Discovering the Legacy of Harley J Earl: the Father of Corvette and Pioneering Designer

Discovering the Father of Corvette: a Look at the Visionary Designs of Harley J Earl and His Impact on the Automotive Industry
Discovering the Father of Corvette: a Look at the Visionary Designs of Harley J Earl and His Impact on the Automotive Industry

Discovering the Father of Corvette: a Look at the Visionary Designs of Harley J Earl and His Impact on the Automotive Industry

Harley J Earl was a pioneering automotive designer and business executive widely credited as the “Father of Corvette.” He was the first individual to be designated the head of design at General Motors and went on to become the first-ever vice president of design in a major corporation in America. His innovative designs changed the face of the automotive industry, and his legacy lives on today. This blog post will explore the visionary designs of Harley J Earl and their impact on the modern automotive industry as well as his early life story.

In this article:

A Look at Harley Earl – Boyhood to the 1953 Corvette – Michigan to California

By Doctor Jack Holladay

For any person, an ordinary happenstance can sometimes lead to a great opportunity, a good outcome, and just possibly a great change in one’s life. All these happened to Harley J. Earl, the father of Styling in the automobile industry. For Harley, the happenstances began way before he was even born. His maternal grandparents (Hazard/Taft family) emigrated from Michigan to California, a trek of some 18 months fraught with danger, hunger, and even death. They ended up settling in El Pueblo Nuestra Senora La Reina De Los Angeles (The town of Our Lady Queen of Angels), later to become Los Angeles. Harley’s father, J.W., left the timber forests of Michigan to visit his uncle in Arcadia, California, just north of Los Angeles. He decided to stay in California and not return to Michigan. The families lived near each other, and J.W. went to work in a carriage shop, going from employee to owner, renaming the shop Earl Carriage Works. J.W. married Abbie Taft, and their second son was Harley J.

Horses were being replaced by automobiles, and Harley was all in. As a youth, he drew pictures of cars he longed to create. When he got bigger, he worked in the Carriage shop, which was now creating custom auto enhancements. Who were the customers? The new movie ‘big wigs,’ plus actors and actresses! They needed fancy cars as part of their image. They would bring in a foreign car, and Harley would use the opportunity to take things apart, learn their purpose, and learn how they fit together. (Happenstance…the right place at the right time.)  As a sixteen-year-old teen, he wanted on a camping trip with his younger brother. Rain in the Tehachapi Mountains became a flood, and the canyon was left with a clay layer. Harley discovered that he could model the clay into the shape of his car creations and then re-shape it (very useful later). Again, a happenstance, and this time it was the weather. As Harley’s role was elevated in the carriage shop, he would learn the customer’s desires, sit down with them and sketch what they had in mind (very useful later). The custom carriage shop grew more and more successful, and Harley joined the Los Angeles Country Club.

Another happenstance occurred when a friend at the country club introduced him to a visitor, Fred Fisher (whose company would later be known as Fisher Body). At that time, they were building hundreds of thousands of car bodies for General Motors. During Fred’s week-long vacation, he and Harley played several rounds of golf, which they continued to do annually for the next several years. Fred learned about how Harley dreamed up car customization and how successful the business was. In late 1925 with GM CEO Alfred Sloan’s approval, Fred Fisher summoned Harley to Detroit to try to design a new line of cars for Cadillac, the LaSalle.

General Motors

Harley came by train to Detroit and went to work with his ideas for the LaSalle. At a shop in the back of the Cadillac plant, he worked with two engineers and a wood and clay modeler Mr. Fisher had arranged to help him. In record time, it was time for the unveiling. GM CEO Alfred Sloan arrived from New York, and Harley’s design for four models was accepted. Mr. Sloan told Mr. Fisher that Harley Earl should attend the Paris Auto Show. Harley and Mr. Sloan had time to converse on that ship voyage and became like minds. Mr. Sloan’s genius was in organizing, while Harley’s was in Styling and art, as he had organized the carriage shop in Los Angeles into a big business employing hundreds.

Harley’s father had sold the carriage shop; it was now Don Lee Coach and Body Works when Harley returned and resumed working there. One day while taking a few hours off to play golf, Harley was summoned to the telephone, saying that Mr. Sloan wanted to speak to him. Mr. Sloan had both Fisher brothers in the office with him and asked Harley if he would be interested in consulting on the design for the 1928 Cadillac and maybe even other divisions of the corporation. Harley was on the train the next day. His friends in L.A. said he would return when the snow flies in Detroit. They were wrong.

