In our last installment of the Harley J. Earl Story, we learned how his natural artistic and engineering abilities suited him well in his new role as designer at the Earl Automobile Works. In addition to this was his sense of style, color and the ability to work with both Hollywood’s movie stars and the high society of the west. Within a couple of years he helped to turn the Earl establishment into one of the nation’s leading coachbuilders. In 1919, the firm was now thirty years old, and Harley’s father Jacob W. Earl was sixty-five years old.
Located only a block away from the Earl’s Works in Los Angeles was the home base of Don Lee’s Cadillac California dealership empire that Lee started in 1906; it was the first of the six locations he established in all of the important cities in the state. Twelve years later the Los Angeles Times reported on March 30, 1919 that: With the delivery of five seven-passenger Cadillac eight Touring Cars last Thursday, Don Lee had passed the mark of selling ten-thousand cars.
The timing of Don Lee reaching this sales milestone coincided with the rise of Hollywood, the California oil boom and the rapid population growth of the State. Lee’s well-heeled customers soon began to look to his organization for custom coachwork and distinctive treatments for their new cars. This demand prompted Lee and his Los Angeles Branch Manager J.E. Brown to take a six-week tour of the prominent coachbuilding firms in the Northeast while looking for an operation he could purchase.
After visiting all of the best of the coachbuilders in the country, both Lee and Brown came to the realization that the Los Angeles Times later reported on July 13, 1919: That the best custom-built bodies in the world were made right here in Los Angeles. Lee then immediately sent Brown west to open negotiations with the Earls, and the consummation of the deal followed last week. With the agreement came the services of twenty-six year old Harley J. Earl, who was appointed, the Chief Coach and Body Designer and the signs on the Earl Automobile Works were soon changed to carry the Don Lee name.
- 1920 Earl windshield patent application drawing in the style of the DeMille Locomobile.
A week after the sale the Los Angeles Times reported that: Harley Earl left on a trip today that will cover all of the eastern factories to learn the coming trends in the styles of enclosed cars for the fall and winter season. As soon as production is resumed abroad (after the end of World War I) he will be sent to Europe in the interests of the local concern.
As can be seen with the 1920 Locomobile Model 48 Roadster (above) Earl designed for his neighbor, famous film director and producer Cecil B. DeMille, he wasted no time getting to work in his new position. He also brought to Lee’s new concern the good faith of the Earl name and his black book containing the sort of deep-pocketed customers a coachbuilding firm could only hope for.
The Don Lee Shops were soon producing several hundred custom bodies a year on not only Cadillac chassis’ but also those of other domestic luxury car makers and the best that Britain and Europe had to offer. Harley flourished at his new post and within a few years, he was also named the General Manager. This second title also introduced him to the role of dealing with the management of the automakers that supplied the Lee organization.
The gifted designer also continued to further develop his clay modeling endeavors that added a three-dimensional form to aid both the design of all bodies and the sales process of one-off customs. Earl also honed his innate sense of color and applied it to tasteful and dramatic two-toned color combinations. He also conducted experiments with different finishes to find what was the best to deal with the climate found in the western states.
In 1920, Earl also took the ongoing development of the exceptional windshield and molding treatments that his designs had become known for one step further. Shown above is an exclusive and patented four-door Sedan design produced for Norman DeVaux. Its slanted three-window windshield treatment with curved side panels was decades ahead of its time and it was further accentuated by the double body moldings.
Seen below is the same concept taken one step further on an open-fronted town car for Mary Pickford’s brother Jack. This striking design also featured Earl’s signature open car windshield and coach style rear fender design, which were set off by applied cane work between the double moldings.
Don Lee can be seen below in one of Earl’s Cadillac Speedsters that is similar to the lead photo at the beginning of the post. This car features the same body and cast aluminum running board design, but with a different fender treatment and a rear-mounted spare instead of dual side-mounts.
When we continue this story, Part IV will cover how Detroit came calling along with Harley J. Earl’s departure to the Motor City. In the meantime, you can look back at the Parts I and II here, and also check in with Richard Earl at HarleyJEarl.com to learn more.