Several years ago, Buick ran a series of commercials that starred a ghostly apparition named Harley Earl. In the ads, the benevolent Earl whispered inspirational notions into the ears of Buick's engineers and designers. Millions of viewers learned the name of Harley Earl for the first time, but few had a real appreciation for his achievements at General Motors.
Earl is widely considered to be the father of modern automotive design. Under his guidance, GM was the first American carmaker to open an Art and Color Section. Earl not only influenced the corporation's design language in the '30s, '40s, and '50s, but he also structured a formal process of design that would eventually be adapted by every American and many foreign carmakers.
If the term "longer, lower, wider!" is familiar, you can thank Harley Earl. His most famous touch was the tailfin, a look that became an icon of the '50s. But he created far more than fins. Earl's styling genius touched every GM car. His first dream car was the '38 "Y-Job," and it set the automotive world on its ear.
Earl repeated the magic 13 years later when he created the '51 Buick LeSabre. The LeSabre looked like a futuristic jet fighter and was loaded with technology. Under the hood was an all-aluminum, 335hp supercharged V-8 that burned a mixture of methanol and gasoline. Rubberized 20-gallon fuel tanks were located in each tail fin-one for gasoline, the other for the methyl alcohol that was used during wide-open-throttle bursts.
In September 1951, Earl took the LeSabre to the Watkins Glen sports-car race. Earl was impressed not only with the Jaguars, Ferraris, and Alfas, but also with the passion these marques' enthusiasts had for their cars.
Earl had always appreciated European sports cars. Each year he traveled to Europe to attend the major car salons, and he was continuously impressed with what he saw there, especially from Italian designer Pinin Farina. Earl was also very aware of the growing popularity of European sports cars in America. American GIs had gotten a taste of something different when they were stationed in England during World War II and flirted with open-top touring in the sporty MG TC. When the war was over, ex-GI gearheads began importing these sports cars and others like them into the United States.
Soon, more modern roadsters, such as Jaguar's XK120, the MG-TD, the Triumph TR2, and the Austin-Healy, began appearing on American roads. The styling and pure fun of these early roadsters heavily influenced a generation of sports-car lovers, including the founding fathers of the Corvette.
It was at Watkins Glen that Earl got the inspiration to begin developing an American sports car to vie with Jaguar and Triumph. He knew that to be competitive, the car had to be affordable for college-age buyers, so he targeted a price of about $2,000, 15 percent less than the MG-TD.
Earl went back to Detroit and launched "Project Opel" in a small, clandestine studio closed even to GM brass. Earl selected Bob McLean, a young designer who had just joined GM after graduating from the California Institute of Technology, as the car's stylist. For their benchmarks, Earl and McLean chose two cars-the Jaguar XK-120 and the Cisitalia 202 Nuvolari roadster.
The Opel's wheelbase was the same as the XK-120's, at 102 inches. Its overall length was a compact 167 inches. With an overall height of just 48.5 inches and a broad stance of 72.24 inches, the car looked low and mean. Much of the Opel's shape was borrowed from the Cisitalia. (Compare the lines of the '53 Corvette to those of the Nuvolari, and you'll notice more than a passing similarity.) In fact, Earl was never apologetic when it came to borrowing an idea, a gimmick, or a design theme, especially if it happened to be one that appealed to him personally.