In the newly created Styling department, Harley went to work on designing the 1928 Cadillac. His instructions from Mr. Sloan were “design cars that will sell.” The resulting 1928 Cadillac offered 500 different colors and upholstery options.

Meanwhile, over in Ford, Henry Ford had capitulated, and they offered the new Model A with an electric starter, automatic windshield wipers, shock absorbers, safety glass, and many color choices. This change over at Ford sealed the deal at G.M. for Harley to head up automotive Styling there at G.M. But then what hit…the great depression. 

The great depression was the death knell for the custom beauties, as soon gone were the Stutz, Duesenberg, Pierce Arrow, and others. At G.M., Mr. Sloan wanted their customers, but there was little money for re-engineering. Consequently, re-design was the economical answer, propelling Harley J Earl’s rise in the company. Harley’s section was called “Art and Colour.” It was 1933 when the Cadillac’s chief engineer asked Art and Colour to help design the new Fleetwood. It was to have a V-16 engine, innovations, and aerodynamics. The Fleetwood was a success, and after that, the other divisions came looking for Harley.

First Concept Car

In 1938 Harley started an experimental car. He called it the “Y-Job” instead of “Y-experimental,” and his nomenclature won. With help from Buick in the form of a chassis and a budget, Harley saw his ideas come to fruition. This shiny black one-of-a-kind car had a power soft top, power windows, push-button outer door handles, and retractable headlights. It was low and sleek, measuring 58 inches in height at the top of the windshield. At 6′ 1″, Harley could get in and out easily, thanks to the engineering. (Do any of these innovations sound familiar to Corvette owners?)  Harley sold the general idea of creating a concept car to the directors by noting that when presenting it to the public at shows, they could observe reactions by the public regarding the innovations presented. In that way, they could learn what and what not to introduce. It was a hit at the New York Auto Show, but the car didn’t continue to tour long after that, as Harley commandeered it as his personal car that he drove to work every day.

In 1940 the G.M. Executive Committee named Harley J. Earl to be the company’s Vice President. It was a first for anyone coming from Styling.

World War II

World War II changed everything. Harley Earl’s styling staff worked on creating camouflage after gaining insight from Canadian pilots who saw how Germany used camouflage to hide military targets. But the crowning achievement was when Buick was asked to create a tank buster. It had to be fast. It had to be armored. It had to be track driven with a rotating gun turret on top. The Styling department rolled up its sleeves, resulting in the M-18 Hellcat, later renamed Wildcat. It could get up to 60 mph. It could ford six feet of water. It could crush through building walls. When delivered to Fort Hood, Texas, the army asked for an armband (right up Styling’s alley). The patch they created had a snarling panther with tank tracks in its teeth. During the Battle of the Bulge, four Wildcats joined in an attack on the German 2nd Panzer Division near the town of Bastogne. The Germans were slowed down enough to allow General Patton’s troops to break the chokehold on the encircled American troops.

What else came from the war effort? Tail fins. They came after a styling official working under Harley saw the fins on Canadian aircraft, but factory re-tooling from war aircraft to civilian automobiles takes time, so the fins couldn’t arrive on Main Street until years later when the 1948 Cadillac was introduced.

The 1953 Corvette

In the summer of 1951, the press got its first look at Harley Earl’s newest creation, the LeSabre. It was packed with innovations, including a rain sensor, and it was a hit with the reporters and writers. He took the car to New York for the Watkins Glen Grand Prix, and during the parade, Harley saw several foreign sports car roadsters, mostly from England, and the owners looked to be college-age. At that moment, he realized that American auto companies needed to produce a sports car. When he returned to Detroit, his team began working on a top-secret project called the EX-122. It was not to be big and heavy like the LeSabre. But the Korean War brought defense commitments and contracts, delaying the EX-122. Early in 1952, Harley showed the EX-122 to Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole, Chevrolet General Manager Thomas Keating, and G.M. Executive VP Harlow Curtiss. They agreed that the car should be in the Chevrolet Division. They also agreed that production should begin ASAP. At that time, G.M. was testing glass-reinforced plastic (fiberglass). It was lighter, and it would be cheaper to use for a prototype.

The G.M. Motorama kicked off at the Waldorf Astoria in January 1953. There were 38 automobiles backed by a full orchestra, a vocal group of 14 singers, and a troupe of dancers. The dancers were there to tell an industrial story through ballet. (I know, what?)  It was to be the beginning of a three-month tour. All of G.M.’s divisions had a dream car on display, all with color schemes and innovations. But the little white roadster with red seats captured the most awe. The headlights had stone guards. The tail lights were works of art. But the grill with teeth caught everyone’s eye. But little did the company know that security in development had been compromised; Ford already had a picture to go by, and the race was on.

