Don Lee

The west coast's most successful Cadillac dealer. San Francisco, USA.
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Donald Musgrave Lee (August 12, 1880, Michigan - August 30, 1934, Los Angeles, California) was the exclusive west coast distributor of Cadillac automobiles in the early 20th century.

In 1919 Lee purchased the Earl Automobile Works of Hollywood, California. Harley Earl, the son of the company's owner, was kept on as manager. Renamed Don Lee Coach and Body Works, the company produced many custom designed Cadillacs for the rich and famous. Harley Earl left the company to become the head of General Motors styling department in 1927.

Don Lee died in Los Angeles in 1934, leaving control of his auto and broadcasting empire to his son, Thomas S. "Tommy" Lee (1906-1950).

donlee logo

Don Lee logo. The west coast's most successful Cadillac dealer. San Francisco, USA.

Born in 1893, Harley Earl grew up in Hollywood. His father, Jacob W. Earl, owned the very successful coach building business known as the Earl Automobile Works building custom-bodied cars for wealthy clients.

Young Harley was interested in the family business from an early age and worked with his father throughout high school and college. He had the Hollywood style and panache but not the arrogance or sloth that often came with being surrounded by such ostentation. After finishing college at Stanford where he studied engineering, art and anatomy he went to work full time for the Earl Automobile Works. It is unclear whether he actually graduated with a degree from Stanford but that question is certainly irrelevant in light of his later accomplishments.

In a 1956 interview Earl described his early role at his father's company. "You see, it was the Earl Carriage Works. My father had a carriage factory out there with about 500 bodybuilders and painters and, you know, the people that go with that enterprise. And then, after the war -- World War One -- I started in that business, and he retired, and I took it over and ran it for a very short time, and then we had an opportunity... for about six months, my dad was a little sick, and he went away, and I put it, the carriage business, into the motorcar business; started selling bodies, interesting one for the movies."

One-off custom-bodied luxury cars were the bread and butter of the Earl Automobile Works and Harley had the talent, style and instinct to make customers very happy.

In 1919 the company was sold to the west coast's most successful Cadillac dealer, Don Lee of Los Angeles. Seeing that Earl had the talent, drive and finesse for the business of making cars for the stars, Lee kept young "Hollywood" Harley Earl on as manager of the company. In fact, part of the purchase agreement was that Harley Earl would stay on and run it. Earl talked about those early days of the Don Lee ownership.

"It didn't take long," he said, "we were turning out about 300 car bodies a year, custom bodies, and shipping some to India and Europe." One of his first major projects for the Don Lee business was to design and build a car for movie star Fatty Arbuckle that became one of the most expensive cars ever built up until that time at around $28,000. This and similar high profile projects kept the names Harley Earl and Don Lee at the top of the list for money-is-no-object automobile customers.

In succeeding years it was not unusual for the Detroit Cadillac plant to ship a hundred chassis at a time to the Don Lee Coach and Body Works. Business was brisk. Their reputation as the premier custom car builder continued to grow, and Harley Earl was running the show like a showman. He had a talent not only for the aesthetics of car design but for the promotion of the business as well.

It is likely he learned some of these skills from the film stars for whom he built cars. These talents would result in his being recruited a few years later by Fred Fisher to design the new LaSalle automobile and ultimately to be GM's first design chief. (source: theautochannel).

don lee card

Don Lee business card.

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Interior of the Don Lee showroom, circa 1926-27.

don lee building old

The photo above shows the Don Lee Cadillac Building on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco as it appeared after its construction in 1921.

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The Don Lee building, in San Fransico, Built in 1921. This building was designed by Charles Peter Weeks and William P. Day to house Don Lee Cadillac.

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A huge Cadillac crest still, adorns the building today. The Don Lee building has been remodeled to house a movie multiplex and residential lofts.

don lee camera

Having amassed a fortune selling automobiles Don Lee branched out in broadcasting in 1926 when he purchased KFRC in San Francisco and relocated the station to the top floor of his Cadillac dealership at 1000 Van Ness Boulevard. In 1927 he purchased KHJ in Los Angeles, California.

Beginning in 1929, Lee was a partner with Columbia Broadcasting System chairman William S. Paley who used Lee's 12-station network to distribute CBS radio programs until Paley purchased KNX-AM in 1936 and purchased his own West Coast stations or forged new network alliances independent of Lee. The venture was known as the Don Lee-Columbia Network.

In 1931 Lee was granted a license to begin experimental television broadcasts with station W6XAO in Los Angeles. The station later became KTSL, KNXT and is currently KCBS-TV. The ridge above the Hollywood sign, where Lee established his transmitter, is still known as "Mount Lee."

w6xao test pattern

Late 1930s Don Lee W6XA0 Hollywood test pattern.

Cadillac   Named after Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (1656-1750), French explorer in North America, first Mayor of Detroit.
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