Design History of General Motors

Harley Earl with Firebird I, II and III
Harley Earl with Firebird I, II and III

Visual Visions and Eye-catching Design for over 75 Years

Press Release

Visual Visions and Eye-catching Design for over 75 Years

  • First automobile manufacturer with own styling department

  • Numerous automobile designers learned their craft at GM

Whether Chevrolet Camaro concept, Saturn Sky Red Line, or GMC PAD concept: with their modern, unmistakable styling, the latest models from Detroit emphasize that GM’s design department is reestablishing itself as one of the most innovative, expressive and original styling teams in the automotive industry.

The pioneering role in car design has a long tradition at GM, because the history of design at the company boasts an abundance of premieres. For example, the worlds biggest car manufacturer set up the industry’s first styling department back in 1927, presented the very first concept vehicle, the Buick Y-Job, in 1938, and launched the world’s first series-produced concept car, the Corvette, in 1953.

Even in his younger years, Harley Earl (1893 – 1969) knew how to put his vehicles in the spotlight: the Californian began by building rococo carriages and Roman chariots for Hollywood’s film industry before he was discovered in 1926 by Cadillac chief, Lawrence P. Fisher. Earl’s first job for General Motors was to design the Model 303 of the Cadillac sister brand, LaSalle – an exceptionally attractive car and one of the first American vehicles to be designed by a professional designer. It was an immediate success: GM President Alfred Sloan signed Earl up on the spot and, on his recommendation, founded the “Art and Color Section” in 1927 – the first design department ever set up by a car manufacturer.

Initially accommodated on the tenth floor of the GM building in Detroit, some 50 employees were involved in early 1928 with sketching new cars and selecting colors and materials for the interior. Only ten of those employees were actually designers by profession. Since there was no training center for vehicle styling, Earl recruited primarily architects, interior designers and illustrators. The main criteria for staff selection were a passion for cars and a strong power of persuasion. After all, the young design department first had to work to gain a standing in the company.

1937 brought bigger offices and a new name (“General Motors Styling Section”). Earl divided the department into studios for the individual car brands and set up his own pre-development section to deal with design trends of the future. The course was thus set for the maiden concept vehicle – in 1938, General Motors presented the first car of this kind to the general public: the streamlined Buick Y-Job. “People like something new and exciting in an automobile as well as in a Broadway show,” said Harley Earl. “They like visual entertainment, and that’s what we designers give them.”

Among Earl’s design masterpieces (Earl headed GM design for three decades from 1927 to 1958) are legendary vehicles like the Buick Le Sabre (1950) and the Corvette (1953). How strongly the Californian-born genius shaped US design over the years is also demonstrated by another convincing example: inspired by the P-38 Lightning fighter plane, Earl gave the cars wings, and at the end of the forties, a rear fin. The Cadillac models of 1948 were the first to sport this styling feature. Other brands and manufacturers picked up on the idea and, in no time at all, rear fins were regarded as truly American.

It was not only for the rear fins that Earl looked to aircraft for his ideas. With concept vehicles like the Buick Le Sabre (1951) and the three turbine-powered Firebird models (1952, 1956, 1958), he was very much influenced by the modern, aerodynamic jets and he created extravagant prototypes that still look futuristic today.

Many car designers learned their craft at General Motors, because the company’s styling department has always been a top address for learning the trade. Numerous design techniques that are still used today (such as modeling with clay) can be traced back to Harley Earl. The “Motorama”, the famous US Roadshow that captivated over 10 million people between 1949 and 1961, was also his invention.

Earl was GM’s very first design chief, and led the department from 1927 until 1958. During more than 75 years of design history at GM, Earl has had only five successors to date: Bill Mitchell (1958 – 1977), Irwin Rybicki (1977 – 1986), Charles M. Jordan (1986 – 1992), Wayne Cherry (1992 – 2003) and Ed Welburn (since early 2003).

Source: Text & Photos courtesy General Motors
Published May 12th, 2006 7:05am

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