Even if you know nothing about cars and your only exposure to American automobiles is TV and movies, you probably recognize this shape. It’s been featured on everything from T-shirts to postage stamps, a quintessential icon of Fifties Americana in all its grandeur and absurdity. It is, of course, the 1959 Cadillac.
The ’59 Cadillac emerged from a seismic shift at General Motors and marked the transition between two very different eras in automotive design. This week, we look at the history of the 1959 cars and the final days of legendary design chief Harley Earl.
BILL MITCHELL AND HARLEY EARL
For more than thirty years, Harley J. Earl held ultimate authority over all of General Motors’ automotive designs. Unlike his successors, he did not rise through the ranks — the styling section was created by visionary GM president Alfred P. Sloan specifically for Earl to run. Harley Earl had come to Detroit in 1926 to design the LaSalle, Cadillac’s new companion make. The results had been so commercially and aesthetically successful that Sloan conceived an “Art & Colour” section that would extend Earl’s talents to the entire GM line.
It took several years for Sloan’s plan to be fully realized, but by the beginning of World War Two, GM Styling had around 100 employees, with separate studios for each division. By 1959, it would have more than a thousand. Earl’s tenure at GM had its rough spots in the beginning, but by the time Sloan named him a corporate vice president in September 1940, the power of the man almost everyone called “Misterl” was unquestioned.
Harley Earl hired 23-year-old designer William L. Mitchell in December of 1935. Their initial meeting set the tone for the relationship that would follow: Mitchell, waiting for his interview with Earl’s assistant, Howard O’Leary, struck up a conversation with a towering, nattily dressed man who was wandering through the Art & Colour studios with a friend. They chatted for nearly half an hour before Mitchell realized the man with whom he’d been talking was Harley Earl himself. It was a natural mistake, since Earl, with his football linebacker’s frame and flamboyant fashion sense, didn’t look like anyone’s idea of a GM executive. Earl was impressed with the young man and Mitchell was quickly hired. By 1937, Earl had made him the head of design for Cadillac.
A sign of Earl’s regard for Mitchell was the fact that in 1949, Earl drafted Mitchell to run his outside design company, the Harley Earl Corp. (HEC). It was not an assignment Mitchell relished, but he later credited it for honing his abilities as an art director, pitching and selling concepts to clients. Earl sweetened the pot for his protege by giving Mitchell 10% of HEC’s gross income, a tidy sum that considerably exceeded Mitchell’s GM salary. Earl brought Mitchell back to General Motors in June 1953, promoting him to director of styling and informing him that he would be Earl’s successor as vice president.
THE REIGN OF MISTERL
Still, in 1953, Earl was not ready to relinquish power just yet. In his final decade at GM, that power was at its height. By then, Earl had the support not only of chairman Alfred Sloan, but also of new GM president Harlow Curtice, who had been Earl’s friend since Earl helped him resuscitate Buick in the mid-1930s.
Earl’s leadership of Styling could fairly be called enlightened despotism. He was brilliant and tyrannical, commanding loyalty through a combination of charisma and fear. One of his favorite tactics involved his specially constructed massive desk, which put him at eye level with visitors even while Earl was seated. He could be supremely charming one moment, a barking autocrat the next, and he brooked no disagreement with his aesthetic judgment.
Earl’s aesthetic for cars could be summarized as longer, lower, wider. Like many designers of his generation, he was fascinated by aircraft design and streamlining. He was never particularly concerned with actual aerodynamics, but he was always interested in sleekness and unity of form. During his long career, Earl had presided over a visual unification of the automobile. Upright radiator shells gave way to styled grilles; fenders swelled and melted into hoods and doors; flat windshields were replaced by curved glass. The cars of 1930 were clearly machinery, designed by engineers and merely decorated by stylists. The cars of 1955 were first and foremost the work of artists, with the engineers serving to realize the stylists’ whims. You could almost forget that an automobile was a mechanical object at all, so artfully was the actual machinery concealed beneath artfully draped sheet metal and shining chrome.
Chrome was a particular obsession of Earl’s, as it was for many stylists of the era. Although Europeans sneered at the gleaming brightwork of the typical American car, chrome trim was a primary signifier of opulence to the buying public. A bottom-of-the-line Chevrolet 150, a kind of car most often found in police or taxi livery, had almost no brightwork at all; a full-flight Buick Roadmaster could blind passers by with its glittering trim. GM stylists of the 1950s had many stories about Earl telling them to go back and add more chrome to an already heavily decorated design.
