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SPECIAL EVENT (DAYTONA, FLA.) - Harley Earl: History behind the Daytona trophy

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
Harley J Earl Trophy presented to Cotton Earl winner of the 1958 Daytona 500, by (left to right)Ray Nichols, S.E.Knudsen, Harley J.Earl, Cotton Owens, Jim Crawley; Bill France

  • SEE ALSO: More about Harley J. Earl - Richard E. Earl's Car of the Century site
  • DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. February 13, 2008; Alan Tays interviewed Richard Earl, grandson of the legendary car guy and visionary car designer for GM Harley Earl, for whom the Dayton 500 winners trophy is named and submitted this story for the Palm Beach Post:

    What are the best-known sports trophies? Even casual fans know about the prizes for the Super Bowl, the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs and the top player in college football and can identify the people those awards are named after (Vince Lombardi, Lord Stanley and John Heisman).

    But what about the Daytona 500? Its trophy is named after Harley J. Earl.

    Who was Earl? Do NASCAR's drivers know anything about him? "Not a thing," said J.J. Yeley. "No. Who is he?" said Reed Sorenson.

    "Actually, I've never even heard the name, to be honest with you," said Boris Said.

    Yeley, Sorenson and Said have never won the 500, never hoisted its trophy in triumph, so it's probably not fair to ask them. Let's turn to someone who (BEGIN ITAL) has (END ITAL) done those things — three times.

    Dale Jarrett, do you know who Harley Earl was? "Not exactly, no. I know that I should know more about the history of it. I know it's an extremely nice trophy."

    None of these responses come as a surprise to Richard Earl, Harley's grandson. The 48-year-old West Palm Beach, Fla., resident is determined to put his late grandfather's prize on a figurative mantel alongside the most-recognized prizes in sports.

    Richard Earl believes Daytona's annual Speedweeks, which culminate in Sunday's 50th running of the Daytona 500, should be a perfect platform for a Harley Earl renaissance. He had hoped to do much to educate the public about his grandfather's legacy, but his plans haven't materialized. He's disillusioned, not sure he'll even accept Daytona International Speedway's invitation to attend the race.

    "When you look at all their promotion for the upcoming race, there's very little mention of Harley," Richard Earl said. "This guy did a lot.

    His name's on this trophy for a reason. He's a real icon."

    Harley Earl was an automotive pioneer, the father of car design. He has been called the "Da Vinci of Detroit." When he began in the 1920s American cars were basically boxes on wheels. By the time he retired in 1958, he and his designers had created many "concept cars" that looked more like spacecraft.

    From fins to female designers, chrome to Corvettes, Earl was responsible for dozens of automotive innovations.

    Earl was born into the automotive business. Actually, he was born into the horse-and-carriage business, which evolved into horseless carriages.

    His father, J.W. Earl, owned the Earl Carriage Works, which he renamed the Earl Automobile Works in 1908, five years after Harley was born in Hollywood, Calif.

    Harley went to work for his father's company, designing and building custom auto bodies for millionaires and movie stars. He came to the attention of a Cadillac executive, who commissioned him to design a car General Motors could market alongside its Cadillac.

    Earl created the 1927 LaSalle, the first American production car in which form was as important as function.

    "(Henry) Ford was building those cracker boxes on wheels and everybody was following his vision, which was no style, no design," Richard Earl said.

    GM President Alfred Sloan authorized Earl to create a style division.

    Sloan eventually put Earl's group on an equal footing with GM's finance and engineering departments, an unprecedented move that gave Earl the ability to take his futuristic creations to market.

    In 1938 Earl and his design team created the first concept car, the Buick Y-Job. Many of its features, including exterior door handles set flush with the body and retractable hidden headlights, would become standard fixtures of car models in later years.

    During Earl's era (he retired in 1958), GM put out some of the most distinctive-looking cars ever brought to market, featuring bodies that often resembled torpedoes, wraparound windshields, unique radiator grilles and, most notably, tail fins.

    "He invented the No. 1 reason for car sales, which was design," Richard Earl said.

    "Henry Ford created the need. Harley Earl created the want," said Jim Inglis of West Palm Beach, a car collector with a special fondness for Earl's stylish creations.

    "That's when the United States was at the pinnacle of the automobile industry," Inglis, 50, says of the Earl era. "Chrome and fins. We expressed ourselves in our automobiles. We weren't copying anybody. This was us. The chrome, the fins — this was us. It was just the height of the American automobile."

    Earl was an innovator in personnel matters, too, hiring the first woman auto designer in 1943. Eventually women — known as GM's "Damsels of Design" — made up 10 percent of his design team.

    In 1953 GM introduced the Corvette, the first American sports car. Earl, noting that growing numbers of post-war Americans were buying European sports cars such as Jaguars, MGs and Alfa Romeos, was determined that GM give them a U.S.-built alternative.

    Also in 1953, Earl and GM built the Firebird I, a single-seater that was as much jet airplane as car. Powered by a 370-hp gas turbine engine, it had a bubble canopy, a fiberglass body, swept-back wings and a vertical tail fin. It was not designed as a practical vehicle, but as a test of the possibilities of the gas turbine engine.

    Today, the Firebird I sits atop the Harley J. Earl Trophy.

    After Earl left Detroit, he and his wife, Sue, moved to Palm Beach.

    Richard, the youngest of their grandchildren, was only 10 when Harley died in 1969, but he remembers riding in his grandparents' fantastic cars. Harley Earl liked to use his concept cars as personal drivers.

    Richard Earl, a former Wall Street broker, makes his living selling Harley Earl-designed cars. "'Motoramic masterpieces' is how I like to refer to them," he said. He maintains the official Harley Earl Web site,, and is working on a biography of his grandfather.

    Actor John Diehl portrayed a ghostly version of Earl in a series of ads for Buick in 2002-04. "My name is Harley Earl, and I've come back to build you a great car," the Earl character said. Tiger Woods appeared in some of the ads. Otherwise, Earl's name is mostly unknown except to students of American automotive history.

    Richard Earl says GM, which he claims forced out his grandfather in 1958, wants it that way. He also says NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway don't appear interested in promoting something not directly connected with their founding family. Earl was a friend and confidant to NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and a NASCAR commissioner in the organization's early days.

    "Daytona International Speedway is proud of the heritage and tradition of NASCAR's marquee event and that heritage and tradition includes the Harley J. Earl Trophy," said David Talley, speedway spokesperson. "From the prominent display of the perpetual trophy in the Daytona 500 Experience, to an annual presentation to the winner of the prestigious Daytona 500, the Harley J. Earl Trophy is one of the most prized possessions in motorsports and is treated as such."

    At least one NASCAR driver has a clue about Harley Earl.

    "Do you know who the Daytona 500 trophy is named after?" two-time winner Michael Waltrip was asked last week.

    "Harley Earl," he replied immediately.

    "Do you know who he was?"

    "He was an automotive executive type guy. I think he built the Buick, didn't he?

    "I'd feel kind of silly not knowing since I have two of the trophies."

    Harley Earl innovations

    Some of the things that changed about cars during Harley Earl's era (1927-1958) at General Motors:

    — Annual style changes (also known as "dynamic obsolescence")

    — Removal of running boards

    — Tail fins

    — Lowered chassis and center of gravity

    — Distinctive radiator grille designs

    — Wraparound windshields

    — Keyless entry

    — Hideaway convertible tops