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The Harley J. Earl Story Part III: The Don Lee Coach Works

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.

  • Harley J.Earl Locomobile design for Cecil B. DeMille
  • 1920 Locomobile Model 48 with Earl-designed Roadster body built at Don Lee’s for Cecil B. DeMille.

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.

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  •              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.      

  • earl10           earl9            earl11           earl12
  • Early 1920s Packard and Cadillac designs and literature describing the work at “Don Lee Shops”.

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.

  • Harley J. Earl Cadillac Design
  • Norman DeVaux’s exclusive and patented Cadillac four-door Sedan design. 

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.

  • Harley J. Earl Cadillac Design
  • Jack Pickford’s custom open-fronted Cadillac Town Car.

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.

  • Harley J. Earl Cadillac Design
  • Don Lee posing with one of Earl’s Cadillac Speedster designs.

20 responses to “The Harley J. Earl Story Part III: The Don Lee Coach Works

  1. In these photos you can see the aesthetic Earl was developing and that made his cars stand out from the average at this time. He and the car industry was still exploring how to make the machine into an artwork. Excellent article.

    • Alan, Glad you enjoyed it. With Richard Earl’s (Harley’s Grandson) help supplying the background information and images I have been able to write and put together the Harley J. Earl story that we hope all will enjoy.

  2. This is fascinating. Thank you for your effort to publish this. The little side seat seems it would be a blast to ride on (in)?

    • Chuck, I totally agree…what a thrill ride it would be; also, right now I’m imagining the ear-to-ear grin it would give me cruising down Hollywood Blvd. with a couple of friends. Priceless!

  3. You put a lot of work into this series. I for one really appreciate it.

    Though I always knew he was a styling icon, I had no idea how unique and distinctive his innovations really were.

    The Cadillac “Courteney”, in the fourth image is particularly interesting. I’ve seen dual cowls and divider windows in limos, but that Caddy has an entirely separate body compartment added on for the sake of housing the discerning owner’s ego.

    • Johnny, The rendering of the Courtney Cadillac you refer to also has this artist-engineer’s signature mark — “HJE” — in small letters below the front tire. In the early 1920s, Harley was a brand new kind of contemporary artist making his debut in American society and popular culture. Although a lot of people don’t yet know this side to his story, it’s very well documented in history. While doing research over a decade ago and sifting thorough the GM Design archives, I studied countless personally signed drawings by Harley from the early part of his career. Of course when he was invited to come join the GM team (by one of the company’s largest shareholders, Larry P. Fisher), Harley never signed “HJE” anymore and advocated to others like him on his new Styling/Design team how the “final” artworks rolling off all of GM’s assembly lines in the form of a cars, trains, trucks, buses, etc… were the product designs that mattered most. Bottom line, most people have always had an extremely hard time ever seeing the inside true story of HJE primarily because “as GM and Detroit’s auto world went downward from the early 1970s right up to the end of the 20C, so went the Harley Earl legacy.” Regardless of Motown’s carnage, the nice thing to know about Harley’s design legacy these days is that it is going up again! Thanks to hobbyist and/or car collectors, consumers and supporters who love the roots and tradition behind “the art of making cars” guys like David G. and myself are faithfully devoted to sharing and telling the never before told story on the life and times of one of America’s greatest contemporary artists.

  4. It would be very interesting to know more about those curved windshield pieces. Who made them and how ?
    Great series!!
    Mike

    • Michael, Unfortunately that is not known. An earlier reference to trying to get curved glass formed for the windshield of one of the Arbuckle cars mentioned an unnamed source in San Francisco, but the venture was unsuccessful.

      • If anyone ever does find a place that can custom-make curved glass, I would like to know about it. A friend has just purchased a 1929 Stearns-Knight limousine ( last registered in 1951, incidentally ) with a division window that’s flat for most of its expanse, but curved forward at the ends. The former owner allowed his grandkids to play in it and guess what, they broke the glass.

    • Battista Farina did splendid design work w/ HJE’s original Cadillac V-16 shown here: http://www.conceptcarz.com/view/photo/585378,10500/1931-Cadillac-452A-V-16_Photo.aspx

      Plus, later in the series (during the 1950s), HJE set the European auto design house of Pininfarina up with a number of lucrative contracts to design for GM. The alliance wound up lasting until the Cadillac Allante. Of course the next group of leaders at GM never talked about or organized — in history — how and where the alliance began. In any event, Harley and Battista became fast friends after WWII. We have some wonderful historical photos of the two design superstars together in Turin that we’ll gladly share later on.

  5. Although the above vehicle is “tagged”: “Cecil B. De Mille”, In Mr. De Mille’s later years, he preferred the comfort of his 1948 Cadillac Limousine and continued to utilize its services, for many years, driven expertly by his Chauffeur, “Stanley”, whom I met one day, as a young Mechanic , while working on a 1931 Model “A” Ford Cabriolet, belonging to the Cummings Family, on Cummings Drive, a street that intersects De Mille Drive . Stanley was interested in my progress on the Model “A”, so we became friends. As I wanted to know more about the EARLY days when Chauffeurs were more common , I asked him if I could learn driving techniques from him , (me ,being 17 in 1956), —thus, Stanley introduced me to the REAL skills of his employment and how starts, movements, and stopping were always “Smooth as Silk”. Stanly had “errands”, in the Limousine and IF I was around, he’d stop by and I would get my next lesson on the city streets of Hollywood, and nearby Griffith Park, in Southern California . Ironically, I was an Assistant Shop Foreman for Mercedes Benz , many years later (1970) and YES, you guessed it, I worked on the 600 Series Limousines —and drove them accordingly, even when they were tested for Full Speed Capability (at 145+ MPH!). My Supervisor? Zacharias Minnetian , (former Private Mechanic to the King of Libya ). OH: The “Speedster Chairs” articulated — out and down, — and were for occasional temporary seating , as the special body design eliminated the “Rumble Seat” so common to Roadsters, Convertible Coupes, Coupes and Cabriolets, thus the 3 passenger car became a “3 + 2”. As this car has NO handholds, riding on the running board, (sitting OR standing) was dangerous, more imaginary than practical and in THIS case , —I would say: A “styling statement” ONLY, in most cases.

    • Edwin, Thanks for sharing this tidbit of info…great stuff! I can only think that if HJE’s spirit of great design and engineering had been upheld by the next generation of leaders at GM, you might not have been working at a MB dealership in the ’70s, but a highly successful Cadillac dealership offering outrageously cool designs and great engineering, i.e., banking on the success of what GM/Cadillac demonstrated, better than any other auto making company, from the mid-20s up to the end of the 1950s. What happened to GM and especially Cadillac (the direction they went in) for the majority of the time of the last 50-years would certainly upset HJE if he were around these days. I’m positive of this fact
      .

  6. There is a photo of the Cecil B. DeMille Locomobile in 1938. It has Cecil standing in front and it has cut down wheels and a different paint job. I was always surprised that a car that lasted until 1938 did not make it through the war. He obviously liked it and he lived until 1959. Could it still be out there somewhere?

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