Monomaniacal as it could be, Earl’s leadership made General Motors the pacesetter for automotive style. Earl always claimed he only followed his own tastes, but he had a remarkably good feel for the public mood. Even the occasions when GM’s competitors outpaced them in some area were generally the result of internal resistance to Earl’s innovations, rather than any lapse on Earl’s part. When the Lincoln Zephyr debuted with flush-mounted headlamps in 1936, for example, it scored a styling coup only because GM executives had been vetoing Earl’s plans for the same feature since 1933. More often, it was GM that led the way, leaving competitors scrambling to catch up with features like pillarless hardtop roofs and tail fins.
Earl was always aware that he had to walk a fine line, anticipating where public taste was going without making his cars too radical for the average buyer. He was hesitant, for example, about tail fins, which first bowed on the 1948 Cadillac, and when Frank Hershey originally presented his be-finned clay model, Earl ordered him to take the fins off, fearing they might be too much for conservative Cadillac customers. It was only after GM president Charlie Wilson and new Cadillac chief engineer Ed Cole decided that they liked the fins that Earl embraced them.
GM RESPONDS TO THE FORWARD LOOK
The problem with a strategy based on calculated risks is that there is always a chance that one of your competitors will be more brazen, and that is precisely what happened to GM in the late fifties.
One morning in August 1956, GM stylist Chuck Jordan happened on a fenced-off lot filled with new 1957 Chryslers, probably awaiting shipment to dealers. Chrysler’s styling chief, Virgil Exner, had already revived that company’s fortunes with his “$100 Million Forward Look” in 1955, which gave Chrysler’s previously dull and boxy cars stylistic parity with GM. Now, Exner had leaped ahead with an even bolder design direction. Where GM cars were bulky and fat-looking, the new Chrysler products were clean, wedge-shaped, and more low-slung than even Harley Earl had dared; the new Plymouth, for instance, was almost 6 inches (about 15 cm) lower than a 1957 Chevrolet.
Jordan headed back to the office and told Bill Mitchell hat he had just seen. That afternoon, Mitchell went back to the lot to see for himself, as did many other senior GM designers. They were deeply shaken — they realized they had just lost their styling leadership.
At that time, GM Styling was wrapping up the 1958 designs and starting work on the 1959 cars. Although the ’58s were chrome-encrusted than ever, their underlying shapes were still essentially the same, pudgy-looking forms GM had been selling for a decade. Harley Earl’s mandate for the 1959 models was more of the same, but compared to the new 1957 Chryslers, that direction suddenly seemed openly embarrassing. There were rumbles among the design staff that if something weren’t done, GM would be dead in the water stylistically.
GM STYLING’S NEW DIRECTION
According to Michael Lamm, it was Bill Mitchell who finally made the decision. Earl was traveling in Europe and largely out of contact; in his absence, Mitchell was in charge. Mitchell had sworn that he would never let Earl down, but he had his own future to think about. He gathered together the senior designers, and they agreed to formulate a new styling direction, abandoning almost everything Earl had dictated for the ’59 cars. Mitchell enlisted the support of the divisional managers and of Harlow Curtice, who regularly stopped by to see the new cars. All of the new designs were sleeker and crisper, taking their lead not from Harley Earl, but from Mitchell and, indirectly, from Virgil Exner.
No one expected Misterl to be happy when he returned from Europe and many feared the inevitable explosion. For a man of Earl’s ego and temperament, a rebellion of such magnitude was unimaginable. As it happened, Earl was so staggered that he wandered around the studios for days, not saying a word to anyone. Earl ordinarily didn’t hesitate to fire anyone for any reason, but this time it would have meant a purge of his entire senior staff, including Mitchell, by all accounts his favorite son and heir apparent. Moreover, Harlow Curtice, Earl’s chief patron since the retirement of Sloan earlier in the year, had already sided with the mutineers, leaving Earl outmaneuvered. With little alternative, Earl finally threw his support behind the new direction.
