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Harley Earl, the Rise of GM, and the Glory Days of Detroit

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Ford based his company on concept of giving buyers the cheapest car possible. Durant envisaged an array of vehicles at different price points. So he bought Buick, Oldsmobile, Oakland, Pontiac, Marquette, Ewing, Welch, Rapid, Sheridan and Scripps-Booth.

He bought auto-parts businesses such as Hyatt Roller Bearings for $13.5 mill, mostly in GM stock. In the deal he alsdo got Alfred Sloan, who became manager of the United Parts Group. And he bought Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co (Delco) which produced the first electric starter for Cadillac. He paod $27 million for 60% of Fisher Body Co, then, in 1926, another $200 million for the remaining 40%.

Sloan took charge after 1920 stock crash ruined Durant. He reined in the semi-autonomous divisions and focused each on a different maket segment, Chev $600-800 cars, Oakland (later Pontiac) $900-1200, Oldsmobile $1200-1700 for the rising young exec, Buick $1700-2500 for the well-established doctor or lawyer, and Cadillac $2500-5000 for the wealthy who cared only for quality.

GM cdn't compete with Ford on price, so had to offer better cars and services. They started offering hire purchase in 1916 and within 5 years they were financing 2/3 of cars they sold. Ford stubbornly refused bc he saw it as a moral issue. 1924 GM intro Duco paint developed with DuPont which held more lacquer (so brighter colors) and dried faster. Ford stuck with his black enamel.

The whole market was changing in the 1920's. Largely due to Ford's Model T, the market was saturated - everyone who wanted a car had one. But, as Alfred Sloan realized, when they came back to the market they were selling basic transport and demanding something better. They wanted more comfort, more power and more style.

Harvey Earl made his name customizing cars for rich clients and film stars - Fatty Arbuckle was an early client. He also got a rep for being willing to fix the foreign cars that Americans were bringing to California to escape East Coast winters. he fixed the cars, but he also crawled all over them, from which he learned how to make a good-looking car that was also comfortable.

In 1920's Cadillac regarded as not as good as Packard or Pierce-Arrow. But people wd buy a Caddy chassis from dealer Don Lee, and take it to Earl Automotive Works where they wd spend 2 or 3 times the price to have HE create a one-of-a-kind body guaranteed to impress. So Lee bought the Earl Co. In his first year working for Lee, HE oversaw the design of more than 300 cars, and his fame spread across America. Raked windscreens and two-tone or three-tone paint jobs were his speciality.

(Arbuckle got Earl to build a Pierce-Arrow-based seven seater touring car with a frame cast in bronze, an iridescent blue paint job, with white tyres four feet in diameter, and with an 825 cu in motor. It took six weeks just for the 21 coats of paint.)

Cowboy film star Tom Mix (on a salary of $17,500 a week) got HE to make him a white roadster with a silver-studded western saddle designed into the hood.

Big break came with the 1927 Cadillac. GM concerned that Packard outselling Caddies, even though higher priced, mainly bc of the Cadillac's stodgy styling. Earl was given 90 days to design two new Cadillac La Salles for 1927. So he basically stole a lot of details off the Hispano-Suiza, a French lux car that cost 5 times the price of a Cadillac.

In 1932 GM considering axing Cadillac bc of poor sales. But the Cadillac national sales manager, a German immigrant Nicholas Dreystadt, turned up at the board meeting, uninvited, and made passionate appeal. Told them that there was a small, barely tapped market for the car - well paid balck entertainers and sportsmen. Cadillac dealers refused to sell direct to them, so they had to pay a white inntermediary to get the car. But they loved Cadillacs bc they were a sign that you'd "made it". Only available status symbol, since they cdn't join country clubs or buy in upmarket suburbs. The Board listened, gave him 18 months to develop the "negro market". In that time he incr sales by 80%, was promoted to GM, and gained place in history as "the man who saved Cadillac".

When Neville Chamberlain returned to Britain waving his piece of paper and claiming "peace in our time", Winston Churchill famously replied in a Commons speech "You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war."

HE 5 year recipe for model updates that didn't frighten the horses. A styling change - such as suitcae fenders - intro in Cadillac, then following year in Buicks, then Oldsmobiles, then Pontiacs, and finally, in fifth year, to Chrvrolets.

Feb 1 1942 govt decree banned sale of cars. The manufacturer's inventory of half a million 1942 cars was to be warehoused and doled out to the military as needed. National speed limit of 35 mph, not to save fuel, which was plentiful, but to save tyre rubber, which was not.

Nicholas Dreystadt was in charge of GM unit making bomb sights, but lacked skilled workers he needed. So hired 2000 black prostitutes to do it. Hired their madams as well, bc figured they wd know how to amnage the girls. Most were illiterate, so Dreystadt taught himself the necessary skills, then filmed each step to show the women. Within weeks the women were turning out better wirk than the skilled machinists before. But after the war, the unions replaced them all with white workers, and refused to let GM hire any of the blacks. Quite a few committed suicide.

1946-8 the carmakers just released face-lift versions of their 1942 cars. Didn't matter, bc so much pent-up demand for cars that they cd sell everything they cd make. Cadillac had 96,000 more orders than cars they cd produce. A new phenomenon - groups chipping in to buy a shared Cadillac.

In post war period, GM utterly dominant. Its trad rival, Ford, was limping, losing big money and top employees. d

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