Legends: Harley J. Earl

Harley J. Earl (November 22, 1893 – April 10, 1969) was an American automotive designer and business executive. He is known as the inventor of the Chevrolet Corvette and eventually became the the head of design at General Motors, later becoming vice president. He is credited as the first person to “design” the first automobile that was not just engineered. He was most likely the first industrial designer and a pioneer of modern transportation design.

Harley Earl pioneered the use of free-form sketching and hand sculpted clay models as an automotive design techniques. He subsequently introduced the “concept car” as both a tool for the design process and a clever marketing device. He is best known as the father of the Chevrolet Corvette, and introduced the “tail-fin” tail lights.

He is remembered as the first styling chief in the United States automobile industry, the originator of clay modeling of automotive designs, the wraparound windshield, the hardtop sedan, factory two-tone paint, and tailfins. He said in 1954, “My primary purpose for twenty-eight years has been to lengthen and lower the American automobile, at times in reality and always at least in appearance.” The extremely low and long American cars of the 1960s and 1970s show the extent to which Earl influenced an entire industry and culture.

During his heyday spanning the 1930s to the late ’50s, Earl created innovations that were decades ahead of their time:-Rear backup cameras connected to dashboard video, an automated driving system, collision warning alarms, cruise control, keyless entry, onboard computers, and rain-sensing technology. Earl was the first, say experts, to meld car style with functionality.

Chevrolet Corvette Generation #1: 1953-1962

  • Harley Earl – Designer
  • Tom Keating – GM Design Leader
  • Ellis James Primo – Body Engineer
  • Zora Arkus-Duntov – Performance Engineer

The first generation of the Chevrolet Corvette (C1) was produced from 1953-1962 and is known as the “solid-axle” generation. The name Corvette was named after a class of small, fast-moving warships from World War II. Automotive designer Harley Earl is credited as the inventor of the Corvette and convinced General Motors (GM) Tom Keating that GM needed to build a moderately priced two-seat sports car to compete with the European sport coupes. http://www.harleyjearl.com/corvette-history-101

The Chevrolet Corvette Generation C1 was produced from 1953 to 1962.

The body engineer for the original Corvette was Ellis James Premo, who suggested and implemented using fiberglass body panels in 1954 instead of steel (similar on the original Corvette protoype show car).

The original C1 Corvette had a 235 cu in “Blue Flame” Inline six-cylinder engine, with a top speed of 150HP, utilizing a 2 speed “powerglide” automatic transmission, and 0-60 mph was 11.5 seconds. The performance in 1953 was not competitive with European sports cars of the day, until automotive engineer and race car driver Zora Arkus-Duntov was hired at GM and introduced a new small-block V8 in 1955 outfitted with a four-barrel carburetor (265 cu in at 195hp) coupled with a 3-speed manual transmission that challenged the Ford Thunderbird, Porsche, Ferrari, Maserati and Mercedes Benz.

Zora is credited for introducing 4-wheel disc brakes, high lift camshafts, and “ramjet” fuel injection. Bill Mitchell was the chief designer at Chevrolet at the time and worked with Zora on future improvements to the Corvette including the next generation high performance C2 Corvette Sting Ray. 1956 had a new body style and the fins were gone, and in 1962 327 cu in engine went up to 360 hp.

There were only 300 Corvettes hand-built in Flint Michigan in 1953 offered only in polo white with red interior. The cost for a new 1953 Corvette was $3,498. Pictures are from my visit to Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan.

1955 Chevrolet Corvette

New colors were added…

1957 Chevrolet Corvette

Performance increased over the years, and the Corvette transformed into a sports car.

Harley Earl designed the original Corvette logo.

1960 Chevrolet Corvette

1954 Firebird I Concept Car
1956 Firebird II Concept Car
1956 Firebird III Concept Car

The four-passenger Firebird II was characterized by innovations like a titanium body, a regenerative gas turbine, all-wheel independent suspension with automatic load-leveling, power disc brakes, alternator, magnetic ignition key, electric gear selection, and individually-controlled air conditioning.

The Firebird II had forward thinking features such as retractable head-lamps with rectangular lenses, pivoting directional signals, air flaps on the hood to vent engine and deflect bugs, a magnetic door key and a luggage compartment raised and lowered by remote control.

Some interesting interior features included a beverage cooler and outlet, retractable seat belts, reclining airplane-type seats, electronic adjustable headrests, ventilated seat cushions and a picnic table. The Firebird II also included a viewing screen for engine information, communication with the traffic “tower” and TV programs. A second screen replaced the rear-view mirror. A sophisticated guidance system or electronic auto-control was intended to be used with ‘the highway of the future.’ It utilized an electric wire, embedded into a roadway, to send signals to guide future cars and avoid accidents. This concept is the forerunner to self-driving cars, first seen by Motorama attendees 65 years ago.

The Firebird II concept car of 1956, is a four-seat, family car. It is a low and wide design with two large air intakes at the front, a high bubble canopy top, and a vertical tail fin. Its exterior bodywork is made entirely of titanium The engine output is 200 hp (150 kW). To solve its exhaust heat problem, the car feeds the exhaust through a regenerative system, which allows the entire engine to operate nearly 1,000 °F (538 °C), and also powers the accessories. Kerosene was the most common fuel used. Another innovation on the car is the first use of disc brakes on all four wheels, along with a fully independent suspension. It also featured a sophisticated guidance system intended for use with “the highway of the future,” where an electrical wire embedded in the roadway would send signals that would help guide future cars and avoid accidents.

I had the distinct opportunity to see the 1956 Firebird II concept car at the GM Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Michigan. Here are some of my photo’s:


Harley J. Earl Daytona 500 Trophy

The Harley J. Earl Trophy is named after General Motors car designer Harley Earl. Earl, the second commissioner of NASCAR, was the designer of the Chevrolet Corvette; his Firebird I concept car provides the basis of the automobile that sits atop the trophy; The car is often misidentified as Sir Malcolm Campbell‘s “Blue Bird” land speed record car. Earl was a friend of NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr., who named the trophy after him as a sign of respect.

True Story… authored by Robikki at robbodnar.com 01/10/2020