s dad was calmly reading the newspaper with morning coffee. His shiny new Mercer was resting calmly in the driveway, giving no hint of what had happened to it the day before. Turning to the sports page, the senior Earl glanced at an item concerning a week-end stock car race. "Harley Earl, son of the owner of Earl Carriage Works, won the 100-mile race for stock cars here yesterday with a special new Mercer recently purchased by his father". Earl also had a penchant for “test-driving” newly-bodied cars through downtown Los Angeles to test the crowd’s reaction to his father’s latest handiwork.

In 1918 Harley dropped out of school and was put in charge of dealing with his dad’s fast-growing custom-body clientele. Earl had a special talent for both schmoozing with and designing exotic bodies for Hollywood’s elite and became friends with many of them; Cecil B. DeMille and Tom Mix were among his closest friends.

In January of 1919, Harley exhibited two of his creations at the Los Angeles Auto Show; a Marmon Phaeton and a Chandler Town Car. The Los Angeles Times reported:

"Perhaps the most startling local models at the show are those built by the Earl Auto  Works, whose sensational Chandler and Marmon are attracting huge crowds. These cars are designed by Harley Earl, a local man who only three years ago, was broad jumping at the University of Southern California, and has sprung into prominence as a maker of motor fashions almost overnight.

"The Chandler town car, in blue, is the classiest thing of its kind ever shown on the Coast or any place else. It is surely distinctive, being a low hung creation; so low that a good-sized man can stand along side and look right over the top, yet there is sufficient room inside to keep one from being cramped."

The Auto Show had brought Earl Automobile Works to the attention of Don Lee, who bought the company later that year and ab­sorbed it into his pre-existing Don Lee Coach & Body Works. J.W. Earl retained his previous position as shop manager and Harley was appointed chief designer.

On July 13, 1919, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that, ". . . [Don Lee has acquired]. . . the largest plant of its kind west of Chicago, and for several years Earl’s has been one of the six largest builders of custom bodies in the United States. J.W. Earl...will continue in active charge, and his son, Harley Earl, will continue as chief designer.

"It is Don Lee's intention to turn out the very best coach work obtainable anywhere. With this idea in view, he will send one of his designers to New York twice a year, and as soon as European manufacturers are once more in pro­duction, a Don Lee designer will make a yearly trip abroad… Harley Earl will leave this week for a trip to the Eastern factories to ascertain the trend of the enclosed car styles for the coming fall and winter. Immediately upon his return, construction will be started on several types of the newest enclosed car designs."

Don Lee had been selling Cadillacs since 1906 and had become Cadillac's official West Coast distributor at the beginning of 1919. Lee’s dealerships blanketed the state and were in all of its major cities – Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, Pasadena, Sacramento and San Francisco. Lee’s major west coast competitors in the early 1920s were Earl C. Anthony’s Packard dealerships and Walter M. Murphy's Lincoln franchise.

In the early 1920s the business of supplying coachbuilt bodies to the luxury car trade was lucrative and the Don Lee-Harley Earl partnership prospered. Soon after the takeover, the combined firm employed 90-100 craftsmen and produced some 250 custom cars a year.

Harley and Cadillac president, Lawrence P. Fisher would become good friends during this time, as Don Lee Coach and Body Works would do increasingly more business for Cadillac, until in 1925 they fitted 100 customized bodies onto Cadillac chassis.

By the mid-twenties Don Lee Coach & Body Works was turning out over 300 bodies a year and Harley Earl was able to boast of wining and dining with the biggest celebrities of the time.

Harley would design a car body starting with two dimensional rough-sketch, then turn his favorites into small clay models to show to the client. Up until that time, designer’s sketches were turned into full-size body drafts but were rarely modeled in three dimensions. When a three dimensional model was made, they were typically made from plaster and wood. Clay allows stylists and modelers greater freedom as well as a more malleable modeling process. Earl helped develop and perfect the rules which would govern car design for the next 50 years. Even today, it’s still not known whether Earl sculpted his own early clays or had them made by an assistant.

