Harley Earl's influence on Steve Jobs

Earl invented mass-produced car styling and annual new product unveiling cycles at General Motors during its glory years — and there are many parallels to Apple's recent run.

Harley Earl was the initial designated head of Design at General Motors, later becoming vice president, the first top executive ever appointed in design of a major US corporation. He was a pivotal figure in the car industry from the mid 1920s until he retired in 1958. His importance in US business history cannot be overstated, with many parallels to the way Steve Jobs' leadership's blend of aesthetics, marketing, and technology blazed a trail of innovation.

At the dawn of mass production, volume manufacturers built bodies designed by engineers and guided only by functionality and cost. Luxury car manufacturers didn't make bodies, opting instead to ship chassis assemblies to a coach builder of the buyer's choice. This was where Earl began his career, designing car styling for the rich and famous in Hollywood.

The clay styling models of the luxury bodies that the rich patrons could comment on before building the actual cars could be used to design mass produced cars, Earl proposed to GM. After joining, he then fought his way from his "Art and Color section", being patronized by engineers as the GM "Beauty Parlor", to a late 1930s maturation and respect as "the Styling Section", which paved the way for GM to be the most successful company in the world in the '40s and '50s. Earl's air cover, support, and direction for his staff's collaboration arguably made that massive success happen.

Richard Earl has been researching his relative's legacy and was kind enough to chat on Skype call above — I'm a huge fan of Earl's innovative confident design approach, and the parallels with Apple are strong.

Earl not only invented the modern car styling process, he also invented the annual product refresh cycle and associated events to unveil the new models. GM offered products we didn't know about until they were unveiled and then couldn't live without, a format Apple has used with devastating effectiveness in the last few years.


He invented the futuristic "concept" cars that showed what was being worked on for the future, drawing styling elements from aviation and space technology, and inventing a unique new style that is quintessentially American. The 1938 Buick Y-Job was arguably the first concept car and anticipated the look of future full bodied cars, with a number of other innovations. Sadly, most of the 38 concept vehicles were destroyed after they were no longer cutting edge.

At six foot six, Earl was an imposing figure, and like Jobs was highly authoritative, volatile, and demanding when driving excellence. (Ironically, his designs got lower and lower as his stature in the business grew). Ultimately, his influence waned and the bean counters gained over, ultimately with disastrous results.

GM still has a fabulous legacy to build on as it finds its footing after its bankruptcy. It's ironic that many of Apple's market successes are arguably based on business concepts that it chose to discard.

Richard Earl is doing a fine job raising awareness of his grandfather's legacy and influence, and has an active Facebook page "Harley Earl I Love Automobiles" that has superseded his website and is full of automotive eye candy and information.