Harley Earl’s Last Hurrah Part 1: 1959 Cadillac Cyclone Show Car

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A lot has been made of the supposed palace revolt against Harley Earl in the summer of 1956 by GM designers then working on the 1959 models. Earl was in Europe and while driving around Detroit on his lunch break Cadillac designer Chuck Jordan did some common sightseeing in Detroit, checking out the competition. Sitting in a Chrysler storage lot were some of the early production 1957 Mopar products, the first production cars to wear Virgil Exner Sr’s “Forward Look”. Jordan and his team were working on the ’59 models and he brought them to look at the new look Chrysler products. They immediately realized that Exner had made their own cars old fashioned – something shocking because GM was used to being the styling leader. The new Mopars had airy greenhouses and a low, sleek look. Their own designs for 1959, continued the trend under Earl in the 1950s of adding more and more ornamentation, lots of chrome and overstyling, without changing the cars’ basic upright and overstuffed shapes. With the backing of Harlow Curtice, who was then President of General Motors, they abandoned the “pudgy, fat” designs and tried to outdo Exner. When Earl returned from Europe, he was said to be shocked by the revolt, walking silently through the GM styling studios, taking in the new designs. In time he accepted the changes. Two years later he would retire from General Motors, with Bill Mitchell taking his place at the head of GM styling. That’s how the story goes. It’s accurate as far as it goes, but I think the way the story is sometimes told, as though a broken Harley Earl reluctantly accepted the rebuke of his own proteges. The truth is that until he retired in late 1958, Earl had absolute authority over the way GM cars looked. The 1959, 1969 and 1961 models were being developed when he was still in charge and he would have had to have signed off on any production design.

More to the point, the 1960 and 1961 models were directly influenced by the Cadillac Cyclone, the last GM show car made under Harley Earl’s direction just before he retired.

Carl Renner, who was in charge of the Cyclone, described it as Earl’s “personal project”.

“[In 1958], Mr. Earl appointed me to head Studio IV. My first assignment in Advance IV…was the XP-96, a new Corvette program…Mr. Earl also had me head a personal project he had going…the Cadillac Cyclone. With Advance IV and the Cyclone studio located next to each other, Mr. Earl had a door cut in the wall so I could go from one studio to the next. We finished the Cyclone before Mr. Earl retired [in December 1958].”

The Cyclone was intended to be a completely functional car, and there was some talk around the company that Earl might take this final creation with him to drive in retirement, but he opted for the Oldsmobile F-88 Motorama show car instead. We’ll see how the Earl, via the Cyclone, influenced the ’60 and ’61 Cadillacs in upcoming posts.

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