When other cars looked like vintage ‘boxes’, Harley Earl stunned the world with this Buick, predating the ‘hot rod’ look by 20 years

The artist who sketched in steel

by Andy Bryenton

When the Detroit Free Press compiled a list of the most important artists to ever come out of that prolifically creative city, they could have taken their pick of hundreds of rock, pop, blues and soul singers, writers, sculptors and painters.

Instead, after the undeniable talents of Stevie Wonder and ‘queen of soul’ Aretha Franklin, their third placegetter was Harley Earl.

Many people have heard of those first two, and hardly anyone outside of the automotive world knows of the third. Earl, however, is responsible for the shape of cars today. He’s the man who turned the ‘model T’ silhouette into the modern auto. Along the way, he ushered in the hard-top sedan, two-tone paint, the concept car, the automotive turbine engine, clay modelling for auto design, disruption camouflage and the Chevrolet Corvette.

The son of a coachbuilder (a custom-maker of luxury car bodies to fit on prefabricated chassis), Harley Earl had definite ideas of how the future of motoring should look. While cars were ‘bathtub backed’, soft-topped and high, with separate fenders and slab-sided engine compartments, he dreamed of long, low, sleek machines that looked like aeroplanes. When he joined General Motors to overhaul their image, he was derided as head of the ‘beauty parlour’ by the no-frills engineers who ran the industry. That all changed when he asked if he could make a one-off ‘future car’ to show the public. If they loved it, he’d become vice president of the company. If they hated it, he’d drop the idea for good. The 1939 Buick Y-Job was that car, and it caused such a stir that even the second world war (when Earl developed new, advanced camouflage for tanks and ships) couldn’t diminish the hype.

Earl was catapulted to the forefront of design, pioneering fins, covered-in rear wheels, side pipes, wrap-around glass windscreens and chrome on top of chrome. He made cars lower, sleeker, longer and safer with a low centre of gravity. Perhaps his defining moment was the first Corvette, an answer to the sports cars of Europe that won over America. So influential was his legacy that, in 2002, when Buick wanted to invoke ‘the spirit of American style’ in their ad campaign, they cast an actor as the ghost of Harley Earl, fedora and all.