On day two of the exhibition, Harlow Curtiss announced that production would start in June. It was decided that fiberglass would stay. Ford spies were also at that show, measuring everything.

Harley Earl had pictured youthful buyers who would want a sports car similar to the English models. But the advertising that he had no control over showed somewhat older folks. When the Corvettes came to the showroom, they were priced a bit high for the youthful buyer. The not-so-youthful buyer did not like the fact that the car did not have roll-up windows and outside door handles. Sales sputtered. Ford came out with the T-Bird and outsold the Corvette many times over. But by 1958, the T-Bird had morphed into a smaller version of a family car, and Corvette took over. Why? Because Harley Earl was there at G.M.

Harley J. Earl went from being a lanky youth working in a carriage shop to a Vice President of General Motors. His ideas and passion brought many things to G.M., especially the mystique of the Corvette.

Harley J Earl Photos

Harley Earl in a 1927 LaSalle 303 Roadster
Harley Earl in a 1927 LaSalle 303 Roadster.
GM's First Station Wagon was Another "Concept Vehicle" by Harley J Earl – Photo Credit Harley Earl "I Love Automobiles" Facebook Page
GM’s First Station Wagon was Another “Concept Vehicle” by Harley J Earl. – Photo Credit Harley Earl “I Love Automobiles” Facebook Page

GM Futureliner, created by Earl, was a massive custom-made truck designed for GM’s Parade of Progress, which it exhibited throughout North America from 1940-41 and then again from 1953-56. This behemoth vehicle presented various pioneering technological breakthroughs, including jet engines, televisions, and microwave ovens. Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license by Doug Coldwell.

GM Futureliner was created by Earl. Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license by Doug Coldwell.
GM Futureliner was created by Earl. Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license by Doug Coldwell.
Harley Earl and George Jergenson standing in front of the Train of Tomorrow in 1947
Harley Earl and George Jergenson standing in front of the Train of Tomorrow in 1947.

In the 1930s, General Motors embarked on a venture of constructing rear-engine, two-stroke cars before the Chevy Corvette debuted in 1953. Later, after World War II, carmakers strived to attract consumers with new designs. In this regard, Harley Earl, the Vice President of Styling at GM, took the lead in developing the Corsair.

Harley Earl and GM Corsair Rear Engine Model - Photo Credit GM
Harley Earl and GM Corsair Rear Engine Model. – Photo Credit GM
Article in Mechanix Illustrated about General Motors' Rear-Engine Corvette. Photo with Harley Earl, GM's style chief posing with this rear engine Corsair.
Article in Mechanix Illustrated about General Motors’ Rear-Engine Corvette. Photo with Harley Earl, GM’s style chief posing with this rear engine Corsair.

In 1931, Harley Earl conceived of the Cadillac V16, pioneering a union of the automotive industry and advanced technology. This idea, which he dubbed the “Dream Car”, culminated in the 1938 Buick Y-Job – the world’s first concept car.

Harley Earl in the Buick Y Job
Harley Earl in the Buick Y Job.
GM Design Harley Earl in his office at the top of the Argonaut Building Photo taken in 1948 - GM Archives
GM Design Harley Earl in his office at the top of the Argonaut Building Photo taken in 1948 – GM Archives
From left to right, Eugene Fleury, Strother MacMinn, Harley Earl Jr., Joseph Thompson, General Motors' Bill Mitchell, and George Jergenson inspected a clay model of a car. This photograph is credited to the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, California.
From left to right, Eugene Fleury, Strother MacMinn, Harley Earl Jr., Joseph Thompson, General Motors’ Bill Mitchell, and George Jergenson inspected a clay model of a car. This photograph is credited to the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, California.
Six of General Motors' pioneering "Damsels of Design" are pictured in this circa 1955 photo. Left to right: Suzanne Vanderbilt, Ruth Glennie, Marjorie Ford Pohlman, Harley Earl, Jeanette Linder, Sandra Logyear, and Peggy Sauer. The images are part of the General Motors Design Archive & Special Collections.
Six of General Motors’ pioneering “Damsels of Design” are pictured in this circa 1955 photo. Left to right: Suzanne Vanderbilt, Ruth Glennie, Marjorie Ford Pohlman, Harley Earl, Jeanette Linder, Sandra Logyear, and Peggy Sauer. The images are part of the General Motors Design Archive & Special Collections.
1955 Damsels of Design - Image courtesy General Motors Design Archive Special Collections
1955 Damsels of Design – Image courtesy General Motors Design Archive Special Collections.
1956 Harley Earl on the left with a model of the 1956 Pontiac Club de Mer concept Photo GM
1956 Harley Earl on the left with a model of the 1956 Pontiac Club de Mer concept. Photo GM
Harley Earl and the LeSabre - Photo General Motors
Harley Earl and the LeSabre – Photo General Motors

Harley Earl, in the photograph, is shown with the XP-21 Firebird I, which runs on a gas turbine, and the Firebird II and III. This marked the direction General Motors cars were taking when Earl retired in 1958.

