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The Harley J. Earl Story Part IV – The Attractive New LaSalle

In our last post: The Harley J. Earl Story Part III: The Don Lee Coach Works, the custom body shop of Los Angeles Cadillac dealer Don Lee was featured after he had bought the Earl Automotive Works and appointed Harley Earl as the Director and Chief Designer. In Part IV of this series, we will tell the story of how Harley ended up in Detroit working for Cadillac to design the styling of new new LaSalle.

The Fischer Brothers of the famous Body Company named after them, first sold a partial stake in the Company to General Motors in 1919. In 1926, the Fisher brothers sold the remaining eighteen percent of Fisher Body stock to GM for two-hundred and eight-million dollars. Previous to that time, Alfred P. Sloan the head of GM and Fisher had been working on ways to make its products stand out in the marketplace.

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  •             1927 LaSalle patent application drawing filed on Nov. 15th 1926 – granted Sept. 25th 1928.

One of Sloan and Fisher’s first moves in 1925 was to offer a wide range of color choices, and with the adoption of fast-drying lacquer paint at the Cadillac Division. The automaker was able to offer customers 100s of color combinations at a time when drab and conservative colors were the norm. Next, late in 1925 Lawrence P. Fisher, who at the time was the head of Cadillac noticed a large order of 100 Cadillac chassis’ without coachwork slated for delivery to Don Lee. Fischer who, had a home in the Hollywood, California area and knew Lee and had met Harley earlier on the golf course there, decided to investigate.

Fisher met Earl again at Lee’s custom body shop and observed the contemporary artist’s work. Fisher, whose automotive career began in the body building trade, was impressed with Earl’s designs, methods, keen sense of color, and use of modeling clay to develop the forms of his designs. He was doing things in a way that Mr. Fisher had never seen before. Harley was designing the complete automobile’s appearance by shaping the body, hood, fenders, headlights, running boards and blending them together into a good-looking automobile.

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  • The lead photo in the post shows silent film star Clara Bow in a LaSalle Roadster courtesy of The Henry Ford. The colored drawing (above) courtesy of Alden Jewell was used in a magazine advertisement.

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  •    1927 and 28 LaSalle Models L to R: Phaeton – Landau Cabriolet – 5-Pass. Coupe – 2-Pass. Coupe.

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  •                                             1928 LaSalle Town Cabriolet with a leather-covered top.

Fisher was so impressed he commissioned Earl under contract to design the 1927 LaSalle for Cadillac’s new companion marque. When he arrived in Detroit, Harley worked with Cadillac Chief Engineer Ernest W. Seaholm on the project. The new LaSalle was inspired by Harley’s fondness for the tasteful Hispano-Suiza H6B and the design and shape of its radiator, hood, and headlamps. It was first introduced at the Boston Automobile Show at the Copley-Plaza Hotel on March 5th, 1927.

The LaSalle was the first American production car completely designed from bumper to bumper by a new kind of car architect entering Detroit’s auto world, a man who was equal parts artist and body engineer. Delighted by his work, on June 23rd, 1927, Sloan selected Earl to head the Art & Colour Section, a new in-house GM auto design studio.

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  •                                            Harley J. Earl in his own personal 1927 LaSalle Roadster.

Earl was soon famous in the automotive world, but that was quickly followed by a family tragedy. In 1927, Harley and Sue Earl’s (Harley married Sue his high school sweetheart in 1917) two-year-old son Billy died suddenly after a botched medical procedure during a routine exam for a bad head cold. “To deal with it, he threw himself into his work,” said Richard Earl Harley’s grandson of HarleyJEarl.com, with whom we are collaborating on this series “It left him terrified of being a father.”

  •            Susan Earl, Harley J. Earl’s wife their first born son, Billy in her LaSalle Convertible Coupe.

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Editors Note: I have long been a fan of this first series LaSalle and would be interested in a good unrestored and useable 1927 to 1929 LaSalle Roadster with wire wheels to add to my own small collection of two cars. If you know of a Roadster without wood rot or rust that needs a good home and can be purchased at a reasonable price, please send in a comment with your contact info or that of the owner.

24 responses to “The Harley J. Earl Story Part IV – The Attractive New LaSalle

  1. Another good contribution to this series. The photos are extremely helpful, too, so we can study the art in Earl’s designs. Where is that last photo of Mrs. Earl and Billy taken? It looks more like Los Angeles than Detroit — is it the Earl’s house in LA before they moved to Detroit? Any idea of the address?

    • I believe they lived in the Hollywood area at the time, and she stayed there while Harley went to Detroit to do the LaSalle design. I don’t know the address, but Richard Earl, Harley’s grandson, who is working w/me on this series probably does and he checks in regularly and will answer your question.

      • At this time, HJE and his wife, Sue, (they were Hollywood High School sweethearts who married in ’17) drove his and hers LaSalle convertibles.

    • The 2047 Laughlin Park Drive home (in Hollywood Hills) was built in 1923 by Harley and his wife, Sue. After Billy died in May, 1927 they quickly sold the house and the buyer was heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey. He then purchased the lot next door and built an extravagant four-car garage with chauffeur’s quarters.

