07/17/07 - tailfins

In today's excerpt - the gray-suited executives at General Motors decide that style trumps substance, and so hire flamboyant Harley Earl, who brings America the tailfin in the 1950s:

"Earl was plucked by [GM] in 1927. [He had] started out as one of the early customizers in the new auto business, adapting cars for the least conservative of Detroit's customers: movie stars. ... A Harley Earl car was easy to spot. He was fascinated by jet airplanes, so long and slim that they appeared to be racing into the future; he admired sharks, long, sleek and powerful, and his futuristic cars were, in some way, based on their shape, with a single metal dorsal fin in the rear. ... His chief aim was to give his cars the look of motion, even while they were at rest. ...

"Harley Earl deliberately stood apart. ... Though [he] needed glasses, he almost never wore them because he believed they detracted from his image and thus diminished his power. ... [He] drove the Le Sabre, a highly futuristic car he designed himself. ... Typically, it was based on a jet plane, the F-86 Sabre jet. ...

"Earl had hundreds of suits, many of them linen and in offbeat colors ... which he kept in a massive closet in his office, so that if his clothes became wrinkled during the day, he could change and put on a fresh outfit. ... [He would] go before the board in a cream-colored linen suit and a dark-blue shirt and blue suede shoes. ... He was tyrannical to his subordinates: He raged at them, pushed them, always demanded more. ...

"If Earl's designs did not always please intellectuals, they were stunningly successful with car buyers. ... Fins, the most famous automotive detail of the era, represented no technological advance, they were solely a design element whose purpose was to make the cars seem sleeker, bigger and more powerful. ... It was a kind of pseudo-change. ... Thus, during a time when the American car industry might have lengthened its technological lead on foreign competitors, it failed to do so."


David Halberstam


The Fifties


Random House Publishing Group


Copyright 1993 by The Amateurs Group


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