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LISTEN UP: Auto Designer Harley Earl Disrupted Detroit & Changed America!

Block & Tackle’s Exclusive Audio Book Review: “Fins,” the well-told story of the visionary 20th century GM styling chief whose bold creations - including the Corvette - ignited America’s obsession with automobiles and changed global car culture forever.


“Disruption” used to be a dirty word to American business in the first decades after World War II. It interfered with the manta of business as usual, which was just keep the profits flowing.

That business philosophy has been turned on its head in the digital age where being a disrupter is sometimes known as the path of get crazy rich fast, at least that is been the case for a publicized few in Silicon Valley. We have come to admire great disruptors like Apple, Amazon and Google.

Today the role of the disruptor has been recast, because the new business folk hero is Steve Jobs not Henry Ford.

Pioneering auto designer Harley Earl ushered in the modern era of automobile design which recognized sales often depended as much on how a car looked as how it performed on the road.

He was a major disruptor, even if he was an employee and not an entrepreneurial owner. His designs, ideas and force of will causes a paradigm shift in the entire auto industry, and set the stage for the automobile to dominate society.

Harley Earl who gave automobiles fins in the 50s and invented the modern modelling design system made GM the market leader for years after.

Listen Up: Why it is worth your time.


By William Knoedelseder

Narrated by Peter Berkot

Listening length 9 hours, 3 minutes (unabridged)

Publisher Harper Audio

Release date Sept. 18, 2018

This well written, highly readable book is the latest by Los Angeles journalist William “Bill” Knoedelseder, whose works include “I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Standup Comedy’s Golden Era,” recently also a Showtime series, and “Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer,” (2012), now in development as a possible event series at CBS.

This time Knoedelseder weaves the personal story of the extraordinary Harley Earl with the rise of the modern auto industry and the impact of the auto on American culture and life.

Earl started with humble origins but rose to become a giant of the auto industry for thirty years, both figuratively and literally. Earl was six foot five inches tall, a college dropout and stuttered.

He innovated the use of clay to model full sized auto designs, and added his personal touch to cars from the 20s until the 70s which made GM the top auto seller in the world – a far cry from today.

His most famous contribution were the fins that appeared initially on Cadillac’s and then on all manner of vehicle, many manufactured by one of his competitors playing catch-up. .

The fins were a tribute to the importance of aircraft during World War II, and instantly caught the nation’s fancy.

“Drawn to styling of modern aircraft,” writes the Rod Authority website. (Harley Earl) enjoyed incorporating design ideas into his own designs. The automotive tailfin has a direct relation to airplane tailfins. Together with Bill Mitchell, Franklin Q. Hershey and Art Ross, HJE designed the 1948 Cadillac to be very much like the then secret Lockheed P-38 “Lightning” aircraft. This was the first usage of an automotive tailfin in production.”

The fin fad faded by a decade later. By then Earl was off to new successes.

As a child, Earl worked with his father making carriages pulled by horses. When came a long they were mostly boxy and utilitarian, but young Harley was able to transfer that experience to the new horseless carriages and the cars that followed.

Earl started out making one of a kind concept show cars for wealthy car enthusiasts and movie stars in Hollywood, bringing publicity and thanks to that fame, he was discovered by Detroit.

Beginning in the 1920s, Earl revolutionized the styling and then marketing of autos at a time the car culture was becoming inextricably interwoven with almost every aspect of American life.

His first car made for movie stars were sleek and looked ready to hit the race track when most other autos were boxy and functional in the tradition of Henry Ford’s Model T.

In Detroit, he brought that element of art, and a sense of design, to General Motors products, which before him were mostly driven by the manufacturing needs.

Knoedelseder manages to mix Earl’s biography with the changes in the auto industry and the impact of a society on wheels.

The Earl era can’t return because today all cars are kind of boxes made mainly to be aerodynamic in order to meet fuel standards.

So, the fanciful designs Earl loved, including fins, would not make it out of the wind tunnel tests these days.

However, the contributions Earl made created cars that advanced the art, and influenced auto design forever after. His cars often were a work of art. They did not all look like they came off the same robot assemble line.

They were art - just ask a collector.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I have known and been friends with Bill Knoedelseder for many years, going back to when he was a hard-hitting investigative reporter for a dozen years at the LA Times.

He left print to work in television and in recent years has turned out a series of high quality non-fiction books.

William Knoedelseder - Hey Bill!

I also strongly recommend his 2012 audio book on how the king of beers was forced to sell his thrown..

Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer

Listening Length: 12 hours, 12 minutes

Publisher HarperAudio

Release Date: November 6, 2012

To learn more about his career accomplishments, his bio, from The Martell Agency website, where he is represented for speaking engagements.

Now listen to his book and comment here on what you thought of Harley Earl and Billy’s book.

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