Skip to content

Harley Earl: Styling the Future of Cars

Harley Earl is a name that may not be familiar to everyone, but his impact on the automotive industry is undeniable. As the first head of General Motors’ newly formed art and color Section in the 1920s, Earl revolutionized car design and styling, shaping the future of automobiles. His innovative ideas and visionary approach transformed the way cars were perceived and set the stage for the modern concept of automotive design. In this article, we will explore the life and work of Harley Earl, his contributions to the automotive industry, and his lasting legacy.

The Early Years of Harley Earl

Harley J. Earl was born on November 22, 1893, in Hollywood, California. His father, J.W. Earl, was a successful coachbuilder, and young Harley grew up surrounded by cars and the world of automotive design. Earl’s early exposure to the automotive industry sparked his passion for cars and set him on a path that would shape his future career.

After completing his education, Earl joined his father’s business, where he gained hands-on experience in coachbuilding and design. This experience provided him with a solid foundation in the technical aspects of car manufacturing and design principles. However, Earl’s ambitions went beyond traditional coachbuilding, and he sought to push the boundaries of automotive design further.

The Birth of the Art and Color Section

In 1927, General Motors recognized the need for a dedicated department to focus on the aesthetics of their vehicles. They appointed Harley Earl as the head of the newly formed Art and Color Section, making him the first-ever styling chief in the automotive industry. This marked a significant shift in the way cars were designed, as aesthetics and styling became integral parts of the overall design process.

See also  Designing the Tucker 'Torpedo': Alex Tremulis' Dream

Under Earl’s leadership, the Art and Color Section introduced a new approach to car design. Earl believed that cars should be more than just functional machines; they should also be visually appealing and evoke emotions in their owners. He emphasized the importance of incorporating art and design principles into the automotive industry, a concept that was relatively new at the time.

The Influence of Harley Earl on Car Design

Harley Earl’s impact on car design cannot be overstated. He introduced several groundbreaking concepts and design elements that revolutionized the industry. Here are some of the key contributions made by Earl:

  • Streamlining: Earl was one of the pioneers of streamlining in car design. He recognized the importance of aerodynamics in improving performance and fuel efficiency. Earl’s designs featured sleek, flowing lines and integrated fenders, reducing drag and enhancing the overall aesthetics of the vehicles.
  • Tailfins: Another iconic design element introduced by Earl was the tailfin. Inspired by the fins of fighter planes, Earl incorporated tailfins into his car designs, giving them a futuristic and dynamic appearance. Tailfins became synonymous with American car design in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • Wraparound Windshields: Earl was also responsible for popularizing the wraparound windshield. This design element not only improved visibility for the driver but also added a sense of elegance and sophistication to the overall look of the car.
  • Two-Tone Paint: Earl recognized the potential of using two-tone paint schemes to enhance the visual appeal of cars. He introduced this concept, allowing customers to personalize their vehicles and express their individuality through color choices.
  • Concept Cars: Earl was a strong advocate for the use of concept cars to showcase innovative design ideas and gauge public interest. He believed that concept cars were essential in shaping the future of automotive design and often used them to introduce new features and design elements.
See also  The Innovations of Peter Schutz: Saving the Porsche 911

These are just a few examples of the many design innovations introduced by Harley Earl. His visionary approach and willingness to push the boundaries of car design set him apart from his contemporaries and established him as a true pioneer in the industry.

The Legacy of Harley Earl

Harley Earl’s contributions to the automotive industry continue to resonate to this day. His innovative ideas and design principles have shaped the way cars are designed and perceived. Earl’s influence can be seen in the work of contemporary car designers who draw inspiration from his concepts and continue to push the boundaries of automotive design.

One of the most significant aspects of Earl’s legacy is his emphasis on the importance of aesthetics in car design. He believed that cars should be more than just functional machines; they should be works of art that evoke emotions and reflect the personality of their owners. This philosophy continues to guide car designers, who strive to create visually appealing vehicles that resonate with consumers.

Earl’s legacy also extends to the concept of brand identity in the automotive industry. He understood the importance of creating a distinct visual identity for each brand under the General Motors umbrella. Earl’s designs for Chevrolet, Cadillac, and other GM brands were unique and instantly recognizable, helping to establish a strong brand image for each marque.


Harley Earl’s impact on the automotive industry is immeasurable. As the first head of General Motors’ Art and Color Section, he revolutionized car design and styling, introducing innovative concepts and design elements that continue to shape the industry today. Earl’s emphasis on aesthetics and his willingness to push the boundaries of car design set him apart as a true visionary. His legacy lives on in the work of contemporary car designers who draw inspiration from his ideas and continue to push the boundaries of automotive design. Harley Earl truly styled the future of cars, leaving an indelible mark on the industry that will be felt for generations to come.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *