How Harley Earl and General Motors Shaped the Auto Industry


It’s a story that deserves its own review, but for now we’ll give you the short version. After World War II and the massive arrival of women in the workplace, GM’s public relations department realized the value of promoting a group of ten industrial designers they dubbed “the ladies of design.” It’s a terrible name, but Earl soon realized that women had a lot more purchasing power after the war and made decisions about big purchases. It took six members of GM’s Frigidaire group for its interior design department (Marjorie Ford Pohlman, Peggy Sauer, Sandra Longyear, Suzanne Vanderbilt, Jeanette Linder, Ruth Glennie).

GM promoted female designers as decorators, but the reality was that the women’s group was designing interiors from scratch. Highlights from the team include, but are not limited to, the introduction of the first retractable seat belt, mirror lighting and glove box.

Sadly, sexism has won this round. Earl once said, “I believe the future of skilled women in automotive design is virtually limitless. In fact, I think in three or four years women will be designing entire automobiles. However, he was wrong because his successor was Bill Mitchell, a professional fanatic who said, “No woman is going to stand next to my senior designers on the exterior styling of Cadillac or the other big brands of GM.”

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