Automotive designer and executive Harley J. Earl was born on this day in Hollywood, California in 1893. After ended his studies Stanford prematurely to join his father’s coach building business, which was producing custom car bodies for some of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the time, including Tom Mix. After the business, Harley Automobile Works, was purchased by a Cadillac dealer named Don Lee, Earl was named director of the custom body shop. It was here he would be discovered by Cadillac general manager Lawrence P. Fisher.
While on a tour of dealerships around the country, Fisher observed Earl at work. He noticed how he used innovative design methods for sculpting his bodies, such as using clay to define lines. Fisher was so impressed that he commissioned Earl to design a body for the 1927 LaSalle, Cadillac’s companion brand. The vehicle’s success would land Earl as the director of GM’s new Art and Color Section.
In 1937 the Art and Color Section was renamed the Styling Section. GM President Alfred Stone soon promoted Earl to VP, making him the first styling person to ever make VP at a large automotive corporation. In his career, Earl would introduce many iconic vehicles, including the Buick Y-Job in 1939, recognized as the first concept car. He would also assist with Allied camouflage research during WWII and authorized Frank Hershey’s 1948 Cadillac design, which would introduce the tailfin era. Perhaps his most lasting contribution is Project Opel, better known as the Chevrolet Corvette. It started out as a secret in house design, but when it was shared with Chevy general manager Ed Cole he quickly authorized its production.
Harley Earl, seen above driving the Buick Y Job, passed away at age 75 on April 10, 1969.