GM Design since 1927

The first “designed” automobile

In 1926, Lawrence Fisher, head of Cadillac (standing), commissioned Harley Earl (at the wheel) to style his future entry-level car, the LaSalle. Earl, a young, flamboyant customcoachbuilder who worked for Hollywood stars, shaped the LaSalle as a harmonious whole, contrasting sharply with the fragmented, assembled look of most cars of that time. It had a fantastic success.

The first professional studio

Following the success of the 1927 LaSalle, Alfred Sloan,GM’s visionary President, hired Harley Earl and established a design department, the “Art & Color Section”. Earl pioneered design methods, tools and structures that are still in use today. His department became the first and only automotive design school in the world.


The first concept car

The 1938 Buick Y-Job was the first car built with the sole purpose of expressing future styling ideas. Created by Harley Earl, GM’s chief designer, it was the first “concept car” in history. The Y-Job’s streamlined design featured sleek, organic forms integrating all elements – even the soft top completely disappeared into the body!

1938 Buick Y-Job

1938 – Buick Y-Job

And the world dreamt of cars…

Twelve years passed before GM unveiled its second concept car, the Buick LeSabre, inspired by the F-86 Sabre fighter jet. People became crazy about the LeSabre, and suddenly expressed a massive demand for dream cars. They wanted to be shown a great future. This gave Earl the chance to fully express his genius. He became the creator of many unforgettable concepts in the 1950s.

1951 GM Le Sabre

1950 – Buick LeSabre

The golden age of concept cars

In order to expand the role concept cars could play to inspire customers, GM created the “Motoramas”, its own touring motor show. They became a national institution. Many concept cars were unveiled at each Motorama. Paralleling the first golden age of automobile design, eight Motoramas were held between 1949 and 1961, attracting more than 10 million people.

Following Detroit

GM expanded very early into Europe, taking over Vauxhall in 1925, and Opel in 1929. Harley Earl wanted Vauxhall and Opel to enjoy their own design structures, and founded their studios in the early 1930s. He visited them on a regular basis and brought along his ideas, his visions and his methods – like clay modelling (picture: Vauxhall studio in the late 1940s).

The Firebird saga

The experimental, gas turbinepowered GM Firebirds count among the most outstanding concepts created for the Motorama. Each has its own vocation: the 1953 Firebird I seeks performance, the 1956 Firebird II embodies the long distance family sedan of the future, and the joystick-commanded 1958 Firebird III is a super-sophisticated laboratory on wheels.

1958 GM Firebird III

1958 GM Firebird III

A concept car hits production

Presented at the 1953 Motorama, this classic of American design which opened a lineage of mythical sports cars,was the first concept car to go into full-scale production. The Corvette was also the very first production car with a fibreglass body, which made it possible to quickly satisfy the huge demand resulting from its Motorama success.


1953 – Chevrolet Corvette

1,200 people in design!

During the 1950s, more than ever before, styling was king at GM. By 1956, Earl’s staff consisted of 1,200 people, who moved into brand new design facilities in the $125 million Technical Center in Warren. Designed by Eero Saarinen and located in Detroit’s periphery, it was the first industrial park of its kind. It still hosts GM Design.

The first women designers

In the early stages, automotive design was exclusively reserved for men. However, by the 1950s, society had changed dramatically. Earl recognized that the automobile industry would benefit from women’s input, and hired the first female designer ever (picture: Earl and the “Damsels of Design” in 1958).

The end of an era

A milestone, the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado closed and won the “battle of the tailfins” among the car manufacturers with its record 97 cmhigh units! It marked the end of a deliberately decorative styling. It also was the last creation in Earl’s 31 year-long tenure as head of GM Design. Earl passed on a fully established design activity, as well as unforgettable cars.


1959 – Cadillac Eldorado

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