These 3-dimensional presentations plus Earl's splendid sales presentations brought many of Hollywood’s top-list to the Don Lee dealership. Among his famous clients were movie idols; Jack Pickford, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Mabel Normand, Mary Miles Minter, Viola Dana, Anne May, Pauline Frederick, Tom Mix, Fatty Arbuckle, film directors; Cecil B. DeMille, Henry Lehrman and even millionaire oilmen such as E.L. Doheny Jr.

Even today, Rudolph Valentino, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper are well-known for their love of fine automobiles. At the height of his career (1919), the great comedian Roscoe Conkling "Fatty" Arbuckle was the highest-paid star in Hollywood. He main­tained a small fleet of expensive cars that included a Stevens- Duryea, an Alco, a Rolls-Royce, a White, a MacFarlan, a Renault, a Cadillac and his favorite – a 1919 Pierce-Arrow "66" touring.

This was the third automobile designed by Earl for Arbuckle and no expense was spared. Earl started with a 147 ½-inch, 1919 Pierce-Arrow 66-A-4 chassis which cost $6,000 at the time. Roscoe then paid $25,000 to Don Lee for the coachwork, a figure that Earl recollects was $28,000.

Among the many features of the Arbuckle vehicle is the radiator cap which features a letter "A" with an arrow running through it. Earl employed a number of styling concepts that would appear many years later in his produc­tion designs. Earl reshap­ed the cowl and hood to form a horizon­tal plane from the windshield to the radiator, a flow­ing silhouette seen a full decade later on the 1930 Cadillac V-16. Huge barrel headlamps and Arbuckle’s signature was mounted to the radiator in place of the characteristic Pierce-Arrow frogs-eye lights and logo. Prohibition started in 1919 and a hidden cabinet located underneath the rear foot rests was undoubtedly built to hide the now-bootleg booze.

The interior included a pair of inlaid mahogany cabinets built into the back of the front seat and Arbuckle’s ultimate Pierce-Arrow is preserved today as part of Ken Behring's  Blackhawk Collection.

Earl was a personal friend of many early movie "greats and used a folding director's chair for many years when sitting with his design-room staff and even wore jodhpurs, the riding pants seen on many a silent movie director. His friend Tom Mix had one custom Earl-designed car that featured a real leather saddle on the roof with painted stars incorporating Mixes’ TM logo all over the vehicle. Another friend of Earl’s, legendary director Cecil B. De Mille, said that both movies and automobiles reflected "the heart of motion and speed, the restless urge toward improvement and expansion, the kinetic energy of a young, vigorous nation." Through the 1920s DeMille owned a number of automobiles equipped with Earl-designed coachwork. His auto entourage included two Locomobiles, a Lincoln, a Cunningham, and an L-29 Cord roadster.

Earl was a firm believer in the power of color and a 1926 Autobody magazine article concurred: “Of course, certain cars deserve a dazzling paint job. From October 9 to 16, 1926, the Don Lee Cadillac Company at Seventh and Bixel Streets in Los Angeles presented a gorgeous display of Cadillacs in new and bright colors; it advertised "500 color combinations on 50 body styles.

"A cream colored roadster with khaki fenders and valances and orange wheels caught one's eye. An Alice Green convertible coupe with dark green fenders and orange wheels was also on display. But the formal town cabriolet was a deep blue with black fenders, and the sedan was a solid dark green. Don Lee might sell some bright roadsters in sunny California, but customers in Cleveland and Boston, and even the majority of residents of Los Angeles, would stick with those safe blues and blacks.”

Earl's success with Don Lee’s Cadillacs attracted the attention of Fred Fisher - a golfing buddy of Earls, and patriarch of the famed Fisher Brothers. His enthusiasm for Earl's success with luxury cars prompted Cadillac’s president, Larry Fisher, to phone him during the December of 1925 to see if Earl might be interested in designing Cadillac's upcoming companion car, the LaSalle. "You betcha," replied Earl, who temporarily took up residence in Detroit with his wife Sue. During that initial visit, Earl designed and built four LaSalle clays; a coupe, a roadster, a sedan, and an open touring car. He painted them in black lacquer and showed the Hispano-Suizaesque models to Fisher and Sloan, who approved them for all production. Earl then returned to California and a grateful Don Lee.

According to General Motors President Alfred P. Sloan's memoirs, Earl’s "flying wing" fenders and low, long appearance, "...were the first stylist's car to achieve success in mass production.”

Nine months later Larry Fisher called again and asked Earl if he might be interested in moving to Detroit permanently to take charge of GM’s new "Art and Colour" department. Much to the chagrin of his employer, Earl agreed, and thus began the Detroit era of America’s most influential automotive designer.

The creation of the Art and Colour Section was the first department of its kind in the automotive world. GM President Alfred Sloan had wanted to establish style and colors of cars which were mass produced. The new Art and Colour Section initially was only concerned with recognized style and color. Sloan wanted a varied models of cars to not only "attract the affluent and style conscious consumer of the twenties but also to make a change in a routine part of his corporate procedures."

Sloan knew design alone could not lure consumers to purchasing a car, so at the same time, he marketed his cars buy letting consumers buy using an installment plan or used-car trade-ins. With products based on price, model and style, Sloan came up with "a car for every price and purpose."

It was in May 1927 that he began to organize a centralized styling staff. When word got around GM that Harley Earl and Earnest Seaholm, the engineering operations chief, were looking for key men with special talents, several came forward. Ralph Pew (sketching), Joe Thompson (modeling), Howard O'Leary (administration) were among the first group. By late January 1928, Art & Colour had 50 men. Earl and his new styling department were underway and would, eventually, dominate the history of automotive design.

Earl's department was accessible by all of GM’s divisions, and was originally located on the tenth floor of the GM’s Detroit headquarters. Early on, Art & Colour was assigned to selecting paint colors and fabric patterns, but real commissions began to trickle in.

At that time "styling" meant the reworking of the front and hood and was not an initial responsibility of Art & Colour. However Earl was soon asked to touch up Cadillac’s 1928 models and commissions from Chevrolet and Buick soon followed. Art & Colour was given responsibility for the grilles, badging, body accents and interiors - the rest of the vehicle was controlled by the body and chassis engineers. Earl was eventually given responsibility for the styling of the entire interior and exterior, providing that he could get the designs past GM’s body engineers.

Among the Earl-inspired innovations that made design a key sales attraction and inspired the annual model change were the elimination of the running board, the separate strapped-on luggage compartment and the exterior spare tire. Luggage and the spare moved inside the longer, lower cars. Divisional identity created the need for separate design studios for each division, but they remained on the 10th floor under direct supervision of Earl.

Not every one of Earl’s designs was a success. His most legendary failure was the “pregnant Buick” of 1929. Upon viewing the new Buicks, Walter P. Chrysler commented to a reporter that his competitor’s new models looked "pregnant." The negative publicity combined with an equally poor public reception attracted 56,000 fewer buyers to Buick’s showrooms than in the previous year. GM’s other divisions and the rest of the industry reported major sales gains during the same period.

Earl blamed the failure on Fisher Body’s engineers: “I designed the 1929 Buick with a slight roundness both ways from the beltline highlight, and it went into production. Unfortunately, the factory, for operational reasons, pulled the side panels in at the bottom more than the design called for. In addition, five inches were added in vertical height, with the result that the arc I had plotted was pulled out of shape in two directions, the highlight line was unpleasant and the effect was bulgy.”

GM hired a body engineer by the name of Vincent Kaptur from Packard in 1928 and assigned him to Art & Colour. He soon noticed that different models from entirely separate divisions shared similar dimensions. Kaptur suggested to Earl that the divisions standardize their products using three or four shared body sizes, enabling greater parts compatibility and reduced costs for GM.

Kaptur’s simple proposal would eventually revolutionize the entire auto industry and for the immediate future get his boss, Harley on GM management’s good side once again.

Called the "A, B, C, D" plan, each letter represented a different chassis "floor plan." Earl reorganized Art & Colour into five separate studios; four to work on the different "A, B, C, D" model lines, and a fifth to work on future projects such as the Buick "Y Job," a vehicle that’s generally considered to be the first American “concept car”.

For many years the world’s top auto designers and coachbuilders assembled in Europe once a year to view each other’s creations at the Paris Auto Salon and London Motor Show. Earl attended the shows as GM’s representative and frequently returned with new styling ideas for upcoming models.

