May 16, 2005

Today in Automotive History 1956

Today in Automotive History

1956 House Of Style

General Motors (GM) dedicated its brand-new, $125 million GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. The Center, or at least its breathtaking style and dimension, was the product of Alfred Sloan and GM stylist Harley Earl.

Born to Hollywood affluence, Earl never lost his movie-star flair. He is famous for being the automotive industry's first "stylist." In reality, he was a car architect. He achieved fame for his design of GM's 1927 LaSalle.

The LaSalle was the first production car to offer a sleek, long and rounded look to its buyers. By later standards, the LaSalle still looks, in its designer's words, "top-heavy and stiff-shouldered," but at the time of its unveiling, it was enough to make Earls' career. He was brought to GM by Alfred Sloan, the company's almighty president.

Sloan created a new department for Earl, at the head of which Earl would oversee the styling for all GM cars. Earl began his incremental quest for longer, lower cars. Why? Said Earl, "Because my sense of proportion tells me that oblongs are more attractive than squares, just as a ranch house is more attractive than a three-story, flat-roofed house or a greyhound is more graceful than an English bulldog." Earl's sense of proportion never exactly fit with the other vice presidents at GM.

First of all, he stood six feet, four inches tall. The well-tanned Earl kept identical suits in his office so that he would never wrinkle over the course of a workday. This stylish approach to life rubbed many of Detroit's staunch executives the wrong way. Earl's major conflicts came with the GM body division, headed by the Fisher Brothers.

The Body Division was in charge of turning Earl's artwork into roadworthy realities. Earl was often dissatisfied with their product, and he showed open contempt for the Fisher Brothers, whom he dubbed "the Seven Dwarves." The Fishers, in turn, weren't sure Earl was as practical as he could have been.

Earl remains a larger-than-life figure in the pantheon of automotive history. Often credited with breakthroughs that he managed to promote better than the ideas' originators, Earl can be viewed in hindsight as a showman. But his artistic sense cannot be denied, nor can his impact on the artistic leanings of the automotive industry.

Earl, as much as anyone, was responsible for the glorious aesthetic renaissance of 1950s Detroit. When Alfred Sloan suggested that GM should build a compound to house the company's research activities, it was Earl who urged him to create a structure that was architecturally and aesthetically distinctive. Ignoring his peers' pleas for practicality, Sloan allowed Earl to enlist the architectural skills of Eliel and Eero Saarinen.

Today, the GM Technical Center is one of the landmarks of twentieth-century architecture. The aluminum-sheathed dome that houses its stylish auditorium stands a fitting monument to Harley Earl's legacy.

Posted by Quality Weenie at May 16, 2005 08:25 AM