New book 'Fins' celebrates designer Harley Earl and glory days of GM

By Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
Harley Earl — aka “Hollywood Harley” — produced some of the 20th-century’s most-memorable cars. He’s photographed in 1958 with Firebirds I-II-III.

When the automobile was young, the well-heeled sometimes bought a chassis and engine, and then went looking for a body-maker to wrap the whole thing up in a zippy package. 

In Hollywood in the 1920s, that body-maker was Harley Earl, the subject of William Knoedelseder’s absorbing new biography, “Fins: Harley Earl, the Rise of General Motors, and the Glory Days of Detroit” (Harper Business). 

Earl was the “first car customizer,” as Knoedelseder put it, who created sleek, handsome bodies for Hollywood royalty like Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and “Fatty” Arbuckle. 

"Fins," by William Knoedelseder, tells the story of the titanic General Motors designer, Harley Earl.

“Designing the fantasies of these young people,” Knoedelseder said, reached at his Los Angeles home, “Earl learned what they wanted and what could be done,”

Word got around. 

“General Motors heard of him when they were trying to compete with Ford,” he added, “and (GM President Alfred) Sloan realized the one chink in Ford’s armor was that his cars never changed.”

So Sloan imported Earl to Detroit in 1926, giving the Californian just 90 days to come up with a sexy, low-slung body that would sell the brand-new LaSalle, aimed at the youth market.

It worked like a charm. 

From then on “Hollywood Harley,” as he was known, called the design shots at GM, producing some of the 20th-century’s most-memorable cars. Among his iconic creations were the 1950 Chevrolet Bel Air, the 1953 Corvette and the extravagantly be-finned 1959 Cadillac. 

For a magical time in the 1950s, of course, fins grabbed the American imagination — “wondrous creations of nature,” Knoedelseder wrote, “beautiful, sleek, and shiny, streamlined and symmetrical, the embodiment of power, speed . . . everything that a modern automobile should be.”

Those wonders took initial inspiration from the top-secret P-38 Lightning fighter plane that Earl and a few designers were allowed to view at Selfridge Field — from a distance — months before Pearl Harbor.

Author William Knoedelseder called tail fins designed by Harley Earl “wondrous creations of nature.”

After the war, once styling returned to American cars, the new jet age contributed yet more fodder for Earl to exploit. 

Charles K. Hyde, author of “The Dodge Brothers: The Men, the Motor Cars, and the Legacy,” called Earl “easily the dominant and most-influential figure in American automobile design in the twentieth century.”

The designer, Hyde added, “introduced the first concept car, the Buick Y-Job, clay molding of car bodies, wrap-around windshields and the tail fin — as well as frequently changing the appearance of cars to stimulate sales.” 

In Knoedelseder’s telling, Earl was a force of nature, never mind his stutter and dyslexia. A towering figure at 6 feet, 5 inches, Earl came fully equipped with keen creative vision — and a volcanic temper capable of scalding underlings. 

But the designer also knew a graceful line when he met one. 

“Earl came to the fore right as industrial design was born,” Knoedelseder said — in the process, marrying Hollywood’s sexual swagger with Detroit horsepower. “It took a guy from California to see the possibilities.” 

"Fins" author William Knoedelseder.

Which raises the question: How did a kid from St. Louis like Knoedelseder, whose earlier books include “Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer,” get wrapped up in a Motor City tale?

"My dad was a sales exec and manager for Chrysler," he said. "I grew up in the car business."

The author also recalled one special evening, when all the little kids on the block were crowding round the ice-cream truck. 

"My dad came driving up in a brand new pink-and-white DeSoto Firedome," Knoedelseder said, "and time just stopped. All the kids turned, looked, and ran over to Dad's car."

It made a deep impression, "and from that moment on," he said, "cars were it for me."

Interestingly, "Fins" initially started life as an idea for a TV series.

"I wrote up this treatment, in which my father worked for Harley Earl in Detroit," Knoedelseder said, "and had a wise-cracking, Ricky Nelson kind of son. But all the producers wanted to know about was Harley Earl."

He took the hint, and the result is a rollicking tale about the years when Detroit design dazzled the globe and defined an entire era.

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy