Our secret Barrett-Jackson correspondent caught up with Richard Earl, grandson of famed GM designer Harley Earl at the auction in Scottsdale this past weekend, where he was monitoring the bidding on two vehicles that bear his grandfather's penmanship. With the elder Earl's design legacy featuring prominently among collectors' must-haves, what does Earl the younger think of Detroit's modern-day designs in context of their 1950s-era heritage? Can the Big Three regain their dominance without a more progressive approach to design?
Talking to Richard Earl about his grandfather can be like talking to Quentin Tarantino about himself: It's his favorite subject. To hear Richard speak about his legendary grandfather, GM designer Harley J. Earl, you would think the man had actually created the automobile. While that distinction doesn't go to Earl, the forward-thinking designer did bring mass design to mass production, creating concept cars so gorgeous they're some of the most sought-after vehicles in the collector car market.
With the Oldsmobile F-88 concept fetching a record $3.24 million at last year's Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale, Richard Earl is making the rounds at this year's event, spreading his granddad's design theory and heritage to the masses and watching the bidding on two more Earl-designed vehicles, the outrageous GM Futurliner show bus (lot #1307) and the emerald of the show, the 1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special. Like the F-88, both were built exclusively for the Motorama shows, and in the words of Richard Earl, "Barrett-Jackson is the closest thing to a Harley Earl/Motorama show-business-on-wheels experience of the 1950s."
Richard Earl is without a doubt an opinionated critic, and heartfelt supporter of General Motors.
"It's blasphemy that the GM executives don't know or care about their heritage," he said. "I love the company and am only mad because management has not taken the proper steps to forward the brand. Someone should draw a line in the sand."
Earl sees the biggest dilemma facing General Motors is the company's refusal to return to its heritage. Notwithstanding the Chevrolet Corvette, which he says is still one of the greatest sports cars available in the world, GM has continued to churn out mediocre designs. Better design, he says. would go a long way toward returning the company to prominence. Still, GM isn't the only victim of bland, simplistic designs, he says. Ford and Chrysler have also begun to suffer, and the city of Detroit has hit hard times along with them.
"Detroit was the nucleus of the car world, the center of design. Now, almost everyone has turned their back on the city and the Big Three, looking at foreign cars, not only for engineering and safety, but for non-conformist designs."
As Earl noted, Harley Earl's designs were adored both by car enthusiasts and those who appreciated them purely as aesthetic objects. Plus, just as works by his contemporaries in modern art, like Jackson Pollack, have fetched upward of $20 million, Earl's concept cars are likewise reaching new heights at auction. Is it their sheer rarity, or have their sculpted windshields subtle curves and intricate interior details — which still look fresh and innovative — affected a deeper connection among collectors?
Back to the present day, a pressing question remains for GM, Ford and Chrysler. Will the Detroit giants embrace their design heritage, or will they continue to cede the most innovative designs to European and Japanese companies? Now, jump ahead five decades. Will a collector of the future pay $4.5 million for a Pontiac G6?
Richard and Harley Earl would likely agree on the answer.
GM's Futurliner Brings in Record-setting $4.5 Million at Barrett-Jackson [internal]