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Future Retro Designer Portfolios: Harley Earl



Written by Staci Bu Shea, Guest Curator for Future Retro

Earl 1Image source:

To begin this series of blog posts related to significant car designers, there is no better way than to introduce the figure who can be credited with almost single-handedly establishing the field of automobile design as a major entity in its own right: Harley Earl.

Harley Earl was an artist, a designer, and a visionary, able to see the future and bend metal to its form. Earl captured the spirit of mid-century America through futuristic design and also positioned design as a driving force for product success.

In 1926 General Motors hired Earl, a California native who had designed custom-made car bodies for movie stars, and soon put him in charge of GM’s new Art and Color Division, which during the 1930s became known as its Styling Division (1). Here, he promoted the use of full-sized clay models to envision future production cars and as an innovative marketing tool. Seated next to GM President Alfred P. Sloan, he was the first stylist to become Vice President of a large corporation.

The Styling Division, under Earl’s instruction, styled and built the Buick Y-Job in 1939, the motor industry’s first “concept car.” The term was specific to the presentation of one-off’s with the sole purpose in determining the public’s reaction. “Motoramas” were extravaganzas orchestrated by GM in the 1950s and 60s that showcased concept cars in a performative, flashy, and exciting way.
His second concept car, the 1951 LeSabre “Dream” Car, is featured in the Future Retro exhibition through a gouache and graphite illustration by GM’s Alan Phillips. Phillips articulates a bright red representation of the automobile, angled upwards like a jet aircraft taking-off into the sky and exhibiting the first-ever curved panoramic windshield. Earl made the LeSabre his everyday-car and accumulated 45,000 miles on the odometer to prove its roadworthiness (2). Be sure you visit the Stein Gallery to see this illustration in person!

Earl 21951 GM LeSabre – Image Source:

He encouraged the “longer, lower, wider” aesthetic that prevailed in the automotive design industry during the 1950s and 60s. He is also responsible for introducing tail fins (inspired by the Lockheed Lightning Aircraft and first seen on the 1948 Cadillac), bubble top and hardtop styling, and factory two-tone paint jobs. You’ll find an example of his bubble top styling on the Firebird II concept car in the Mason Gallery.


1. Just Who Was Harley Ear?
2. 1951 GM LeSabre

Designer Portfolios is a series of blog posts created by guest curator Staci Bu Shea that highlight significant designers featured in Future Retro: The Great Age of the American Automobile.

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