Tail Fins, Summer Nights and the Birth of the Beautiful Car
When you picture heartland America in the middle of the last century, chances are you’ll imagine women in cinched-waist dresses, men in tailored “Mad Men”–style suits, and sleek, candy-colored Cadillacs with tail fins streaming down the back. But what you might not know is that just one man is largely responsible for that particular 1950s daydream, and indeed for the rise of industrial design itself: General Motors auto stylist Harley Earl.
Earl is the subject of a new book, “Fins: Harley Earl, the Rise of General Motors, and the Glory Days of Detroit.” But for author and St. Louis native William Knoedelseder, the roots of the story lie in Missouri, though it reaches into every corner of the American experience. ALIVE spoke with Knoedelseder about growing up as a car buff, how Hollywood shaped the heartland and what the world would look like today if an eccentric, 6’5” auto customizer in pink socks hadn’t fallen in love with fast cars. And St. Louisans can continue the conversation on Thursday, Oct. 11, at 7 p.m., when Knodelseder will discuss “Fins” at Left Bank Books.
ALIVE: The story of Harley Earl—like the story of the American auto industry—has strong roots in Detroit. How did a guy from St. Louis end up writing it?
Knoedelseder: In my mind, this book is very much about St. Louis. I grew up in the car business here in the 1950s, and my dad pretty much was Don Draper from “Mad Men”—a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other; charming—except he wasn’t in advertising. He worked for the Chrysler Corporation.
There was one moment in 1955 that I’ll remember very, very clearly for the rest of my life: it was a summer night, and all the kids in the neighborhood were standing out in front of the house, around the ice-cream truck. My dad pulled into the driveway with a pink-and-white DeSoto Firedome hardtop—Chrysler executives back then could pick out a new car every 90 days—and all the kids ran away from the ice-cream truck and just climbed all over the car.
I loved “Mad Men,” but what I missed in that story was the America of the ’50s that I knew, which didn’t occur in New York offices and restaurants. It occurred out there, in America, in subdivisions, in places like St. Louis. My original idea was to create a fictional TV series set in that world, and that’s what I was doing—I was researching the car business in the ’50s—when I stumbled on this character that I’ve never heard of named Harley Earl.
Harley Earl is best known for being the “father of the tail fin,” but he was much more than that. How did he and the automotive stylists that came after him influence our culture?
I think they contributed a tremendous amount. That’s sort of the theme of the book. In the book, tail fins are a metaphor for the time of the 1950s—the exuberance, the era of anything is possible. You come off of being deemed victorious in a world war, and you are the most powerful country on the planet, and boy, that gives you a sense of national exuberance right there. There’s nothing you can’t do, nothing you can’t dream.
Harley’s ability to respond to what General Motors wanted—to find a way to change the look of cars regularly on a grand scale without shutting down factories and then literally ruining their profits—that’s what drove the car business to become so big. Much bigger than Ford ever imagined, I’m guessing. People started buying more and more cars, and cars became more and more about what we were individually, and what we were as a country. They became, I argue, our defining product as a country.
You argue in the book that our other defining product is movies. Earl grew up in Los Angeles, literally at the birth of Hollywood, as the son of a wagonmaker who made carriages and chariots and chuck wagons for the movies, just as the car was becoming the dominant mode of transportation. How did Earl’s childhood influence the car designs he’d later develop in the heartland?
When I started writing this, I had no idea that Earl was a Hollywood kid. And it was so fun to read about how all these people tramped up the hills to Hollywood to make movies, these vagabond performers, and how this whole industry grew from that. If you think about the silent movie stars, the Wallace Reeds and all those people, they were the most famous people ever. No one had ever imagined fame like that before on Earth. And they were all just young kids in their early twenties with more money than they could ever imagine, and every one of them liked cars. But they didn’t like those clunky cars that Ford was making. They had money to spend to have a fancy body made by this guy over here who has really great clothes and is very charming, just as Harley Earl was getting into the family business and turning them into auto customizers. That started it all off. He made cars beautiful, and eventually, he recognized something that no one else did: that average Americans wanted cars as beautiful as the movie stars had.
Tell me about Earl’s design process.
He was a designer, but what you’ve got to understand is that designers aren’t necessarily the people who do the modeling. He didn’t draw or sculpt at all. What he did know is he knew how to get artistic people together and frighten them along a path. His philosophy was, “I’ll know [what I want the car to look like] when I see it, so I’ll get you to make me everything. I can’t tell you how to do it, and I can’t describe it to you because I’m inarticulate in that way.” But it was all in his head, and it was [his modelers’] job to dig out what’s in his head.
And by the way, Earl basically invented designing cars using clay modeling. Prior to him, no one had ever done that before. You’d just have a two-dimensional sketch on a big pad. He was unique, and it was that feature of his personality and his charisma that pushed the whole medium along. Industrial design was just coming into existence, and he was offering the young artists who worked for him the biggest art project there was. Come to Detroit and create cars. Sculpt full, life-sized cars. Wow. If you’re a sculptor or an artist who grew up drawing little pictures of cars in the margins of your notebooks—I did that. Every kid who was interested in cars would do that.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Featured image courtesy of Rostyslav Savchyn. Author image courtesy of Morgan Pansing.