Early on, Earl was convinced that cars could be designed to sit lower to the road without sacrificing head room. He devised an elaborate demonstration that would sell the concept to GM brass. Alfred P. Sloan later recalled that Earl “made one of the most dramatic demonstrations I have ever witnessed. He had a Cadillac . . . on the stage before us. There were a number of workmen who, after lifting the unattached body from the chassis, proceeded to cut the chassis frame apart with acetylene torches. Proceeding very quickly, they welded the frame back together in such a way as to lower its height by a good six inches. When they replaced the body on the makeshift frame, Mr. Earl had proved a point - not only could the body be lowered but, in its revised form, looked 100% better.' Under Earl’s tenure, the average height of a GM sedan was reduced by 16 inches. Earl once stated that “a fundamental we have learned ... is not to step too far at a time; but every now and then we take a risk."

Earl’s second triumph was the Cadillac V16 fastback shown at the 1933-34, Chicago World's Fair "Century of Progress".  Its streamlined tail and slender eggcrate grill established General Motors styling for the next 5 years.

The Depression was good for GM in one respect, the failure of many smaller manufacturers and coachbuilders gave the automaker a steady supply of experienced designers looking for work. By the end of the 1930s, Earl had hired the cream of the crop and GM’s renamed (in 1937) Styling Division now employed Gordon Buehrig, Franklin Hershey, Bill Mitchell, Henry Lauve, Clare MacKichan, Art Ross, and Ned Nickles.

In the years following the “pregnant Buick” fiasco, Earl had become close friends with Buick’s president, Harlow Curtice, and designated his first "dream car", the Y-Job as a Buick. Following its 1940 introduction Earl used it as personal transportation throughout the 40s.

His second dream car, the LeSabre, was introduced following WWII and was heavily influenced by a Lockheed P38 Lightning fighter Earl had seen at Selfridge Air Force Base in Mt. Clemens, Michigan during the war. Its distinctive rear fenders would influence General Motors and Chrysler Corporation products through the late 1950s. Earl reflected, "When I saw those two rudders sticking up, it gave me a postwar idea. When we introduced it, we almost started a war in the corporation.” 

Another 1950s-era Earl innovation was made possible thanks to improvements made in chrome plating techniques necessitated by WWII. His heavy use of chrome became an element of 1950s automotive design and was epitomized by his 1958 Buick. For a historic perspective on the excess of fins and chrome please read John Keats 1958 homage to automotive excess entitled “The Insolent Chariots”. 

By the time of his retirement, Earl's Cadillacs, Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles and Buicks brought him to a position of influence unequalled by any automobile designer before or since. Earl's tall and imposing stature matched his personality. He was a large man and was known for his intimidating personality. His employees report that if he smiled at you, it made your day, but watch out if he was yelling. Earl was an impeccable dresser and always had a constant supply of clean and pressed suits stored in his office closet.

Earl is reported as having said, in 1956 "There was a time when we in General Motors styling felt we had to hold back on some of our design ideas because the public wasn't ready for them yet. In the showing of dream cars about the nation, however, we learned that the public's thinking was ahead of ours, not behind. More than two million persons see our experimental cars each year in the Motorama alone. They talk about them, they say what they like [about them] - and what they don't like. And we listen very carefully."

At his retirement in 1957, Earl reflected on his career: "My primary purpose has been to lengthen and lower the American automobile, at times in reality and always at least in appearance. Why? Because my sense of proportion tells me that oblongs are more attractive than squares, just as a ranch house is more attractive than a square, three-story flat-roofed house or a greyhound is more graceful than an English bulldog."

While on a lengthy farewell tour of Europe, Earl left his hand-picked successor, Bill Mitchell, plus Chuck Jordan and a few others to run the show. Retired GM executive director of interior design, George Moon, relates “Those 1959 designs would have been the ugliest vehicles ever designed,” Moon asserted. “Several of us drove down to Mound Road and saw a crop of super low, high-finned 1957 Chrysler, Dodge and DeSoto products. We could not believe what we saw and realized that what we were doing was so bad. We made sketches and returned to shove the Earl designs aside. Harley Earl came back and was shocked by our action and threatened to fire all of us. After he understood what was happening, he changed his mind, and we persevered.” Mr. Moon says he thinks Harley Earl's best design was the 1957 Chevrolet that reached classic status after it became a used car. My favorite Earl-era GM designs is the outrageously-finned 1959 Cadillac, a design that was created under the guidance of both Earl and Mitchell.

