Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell, Virgil Exner, and the golden age of design
Photos courtesy of GM Media Archive and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
Today, we take it as given that design is an indispensable pillar of the automotive business, intertwining vehicle engineering and brand marketing into a cohesive whole to elevate status, stimulate demand, and—most of all—evoke positive emotions in the consumer. It is the most high-stakes form of industrial design out there today, with billions of dollars and often the very future of a brand riding on the success or failure of its designs. But it wasn’t always so. In the early days of the auto industry, body design was a function-driven afterthought or, at best, farmed out to a separate coachbuilding firm that designed the aesthetics long after the vehicle chassis and running gear had left the factory. The person most directly responsible for the tectonic shift in the industry was Harley Earl, both through his own groundbreaking efforts and through the generation of automotive stylists he mentored—men like Earl-successor Bill Mitchell and protégé-turned-crosstown rival Virgil Exner—that truly defined the American automotive cultural identity for a half century. Let’s take a closer look at them and some of the masterpieces that defined an industry.
Harley J. Earl (General Motors: 1927–59)
Many car enthusiasts know Harley Earl’s name and his numerous contributions to the automotive landscape, but even before those iconic designs danced off the tip of Earl’s pen, he was changing the way the auto business was done. Earl got his start at his father’s Los Angeles–based coachbuilding business, which was subsequently acquired by a local Cadillac dealer, and through which Earl designed custom coachworks for the celebrity elite of Hollywood’s Golden Age. That brought him to the attention of Alfred P. Sloan Jr., CEO of General Motors, and Lawrence P. Fisher, Cadillac’s general manager. They hired Earl as a consulting engineer and put him to work on the creation of the original LaSalle in 1927. Based on its success, Earl was appointed full-time as the first director of the Art and Colour Section—the first time such a design department would be brought in-house, which represented a fundamental change in the structure of Detroit’s largest manufacturer.
Many of Earl’s early projects focused around GM’s flagship-brand Cadillac—including the 1933 Aerodynamic Coupe for the General Motors pavilion at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition. This car’s forward-thinking design would presage many design elements that would become Detroit staples in the following years. But the car that is generally heralded as the world’s first concept car would be built not for Cadillac but for the Buick brand. The so-called “Y-Job” is credited, by many, as Earl’s most important design; it is certainly a stylistic tour de force and was far ahead of its time. It introduced such innovations as power-operated hideaway headlamps; electric windows; flush door handles; and an automatic folding convertible top, which disappeared completely under a metal deck cover. It also introduced the “waterfall” vertical bar grille, which remains a Buick-signature styling element to this day. Despite being a concept car, it was a fully functional Buick in every way. Earl himself loved the car and used it for his personal vehicle for several years, reportedly clocking more than 50,000 miles on it. Earl was promoted to vice president, directing the design direction of the entire company from his new position, and appointed his protégé Bill Mitchell to fill his old seat as the chief designer at Cadillac (and would later appoint him director of styling for all of GM).
New car production was halted shortly thereafter for World War II, but Earl drew inspiration from its fighter-aircraft designs. Legend has it he was so taken with the twin boom tail on the P-38 Lightning fighter that it became the inspiration for the emergence of tail fins on the 1948 Cadillac—GM’s first new postwar design on which he collaborated with Mitchell and fellow Earl pupil Frank Hershey (who would go on to design the iconic 1955 T-Bird for Ford). Those fins would grow quickly—almost as quickly as the fin trend would sweep across the industry. By the mid-1950s, nearly every American car had them.
In the postwar period, Earl would dramatically ramp up the production of GM show cars and concepts, believing them to be one of the best ways to showcase both the cutting-edge styling and the technological prowess of GM’s vehicles. For 1951, Earl personally oversaw the design and construction of the Buick LeSabre, the spiritual successor to the Y-Job. Inspired by early jet-fighter aircraft, like the F-86 Sabre (from which it derived its name), it was the launchpad for several technical innovations, including the 12-volt electrical system, heated seats, a rain sensor to raise the convertible top, and electrically operated built-in jacks for changing tires. And like the Y-Job before it, Earl used it as his personal vehicle after it had completed its show tour.
Starting in 1953, he created a traveling exposition called the General Motors Motorama, which toured across the country, and from those shows sprung some of the most influential vehicles in GM’s lineup. The inaugural event saw the introduction of America’s first production sports car: the Corvette. 1954 brought the world a 2-door sport wagon called the “Nomad,” which would enter production the following year as one of the body styles for the ’55 Chevy Bel Air. The Earl era came to a close in 1959, but it is fitting that the final Cadillac released under his stewardship would feature the pinnacle of the styling trend he established more than a decade earlier. Lead designer Chuck Jordan—another Earl disciple—penned a tail fin on the ’59 to put all others to shame, perhaps, in part, as a tribute to his departing mentor.
