In the '40s and '50s, my father and grandfather would hurry to the only car dealership in town when they heard that year's latest models had arrived. New models, revised models, updated styling, upgraded interiors... seeing the new cars on the showroom floor was an event.

Eventually they would walk home and talk cars, and a few nights later go back to the dealership to look again. Not because my grandfather was shopping for a new car; just because there were new cars to see, talk about, and most importantly, dream about.

A scene like that is hard to imagine when car companies will spend a fortune this year trying to drum up even lukewarm interest in their 2019 models, but that's how it was for millions of Americans.

Performance was important, but what cars looked like, what cars embodied... cars had an incredible impact not just on the country's economy, but on its broader aspirations and culture.

In large part that was due to one man: Harley Earl, a college drop-out who basically invented the entire profession -- and system -- of automobile styling.

As William Knoedelseder recounts in his excellent new book, Fins: Harley Earl, the Rise of General Motors, and the Glory Days of Detroit, Earl brought art, color, and panache to what had been the almost strictly mechanically-based mass-production automobile manufacturing business. (Henry Ford revolutionized production, but a Model T was the opposite of "styling.")

Along the way, Harley invented a brand-new system design. When he was sixteen, a nearby canyon flooded and he and his brothers used the resulting clay to mold car designs; even today, with CAD and other technologies available, clay is still a basic tool of car design. Later he worked in his father's carriage shop designing custom auto bodies for Hollywood stars. (Think West Coast Choppers, but cars.)

Then, when General Motors decided the best way to compete with Ford was to create attractive vehicles at a grand scale and reasonable cost... and change the look every few years without requiring extensive factory retooling... they brought in Harley, a man with experience using the then-novel technique of designing the entire car, not just individual components that would later be cobbled together. 

In Jobs-like fashion he recruited, trained, and led a staff of draftsmen, woodworkers, clay modelers, metalworkers, pattern makers, and most importantly designers, a skill in short supply since no art schools offered automotive design courses; car design wasn't recognized as an art or, heaven forbid, a profession. 

Within a few years his team had created the Aerodynamic coupe (a show car for the World's Fair), a car that "auto historians credit with ushering in teh modern era of car design."

And he's the man responsible for those fins, like the 1959 Cadillac tail fin that often serves as the defining image of 1950s America.

But just like Jobs, Harley was "hell to work for. Reminiscing about the experience decades later, his designers invariably described him as impatient and relentlessly demanding, with a hair-trigger temper and a seemingly bottomless reservoir of profane invective that he drew from whenever he felt the need to tell one of them that his carefully rendered drawing of a taillight 'looks like a baboon's asshole.'"

Yet in 1955 General Motors produced 50.8 percent of the record 7.9 million new cars sold that year -- more than double of Ford, and triple of Chrysler. (Even so, CEO Harlow Curtice wasn't satisfied; the inside joke at GM was, "The boss says we're still losing five out of ten sales.")

Also thanks to Harley, GM had "gained an inordinate measure of influence over the look of virtually all makes and models of American automobiles. By the mid-1950s, every design department in the industry had adopted his system, his techniques, and even his theories. Every studio was filled with -- if not directed by -- men he had trained."

I love books filled with practical, useful, actionable tips and strategies. 

But sometimes it's fun to sit back and learn about how other people accomplished amazing things. Learning from the challenges faced, the innovations developed, the roadblocks overcome... that's a great way to gain insights about whatever you are trying to accomplish.

If you agree, Fins is the book for you. It's the story of a man who charted his own course and overcame doubters and naysayers to help General Motors win on of the longest-running battles for market share in our country's history.

Fins is a fascinating story, well told.

Can't beat that.

(And if you like Fins, check out Bill's other books -- they're great. Like Bitter Brew: The RIse and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer, and I'm Dying Up Here: Hearbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy's Golden Era, the inspiration for the Showtime series I'm Dying Up Here.)

Published on: Sep 18, 2018
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