with fins: trapped out of time

by Art Chantry (art@artchantry.com)

i often get asked to do ‘presentations’ or ‘lectures’ or ‘talks’ (i dunno what to call them) where i stand in front of groups of people and show my work and talk about my ideas. it’s a lotta fun and i’ve had the opportunity to travel to places i would never had the chance to go ever before. i’ve been to duluth in late may – and it snowed! i’ve been to omaha three times – always at the height of summer (people cooked on the sidewalks). i’ve seen the tiffany dome in a hotel cocktail lounge in el paso. i’ve even been to the harvard medical museum n boston (they have the crowbar skull! and the crowbar!)

AC:loewy is far more well known than earl, at least among graphic designers. that's because he did so many corporate logos - classics like lucky strike and even the coast guard! i love that diagonal stripe on a coast guard boat - you can see it for miles. and only the coast guard has it, so you know who it is immediately. really brilliant observation on loewy's part. but, earl never did stuff in the home. he was strictly a big idea guy with planes and cars and (apparently) pole barns.

one the things i delight in doing at these talks is challenging my audience. since they are almost always professional designers or design students (with a healthy mix of alternative pop culture fanatics tossed in) i spend a lot of time mentioning the work of those people we ignore. the people that i love to write about here on my facebook page.

i love to ask the audience simple questions like, “who designed the happy face? the peace symbol? the swastika? the rolling stones’ logo? the telephone? starbucks? the record cover? sgt. pepper? the white album? the sex pistols? grunge?” nobody ever knows the answer to these questions, even though they encounter this stuff so often that they don’t even notice them any more. however, as design professionals, they all know about whomever is a “hot” name in the recent history of design – glaser, rand. or they VERY recent history – carson, sagmeister. but, they totally blank on the things that actually surround them. the information is there if you bother to look for it. i feel (way too strongly sometimes) that american design education has totally missed the boat.

one of the my favorite questions is “who put the tailfin on the cadillac?” seems simple enough. it’s one of the most ubiquitous, historical, retro/nostalgic, sentimental favorite, persevering, endearing and popular american design solutions of the last century. yet, we professional designers have very likely never even thought to consider who did it. why not? why don’t we study this in professional graphic design classes? or in ‘design history’ books? why isn’t the answer to this taught to us?

his even has a great name: HARLEY EARL! i mean with a name that good, shouldn’t he be remembered a little more often?

harley earl spent most of WW2 designing modern fast aircraft and streamlined some classic war planes. i believe he was even working on the new modern technology of jet aircraft. when he left the military, he signed on to a solid but struggling auto company called “general motors” (the ultimate in generic branding).

harley was a physically big man, a military man. he was used to telling people what to do and that was usually to follow him where ever he desired to go. he was a cigar chomping larger-than-life commander of a man. when he entered a room, he didn’t need to say a single word to completely control it. he was intimidating. and he took over as head of design at GM and never looked back.

for the next decade (plus) he remade the american automobile in his personal vision. he streamlined the american automobile. he began with the firebird – the first modern ‘dream car’. it was a prototype of what a car of the future could be. it was fitted with all sorts of modern ideas, disk brakes, turbo charging, streamlining, bubble tops, nose cones and yes, TAIL FINS. harley earl was virtually building a jet pane on wheels. and boy, did it look cool. he even drove his initial firebird around town as his personal vehicle for years. the man had style.

immediately, he began to transfer these experimental ideas-on-wheels into the production line. and that

s how the cadillac (the top of their engineering line) got it’s fins. i believe it was the ’48 or ’49 caddy (you experts out there will correct me, i’m sure). before long it was a standard of virtually the entire production line of GM automobiles. and the industry (and the world) followed suit. no function, just cool looking.

all the chrome, the “dagmars” (those over sized chrome nose cone “breasts” on the front bumpers of some makes – like the caddy – that were nicknamed “dagmars” after a particularly well-endowed sexpot starlet of the era), the bubble tops, the suicide doors, the chopping and channeling, the hardtop convertibles, etc. etc. etc. were are lifted from the Kustom Kar culture of the era. detroit and GM watched the southern california car customizers very closely. but, the mainstream design efforts were straight out of aircraft design.