William L. “Bill” Mitchell (General Motors: 1935–77)
Bill Mitchell was recruited by Harley Earl as a 24-year-old kid and spent the rest of his career at GM, much of it reporting directly Earl. As design chief for Cadillac, his first project was the 1938 Sixty Special, establishing the genre of “personal luxury car”—a theme he would revisit to brilliant effect later in his career. Its smooth sides and lack of running boards were revolutionary for the time and would influence GM’s styling for the next decade. Mitchell oversaw Cadillac until Earl promoted him to GM design director in 1954—just in time to guide the design team for the now iconic 1955–57 Chevy Bel Air. When Earl retired in 1959, Mitchell stepped in to succeed him.
Whereas Earl’s designs often featured massive, bulbous contours and lots of chrome trim, Mitchell favored more angular forms and taut flanks. His cars tended to sit lower, giving them a longer, sleeker, sportier profile. A perfect example is his re-envisioning of the Corvette with the 1959 Stingray race car. Because of GM’s corporate ban on racing in 1957, Zora Arkus-Duntov’s Corvette SS program had been mothballed, and the development mule lay abandoned. Mitchell was keen to prove the Corvette could be a world-class sports racer, but GM would not finance such a project, so Mitchell did it out of his own pocket. He tapped a young stylist named Larry Shinoda (who would later design the Boss Mustang for Ford) to help with an all-new fiberglass body for the car, and Duntov provided engineering help. The car was called the “Stingray,” and it carried no Chevrolet or Corvette badging. With Dick Thompson at the wheel, the car was entered in SCCA competition and won class championships in 1959 and 1960. The Mitchell/Shinoda design formed the basis for the 1961 Mako Shark Corvette concept car, and much of it would reach production on the 1963 ’Vette.
1963 also brought the world what is perhaps Mitchell’s crowning achievement as a designer. Revisiting the personal luxury category he helped create in 1938, he introduced the exquisite ’63 Buick Riviera. Envisioned as a 2-door, 4-seat coupe to fight the T-bird, Mitchell was inspired by European sports and luxury models he saw on a trip to the London Motor Show. Specifically, he wanted to evoke the sharp roofline, rear deck, and character lines of a Rolls-Royce, with a stance and sporty aggressive nose like Ferrari’s big GTs. The result was designated experimental project “XP-715.” Early versions were referred to as the “LaSalle II” because it was thought the car might be used by Cadillac to revive that brand name, but ultimately the design was awarded to Buick and became the Riviera. The concept version had a lowered roof and concealed headlights in the leading edges of the fenders (the latter a feature that would make production in 1965), and Mitchell used it as his personal driver when it came off show duty.
Mitchell stayed heavily involved in the personal luxury segment throughout the 1960s and spearheaded two of GM’s most progressive designs: the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado and 1967 Cadillac Eldorado. Built off the same E-body platform, they were the first GM vehicles to employ a front-wheel-drive powertrain and the first by any American manufacturer since the 1937 Cord. Mitchell had initially lobbied to have the Toronado built on the smaller A-body chassis from the Cutlass, but to make sense financially, the decision to use the exotic FWD drivetrain required a larger, more expensive car. The futuristic styling was in keeping with that spirit of cutting-edge technology, and engineers equipped it with Oldsmobile’s most potent engine—a 425-cubic-inch Super Rocket V-8 generating 385hp—making it the highest performance vehicle in the Olds stable. The following year, the Eldorado filled a similar role in the Cadillac lineup.
Mitchell oversaw GM styling throughout the muscle car era, and his preference for lean, edgy styling certainly influenced GM’s most well-admired muscle machines. He took an active role in Corvette design, both in 1963 and again with the third generation in 1968. He also had a direct hand in the redesign of the Camaro in 1970, resulting in one of the best-looking muscle cars of all time. It is unfortunate that the fuel crises of the 1970s coupled with increasingly stringent safety standards put significant constraints on GM’s design parameters toward the end of Mitchell’s career. Unlike Harley Earl who left on a high note, GM styling was in a major slump when Mitchell retired in 1977.