      • I represented the owners of the house in the Sue/Billy Earl photo years ago when they sold it. It is not the Earl house, which is next door, but rather a much smaller house by the same architect that was built for Sue’s parents, the Carpenters. The convertible coupe was bought on the Earl’s May 1927 trip home to Laughlin Park before they relocated permanently to Detroit. There are photos of the test drive of the car with the Don Lee Cadillac salesman , Sue, and presumably, judging from the high vantage point of the photos, Harley. The car then had no plates. In this photo, there are 1927 California plates. I presume the car was actually owned by Sue’s parents. On this trip, Harley drove a 1928-style LaSalle 303 roadster with Michigan plates, presumably sent ahead by the factory for his use in California. Sadly, Billy died in a freak accident in his pediatrician’s office shortly after this photo with Sue was taken, again, judging from the high angle, by Harley.

        • PS: The woman in the lead photo is Clara Bow at the wheel of her LaSalle 303 Roadster. She owned a Cadillac sedan, chauffeur-driven, at the time, too. Driving herself in a LaSalle roadster epitomized what Sloan projected by introducing the LaSalle: a second, owner-driven car for an affluent household–and a car for women. Clara liked Cadillacs. She even gave one to her brother according to an old friend of mine who dated her. Laura LaPlante also drove a 303 roadster: no sidemounts or wire wheels, aka “speed equipment”–just the standard artillery wheels instead. Photos exist of her with the car and before she bought it off the showroom floor at the Don Lee dealership at 7th and Bixel in downtown L.A.

  2. Imagine moving from 1920s Hollywood with it’s pre-smog weather to ………….
    ..Detroit,Michigan.
    Earl must have had 2nd thoughts.And 3rd thoughts. And 4th thoughts….

    • Hey Chris, Like your thinking and you are right by the way. HJE moved to America’s auto capital to MAKE A DIFFERENCE and I’d say, with much conviction, the world as we know it today would be radically different — probably a lot more boring — if Harley hadn’t made the move from CA to MI.

      • I never thought Harley Earl stepped down to go to Detroit, which was twice as large then as L.A. Detroit was where money, talent and innovation was centered–kind of like the Silicon Valley of today.

  3. The photo reeks of the Hollywood area, from the house to the trees in the background. Also, the ‘patent’ drawing noted here is probably one for a ‘design’ patent, i.e. not for an invention, but for a design element….IMHO.

  4. Thank you David, for the clarification. Design apps, keep copycats at bay, but only for strict copies, not for similar ones. Guess they felt there was something original in those design elements, though I find it hard to see where that originality lies.

    • While Harley was inspired by the Hispano-Suiza H6B and it has a resemblance to that handsome automobile, many facets of it design are different. Study H6B photos and compare it carefully with this masterpiece and you can see how the two differ.

  5. Nice article. I was not familiar with some of the personal information regarding Mr. Earl, but I did get to know him personally in 1956 when I lived in Michigan.
    I was 18 years old, living in Flint and soon to graduate from high school. My father worked as a security officer for Buick Motor Divison. I would often visit him after hours at his guard shack at Buick’s Engineering Department. This particular evening turned out to be a wonderful experience for me. After talking with my Father for a while, a black convertible pulled up to the gate of the engineering building and my dad went out to greet the driver and ask me to come come with him. He greeted the driver who was apparently familiar with my dad as he called my dad’s by his first name. My dad introduced me to Mr. Earl as his son and told Mr. Earl about my desire to design cars some day as I was always drawing sketches of futuristic cars. Mr. Earl seemed now pleasantly interested in talking to me. He raised the front brim of his hat; gave me a broad smile and questioned me about my desire to design cars. I must have said the right words as Mr. Earl winked at my dad, then turned to me and asked if I would like to take a ride with him in his “Y” job (as he referred to his car) and he wanted to spend some more time with me. I thought his car was fantastic, I’d never seen anything like it. I raced to the passenger side of the car as Mr. Earl reached across to aid my entry. Mr. Earl looked at my dad and said: “John, we’re going for a ride; we’ll be back after a while.” Then he backed out onto Industrial Avenue and gave me the experience of a lifetime! We drove around the exterior of the Buick Factory, talkin to me about subjects I should take in college to help me obtain my goal. I tried to keep up with the conversation but I was so completely absorbed in his car… that I only remembering about half of what he spoke about, remembering only the things he told me about his car, the “Y” job! That drive with Mr. Earl would last me a lifetime although it lasted less than an hour. Later that evening, my mother told me that there was not enough money for me to go to college and after graduation I would have to find a job and save up some money so that I could go to college later. Dad mentioned that Buick was hiring and that I should go to the main office and fill out an application for employment at Buick. The following week I dressed up and went to Buicks employment office to fill out an application. After that being accomplished, I was told there were no jobs that were suited for me but they would keep my application on file and notify me if any job arose that I was qualified for. A week later I received a call that my application had been reviewed and a position was available for me. So I quickly put on my best suit and headed to Buick’s employment office. I was greeted by the man I had originally filed my application with who had me sit while he retrieved more paperwork for me to fill out. While he was gone, I noticed my original application on his desk. I leaned forward to read a note written at the top… It read: “Recommended by Harley Earl”. Wow! When the man returned I ask him about the notation. He looked at me sternly and ask if I knew Mr. Earl… All I could think of was asking: “Is that the man with that beautiful big black car?” The employment man simply stared at me and then had me sign some papers! After all the paperwork was filed, I ask where I would be working and the man seemed to be a little unsure of his notes and said: “You’re not going to work right away… You are to start in our program that allows you to attend college first and then you will be selected for a position here at Buick.”…. I felt I had to be the luckiest guy in the world!

  6. Recently bought a 1923 earl. It is complete. However lack of photos of these cars makes it really hard to restore what needs to be done. Can you direct me anywhere? Thank you

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