Amy Henderson · Thursday February 17, 2005
Every driver in NASCAR would like to get his hands on the Harley Earl trophy. Unique and almost graceful, a racecar atop a dark polished base, the trophy symbolizes victory in NASCAR’s biggest race, the Daytona 500. The perpetual version has every winner’s name engraved on its base. It’s a trophy fitting its stature. And it’s fittingly named for a man whose influence is still felt in the automotive world.
Harley J Earl was an auto designer in a time when auto design was as much art as science. Earl was born in California in 1893 and grew up in the dawn of the motoring era. Dropping out of Stanford to pursue his love of cars in his father’s business, Earl began by designing custom automobiles for celebrities of the day, including Fatty Arbuckle and Tom Mix. Eventually, the family business was sold, and Earl was lured to General Motors in hopes that he could design a car that would compete with Ford in sales.
Earl’s early masterpiece, the LaSalle, excited over 50,000 consumers in its first two years. The LaSalle ran at nearly the same speed as the Indianapolis 500-winning racecars of the day. Next, Earl thought up the Buick “Y Job” which is often called the first concept car. It was also Earl’s personal vehicle.
Americans were as intrigued by speed as they are today, and Earl’s work included his “Bluebird” which vied for land-speed records in a time when car enthusiasts still went to Daytona Beach’s ocean sands to try to be faster than all comers. It is this car that graces the Daytona 500 trophy.
Earl stayed at GM for three decades before his retirement. Most of his designs, especially early on were for big, long, sleek automobiles with big engines and lines reminiscent of sailing ships. As a nod to the fighter planes that helped win World War Two, Earl designed a Cadillac with large tailfins in the late 1940’s. For nearly a decade, tailfins became standard fare on cars of all makes.
Then, in the 1950’s, GM had an idea. They would create a sportscar, a small, quick auto that could compare to the foreign sportscars that GI’s had shipped home after the war. They asked Earl and his design team to create this smaller car, and the result was the 1953 Corvette.
The Corvette has, of course, cemented itself in automotive history through several incarnations, the newest of which was designed to be more like its early counterparts. Earl’s contribution has survived for half a century and more. The Corvette is today a choice of many collectors. Dale Earnhardt Junior has a few of them.
Harley Earl died of a stroke in 1969. His contributions to the automotive industry have continued for nearly a century. Not all of Earl’s inventions were of the mechanical type. He took time out from his illustrious career to provide the world with one more invention that has withstood decades and generations. Harley J. Earl, legendary designer of some of the most famous automobiles in the world, invented cheese in a spray can. EZ Cheese. He must have been looking for a snack for the road. Next time you ride in a classic car, thank Harley Earl for his influence. And you can thank him for the cheese also. That’s history too.
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