GM Design in Rehab

Bob Elton
by Bob Elton

Enthusiasts born since 1975 may not believe it, but General Motors was once the world's automotive style leader. Under designer Harley Earl's direction, the General's products attained an unparalleled level of artistic achievement. Cars like the LaSalle, '55 Chevrolet and the early Corvettes embodied Earl's genius, and made the competitor's products look dated, clumsy and awkward.

When Earl retired from GM in 1958, his spirit lived on for at least two more decades. You can see his influence in the 60's Pontiacs and 70's Corvettes. And then, well, considering the styling of GM's vehicles in the last couple of decades, old Harley eventually began to spin in his grave. How such a style-led company could release a vehicle as ugly as the Pontiac Aztek or the 2000 Impala is anybody's guess. But, maybe, just maybe, the great man's spirit is back in GM's design studio. Consider the Buick LaCrosse…

The LaCrosse is a striking yet subtle design. Its surface development is nothing less than superb; the transitions from one plane to another are wonderfully harmonious. The creases in the LaCrosse's rear quarters add enough visual tension to keep the large surfaces from appearing merely bulbous, and they add length to what is actually a fairly short car for a mid-sized sedan.

Notice that the LaCrosse's rear door cut-line stops short of the wheel opening. This detail ensures that panel misalignment– a virtual certainty when building a mass-produced car– doesn't cut into the line of the wheel opening, creating an awkward disruption in the curve.

The LaCrosse's basic proportions are also perfectly judged. The A-pillars are aimed, in side view, right at the front wheel centers. If the A-pillars are too far forward (e.g. Chrysler LHS), the car looks like it's tripping over its wheels. If they're too far back (older Mercedes E-class), the car looks too formal to be a modern car. This detail seems to have eluded many designers, perhaps because of the need to be trendy and different, rather than inherently pleasing.

The C-pillar relationship to the rear wheels is equally important. Again, the LaCrosse gets it just right. The C-pillar's visual center and the rear of the roof are supported by the center of the rear wheel. This positioning gives the roof the visual support it needs to look strong. Too far back (Ford 500 and lots of other cars), and it looks like the designers skimped on the wheelbase. Too far forward, and the car looks stretched.

The mass of the roof plays off perfectly against the mass of the rest of the body. If the side glass is too short, a car looks like an armored pillbox (Chrysler 300). Too tall, and the car looks small and weak (early BMW 2002). A car needs a certain amount of body mass to look healthy, and the Buick achieves the perfect balance.

If a car's wheel openings are centered above the center of the wheels, the car looks like it is about to go off-roading, like the Ford 500 and F150. If the car sits too low on the wheels, it looks like an amateur custom job, like the majority of SEMA's tuner cars. The LaCrosse's wheels are ideally positioned: centered in the wheel openings. And the LaCrosse's tires are the correct diameter to fill the openings; no wimpy, under-tired econobox here.

Back when Harley Earl was boss, GM cars had no exposed fasteners, no visible joints between body panels, no raw edges of sheet metal. Even the gas caps were hidden on most models, lurking behind trick taillights or license plates. Today's government rules prevent the gas cap from disappearing, but in every other way, the LaCrosse lives up to the standards Harley Earl set forth those many decades ago. There isn't an awkward detail in the entire body. Of course, if Harley Earl was really in charge, the LaCrosse would have had three portholes in each front fender, and the Park Avenue would have four. Maybe next year…

While the LaCrosse's overall design still looks like a Buick, there are many elements, especially in the greenhouse, that are vaguely evocative of a refined and updated Taurus. Looking at the Buick, it's easy to imagine what the Ford 500 should have been– rather than the amateur Audi copy it became.

The LaCrosse's TV ads reflect the car's sense of refinement and understatement. No crazy driving on isolated, curving roads (closed course, professional driver, don't sue us if you try it and it goes badly), no tearing through the wilderness or splashing through mud puddles. No, the Buick LaCrosse is simply shown along with a beautiful, mature woman in a variety of subtly suggestive poses. Yes, Harley Earl is back at the Buick studio, and not a moment too soon.

Bob Elton
Bob Elton

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  • Sherman Lin Sherman Lin on Apr 25, 2007

    The overall look and style of an automobile is of course subjective. I think it was Harly Earl's protege Bill Mitchell who said that one hallmark of groundbreaking good design was that upon seeing such a design for the first time one would initially be put off by the looks. That over time the feeling would change and that eventually the design would be seen as attractive. His explanation fit how I came to see the caddilac CTS and my current car a Scion XB. I thought both were revolting when I first saw both designs because they were in striking contrast to what was curently out there but over time my feelings slowly changed to reflect admiration and attraction. The Aztek at least was an attempt to be different. The 2000 Impala however is a mishmash of horizontal and verticle lines. I still consider it repulsive although the newer current generation Impala I do find very attractive

  • Probert A few mega packs would probably have served as decent backup.
  • Lou_BC Lead sleds. Now-a-days GM would just use Bondo.
  • Jrhurren This is a great series. Thanks Corey
  • Tane94 Not as stylish as the Soul which it is replacing but a practical shape and bonus points for EV only.
  • Ronin What is the magical white swan event in the foreseeable future that will suddenly reverse the trend?Success tends to follow success, and likewise failure. The perception, other than among true believers, is that e-cars are a lost cause. Neither government fiat, nor government bribery, nor even the promise of superior virtue among one's peers have been enough to push past the early adapter curve. Either the bust-out is right now for e-cars, or it doesn't happen. Marketing 101.Even subtle language-manipulation, such as deeming those possessing common sense as suffering from some sort of vague anxiety (eg, "range anxiety") has not been enough to induce people to care.Twenty years from now funny AI-generated comedians will make fun of the '20s, and their obsession with theose silly half-forgotten EVs. They will point out that, yes, EVs actually ran on electricity generated by such organic fuels as coal and natural gas after all, and then they will perform synthesized laughter at us.