Having foreshadowed the style of General Motors' prewar cars with his 1938 Y-Job, Harley Earl was ready to set the tone for a new automotive era soon after World War II. The 1951 General Motors LeSabre not only showcased Earl's latest thinking about the look of cars, but it served as a symbol of his -- and GM's -- place in the auto industry.
Of the three American concept cars that truly changed auto design, Harley Earl's 1951 LeSabre had to be, by far, the most significant. Bits and pieces of the LeSabre kept cropping up on General Motors production cars throughout the 1950s. (Even its name survives to this very day on a Buick.)
The 1951 General Motors LeSabre was styled with
abundant jet-aircraft design cues and powered
by a specially built high-compression
supercharged V-8. See more classic car pictures.
Because most other automakers copied GM styling back then, LeSabre design cues ended up on everything from Henry Js to Thunderbirds.
Earl regularly drove the LeSabre to and from work. He'd use it to take special guests golfing, to restaurants, or to racing events. Sometimes his personal mechanics, Leonard McLay and Arthur J. Carpenter, would drive the LeSabre down from Detroit to Palm Beach, Florida, where "Misterl," as everyone called GM's larger-than-life styling czar, regularly touched up his winter tan.
For many, the LeSabre first gained attention on the cover of the March 1951 Motor Trend. That cover shot, in stark black on a blue background generated so much electricity it left many people utterly thunderstruck.
The LeSabre was very much the embodiment of what car-crazy kids dreamt. Wait, that's wrong; it went far, far beyond anything ever dreamt of. It was the car of the future.
This car stood for what Detroit had in store. Harley Early was not kidding. Detroit and South Bend had already been turning out some pretty dramatic postwar cars, but this one absolutely broke the mold. The wraparound windshield, that knee-high cowl, the fins, the "dagmars," the side ornamentation, that wonderful wraparound cockpit, the gorgeous supercharged aluminum ohv V-8: all unbelievable portents of things to come.
And come they did, one by one, as if Harley Earl were playing God with the auto industry. In the next section, find out how Earl's confidence and intuition made the dream of the LeSabre come to life.
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