In an interview with author Edson Armi years later, Mitchell insisted that he never defied Earl. He gave Earl the credit for the new aesthetic, noting that his old mentor always understood when it was time to give up a theme or idea that was no longer working. Nonetheless, the whole affair seems to have been a rude awakening for Earl, probably compounded by the dismal performance of the 1958 models a year later. The overdecorated ’58s arrived at the worst possible time, just as the U.S. economy was sinking into recession. As American buyers fled from ostentatious full-size models to compact economy cars, Buick and Pontiac suffered particularly nasty declines in overall volume. It was a pointed reminder that Earl’s day was almost over.
Once Earl had accepted the new direction, the rallying cry in the design studios became INNOVATE, OR YOU’RE ALL FIRED. The desire to one-up Virgil Exner was as much a matter of pride as of business necessity, particularly since Exner had once been one of them; Exner had begun his career in GM’s Pontiac styling studio in the 1930s. In such a climate, no idea was too weird to consider, from triple tail fins to cyclopean centralized headlamps. As outré as some of the final 1959 designs became, they were less grotesque than many of the concepts that didn’t make it. The individual stylists knew that if their ideas weren’t sufficiently outrageous, their jobs were on the line.
Styling had long been in the driver’s seat when it came to new designs, but the development of the 1959 models was further complicated by the cost accountants. The 1958 cars had had all-new bodies, and typical GM practice was to use a body shell for at least two years (with modest facelifts and trim changes) to amortize the tooling costs. The new direction for the 1959s demanded yet another set of all-new bodies, which was expensive even for GM. The result was a push to cut production costs, including much greater sharing of body shells than ever before.
For around 20 years, Chevrolets and Pontiacs had shared a smaller corporate “A-body,” while low-line Oldsmobiles and Buicks used the larger B-body shell, and big Buicks and Cadillacs used the full-size C-body. For 1959, the A-body was abandoned, leaving all Chevrolet, Pontiac, Olds, and Buick models to share the B-body. (On paper, Cadillac retained its separate C-body, but it was now essentially just a stretched B.) Furthermore, all five makes now had to share the same front doors: the units originally designed for Buick’s big sedans, which incorporated a dramatic side sweep.
The 1959 cars were GM stylists’ first real confrontation with something that would become a crippling problem in the decades to come: how to make five variations of the same body shell look different enough that the buyer of a $5,000 Buick would not be dismayed by its commonality with a $2,500 Chevy. Moreover, they had to do accomplish that feat while still retaining the established visual identity of each brand. At Chrysler, Virgil Exner had been able to essentially start from scratch; sales were slow enough that there was nowhere to go but up. In contrast, even with the losses of 1958, GM still controlled around half the U.S. market and had to be very cautious about not confusing or alienating their existing customers.
THE 1959 CADILLAC
No division was quite as worried about that prospect as Cadillac. In the 1950s, Cadillac was firmly established as the most prestigious car made in America — Packard, Cadillac’s traditional rival, was finished by 1958, Lincoln and Imperial were also-rans, and neither Mercedes nor Jaguar had enough presence in the U.S. to impress the hoi polloi. Owning a Cadillac was a badge of achievement to which many aspired. Those who managed it were rewarded with high quality, excellent performance, and remarkably high resale value. To maintain those qualities, Cadillac had to walk a razor’s edge between design leadership and styling continuity: each year’s model needed to be recognizably different from the last’s, without making its predecessor obsolete.
Born of these contradictory pressures, the 1959 Cadillac emerged as a delirious mixture of the familiar and the outlandish. Few of its individual styling cues were truly new, but even those recognizable elements were turned up to eleven.
The most significant change — and the least controversial — was that the 1959 Cadillac was lower and slimmer-looking than the ’58. Overall height dropped by around 3 inches (7.5 cm), model for model, but the beltline and hood were lower, too. The 1959 Cadillacs were as much as 8 inches (20 cm) longer than their predecessors and just as heavy, but they looked lighter. The bulbous shapes that had previously characterized Cadillac styling were gone.
Also gone were Cadillac’s traditional domed roofs and thick roof pillars. There were now four basic roof shapes for Cadillacs sedans and coupes. All were pillarless hardtops, with vastly more glass area than before. Sedans were offered with either a sleek, six-window roofline with a steeply curved backlight or a four-window design with a nearly flat, cantilever roof, extending back past the C-pillars. Coupes, meanwhile, had a swoopy, curvaceous greenhouse more befitting a fighter plane than a luxury car. All of these variations retained Earl’s beloved wraparound windshields, which offered panoramic visibility, but bruised many an unwary knee with their obtrusive dogleg A-pillars. The fourth and final roof design, offered only on the limited-edition Eldorado Brougham sedan, had a much more conservative curved windshield and straight C-pillars, with a sharply creased roofline that foreshadowed the more restrained styling of 1960s Cadillacs.
