Today we enjoy automobiles for their styling, but that was not always the case. In the early part of the twentieth century, automobiles were mostly designed by engineers and machinists. All of that changed in 1927 when General Motors created the Art & Colour Section to use styling to differentiate their offerings in the marketplace.
In the early 1920’s, General Motors President Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., saw the need to create a tier of automobiles ranging from Cadillac down to Chevrolet. In the quest to develop a companion Cadillac in the $2,000 range, he enlisted the Fisher brothers from the Fisher Body Corporation to bring a bit of stylishness to the new offering.
Fred Fisher had met Harley J. Earl, a west coast coachbuilder whose imaginative designs were well known from Los Angeles to New York. Earl designed the complete automobile as a unified whole rather than a collection of unrelated parts. The Fisher brothers summoned Earl to design the new LaSalle.
Earl prepared the LaSalle sketches and clay models in about three months. Then, Sloan brought in department heads to critique Earl’s proposal. After some fabrication tests, the new car was approved for production.
The LaSalle was introduced at the Boston Automobile Show in the Copley-Plaza Hotel on March 5, 1927. It was the first American production car completely designed from headlight to rear bumper by a stylist. On June 23, 1927, Sloan selected Earl to head the Art & Colour Section, the first corporate auto design studio to use stylists.
One of the items Earl introduced at Art & Colour was the use of clay styling models to demonstrate creative forms in three dimensions, which was not previously possible with drawings in two dimensions. Over the course of a couple of decades, these small models grew to full scale representations of proposed designs for evaluation and production planning.
The department’s name changed to the Styling Section on April 1, 1934. The sections 1930’s ultimate expression came to fruition with the 1938 Buick Y-Job, which is generally accepted as the auto industry’s first concept car. This streamlined concept was Earl’s attempt to focus all the department’s long-range ideas into one vehicle that could be tested in day-to-day exposure on the street and highway. The car’s features included hydraulic window lifts, electric-operated concealed headlights, and a power-operated convertible roof. GM allowed Earl to use Y-Job as his personal car for several years as he impressed his country club friends and others on the road.
When World War II ended, GM stylists found that they had many imitators among their competitors. They conceived of a one-company auto road show to showcase new designs. The General Motors Motorama debuted at the Waldorf-Astoria, in New York City on January 19, 1950. The company’s concept cars were the exhibits that captured public interest. The last motorama took place in 1961. More than 10 million people attended motoramas during the 12-year run.
Developments at the Styling Section led to creation of the General Motors Technical Center, a single campus for research, engineering, and development activities that opened in 1956. This facility is still producing styling innovations today. That’s over 88 years of style on the road.
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