Harley Earl (1873-1969) designed the tail fin--the emblem of Fifties car culture. From 1927 to 1959 he headed GM's styling...



Harley Earl (1873-1969) designed the tail fin--the emblem of Fifties car culture. From 1927 to 1959 he headed GM's styling section, where the annual model change (Alfred Sloan's innovation) was institutionalized, even ritualized. He didn't introduce radiator grilles, however, or national auto shows--not by a long shot. (In the latter case, Bayley has in mind the GM Motorama.) He wasn't the first US auto designer, nor the first person to treat cars ""not as an outgrowth of the covered wagon but as a vehicle with its own structure and purpose."" (It wasn't Sloan who added Chevrolet to GM either.) The misstatements are so egregious, and the exaggeration is so flagrant, as to compromise what Bayley really has to say: Earl was a Hollywood product (his first creations were custom jobs for Tom Mix and other 1910s stars) who equated design with ""the entertainment business."" He also had a passion for planes: from the Lock-heed P34, he adapted the tail fin and probably the panoramic windshield; the F86 Le Sabre jet inspired the Buick Le Sabre. He was committed to ""lower and longer,"" as more eye-appealing--and contemptuous of functionalists. He was a ""coordinator and a kibitzer,"" not a ""draftsman or a visualizer."" Bayley, a British design expert, sees in Earl's work ""a cosmopolitanism that was superficially attractive but ultimately colorless""--though slack or soft might be a better way to put it. Then, too facilely: ""As a Californian, Harley Earl had to produce a vision of the future to replace a missing sense of the past."" The volume, however, is a visual stunner--with five color-plate composites of the streamlined, romantic Earl style by airbrush-artist Philip Castle, as well as multitudinous photos of Earl creations over the years. On that basis, it's going to be grabbed-up--never mind the loose hyperbole, the more knowing treatments of Earl in other, less showy quarters (like the 1976 Automerica).

Pub Date: Nov. 16, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1983

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