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The Cars of Harley Earl

IMG_0174[1] (Small)BOOK REVIEW: The Cars of Harley Earl

Author: David W. Temple

Publisher: Car Tech Publishing

Binding; Hardbound

ISBN-10: 161325234X

ISBN-13: 978-1613252345

Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 0.5 x 11 inches


Shipping Weight: 2 pounds

Length: 190 pages

Illustrations: over 100, most in color

Price; $39.95

    If there was one man who set the pattern for American car design, it was Harley Earl.

    David Temple tells this story right, starting right out from the beginning when Earl was a California kid playing in the mud. Earl discovered he could make car shapes out of wood and Temple tells that story. As he grew up, Earl was rightly placed as the son of a wagon builder in Los Angeles, who had gravitated to building coachbuilt cars.

 This was just when Hollywood started and Earl left college to join his father, building one off cars for movie stars. Then a customer introduced him to a key man at GM who convinced him to come to Detroit where he could design cars for GM; not only design them but be head of a newly created department fancifully called the “Art and Colour Section.”  

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  Earl thrived there, and this book is about all his “dream cars” and how he really transformed the image of GM’s various divisions with his dream cars and his traveling Motorama shows to showcase the cars.

 Temple spends a little more time on the LaSalle cars, a brand that was supposed to be a second tier alternative to Cadillac than I would have liked, because those don’t fit the “dream car” image you buy the book for, but he quickly makes up for that in the rest of the book with plenty on the dream cars.

   Bill Mitchell, the man who was handpicked by Earl as his second in command and eventually succeeded him, is given some attention in this book, and I think if there’s a later edition, I’d even like to read more about how much Mitchell aped Earl’s style, in clothing, his own personally-owned modified cars, etc.

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  The Buick Y-job starts out the coverage of the dream cars and even today you have to admit it looks somewhat modern.

Temple also gives credit to other designers, and to engineers like Charlie Cheyne and Ed Cole.

   An interesting sidelight in this book  is how Earl and other GM big wigs would appropriate dream cars as their personal cars or have their personal cars modified for themselves or families (like the SR2 Corvette built for Earl’s son, to entice him out of a Ferrari).

The book has many pictures of drawings of concept cars, that are revealing; you can see how the show car evolved, what it could have been.

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Since the ’57 and ’58 Eldorado Broughams probably represent the most Earl-influenced designs where the production cars looked like the prototype I thought it’s too bad he didn’t show the 1955 Motorama Cadillac Eldorado show car prototype and the Orleans show Cadillac that influenced it.

Temple analyzes the good points and bad points of the traveling road  show known as Motoramas but concludes they had to be phased out because designing the special cars for Motorama took time away from production cars. The 1956 show was the last of its kind though dream cars continued to be made, including the ultimate for many– the Firebird III, a bubble topped car powered by a gas turbine engine. The car is so modern that it would not look out of place in the next Star Wars movie!

   Tantalizingly, Temple occasionally has a picture of a show car that anticipated a later auto industry development by decades such as the L’Universelle van this at least a couple decades before Lee Iacocca pushed the minivan through to production at Chrysler. It was as if GM discovered gold but didn’t realize it!

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 Temple also discusses Harley Earl’s personal cars, such as the F-88 prototype he had shipped to Florida to his vacation home (even after he retired he was getting dream cars shipped to him for personal use) Interesting to me is the way GM dream cars were loaned to VIPs such as Gen. Eisenhower driving the LeSabre in Europe and Mamie Van Doren, a shapely show biz lady, being able to buy a Cadillac LeMans prototype (by the way that was one car left out to the book –the two Seater LeMans– of which four were made-.

 There’s a  human side to the book as well,  a glimpse at the  personality clashes behind the scenes. You start to notice by the last chapter that  it  features the dullest cars as it becomes clear that  Earl’s crystal ball had fogged over and he could no longer see  what was in the future. As Temple tells it,  toward the end, it was Chuck Jordan, a later VP in charge of styling, who led GM into doing tailfins after peeking through a fence at Chrysler and seeing their tailfinned cars. He hustled back to the studio and GM started doing tailfins too.

  In sum, this is a satisfying story of how, because of one man, Detroit car styling became important in America. The other Detroit automakers had to hustle to compete with GM. That was when Americans weren’t exposed to many European cars, and hadn’t seen Japanese cars. Harley Earl was the only car designer name they knew. A famous quote from a  GM official back then was: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the world” and that was the world Americans knew back then. In a way the book chronicles a time of innocence when the American public  could be seduced by chrome , two tone paint schemes and tailfins….

   The book is priced at $39.95 (no doubt lower on and I think considering the many color pictures, and excellent paper,  it is worth it. I hope there is a follow-up book on Bill Mitchell, though I hope it would cover different cars (Stingray, etc.) but since their two terms at GM coincided,  it might repeat many of the same show cars in this book. Such books have to be written now while there are still retirees who can tell the good stories to biographers. Still Mitchell was an outsize personality, an excellent understudy for Harley Earl…


THE REVIEWER: Wallace Wyss is the author of the Incredible Barn Finds series, available from Enthusiast Books Hudson WI (715)381 8755

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I grew up and lived in Iowa for a good portion of my life before moving to Southern California. After 20+ years we now live outside Nashville Tennessee. I have been into cars since I was old enough to remember. I don't have a brand loyalty although I do prefer American Muscle especially the 1969/1970 NASCAR Aero Cars. (Check out our other web site at site) As long as it has four wheels and an engine I get excited. Few men are lucky enough to be able to share their passion for cars with the woman they love. Fortunately, my wife, Katriana, is also a gear head and many of our activities revolve around the cars. We have a small collection that includes at least one car from each of the Big Three. It includes a Best of Show winner, a survivor, a driver with lots of patina and several others. Katrina prefers all original cars while I like to modify them so we have a few of each. When we aren't playing with cars we are out working with or showing our miniature donkeys. You can see more about that part of our lives at

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