The Cars of Harley Earl, by David W. Temple, is a picture-packed look at the career of the legendary General Motors designer. It traces his humble roots as the son of a California carriage maker to the pinnacle of success as the GM Vice President of General Motors styling. Thanks to Earl, cars became more than mere transportation but also something that caught the eye due to their fine lines and colors. Earl recognized early on that better design would lead to increased sales.
Earl joined General Motors in 1927, after working for a year on the 1927 LaSalle Model 303 Roadster. Part of his early success was related to “integrating every aspect of the design of a car (the grille, the hood, the trunk, and every other piece of the body).” This makes sense today, but at the time it was revolutionary.
What’s really remarkable is the span of Earl’s career: starting out designing cars for his father in 1913, through the roadster era of the 1920s, and finally ending in the 1950s Space Age when some of his concept cars looked as if they could be launched as rockets. Among the iconic cars we have Earl to thank for their looks are the 1953 Corvette, 1957 Chevy Bel Air, and the sweeping tail fins on the 1959 Cadillac.
The 1957 Bel Air has become symbolic of American classic cars and has long been one of the most popular rides at car shows. However, the book reveals that was not always the case. “The decades-long popularity of the 1957 Chevy did not begin until about 1960.” When it was first released, Ford was quite competitive with it. Another interesting side note, the grille on the 1955 Bel Air was fashioned on the Ferrari, but American auto consumers didn’t appreciate that design reference. These types of behind-the-scenes tales make the book interesting to both casual and hardcore GM design fans.
Automotive journalist David W. Temple is certainly an expert on the subject. His other books include Motorama: GM’s Legendary Show and Concept Cars. I purchased the book at the gift shop of the National Corvette Museum but you can also find The Cars of Harley Earl on Amazon. It’s 190 pages and comes fully loaded with a mix of color and black-and-white photos. I highly recommend it.