Harley Earl, the General Motors VP/Director of Styling and Design who unveiled the very first concept vehicle, and whose "dream" cars such as the GM LeSabre defined the Motoramas of the 1950s, occupies a very special place in the history of the Corvette.
Earl is considered by many historians to be the father of the Corvette, for it was his wild imagination that gestated the idea. The inspiration, or "muse," as Earl's grandson Richard explains it, was the time Earl spent with the LeSabre concept car, specifically when he chaperoned it and drove it as the pace car at an auto race in Watkins Glen, New York, in September 1951.
In a January 1954 interview with Detroit journalist Stanley H. Brams, Earl acknowledged his parental role in the Corvette's creation. "The Corvette was a little thing that I started," Earl said. "I ran that LeSabre up pacing a sports-car race at Watkins Glen, and that's where I got the idea."
Throughout the Corvette's introduction year, Earl was the car's biggest proponent within GM. It was he who staged the parade of 28 red, white, and black Corvettes that cruised down a Southern California freeway on May 1953. If he wanted somebody to have a Corvette-for TV, movies, publicity, or as a favor-he always got his way. One notable example was the second '53 Corvette off of the Flint, Michigan, assembly line. It went to Earl's younger brother, William "Bill" Earl, with a license plate that read "FLA," simply because that's the way Harley wanted it. (This particular Corvette was used by the Earl family in South Florida, where they vacationed in the 1950s.)
In the mid- and late-'50s Earl worked on space-age experimental cars that he dreamed would someday fill the highways and city streets across America. He designed and developed the Firebird I, Firebird II, and Firebird III gas-turbine "cars of the future," and devoted his final years at GM to the Cadillac Cyclone, a dream car that was light-years ahead of its time. In December 1958 Earl retired from GM, after years of what is considered by many to be the golden age of not only the automobile-design profession, but also the entire American auto industry.
In 1959, Earl moved to a new home at 995 South Ocean Boulevard in Palm Beach, Florida. "Harley and Sue Earl lived in a modest, three-bedroom, Bermuda-styled house on the beach," recalls Harley's daughter-in-law, Connie Earl. "He liked to take long beach walks and often went fishing for pompano, knowing that they are excellent eating. Most of the time, Harley kept to himself. I don't think anyone knew him well. His number one love in life, even over his family, was automobiles.
"Many people would slow up and do a drive-by of Harley's oceanfront house, to see the rare Corvettes designed by him, or sneak a peek to see if any other GM Motorama 'dream' cars were there, like the LeSabre or the Oldsmobile F88 II or F88 III," Connie continues. "Back then, during practically anytime in the 1960s, you couldn't miss seeing a sunburst-colored Corvette sitting on Harley's driveway, soaking up the Florida sun."
Harley Earl died in 1969, and the days of wild, custom Corvettes at the Earl household drew to a close. "I remember in the early '70s, when getting into Grandma Sue's yellow Firebird, she'd sometimes say how sad it was to no longer drive one-of-a-kind Corvettes. She'd remind us that once Harley passed away, GM stopped supplying free Corvettes to us," Connie says.
GM never had a need to photograph the one-of-a-kind Corvettes that populated the driveway of Harley's Palm Beach house, but the Earl family took pictures of these and the other notable cars that arrived there on a frequent basis. The vast majority of the surviving photos are from the years 1963-1967. According to Harley's grandson Richard, "We had many more photos, but they were destroyed accidentally in the 1970s."
So come with us now, as we tell a story that has been waiting more than 40 years to be told: the Corvettes in Harley Earl's driveway.