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The Harley J. Earl Story Part II: Cars for the Movie Stars

The second part of The Harley J. Earl Story covers the time frame between 1917 and July of 1919 at which time Don Lee officially bought the Earl Automobile Works. It was during this period that Earl’s artistic abilities, sense of style, engineering talents and his custom auto body designs received a lot of attention at the Los Angeles automobile shows and in the press. Commissions for custom coachbuilding and other work began to increase from the cash-rich silent film stars, Hollywood elite, and those profiting from Southern California development and the oil industry.

The Fatty Arbuckle 1914 Renault Roadster

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  •                                 The 1914 Renault Roadster with coachwork by Earl and its body plate.

As to how Harley began dealing with the upper class, a New York Times article dated March 25, 1956 by Carl Spielvogel states: “When his father left on a vacation young Harley took over and began designing custom auto bodies for Hollywood stars. His first sale was to Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle. The elder Mr. Earl at first was furious when he learned about what his son had been doing, but a look at the profit ledger soon cooled his anger”.

Earl customized a car for cowboy star Tom Mix and at least three for Arbuckle. The 1914 Renault Roadster pictured above (it has survived in a private collection) is believed to be the first job for Fatty. At some point in the late-teens, Harley designed the stylish and sleek coachwork for its rebody and the Earl Automobile Works constructed it. The Renault can be seen briefly between 6:40 and 6:43 in the video of The Garage Part I (1920) at the bottom of the post. It is a silent film comedy filled with cars and starring both Arbuckle, who directed it himself and Buster Keaton.

  • The Fatty Arbuckle 1918 Pierce-Arrow
  • Fatty Arbuckle and his Pierce-Arrow with custom coachwork and wheels designed by Harley J. Earl.

At this point in time, Harley had also mastered the art of presentation and the selling of a design. He produced not only full-sized drawings of the proposal for a client, but also built clay models of them, a skill he first learned as a child. The utilization of both enabled him to promote his concept to a prospect wanting something exclusive and who could well afford the luxury.

  • The Fatty Arbuckle 1918 Pierce-Arrow
  •               Arbuckle poses in front of the Pierce-Arrow’s custom radiator and engraved grille shell. 

Earl was able to get established with the Hollywood crowd by remodeling a car for the cowboy movie star Tom Mix, but his piece de resistance was the next car that he designed and built for Fatty Arbuckle. It used what was perhaps the largest automobile chassis in production at the time, a 1918 Pierce-Arrow Model 66 with a 147.5-inch w.b. that was powered by an enormous 855 c.i. T-head six.

With this impressive platform Harley first started out by designing special hubs and sharply-dished wooden-spoked wheels constructed of Burmese teak that were fitted with nickel-plated rims and light gray tires. For the coachwork, he started with a clean slate and designed a magnificent and totally custom built touring car body, radiator, hood, and fenders. The bright purple-blue creation was trimmed with nickel-plated accents. The interior was finished in fine leather with a spectacular curved wooden vanity on the back of the front seats.

The Fatty Arbuckle 1918 Pierce-Arrow

The creation and its design may have been started at the Earl Automobile Works in 1918 or 1919. It was finished and delivered to Arbuckle by the Don Lee Coach and Body Works. The May 2, 1920 Los Angeles Times reported on the just finished car: “Arbuckle’s Car Is A Genuine Knockout“, and went on to state that “ten-thousand people had filed through the Don Lee showroom in a few days just to see the car that cost $25,000”. The car has survived, and you can see many photos of it at The Auto Collections.

When we return with the Harley J. Earl Story Part III, we will cover the change in guard from the Earl Automobile Works to the Don Lee Coach and Body Works. In July of 1919 Lee bought out the firm and employed Earl as the chief designer for his facility. In the meantime, to learn more you can check in with Richard Earl at HarleyJEarl.com and view Part I of this series here.

6 responses to “The Harley J. Earl Story Part II: Cars for the Movie Stars

  1. What were a few of the biggest American pop culture trends taking place exactly 100-years ago? Kicking off 1915, “Custom Cars, Movie Making and Film Stars” were in the zeitgeist and the unique reel footage from “The Garage” featuring Harley’s jaw-dropping futuristic two seater sports car really was beginning to pave the way of where the entire auto industry would go (the masses wanted the same thrilling cars that the movie stars wanted) in the not too distant future. Simply put, Henry Ford didn’t share the same vision as Harley, and for that reason, this creates delicious pressure and/or a lot of drama when telling what’s upcoming in the next two segments on the behind-the-scenes Harley J. Earl story.

  2. This is an excellent series. Harley Earl was a major figure in American Modern design, but his roots in Southern California have not be explored so thoroughly before. Hollywood was just beginning to set fashion and style trends, and in this posting I’m beginning to understand just what Earl’s styling ideas were at this stage in his career….you can relate them to what he became famous for later. Thanks for the link to The Auto Collections so we can see the color of Arbuckle’s car.

  3. I love these articles and I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to talk with Richard about this essential part of automotive history. Fatty Arbuckle had his problems but I only focus on the fact that he was a “car guy,” whatever else he did is none of my business. A big car for a big man, check out the size of that Pierce-Arrow. Tom Mix, If you look at pictures to him with that big cowboy hat, this guy needed a car to match his style. People often underestimate the importance of these people and how their unusual eccentricities have affected our history. They created a demand for custom cars. People could now express themselves through their automobiles and we see the beginning of the “car guys”. It might not be important to everyone, but it is important to many people and it drives the auto makers to focus on styling and engineering that make our modern cars what they are today. Great Job on these articles Richard , they take us back to our roots.

  4. While not exactly automotive automotive history it should be noted that Rosco Arbuckles story is very often miss stated. He was the first Hollywood star to be conviced in the tabloid press before any proper trial. It is a long tragic story but worth studying if anyone wants to know the facts. There were two trials, both hung juries. The 3rd trial resulted in a full acquittal with an official letter of apology from the jury. “Aquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was our plain duty to give him this exoneration. There was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the comission of a crime”. This is only part of the letter. I suggest reading Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle by Stuart Oderman, McFarland & Co. publishers. Fascinating reading.

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