Harley Earl was GM's chief stylist for 31 years, and left behind a design legacy of classic chrome, two-tone paint, tail fins, hardtops and wrap around windshields as well as a staff which grew from 50 to over 1150 people along the way. Earl also became a General Motors Vice-President (in charge of styling) on September 3, 1940. He passed away on April 10, 1969, at age 75 after a stroke in West Palm Beach Florida.

Irv Rybicki stated years after Earl’s death: "Harley Earl is responsible for more than half of GM's greatest 20th Century milestones. The fact this company had exclusivity of all his work and was able to capitalize off his artistic efforts and innovative engineering ideas first, is perhaps why this man's story is so controversial and a kept secret today in Detroit."

A recent series of Buick television advertisements directed by Tony Scott and produced by McCann-Erickson, have changed all that. Actor John Diehl did a good job of portraying Earl’s “persona” in the ads although his representation was not entirely accurate. Earl rarely wore a fedora and it common knowledge that he spoke with a noticeable stutter/stammer. However the ad does bring attention to Earl’s great achievements and Earl’s grandson, Richard Earl approved it. Buick’s press release states: "To reassert its styling philosophy, Buick creates the persona of the auto industry's first design chief, Harley Earl. He returns to take stock in today's models, such as the highly successful Buick Rendezvous, and suggests that great things are to come."

© 2004 Mark Theobald -






Alex Meredith - Conspicuous Consumption: Fatty Arbuckle’s Fabulous Pierce-Arrow Special Interest Auto #115, February 1990

Michael Lamm - Earl Automobile Works and Don Lee Coach & Body Works – Special Interest Auto #167, Sep/Oct 1998

Michael Lamm - The Earl of Detroit - American Heritage

John Keats - The Insolent Chariots

Michael Lamm and Dave Holls - A Century of Auto­motive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design

Hugo Pfau – The Custom Body Era

Stephen Bayley - Harley Earl (Design Heroes Series)

Stephen Bayley - Harley Earl and the Dream Machine

Alfred P. Sloan - My Years with General Motors

Richard Burns Carson - The Olympian Cars

Rob Haeseler - The Behring Collection

Maurice D. Hendry - "Pierce-Arrow, an American Aristocrat," Automobile Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 3

Marc Ralston - Pierce­-Arrow

Ralph Stein - The American Automobile

David Yallop - The Day the Laughter Stopped

Autos Classiques #81, Mar-April 1997

Auto Moto Retro, #64, December 1985

Al Rothenberg - Tenured Design - Ward's Auto World, Aug 1, 2001

Vivian M. Baulch - Harley Earl, father of the 'dream' car - The Detroit News

Bernard W. Crandell – Dreams Unlimited - Colliers Magazine - June, 28th 1947

Harley Earl - I Dream Automobiles - Saturday Evening Post, August 7, 1954

Barbara Holliday - Harley Earl: the Man Who Invented the Modern Car - Detroit Magazine, May 25, 1969

Robert L. Pickering - Eight Years of Television in California – California: Magazine of the Pacific - June 1939

Stephen Bayley - Harley Earl (Design Heroes Series)

Stephen Bayley - Harley Earl and the Dream Machine

Frederick E. Hoadley - Automobile Design Techniques and Design Modeling: the Men, the Methods, the Materials

Biographies of Prominent Carriage Draftsmen - Carriage Monthly, April 1904

Marian Suman-Hreblay - Dictionary of World Coachbuilders and Car Stylists

Nick Georgano - The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile: Coachbuilding

Beverly Rae Kimes - The Classic Car

Beverly Rae Kimes - The Classic Era

Richard Burns Carson - The Olympian Cars

Brooks T. Brierley - Auburn, Reo, Franklin and Pierce-Arrow Versus Cadillac, Chrysler, Lincoln and Packard

Brooks T. Brierley - Magic Motors 1930

James J. Schild - Fleetwood: the Company and the Coachcraft

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1919 Don Lee Pierce-Arrow Model 66 Touring with Fatty Arbuckle

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