5/3/2019 | 6 MINUTE READ

GM’s First Great Design Chief

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William Knoedelseder’s Fins is a remarkable look at a remarkable designer, Harley Earl.

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Ed Welburn, the sixth person ever to head up Design at General Motors, recently appeared on “Autoline After Hours” during which time we asked him about whether he, now retired from GM (July 2016) but still engaged in automotive design, draws (adandp.media/blog/post/ed-welburn-on-automotive-design).

Welburn answered that not only does he draw now, but he has done so throughout his career.

But he pointed out that when he was running Design at GM he didn’t let the people who were on the various teams see what he was sketching. He said that were he to have done that he probably wouldn’t have gotten the best designs from his teams simply because they might be too inclined to follow the specific directions that their boss came up with. Let’s face it: that’s human nature.

Harley Earl was the first man to head up GM Design. It was originally established in 1927 by Alfred P. Sloan, then-president and CEO of GM, as the Art and Colour (yes, British spelling) section, with Earl, who had joined the company just days earlier, reporting directly to Sloan.

Sloan and his executive colleagues, according to William Knoedelseder, author of Fins: Harley Earl, the Rise of General Motors, and the Glory Days of Detroit (HarperBusiness), had determined that one of the ways that they could compete with Henry Ford, who seemed like an unstoppable force in the early 1920s, was to provide variation where Ford was churning out the same thing over and over and over again. They wanted style that they could mass produce. It wasn’t that there weren’t stylish cars on the scene back then, but these were not being produced on the gargantuan scale that Sloan was interested in.

Earl had come to GM from California, where he’d gained Hollywood-level celebrity, first through Earl Automobile Works, which was established by his father, and then Don Lee Coach and Body Works, which had purchased Earl Automobile.

Essentially, what Earl did in his early, pre-GM days, was to modify existing models. Earl Automotive also provided aftermarket parts, so what it was, in effect, was like something that today would have an exhibit at SEMA, a customizer and supplier.

Harley had worked on a number of different types of cars, including Cadillacs (Mary Pickford, no less, had him develop a roadster for her on a Caddy chassis: he was something of a favorite among celebrities; Earl Automobile Works even made chariots and covered wagons for the Hollywood studios). Don Lee was the exclusive Cadillac dealer in California, and as he had a dealership down the block from Earl Automotive Works, he knew what Harley was up to, and in time so did the people back in Detroit.

Harley Earl came to Detroit to become a competitive advantage for GM.

One of the challenges that Earl had to take on, Knoedelseder writes, one that undoubtedly vexes designers today, is this: “Alfred Sloan told Harley early on that he needed to stimulate the public’s appetite for new GM models without rendering the older models unpalatable in comparison. A delicate balance had to be maintained between the new and used car markets, he said, because most people depended on the trade-in value of their old car for the down payment on a new one.” In other words, residual value was something that had to be taken into account.

Harley Earl retired from GM in 1958. His last presentation to the board and executive committee in the Styling Auditorium was for the 1959 GM products, which included this: “the Cadillac stood out from the rest in its breathtaking audacity: 7 feet wide, 19 feet long, weighing more than 5,000 pounds, with fins rising sharklike from the rear fenders to a height of 42 inches, as sharp-edged as pointed as chef’s knives, embedded with twin-bullet shaped taillights,” Knoedelseder writes. (He quotes Chuck Jordan, who was the GM vice president of Design from 1986 to 1992, being the fourth GM head of Design, and the man who hired Welburn as an intern in 1971, as saying of that Cadillac, with obvious understatement: “We probably overcooked the design.”) Those fins were Harley’s parting present, in a sense, to GM, although they were certainly not the first ones that he had put on a vehicle, with the ’48 Cadillac getting them as a result of the work of designer Frank Hershey, who had visited, with Earl, the Selfridge air base north of Detroit and saw the P-38 fighter.

In that career that spanned decades, Earl was noted for a number of innovative cars. Notable among them was the Buick Y-job, which debuted in 1939 as a vision of what the future would look like. Among the innovations packaged in a car that Knoedelseder writes “stretched more than 17 feet yet stood only 58 inches high at the top of the windshield,” included power windows, flush-mounted door handles, flip-up headlamps, and a convertible top that retracted beneath a panel in the rear. Earl had hoped that the Y-job would become a vehicle that would tour the U.S., showing consumers what the future would look like, but it was shown at the New York Auto Show and then was shipped to Earl’s home in Grosse Point, Michigan, where it became his daily driver.

In 1951 Earl unveiled the Le Sabre, a concept that was named after the F-86 Sabre jet. The car had its public debut as the pace car for the Watkins Glen Grand Prix in New York. Knoedelseder writes, “After the race, Harley went back to Detroit and began talking up an idea with his designer—a GM sports car, a two-seater convertible, but not like the Le Sabre, which was 17 feet long, 6 feet wide, and weighed 3,800 pounds on account of all its fancy engineering. The car he envisioned would be almost the opposite—light and nimble, simple, unadorned, and affordable for young people. . .” an idea that was to become the Corvette, which went into production in June 1953.

(Here’s an interesting bit of fate: the aforementioned Frank Hershey had been fired by GM because he was running a commercial design studio on the side. He was hired by Ford and while there he and his team designed what was to become the arch-rival for the Corvette during the ‘50s, the Thunderbird.)

Throughout his career at GM, Harley Earl was nothing if not, apparently, opinionated and domineering. Knoedelseder writes, “Harley’s Rule Number Two was, as everyone quickly learned, there’s no such thing as too much chrome,” and he quotes Chuck Jordan as recalling of Earl, “He thought the more chrome a car had, the more expensive it looked.”

Which brings us back to the beginning, to Ed Welburn, and what must have been the contrast between how he ran design and how Harley did.

According to Knoedelseder, there was Rule Number One, that Bill Mitchell, who was to succeed Earl, and the studio design chiefs counseled young designers to adhere to: “never disagree with the boss.”

And they would provide an example by telling the young designers “about the time Harley supposedly had all the designers seated in a circle around a car as he expounded on how the heavy bumpers made it look lower. ‘And you boys all agree, don’t you?’ he said. None of them did, but no one said so, which proved smart. ‘And if anyone doesn’t [agree],’ he continued, ‘then he should stand up so we can take a look at the sonofabitch.’”

 

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