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1951 General Motors LeSabre

1951 General Motors LeSabre: Harley Earl's Think Tank

The 1951 General Motors LeSabre was conceived as Harley Earl's personal automobile. Earl, nicknamed "Misterl," was one of those industry titans who firmly believed in himself. He had total confidence that his own automotive likes and dislikes would become the taste of middle America. He had an uncanny intuitive sense combined with an almost naive innocence that said, "Well, if I like this, so will everyone else."

His intuition was usually spot-on. For decades, Harley Earl remained America's foremost automotive trendsetter, a position he actively pursued and jealously guarded. He certainly wasn't going to let any other car company get ahead of General Motors in terms of styling. And that was part of the reason why the LeSabre was born, yet it wasn't the entire reason by any stretch.

1951 General Motors LeSabre
General Motors styling chief Harley Earl drove the
1951 General Motors LeSabre as his personal car,
publicly flaunting the talents of GM's designers
and engineers.

Earl had a near-obsession to outdo his design rivals. The tremendously competitive Earl might have seen rivals where none actually existed, but prior to World War II, he saw himself doing battle on the streets of Detroit and Grosse Pointe with two people in particular: Ed Macauley at Packard and Edsel Ford at Ford Motor Company.

Edsel, who was anything but competitive by nature, kept coming up with wonderful, mouth-watering personal cars -- little Ford V-8 speedsters, big coachbuilt Lincolns, and his masterpiece, the 1939 Continental cabriolet.

Ed Macauley, who headed Packard's tiny styling department, also drove around Detroit, first in a boattail Packard speedster that he kept updating and then, in 1939, in a customized deauville coupe based on a Packard-Darrin convertible, a car he proudly called The Phantom. The Phantom's 1942 front end metamorphosed into the grille of the 1948 production Packard.

Don Kopka, who retired several years ago as Ford's design vice president, grew up in the tiny northern Detroit suburb of Pleasant Ridge. Kopka recalled how he used to go over to Woodward Avenue, where it bisected Pleasant Ridge, specifically to catch glimpses of Edsel Ford, Ed Macauley, and Harley Earl as they drove past in their insolent chariots. And he often did see them.

In those days, Misterl was still driving his shiny black Y-Job. The Y-Job was built in 1938 as a harbinger of future Buick styling, and it certainly served as that. But more important to Earl, the Y-Job gave him the opportunity to show off what he and his designers could do, and especially to flaunt it in front of his perceived Detroit rivals.

In one way, Earl "wore" the Y-Job just as he wore colorful, flashy suits and ties. All these appearance factors conspired to prove to the world that here was a man who set store by style, who chose his clothing carefully and drove not just the latest fashion but fashion that hadn't even come out yet. It was his way of telling his colleagues, Here's what you can look forward to, fellas, so you better watch out!

And thus it was with the LeSabre. The LeSabre replaced the Y-Job as Earl's manifest automotive destiny. He wanted a personal car for which there could be no competition, but he also wanted a car to show the world the promise of the future.

Harley Earl still drove his Y-Job for several years after the war, but he could see its design starting to fade. It had originally been made for Buick, using 1938 Buick mechanicals. Buick's general manager, Harlow Curtice, felt he'd gotten his money's worth from the Y-Job in terms of image, ideas, and publicity.

So when Earl talked to Curtice during the winter of 1946 and the two men began blue-skying postwar American automobiles, it wasn't hard for Earl to convince Curtice to foot the bill for yet another image vehicle.

Next, discover how Earl, Curtice, Buick engineers, and a new design studio played vital roles in the LeSabre's development.

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