Looking only at the basic shapes, the 1959 Cadillac was a sleek and attractive car, but its overwrought detailing was hard to ignore. Again, few of its individual elements were truly new; dual headlights had debuted two years earlier on the 1957 Eldorado Brougham, and the heavy-lidded fender ridge above each light cluster was a clear evolution of previous years, as were the “cleats” on the traditional eggcrate grille. Even the massive afterburner-like nacelles in the rear bumper were just exaggerated versions of the ’57-’58 design, although the pods now contained only the backup lights, not the exhaust outlets, as they had before. Finally deleted was a long-standing and vaguely tacky Cadillac feature, the massive front bumper guards popularly known as “Dagmars,” after a buxom TV personality of the era.
The truly essential feature was, of course, the fins. 1959 was the eleventh year of the tail fin for Cadillac, and they had already become quite prominent. The new design, generally credited to stylist Dave Holls, took them a step further. The fins of the ’57-’58 cars were basically kick-ups of the rear fenders, and didn’t carry much additional decoration. On the 1959 Cadillacs, Holls moved the twin taillights, which previously were mounted at the base of the fins, to the middle, adding twin bullet-shaped taillight lenses. Without the tail fins, the ’59s would still have been grandiose and perhaps a little ridiculous, but the Buck Rogers fins took the design completely over the top.
The 1959 Cadillac and its GM siblings met with a mixed reception from the public. Sales were up very slightly over 1958, although still not as good as 1956 or 1957. Although critics generally liked the new Caddy’s lines, all but the most enthusiastic admitted to doubts about the gaudy tailfins. GM had unarguably reclaimed its lead in styling innovation, but even within the corporation, many felt they had gone overboard. Contemporary social critics like Vance Packard and John Keats had already characterized Detroit products as “insolent chariots,” and the ’59s only served to emphasize their point.
The 1959 models would be Harley Earl’s swan song. He reached GM’s mandatory retirement age on November 22, 1958, about five weeks after the 1959 Cadillacs went on sale. On December 1 of that year, as Earl had promised, Bill Mitchell moved into his mentor’s office and settled in behind Earl’s oversize desk. As a parting gift for their former boss, the design staff built Earl a customized roadster, the last of a line of special cars provided for his personal use. Soon after, Earl and his wife Sue packed up their things and left Detroit for West Palm Beach, Florida, and a quiet retirement. The Harley Earl Corp., now called Harley Earl Associates, remained in business under the leadership of Earl’s sons, Jim and Jerry, but Earl would do no more design work. He died of a stroke on April 10, 1969.
Bill Mitchell wasted little time moving away from the glitz and glitter of Earl’s final years. The 1959 bodies were carried over into 1960, but their more eccentric styling cues were toned down or deleted. The line would be redesigned again for 1961, becoming slightly smaller, crisper, and more tasteful, but also far less dramatic. By the mid-1960s, the jet-intake bumpers, fighter-canopy windshields, and rocket-exhaust taillights that had so fascinated Harley Earl were all but gone. Taillights gradually receded, as well, although Cadillac retained their vestiges well into the 1980s.
Harley Earl represents something of a conundrum to the cultural historian. Calling him an artist is problematic, because throughout most of his GM career, he neither drew nor sculpted; giving him sole credit for GM’s designs would be a disservice to the hundreds of stylists and craftsmen who actually shaped those cars. Still, every one of the more than 40 million cars GM produced during Earl’s tenure was designed under his direct supervision, and all bore his unmistakable stamp. Many critics are still reluctant to accept mass market consumer goods like automobiles as works of art, but if we judge Earl in terms of his impact on the American aesthetic, he towers over figures like Norman Rockwell or Frank Lloyd Wright. Even if you dismiss these cars (or automobiles in general) as crude products of a decadent and wasteful consumer culture, their significance is inescapable.
We suspect that far in the future, the familiar shape of the 1959 Cadillac will still be as definitive a symbol of the American century as Leutze’s painting Washington Crossing the Delaware is of the Revolutionary War. It may not be great art, but it is immortal.