Autos of Interest: You had mentioned before that you’d like to discuss the broader history of automotive design. I’m all ears.

Ruzzin: Sure, I’ll describe a little bit of it. It really goes back to Harley Earl who invented the design process that’s really used all over the world, even still. I discovered a really interesting thing about him. You know he was an enormous influence on the industry. He was hired by Alfred Sloan, who had noticed that a lot of special bodied cars were being done on existing platforms, such as Lincolns, Cadillacs and Packards, or whatever. People in Hollywood would pay to have a special body made. That was called the Hollywood design influence.

Usually, a coachbuilder would buy platforms which would come with the engine and radiator and all the rest. They would do a body around that. Well, Harley Earl was involved with that and that’s how he got noticed; he was brought to Detroit to do a couple of cars and see what would happen. What they didn’t know about Harley Earl—I just found this out about a year ago—is that his dad was a carpenter who worked for movie studios. He worked for Cecil B. DeMille’s studio.

Harley Earl’s dad was apparently a good carpenter and developed a business there in the studio. He did hundreds and hundreds of wagons that were used in all the cowboy movies that were done before the war, when they were very popular. Well, DeMille built a new house and had Harley Earl’s dad do some carpentry work inside the house. Incidentally, Harley had been developing his carpenter skills so his dad brought him to help. In the meantime, he met DeMille.

Later, Harley Earl’s dad bought a house not that far away from DeMille, who was an enormous figure in the movie industry. He was innovative and powerful, having built studios and created a movie lot that had everything in it that they could possibly need. They had carpenters, people for designing and making costumes. They’d make stuff out of plaster and metal, everything that they needed.

So, Harley comes to Detroit and is working for Alfred Sloan, reporting directly to him. They did some cars and then hired him. They gave him the responsibility of the color section, to define colors for all the programs and all the cars—they’d found there was a cost reduction if they used the same paint and colors in all the different models that were created by the different divisions. He wasn’t given the responsibility to design cars, he had to earn that. The general managers of the divisions at that time, the presidents I suppose they were called, you know, they were guys that ran their own thing.

They were staying up late, drinking, playing cards, smoking cigars and they didn’t want some kid coming along telling them how their cars should look. Well, gradually, he worked his way in and was doing more and more, and then somebody came up with the idea of sharing components. That was the huge economic break-through. And Harley had gotten involved with that.

He was part of the creation of the GM Tech Center and had a lot to do with the show cars. A lot of the success of General Motors in the ‘40s and ‘50s was the result of Harley Earl. So you wonder, where did this guy get this big vision that he had? Well, he got it from Cecil B. DeMille and the idea of having a car design center that had everything in it that you’d possibly need was taken from the movie industry.

So, Harley, experiencing these big ideas, this big vision, comes to Detroit and he’s in a position to utilize his knowledge and his intelligence. And he does. Consequently he became like a god at General Motors until he left. It comes from the fact that, as a young guy, he experienced people that did big things and when he left there, he went and did big things in Detroit. The result, by the time he left, was the biggest design organization in the world with a great culture, and great organization and management. It was a huge success that evolved, and that studio system that I worked with was evolved from Harley Earl’s process from a management structure. That comes back to that question you had on what kind of autonomy we had.

We had unprecedented autonomy as long as we produced something valid and of value. And, you know, management would just let you go. We didn’t have a lot of people, it was a very small group but we could do a lot in a hurry. That’s how it worked, I think, throughout the building. The designers that had real capability and didn’t need much help at all didn’t get much. Others maybe didn’t have some of the background knowledge or experience, they would get more help.


Autos of Interest: It appears, particularly in the last ten or so years, that strong design talent has not been afraid of—or even gravitated to—underdog manufacturers. Kia would be an example. Is there merit to that observation?

Ruzzin: Yeah. Through the years, really back in the 1950s, GM Design essentially staffed all the design houses in the United States, and some people even went to Europe. People were graduating under GM and going to work at other places. Now, people leave from time to time—but from all the major companies—and will be attracted to and go to companies like Kia.

Since they have all the tools available to them, those people can make a big difference. The company also is in the mood to catch up and to distinguish themselves, so they will give the designers maybe more money to spend on the product, or do things that others would not do relative to the interior package. Consequently, they’ll have some pretty good success.

If they have some experience, some heritage and they get some advantage from the company in doing the products, then they are able to make a difference.


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