Harley Earl with the XP-21 Firebird I Firebird II and III
Harley Earl with the XP-21 Firebird I, Firebird II, and III.

Harley J Earl and Corvette

One of the most significant tales from the 20th century is the origin of the iconic Corvette and Harley Earl’s influence in its production. Taking advantage of Chevrolet’s strong production capacity combined with General Motors’ massive resources, Earl designed one of the most renowned sports cars of all time, which is still celebrated today.

LOOK magazine featured an article accompanied by a photo of Harley Earl and Thomas Keating, the leading figure at Chevrolet, taking part in a demonstration of cornering in the Corvette, the first mass-produced vehicle to be made with a plastic body. Harley Earl was driving the car.
LOOK magazine featured an article accompanied by a photo of Harley Earl and Thomas Keating, the leading figure at Chevrolet, taking part in a demonstration of cornering in the Corvette, the first mass-produced vehicle to be made with a plastic body. Harley Earl was driving the car.
In this photo, Harley J Earl stands proudly beside his own customized 1963 Corvette.
In this photo, Harley J Earl stands proudly beside his own customized 1963 Corvette.
Harley J Earls personal 1963 Corvette crossing the Mecum Auction block on May 22 2010. Photo credit Mecum Auction
Harley J Earl’s personal 1963 Corvette crossing the Mecum Auction block on May 22, 2010. Photo credit Mecum Auction

In 2013, The Harley Earl 1963 Corvette crossed the auction block again. The 1963 General Motors styling car sold at the Mecum Auction for $1.5 million.

Harley J Earl Videos

Our first video shows how Harley Earl was the first to create better-paying jobs for women in the automotive world. Harley Earl pioneered higher wages for women in the auto industry. A GM promotional video, at left, captured the progressive message of Earl, one that was seen as shocking and progressive by the all-male car designers, as he predicted that women would soon be designing entire cars. GM’s upper management, however, staunchly backed Earl’s progressive ideas on gender equality in the workplace.

To discover more information about Harley J. Earl, visit his official website, www.harleyjearl.com.

Harley J Earl’s legacy as a visionary designer is indisputable. His contributions to the automotive industry and General Motors are unparalleled. Earl revolutionized the industry with his focus on style and design, and he changed the way we think about cars.

Earl’s vision for the future helped to shape the automotive industry, and his innovative designs set the standard for modern automobile design. Today, his influence can be seen in the work of many designers who follow in his footsteps. Earl will always be remembered as a trailblazer who paved the way for future generations of designers to come.

Harley J Earl’s name may not be as well-known as Henry Ford or Steve Jobs, but his contributions to the automotive industry were just as significant. Earl’s legacy is proof that one person can make a difference and that innovative thinking and a focus on design can change the world. Harley J Earl’s designs continue to inspire and influence the world today, and his legacy will continue to do so for many years to come.

Bonus Photos: Harley’s Firebird Concept Cars

Firebird I Designed by Harley Earl - At Eyes on Design 2018 - Photo Credit Wayne Ellwood
Firebird I Designed by Harley Earl – At Eyes on Design 2018. – Photo Credit Wayne Ellwood
Firebird II Designed by Harley Earl - At Eyes on Design 2018 - Photo Credit Wayne Ellwood
Firebird II Designed by Harley Earl – At Eyes on Design 2018. – Photo Credit Wayne Ellwood
Firebird III Designed by Harley Earl - At Eyes on Design 2018 - Photo Credit Wayne Ellwood
Firebird III Designed by Harley Earl – At Eyes on Design 2018. – Photo Credit Wayne Ellwood

Here are some other articles you might enjoy:

Unlock the Secret of Harley Earl, Watkins Glen, Corvette, and Le Sabre

The One and Only 1963 Harley Earl Corvette Convertible

Mecum Auctions’ Chicago Event Nets $18.6M with Harley Earl Corvette Leading Sales at $1.5M

1953 VIN 003 Cutaway Corvette Donated to the NCM

Mrs. Harley J. Earl’s 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Styling Car

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