|the 1938 Buick Y Job and Harley Earl|
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Harley Earl and "Keeping the Customer Dissatisfied"
What was left to be done, in the words of Kettering, was to “keep the customer dissatisfied,” and that largely would be the work of GM stylist Harley Earl, hired by Alfred Sloan in 1927 as head of the Art and Colour group. As a result of Earl’s efforts, cars would become longer, lower, and light reflective due ever-increasing amounts of chrome trim. Technological changes related to suspension, the engine, and drive train was incremental during the 1930s, but the looks of the vehicle became increasingly critical to the annual model change, in advertising copy, and consequently in attracting consumers.
Few television viewers could have understood the significance of the General Motors commercial made a few years ago that portrayed a flashy man in a broad hat who stated that he was Harley Earl. The commercial assumed too much, and gave more credit to the American consuming public for historical knowledge concerning their automobiles than they possessed. That said, perhaps no other single individual did so much to turn America into a consumer-driven society, one characterized by status, style, color, and planned obsolescence, as Harley Earl. From 1927 to 1958, Earl dominated design in Detroit, and by 1958 his legacy in the auto industry was one in which the stylist, and not the engineer, was supreme.26 Excesses of flash over substance became the keynote of an American industry by the late 1950s that marked the beginnings of American auto industry decline that became only evident during the post oil-shock 1970s.
Earl was a big and burly Californian, who cut his teeth in the auto coach trade while working for a family firm during the 1920s.27 He caught the eye of Alfred Sloan, and in 1927 made his first contribution to style at GM with a redesign of the LaSalle. Earl’s cars were colorful, attractive to the ladies (who often made the family decision concerning which car to buy), longer and lower. GM cars of the 1930s continued along this line of evolution, with chrome trim increasingly employed in strategic positions and with beveling so that “reflective value” had its greatest impact. The culmination of Earl’s efforts during the pre-WWII period was his 1938 Buick Y Job, a stunning styling tour de force that presaged developments that were introduced into production cars after the war. Looking back on the pre-WWII era, Harley Earl was to jibe that “I have watched them spend upwards of $50 million since I have been here to drop cars three inches.”28
While Earl exploited changing shapes and styles at GM, others within the organization did the same with color. Regina Lee Blaszczyk’s important preliminary studies of the “Color Revolution” of the late 1920s highlighted the importance of the automobile and particularly GM’s collaborative efforts with DuPont in introducing a host new colorful finishes.29 Prior to the early 1920s, automobile finishes could be classified as either the black, high-temperature hard enamel paint that was baked on to Henry Ford’s Model T, or various coatings that required numerous applications followed by laborious sanding or rubbing down between coats. In 1922 DuPont chemists, working with GM, developed a lacquer named Duco that was tough and durable, chip- and fade-resistant, and easily applied to automobiles with a spray gun. This paint was first tried on GM’s 1924 Oakland, where each vehicle would be painted two shades of blue. The “True-Blue” Oakland had been the idea of Alfred Sloan, who thought that customers might like a different colored car, and it turned out to be a big hit with customers, who subsequently demanded it. Accordingly, beginning in 1925 all GM vehicles were painted with Duco, and color, like style, became critical to GM employees who were charged with reading the market. In 1928 DuPont colorist H. Ledyard Towle was enticed to work for GM, and the same year automobile color codes and a system of standard colors were adopted. And while Towle’s tenure at GM was short, his successor, Howard Ketcham, created the Automobile Color Index, which was a monthly analysis of consumer color preferences. Most significantly, during the late 1920s and early 1930s everyday cars became very colorful, with shades that included Bambalina Blue, Irish Green, Bantam Rose, Silver, and Lemon Yellow. And while black would remain a popular color, especially during the Great Depression, the car became a colorful object that reflected the desires and personality of its owner.
With the development and introduction of Duco, car color – and especially blue – quickly became embedded in American literary culture. For example, in 1926 Natalie Sumner Lincoln published The Blue Car Mystery, a tale about the murder of a prominent Washingtonian, two Blue cars, a car thief, and a pretty young socialite.30 More significantly, however, in 1930 the Nancy Drew mystery series began with The Secret of the Old Clock, and young Nancy drove a blue roadster in the first few titles as she unraveled puzzling crimes by following clues.31 Scholars have interpreted Nancy’s blue car as a symbol of her independence, a message that would be conveyed to millions of young women readers in the decades that followed.