harley also instituted the “motorama” events that were staged all over the country. they began in detroit and quickly began touring the entire nation. in the postwar era, after the war effort halted automobile production, they public was extremely hungry for peacetime cars. that’s where hot rodders and car customizers emerged – bored displaced war vets looking for action. they didn’t have cars to drive, so they simply built their own out of the parts and rubbish left over after the war. the things they built went faster and looked cooler. they innovated our modern peacetime era with their efforts.

detroit did virtually the same thing. they started from a sort of ‘scratch’ after the war. but, they were so huge and powerful that they devoured everything around them as well. they virtually absorbed the entire cultural process of custom auto creation and committed it to the production line.

this didn’t exclude what came out of europe, either. harley took a look at the sports cars from italy and england and decided to make an american sports car, too – only one that really went fast. a big engine sports car like only america could make. thus was born the corvette. almost a direct cross-breed of the firebird (especially the firebird II, which looked like it could actually fly) and those british triumphs and mg’s. they even incorporated the new-fangle technology of the fiberglass body- an idea being pioneered by the likes of ed “big daddy” roth and others. it was an instant legend.

later, as the middle class family began to dominate the purchasing public (all those returning vets starting to settle down and raise long-delayed families). the larger (thus safer) family vehicle like the station wagon became increasingly popular. it was a truck combined with a car (sorta). but with lotsa chrome.

never straying too far from his roots, harley began to envision a station wagon that was also fast – a sports car for the family man. his initial idea was attached to the first version of the corvette – with a station wagon back end on it. it looked wild, but it never got past the prototype. by the time the chevy “nomad” (as he called it) hit the market, the body shape was mounted on the back of the mid size ’55 chevy belair. but it still had the new chevy short block V8 engine in it and it went fast (with a little tinkering). and of course, it was streamlined like a jet plane as well, right down to the tail fins. the non-station wagon version of the belair quickly became the fastest, coolest most iconic american auto ever built this side of the model t.

the standard design look or autos of the time is referred to by experts as the “monocoque” look. i grew up calling it the ‘bubble car’. the early ’50′s auto still looked like something like a military tank bred with a buck rogers rocket ship. big, blobby, glued to the ground, heavy. was it forced all the detroit competitors to re-tool and design their entire production line to incorporate the “new look”. it was a enormous financial burden to take on so suddenly, but they had to do it or lose the bulk of their sales to the revitalized GM. the era of the tail fin was underway.

the results of this radical mainstreaming of jet plane technology conquered the american auto market for the next decade or longer. GM led the market for ever, with a copy-catting (bet sturdy) ford following closely on their heels. harley earl was king of the (auto) world. and he dominated it with his ideas and personality like no one before or since.

but, given enough time, everything changes. so did american pop culture. harley got comfortable and enjoyed his power at the expense of his instincts. he followed market driven decisions rather than his aesthetic whims and essentially made a lot of money, but went the wrong direction. eventually, tail fins and jet planes and streamlining and fast were passe. japanese and european imports had begun to enter the american market more and more (how does a jet plane ever compete with a volkswagen?) economy and small were in. “big corporate is out” was the mantra. harley became a dinosaur.

so, like all dinosaur execs, harley was unceremoniously put to pasture. i’ve never read a detailed accounting of how he was ‘let go’. but from context, i gather it was badly arranged and insulting to his monumental ego. so it goes in capitalism.

he was still a relatively young man, with many productive years ahead of him. but, how does one follow the job as “head of american cultural design” after the culture had moved past you? how does one come back after your ideas become “retro”?

this ad is one i found in some industrial magazine somewhere. it shows harley earl in a later incarnation as a designer of prefab industrial/commercial architecture. (note the similarity to aircraft hangars). it seems so sad to see “the man who put the tail fin on the cadillac” huckstering something as mundane and dull as these ‘pole barn’ structures. granted, they may have a lot of (period-imprisoned “international moderne”) style. in fact, they’re kinda cool in a classic postmodern ‘retro’ way (however those attitudes hadn’t been invented yet when he did this work.) basically it shows a great brilliant man trapped out of time.

he soon died. he was pretty much forgotten by most of us. a sad end to one of the most important and influential design minds of postwar america.

i wonder if he even got a new york times obit?

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