Harley Earl's ghost represents automotive style renaissance

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Let us all hail the return of Harley Earl. Let us all recognize, though, that truth is even more wonderful than advertising.

Earl, the ghostly "star" of Buick's new campaign, may be the third-most-influential person in the history of the American auto business-after Henry Ford (who invented mass production of and the mass market for cars) and Alfred Sloan Jr. (who married marketing to multidivisional management, and fueled the unending growth of both General Motors and the global auto industry). Earl, who joined Sloan's GM in 1927, the year rival Ford shut down production of its Model T, specialized in something quite apart from those leaders' managerial prowess. He was the architect of auto eroticism.

Harley Earl was GM's head of styling and the man who, more than any other during the last century, fed Americans' love affair with cars. From the romantically curvaceous 1927 La Salle to the frighteningly fast 1957 Chevy Bel Air (the daddy of the street-racing muscle cars), "Mister Earl" dominated the look and feel of driving as no one else has, before or since. He was streamlining; he was tail fins; he was Motorama. He orchestrated Hollywood (where he was born in 1893) and Detroit into a decades-long symphony of desire. As design critic Stephen Bayley wrote in his lovely little biography, "Harley Earl," he designed cars that were "symbols of a massive public fantasy to which most of the citizens of the United States subscribed, and to which a large part of the rest of the world aspired."

It makes sense for GM's Buick division to resurrect the great designer, who died in 1969. Buick's sexy past still stirs memories: not for nothing did Stephen King title his newest novel, "From a Buick 8." (Nor is this the marque's first marquee appearance. The delightful 1992 novel, "Biography of a Buick," even co-stars a fictionalized Earl.) Using that glorious past to inspire today's troops-not just consumers but, more importantly, the internal forces, from designers to dealers-has great merit.

The print campaign-which includes a 12-page magazine supplement-does a superior job of marrying past to present, with classy copy and elegant photography that not only tells Harley Earl's tale compellingly, but integrates it with Buick's present.

It's not clear, though, that the campaign's TV component will incite the throng. Harley Earl's cars invited lingering, even lascivious looks, as the eye absorbed all the deco dynamism of, say, Buick's "Y" cars of the 1930s. But director Tony Scott's technique (decentered subject, fleeting takes, flash frames) seems less `30s retro than `80s retro-more "Top Gun" than "Twentieth Century." Similarly, pairing Earl's ghost with golfer Tiger Woods seems jarringly jejune.

That said, it's splendid to have Mr. Earl back-and all that he represents. A design renaissance is budding in the automotive world. Automakers again are intent on making consumers fall in love with the metal. Non-U.S. manufacturers still lead the way (nothing has made me want a two-car garage more than BMW's take on the Austin Mini and the new Z4), but America is catching up. (Have you seen the new Corvette, or Ford's Forty-Nine concept car?). Whether Buick recaptures the design spirit that invigorated its past, consumers will decide. But the Harley Earl campaign grasps something that transcends a single brand: the long overdue re-emergence of style-and romance-in the auto industry.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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