Fins – Harley Earl, the Rise of General Motors and the Glory Days of Detroit
How a Non-Artist shaped the tastes of the American car buyer…and we’re still singing his tune.
Review by Wallace Wyss
Author: William Knoedelseder
Publisher: Harper Business
ISBN 13: 9780062289070
When they throw around that phrase "pioneer in the auto industry" you can hardly get more pioneering in design than Harley Earl, not only a giant in the industry in America but at 6' 6" he was a giant of a man.
Earl was a pioneer in so many respects and this book explains his role. For instance, he was hired because GM’s founders saw great opportunity in the failure of the first Henry Ford to change the styling on the Model T and his insistence of allowing only the color black. Earl gave the American public what they wanted. Later on the author explains how Earl developed the three-year model change, what came to be called “Planned Obsolescence” by critics and this book is about the genius that invented that.
Before Earl came along, engineers developed a car and little thought was given toward making attractive shapes. Designers were thought of as "sissies" and engineers commanded the look of the product.
What is truly amazing when you read this book is that Earl, once he got to GM never drew a single drawing or made a clay model on his own. His genius lay in directing others to follow the dream he had in his mind.
Earl’s first business was joining his father making custom wagons in the center of Hollywood, CA just as the movie business was born. When cars came along, he and his father would make custom cars for movie stars.
Out in Detroit, they heard about him and a founder of GM , Alfred Sloan, came out, interviewed him and hired him to be GM’s first director of styling, a position which did not previously exist in Detroit.
The author portrays Harley Earl as an autocratic purveyor of taste, firing people who questioned even changing a clay model ¼” without his permission. Makes you wonder, must all famous names in design have an ego so big in order to succeed?
One example from the book that stands out is that he forbade any other designer from GM being mentioned in connection with styling, It was all Mr, Earl.
Still, you have to admit that Earl created car marketing as we know it in America with instituting styling changes every three years. Consumers couldn’t wait to trade in their old car to get the latest styling and I admit I was one of them, gotta have the latest because the tail fin is six inches higher, right?
It is almost humorous in the book when the author tells of designers hating some of the changes, for instance thinking the '57 Chevy had needlessly high fins. Yet, looking back from 60 plus years later the '57 seems much more well styled than the '55 and '56 models.
Earl also brought the idea of making clay models of proposed designs, an idea he had as a child playing with mud in the riverbed.
Another idea the author credits Earl with is the dream car, building a one-off prototype that will predict a styling trend of the future, such as tail fin or a completely disappearing top, and seeing what excites the public, then adjusting production plans to align with what the public went for at the unveiling of the concept car. He would create these dream cars, and unveil them in a traveling road show (with leggy showgirls) called Motoramas, held in cities around the country.
It is interesting that, after praising Earl’s leadership for decades the author also details the gradual erosion of power by Earl when a subordinate, Chuck Jordan, found a storage yard of ‘57 Chrysler and realized Chrysler had gone big on fins. The way Knoedelseder describes it, while Earl was away in Europe, Jordan started a whole new trend in design, an alternate reality so to speak so that when Earl came back he was shown the regular designs and then the alternate ones and agreed to go
more aggressively toward meeting the challenge from Chrysler. The ’59 Caddy tail fins were the tallest on any American car, sort of the swan song of Earl’s power.
The rest of the book chronicles his decline in power, but ironically he had chosen in Bill Mitchell a man who could imitate his every move, even sartorially.
As an American I see looking back that we are still, in America, a society, tuned to wanting to see next year’s models. Maybe if we., as car buyers, were more mature–we would wait to buy a new car only after new models showed technical advances (such as more autonomous modes leading to full autonomous driving ) but Harley got us hooked on tiny incremental design changes just as women for decades were slavishly devoted toward changing half their wardrobe if the clothing designers dictated hemlines were up or down a few inches.
The book has few pictures, hardly what you would expect for the price, not even a single color picture in a book describing how color was used to sell cars.
There is a new book on his successor Bill Mitchell, Maestro: Bill Mitchell & the Iconic Cars of GM Styling by Roy Lonberger but it costs ten times as much! (still, color pictures of the dream cars might be worth it…)
But on the other hand, FINS is an all encompassing story, showing how the car market was created in America by building what people want. After, of course, first educating them on what was possible.
Harley Earl was the bandleader of the styling bandwagon that continues powering much of the auto industry. I daresay that even the European and Asian automakers learned from him how to use frequent design changes, color changes and interior changes to sell cars. He was the bandleader, and though intellectually we like to tell ourselves that we each are not held sway to a slight difference wrought in hood length or fender shape, there are huge shifts in the car market based on such trivialities. We're all still swayed by the tunes that Harley wrote..
THE AUTHOR: Wallace Wyss is the author of 18 automotive histories. He is also a fine artist specializing in commissioned portraits of collector cars.