Just Who Was Harley Earl?

Culture Watch

Mr. Mieczkowski is an associate professor and chair of the History Department at Dowling College on Long Island.

"My name's Harley Earl." So says the nattily dressed man appearing in the new television advertisements for Buick cars. Buick, the ads proclaim, represents the "Spirit of American Style." Just who was Harley Earl? He's certainly not the actor in these commercials; the real Harley Earl died in 1969. But during his three decades at General Motors, Earl changed the shape of the American car.

Picture an antique car. Tall, boxy, and disjointed, the car of the early 1900s had parts that jutted out from the its body, as if they had been welded on: headlights, fenders, a luggage rack, running boards, a spare tire, and a bulky radiator grille. The windshield, split into two panels, stood stiff and upright. Passengers in the back seat rode high, directly above the rear axle, which meant a bumpy ride. The antique car seemed like the arthritic ancestor of today's sleek, speedy roadsters. But back then, whether a car worked well mattered more than whether it looked good; early automobile manufacturers were much more concerned with function than form. Their cars were notoriously unreliable, so engineering refinements had to take precedence over aesthetic appeal.

By the 1920s, automobile manufacturers had ironed out the major mechanical kinks in their product, and they grew interested in using a car's appearance to lure new customers. It was then that Harley Earl arrived on the scene. In 1926 General Motors hired Earl, a California native who had designed custom-made car bodies for movie stars, and soon put him in charge of GM's new Art and Color Division, which during the 1930s became known as its Styling Division. The name change was deliberate; Earl preferred the term "styling" and brought it in vogue.

The new term was just the beginning. Earl determined to change the appearance of the automobile. He wanted a car to look smooth, so he blended its conspicuous components--such as headlights and fenders--into the main body. In back, he eliminated the luggage rack and created a built-in trunk. In front, he concealed the radiator grille. Once, when toying with a car sketch, he rubbed his thumb over the running boards and erased them, then decided to remove them from real cars as well. The trend of Earl's work was to lengthen and lower car bodies, which streamlined cars and made them look speedier. To do this, he brought the passenger compartment down and cradled it between the front and rear axles, which gave passengers a smoother and more comfortable ride.

Earl also wrought revolutionary changes in the design process. Automakers used to glimpse new designs for their cars by hammering out metal sheets. Earl introduced modeling clay to make full-scale mock-ups of cars, molding the clay and then viewing changes; the process was easy and inexpensive. He unveiled the idea of a concept car, a futuristic prototype that allowed manufacturers to peer into the future of automobile design and gauge consumers' reactions and tastes. Earl's first concept car (called a "dream car" at the time) was the 1938 Buick Y-Job, which Earl himself drove. To look at the car today is to realize how far-sighted Earl was. A two-seat sports car that featured hidden headlights, power steering, flush door handles, and electric windows, the Y-Job looks more like a car from the 1950s than a Depression-era vehicle.

The post-World War II period brought about more Earl-inspired changes. Not all were good. Fascinated by jets and airplane designs, Earl decided to affix tail fins--which resembled fighter plane rudders--to Cadillacs in the late 1940s. The fishtails became standard on many cars in the 1950s, but symbolized automobile styling gone amok. Still, consumers took to them, and Earl's better innovations continued to find their way into the automobile, such as two-tone paint, the four-headlight system, and most notably, the one-piece, wrap-around windshield.

By the time Earl retired in 1958, his legacy was secure. He brought the word "styling" into Detroit's lexicon and made it a legitimate part of the car-making process. Ford and Chrysler established their own styling divisions, hiring many workers whom Earl had trained at GM. Styling showed that the car was more than just a functional vehicle of transport. It expressed art, tastes, even dreams of the future. "I dream automobiles," Earl once wrote. He probably never dreamed that, more than thirty years after his death, GM would use his name in advertisements. But why not? Today, style is a big selling point in cars. And the most influential automobile stylist in history was Harley Earl.

