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The Harley J. Earl Story Part I: The Earl Automobile Works

We are excited to announce, the start of a six-part series tracing the origins of an American automobile design legacy. The story covers Harley J. Earl, the son of a 19th century Los Angeles, California coachbuilder Jacob W. Earl. In this endeavor are collaborating with the editor of HarleyJEarl.com, Richard Earl, Harley J. Earl’s grandson, who has been on an auto journey all his own. He has spent the last nineteen years successfully rediscovering the roots and traditions behind the new type of auto design Harley first introduced to Detroit’s old-fashioned auto world in the late 1920s.

The first part of this series will start off at the beginning, telling the story of Harley’s 19th-century coach-building father. Jacob W. Earl’s shop was in Hollywood and moving into the 20th century he sensed the winds of change and turned his Earl Carriage Works into the Earl Automobile Works.

The story starts out when twenty-two-year-old J.W. Earl moved from Michigan in 1886 to Los Angeles, California, and went to work for the J.N. Tabor Carriage Works. In 1889, he established his own small blacksmith shop which he named the Earl Carriage Works. The talented and hard working young man’s business prospered and at the turn of the century he moved the shop into larger quarters at 1320-24 South Main Street also in Los Angeles.

  • Harley J. Earl Automobile works
  • Circa 1910 advertising illustration.

Shortly after moving into the new headquarters Earl became interested in the new fangled horseless carriage, which he could see was going to be much more than a passing fancy. Catching the automobile bug himself he soon turned the focus of his business into catering to the auto trade.

Having come from a background of carriage building, Earl wisely continued on in the same vein. Early car bodies were built, much in the same way as carriages, and by around 1906, his business began the transition into the auto age. Soon sons Harley J. and Carl pitched in to help while still attending high school, and the business was renamed the Earl Automobile Works during 1908.

  • Harley J. Earl Automobile works
  •                         1908 windshield patent application drawing.

J.W. Earl first entered into the automobile business with a product of his own that he sold along with other accessories. Early in 1908 he began selling windshields of his own design and manufacture and on November 3, 1908 he filed a patent for his Oscillating Device for Motor Vehicle Wind Screens. In addition to this traditional style, both oval and monocle units were also produced.  

  • Harley J. Earl Automobile works
  •                        1908 windshield hinge patent application drawing.

Later in 1910 with a successful windshield business operating and shipping the units to both Detroit and the rest of the country, Earl branched out into building custom auto bodies. Along with custom coachwork Earl also offered: repair and repainting, tops, the construction of commercial bodies and a full line of high-quality accessories.

The first Earl Automobile Works catalog with its illustrated custom body designs was printed in 1911 and included several original designs. The drawings were likely the work of  J.W. Earl and his body draftsman, but with the natural design talent Harley later demonstrated; it is likely he may also have had some input in the concepts.

  • Harley J. Earl Mercer Runabout
  •                                  Harley J. Earl with the Family 1912 Mercer Runabout.

Harley  graduated in 1911 from Hollywood High School and enrolled in 1912 at USC where he excelled in sports, and later in 1914 began attending Stanford University. He is pictured above in the family 1912 Mercer Runabout in with which he won a local race.

Richard Earl’s research has also uncovered that Harley also participated in a bit of Southern California road racing at the time. He is the riding mechanic in the dark-colored racing car on the right. The car on the left appears to be a Stutz, and the race may have been one of the Santa Monica Road Races.

  • Santa Monica road races
  •                                 Harley J. Earl in an early Southern California Road Race.

During the early teens’ as the film industry made Hollywood its home, Earl was there at just the right time to cater to the whims of an increasingly upscale clientele and the studios. With the passage of time and more connections being established with the areas elite, Earl’s operation became the go-to shop for exclusive work. The operation can be seen below with the Earl Mercer on the left and an electric car on the right.

  • Harley J. Earl Automobile works
  • The second shop at 1320-24 South Main Street in Los Angeles.

In the late-teens after finishing his college education, Harley J. Earl joined the family business, which by that time was well along in being established as one of the finest coachbuilders in the west. Harley’s natural talents in body design and color choice flourished and he, and his father collaborated on several designs including the dual-cowl cape-topped 1919 Pierce-Arrow seen below. The body design and construction was executed for oil baron E.L. Doheny Jr. The Los Angeles Times called it: The classiest creation of the year.  

  • E.L. Doheny Jr. 1919 Pierce-Arrow
  •                          1919 Pierce-Arrow, a Harley J. Earl design for E.L. Doheny Jr.

Earlier in 1917 the Earl Automobile works moved for the third and last time into the expansive 60,000 square foot building seen below at the corner on Pico and Los Angeles Street. Earl first started in 1889 with but one helper and twenty-eight years later had a staff of ninety employees. After he had moved to this location, he was also credited with having invented the tonneau windshield by John McGroarty in his 1921 book: Los Angeles from the Mountains to the Sea.

In January of 1919 the Los Angeles Times reported the following about two Earl creations on display at the Los Angeles Auto Show: Perhaps the most startling local models are those built by the Earl Auto Works, whose sensational Chandler and Marmon are attracting huge crowds. These cars are designed by Harley Earl, who has sprung into prominence as a maker of motor fashions almost overnight. Harley J. Earl had arrived, and the public and the press had voted positively on his outstanding work.

When we return with the next installment of the story we will cover some of the cars he built for Hollywood’s elite. In the meantime, you can learn much more about the legendary designer who reinvented the auto body design profession at HarlyJEarl.com.

  • Harley J. Earl Automobile works
  • The third Earl Auto Works shop at Pico and and Los Angeles Street.

16 responses to “The Harley J. Earl Story Part I: The Earl Automobile Works

  1. Excellent article! I am really looking forward to the rest of this series.

    The Doheny Pierce-Arrow is a beautiful design but I’d be curious to see how the rear windshield moves to allow access to the back seat of the car.

  2. Have long wanted to know more about HJE’s years in California and his father’s businesses…this info and the illustrations are really great. Thanks!

  3. Very good to see MrEarl is being remembered. I spent my entire career
    Following him at GMStyling, later Design Staff.
    Much of what he did had been forgotten, or hid away. I credit Richard Earl
    For keeping this rich and important story alive.

    • Mr. North, it’s been nice getting to know you over the years and thanks for the kind words. Like restoring a fantastic collectible automobile, I decided long ago to take the Harley Earl story back to what it originally was all about. Best/RE

  4. Very interesting saga of one of America’s originals. A great story that would be lost if not for the good works of Harley’s grandson Richard Earl. Also, by the way, reading this made me nostalgic for the old California spirit and innovation.

  5. Great article, Richard. My dad had opportunity to work with Harley. Fantastic that you are keeping an icon like Harley on the forefront of true automobile design. More art than science back when cars had a real personality.
    Thanks for keeping the story close to our hearts.

    • Chris, Glad you enjoyed it, I wrote the article and Richard has been helping me with the information and photos he has from the family and that he has assembled over the last 20 plus years. Look for Part II soon.

  6. Dave, What a great article. Ive been interested in the Earl Motor Works for some time. In the early 1970’s, I gathered up the remains a 1906 White model “F” from Elmer Norberry’s Collection, that had been highly modified by Earl Motor Works. I recently was given a copy of a photo of the White when it was first finished, oval wind screen and all. It was a wild looking machine.

  7. Are there any surviving photos of the Chandler sedan Earl Motor Works did for the 1919 Los Angeles Auto Show? I have not been able to find any further info on this car. As the owner of a 1914 Chandler sedan I am very interested in what Harley Earl did on a Chandler.

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