HARLEY EARL GAVE US THE CORVETTE
As always, thank you for stopping by Hobby Car Corvettes. We share our love of Corvettes with the world through reliable and easy used Corvette sales.
Over the past couple months, we have been visiting the lives of several men who we owe much gratitude to for the Corvette that we know and cherish today.
This week, we will be discussing Harley Earl, who was truly the first man to envision the Corvette.
EARLY LIFE OF HARLEY EARL
Harley Earl was born in Hollywood, California on November 22, 1893. He was born to father J. W. Earl, who began work as a coachbuilder in 1889. Eventually, senior Earl took building horse carriages one step further, and began designing custom bodies, parts, and accessories for automobiles. He opened his own shop, Earl Automobile Works, in 1908.
It came as no surprise, of course, when Harley followed in his father’s automobile-design-inclined footsteps.
Formal education was gained by Harley as a student at the prestigious Stanford University. But, similar to Larry Shinoda, another prolific automobile designer who worked on the Corvette, he did not complete his studies. He left university before graduating to work with and learn from his father in the family business. At this time, Earl Automobile Works wasn’t making just any vehicles. They were building custom bodies for Hollywood movie stars, including Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Tom Mix.
HARLEY EARL’S LIFE AT GM
With great success, senior Earl eventually sold Earl Automotive Works to Cadillac dealer Don Lee. Harley stayed on as director of the custom body shop. When Lawrence P. Fisher, the general manager of the Cadillac division, visited the shop, he was highly impressed with Harley’s designs and methods, including the use of modeling clay to develop his designs. This was a new and unique practice to those in the design industry.
Lawrence saw great potential in Earl and presented him with the project of designing the 1927 LaSalle. The project was a great success and in no time, the General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan created the Art and Color Section of General Motors and named Earl as its first director.
Up to this time, American vehicle bodies were not designed in such a way to be stylish or sleek or works of art. They were merely mass produced means of transportation. Because of this, the unique talent and skills that Earl brought to GM were not considered of great importance in the beginning of his career. Because of this, despite his undeniable talent, he wasn’t always taken seriously by his GM peers.
In 1937, the Art and Color Section was renamed the Styling Section. Earl was eventually promoted to Vice President. Harley Earl and Sloan implemented “Dynamic Obsolesence”, and the “Annual Model Change”. This was the first time model identity would be tied to a specific year. Because this has been custom practice for many years now, we forget that this was not always the case.
EARL INTRODUCES CONCEPT CAR
In addition to introducing the world to models that would change every year, Earl also introduced the first concept car, the Buick Y-Job. The Y-Job was the first car ever built solely for the purpose of gathering the public’s opinion on a new design concept.
Though the car was not built for public use or sale, after introducing the public to the Y-Job, it quickly became Earl’s daily driver.
FATHER OF THE CORVETTE
If you follow our blog posts regularly, you may recall we referred to Zora Arkus-Duntov as “The Father of Corvette”, but there is also a group of enthusiasts who would give Harley Earl this title.
Many people do not know that the Corvette was born out of a project called “Project Opel.” This secret project was born out of Earl’s intent on introducing the world to the first General Motors sports car.
Earl kept this project very secret and very much to himself. Similar to Bill Mitchell who had a secret studio, Earl had his private studio that only a handful of designers and engineers were privileged enough to see.
Early on, Earl was not certain which division of GM should sell the Corvette. His close ties to Ed Cole influenced him to give the “Bowtie Division” first shot at the Corvette. Cole fell hard and fast for the sleek Corvette design and knew it was exactly what Chevrolet needed.
As a result of the persistence and design genius of Harley Earl, Ed Cole, and the Project Opel team, the world was introduced to the first Chevrolet Corvette available for public purchase in 1953.
HARLEY EARL’S LAST DAYS
Earl retired from GM in 1958. Before leaving, he did oversee the design of the 1960-1962 models, finishing out the first generation of Corvettes. He was succeeded as vice president by Bill Mitchell.
Over his career at General Motors, GM became the largest corporation in the world. This success is tied directly to the modern design element that Earl brought to the table.
On April 10, 1969, Earl suffered a stroke in West Palm Beach, FL and passed away. He was 75 years old.
At the end of his stint as a prolific automobile designer, Earl had gifted the industry not only with the Chevrolet Corvette, but also the wraparound windshield, the hardtop sedan, factory two-tone paint, and tailfins.
Earl said in 1958:
“My primary purpose for twenty-eight years has been to lengthen and lower the American automobile, at times in reality and always at least in appearance.”
As always, thank you for stopping by Hobby Car Corvettes. We find it thrilling to dive into the history of Corvettes, and we hope you do too. Without these historic figures, we would not be where we are today, and we find great joy in making sharp, sleek, and stylish used Corvettes available to enthusiasts around the world!
Feel free to check out what Corvette beauties we currently have on the floor, and we would be happy to make one of them yours!