Virgil Exner Sr. (General Motors: 1934–38; Loewy and Associates: 1938–44; Studebaker: 1944–49; Chrysler: 1949–64)
Although like Bill Mitchell, Virgil Exner was recruited and tutored by Harley Earl, their career paths could not be more of a contrast. While Earl and Mitchell became something akin to rock stars in the design world, Exner toiled in relative obscurity for much of his career, having credit for some of his designs attributed to others. That saga started promisingly enough when, at age 25, he was hired by Earl at GM, and within just a couple of years, he was put in charge of Pontiac styling for the 1937–38 models—some of the brand’s most attractive of the era. But money was a concern for Exner, who had a wife and young son to think of. The world-renowned industrial designer Raymond Loewy offered to double Exner’s salary to come work for his design firm, so Exner reluctantly bid his mentor goodbye and took Loewy’s offer.
Loewy’s firm had a contract to design Studebaker cars, and that’s where Exner’s talents were put to work, along with a handful of military-contract vehicles during the war. Loewy oversaw the design work and demanded that all designs receive his approval and signature—thus making it easier for him to take credit—and this is where Exner’s difficulties began. He had submitted the design for the gorgeous and highly regarded Studebaker Starlight coupe, and when Studebaker selected it over Loewy’s own, Loewy was nevertheless given public credit for the effort. Studebaker senior staff saw the dynamic at play and knew Exner was the true designer, so they recommended he work on additional designs in secret so that if Loewy’s designs fell short he would have his in reserve. When that happened, the animosity between the two led to Exner’s dismissal from Loewy and Associates in 1944.
Studebaker loved Exner’s work and snapped him up, installing him as in-house styling director. During his tenure, his Starlight design made it to production, as did the postwar third-edition Studebaker Champion sedan. Studebaker, however, still had Loewy on contract, which forced the two rivals to work together. The toxic environment eventually became too much for Exner, and in 1949, he left Studebaker for a job at Chrysler’s styling division.
Exner’s arrival at Chrysler ushered in a renaissance for all the company’s brands. One of his first actions was to take a page from the playbook of his old boss at GM and begin sketching a bunch of aggressively styled concept vehicles to serve notice that Chrysler brands were here to take on the world. Between 1951 and 1955, a string of concept vehicles emerged from Exner’s studio representing a design language he dubbed “Forward Look,” and he enlisted the Italian coachbuilder Ghia to construct many of them. Between 1951 and 1955, vehicles such as the Chrysler K-310 and C-200, Dodge Firearrow, Plymouth Belmont, and a succession of Ghia specials explored design themes and evolved into the thoroughly modern production-car lineup for 1955, including the first Chrysler “letter car”: the C-300, based in part on the ’52 C-200 concept and boasting Detroit’s first production 300hp engine.
Exner also embraced the tail fin, believing it yielded aerodynamic-stability benefits as well as added style, and Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth models rivaled Cadillac for fin size and prominence as the 1950s drew to a close. The blend of performance (thanks to the Hemi) and style (thanks to Exner) put Chrysler right at the top of the market in the late 1950s, but Exner’s tenure would be much shorter than that of his former colleagues over at GM. Quality-control problems and rapidly improving competition from both GM and Ford hurt Chrysler sales. Meanwhile, Exner himself was suffering from health problems and could not keep as tight a control of the styling changes. When Chrysler management chose to downsize much of its model lineup for the 1962 model year, Exner’s “Forward Look” styling was largely abandoned and Exner himself pushed toward the door. He was kept on as a consultant until 1964 so that he would be eligible for his pension, but he had little stylistic input after 1961.
DESIGNING A LEGACY
It’s impossible to overstate the impact that these three men had on the American automotive industry—and of car culture as a whole—during its most formative years. Harley Earl is rightly revered for having changed the very method of how automobiles are created: bringing the design process in-house, innovating the use of clay modeling as a design tool, and ultimately establishing styling as a crucial aspect of a car’s engineering and marketing from the earliest conceptual stages. The individual cars he designed seem almost secondary to that. And of course, he recruited and mentored the majority of the automotive stylists who would become Detroit’s most important and influential designers over the next half century, including Bill Mitchell and Virgil Exner. Mitchell earned much praise for the iconic cars he had a hand in—the ’57 Chevy, the ’63 split-window ’Vette, the Riviera, and the Toronado—but his reputation is perhaps unfairly tarnished for having presided over the dismal design decade of the 1970s. Corporate politics conspired to deny Virgil Exner much of the recognition he deserved for his early work at Studebaker, but the spectacular decade Chrysler had in the 1950s was almost single-handedly due to Exner’s vision—and he is justly lauded for it. One wonders what might have been had he been able to have a longer tenure. As it stands, these three icons were the most important designers during Detroit’s most important era. They were truly grand masters.
by Matt Boyd
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