Fins: Harley Earl, the Rise of General Motors, and the Glory Days of Detroit

Here I am talking book recommendations after a long hiatus, not that I haven’t read any but simply none I felt worth sharing my thoughts here on Abduzeedo. A couple of weeks ago a co-worker recommended a book about the car industry in the US, pretty much the beginning of it, the book title is Fins: Harley Earl, the Rise of General Motors, and the Glory Days of Detroit by William Knoedelseder. At first, I was a bit skeptical but after a few minutes, I got totally hooked and I’ll be happy to tell you why. 

Fins tell the story of the rise of Harley Earl as one of the most important figures of the car industry from the beginning – around the 20s – all the way to the 60s. He was designated head of design at General Motors and later became vice president. The most amazing thing for me as a designer is that he was the first top executive ever appointed coming from the design side of things of a major corporation in American history. 

There are amazing tales of Detroit in the golden age in addition to some information/trivia that I was surprised to know. For example, Harley Earl pioneered the use of freeform sketching and hand-sculpted clay models as automotive design techniques. He subsequently introduced the “concept car” as both a tool for the design process and a clever marketing device.

This book is simply amazing and got me thinking in ways that were quite eerie in the sense that Detroit in those days reminds me of how San Francisco and the Silicon Valley is today. The most important center of one of the most important industries in constant innovation. We could trace more than a few parallels between that and today, but I will let you take the time to read it and make your own conclusions. 

Harley Earl Car Design Style

Book Description

Harleys Earl’s story qualifies as a bona fide American family saga. It began in the Michigan pine forest in the years after the Civil War, traveled across the Great Plains on the wooden wheels of a covered wagon, and eventually settled in a dirt road village named Hollywood, California, where young Harley took the skills he learned working in his father’s carriage shop and applied them to designing sleek, racy-looking automobile bodies for the fast crowd in the burgeoning silent movie business.

As the 1920s roared with the sound of mass manufacturing, Harley returned to Michigan, where, at GM’s invitation, he introduced art into the rigid mechanics of auto-making. Over the next thirty years, he functioned as a kind of combination Steve Jobs and Tom Ford of his time, redefining the form and function of the country’s premier product. His impact was profound. When he retired as GM’s VP of Styling in 1958, Detroit reigned as the manufacturing capital of the world and General Motors ranked as the most successful company in the history of the business.

Knoedelseder tells the story in ways both large and small, weaving the history of the company with the history of Detroit and the Earl family as Fins examines the effect of the automobile on America’s economy, culture, and national psyche.

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