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Tom - 7/19/2004

The actor who plays Harley Earl is John Diehl. John has been in many films and played a detective on Miami Vice for over 2 years. Do a google search on his name. Much info will pop up.

James Sirman - 7/19/2004

Lynn Walters - 2/8/2004

exactly what I wanted to know

Nathan Flowers - 1/7/2004

I'm in agreement. Graham is a master. Their felt is unsurpassed by any felt hat maker around today. I have 4 with a 5th on the way (SkyLine Blue!)

Support your local hatter :-)

Ralph Jones - 12/18/2003

I wear mine all the time. It was a gift from my son. My dad and great uncles (The last of the old-time cowboys) always wore good hats. I know an excellent felt when I see one. Graham’s hats are simply the best.

My wife became intrigued by his hats. She got a Panama instead of a new stove several years ago. We like to stop at his shop for a few minutes when we happen to go by.


Fred M. - 11/10/2003

May God bless you. Thanks tremendously for answering my question. Now I can be sure of the correct hat, and where to buy it, to buy as a gift for a very dear friend.

Michael - 11/3/2003

The hat style is a classic Fedora. The hats in the commercials are made by the Optimo Hat Company in Chicago. Optimo makes the finest felt and straw hats in the world. I own one and it is the only hat I now wear and the only hat I will buy. You can contact them @ 773.238.2999. Tell them Michael from Alabama told you to call.

Fred McDowell - 10/14/2003

Please won't somebody tell me what I want to know?

KAY MELTON - 9/26/2003



Fred McDowell - 9/20/2003

I would like to know the name or style of the hat the actor playing Harley Earl is wearing in the advertisements.

j - 9/18/2003

SORRY--- didn't see the responses. Please forgive my blunder. Thank you.

j - 9/18/2003

Is anyone going to answer that question----EVER?????????????????

Patricia C. Knox - 5/29/2003

If Buick sought to bring back romance and a love affair with cars, they have done so, for me, at least, in the commercials featuring the ghost of Harley Earl. He was a man of great interest and imagination. I am proud to have one of the new line of Park Avenue Ultras. I am truly "in love" with it!

George C.Sprotte - 3/16/2003

We enjoy all the Buick commercials with both Diehl and Tiger Woods. I personally have owned 14 Buicks through the years from 1932 thru 1979, all Straight 8's except the 1970 Riviera and 1979 Electra. All great cars and I was never disappointed with any of them and had over 100,00 miles on each and even more. I would buy another Buick should the occasion arise. I drove the 70 Riv over 265,000 miles in 21 years of owning it. Wish I still had it.
George Sprotte, auto enthusiast and restorer.

Harley Earl Inc. - 3/12/2003

Visit the Official Website on the DaVinci Of Datroit at:

Paula - 3/10/2003

Veteran stage and film actor John Diehl plays Earl in the commercials. Diehl is probably best known for his appearance on "Miami Vice" as the Hawaiian shirt-clad Detective Larry Zito. More recently, Diehl played a surgeon in the film "Pearl Harbor" and appeared as Ben Gilroy on FX's critically-acclaimed television series "The Shield."

You can read more about Earl and his designs here:

forrest - 3/8/2003

Who is the actor portraying Harley Earl?

Doug - 3/8/2003

Who is the actor who portrays Harley Earl in the current Buick ads?

Bobby - 2/23/2003

Furthermore, GM has a reason to use Harley Earl's legacy. His name is on the Daytona 500 trophy, which has a creation of his on the giant trophy, and Buick is celebrating 100 years, which also was crucial in using the actor in question.

Heritage is important.

Chuck Heisler - 12/10/2002

Thanks for the info--yes I was wondering who Harley was. He didn't by any chance design the 1958 Buick did he? Now, that was a bit over the top when it came styling innovation. I will hope he is responsible for the 53s, 54s, 56s, and especially the wonderful 57s--now those were lovely cars. Alas, may age shows!
Thanks again.