Vir­gil Exner Sr.


(Gen­eral Mo­tors: 1934–38; Loewy and As­so­ciates: 1938–44; Stude­baker: 1944–49; Chrysler: 1949–64)

Although like Bill Mitchell, Vir­gil Exner was re­cruited and tu­tored by Har­ley Earl, their ca­reer paths could not be more of a con­trast. While Earl and Mitchell be­came some­thing akin to rock stars in the de­sign world, Exner toiled in rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity for much of his ca­reer, hav­ing credit for some of his de­signs at­trib­uted to oth­ers. That saga started promis­ingly enough when, at age 25, he was hired by Earl at GM, and within just a cou­ple of years, he was put in charge of Pon­tiac styling for the 1937–38 mod­els—some of the brand’s most at­trac­tive of the era. But money was a con­cern for Exner, who had a wife and young son to think of. The worl­drenowned in­dus­trial de­signer Ray­mond Loewy of­fered to dou­ble Exner’s salary to come work for his de­sign firm, so Exner re­luc­tantly bid his men­tor good­bye and took Loewy’s of­fer.

Loewy’s firm had a con­tract to de­sign Stude­baker cars, and that’s where Exner’s tal­ents were put to work, along with a hand­ful of mil­i­tary-con­tract ve­hi­cles dur­ing the war. Loewy over­saw the de­sign work and de­manded that all de­signs re­ceive his ap­proval and sig­na­ture—thus mak­ing it eas­ier for him to take credit—and this is where Exner’s dif­fi­cul­ties be­gan. He had sub­mit­ted the de­sign for the gor­geous and highly re­garded Stude­baker Starlight coupe, and when Stude­baker se­lected it over Loewy’s own, Loewy was nev­er­the­less given pub­lic credit for the ef­fort. Stude­baker se­nior staff saw the dy­namic at play and knew Exner was the true de­signer, so they rec­om­mended he work on ad­di­tional de­signs in se­cret so that if Loewy’s de­signs fell short he would have his in re­serve. When that hap­pened, the an­i­mos­ity be­tween the two led to Exner’s dis­missal from Loewy and As­so­ciates in 1944.

Stude­baker loved Exner’s work and snapped him up, in­stalling him as in-house styling di­rec­tor. Dur­ing his ten­ure, his Starlight de­sign made it to pro­duc­tion, as did the post­war third-edi­tion Stude­baker Cham­pion sedan. Stude­baker, how­ever, still had Loewy on con­tract, which forced the two ri­vals to work to­gether. The toxic en­vi­ron­ment even­tu­ally be­came too much for Exner, and in 1949, he left Stude­baker for a job at Chrysler’s styling di­vi­sion.

Exner’s ar­rival at Chrysler ush­ered in a re­nais­sance for all the com­pany’s brands. One of his first ac­tions was to take a page from the play­book of his old boss at GM and be­gin sketch­ing a bunch of ag­gres­sively styled con­cept ve­hi­cles to serve no­tice that Chrysler brands were here to take on the world. Be­tween 1951 and 1955, a string of con­cept ve­hi­cles emerged from Exner’s stu­dio rep­re­sent­ing a de­sign lan­guage he dubbed “For­ward Look,” and he en­listed the Ital­ian coach­builder Ghia to con­struct many of them. Be­tween 1951 and 1955, ve­hi­cles such as the Chrysler K-310 and C-200, Dodge Fire­ar­row, Ply­mouth Bel­mont, and a suc­ces­sion of Ghia spe­cials ex­plored de­sign themes and evolved into the thor­oughly mod­ern pro­duc­tion-car lineup for 1955, in­clud­ing the first Chrysler “let­ter car”: the C-300, based in part on the ’52 C-200 con­cept and boast­ing Detroit’s first pro­duc­tion 300hp en­gine.

Exner also em­braced the tail fin, be­liev­ing it yielded aero­dy­namic-sta­bil­ity ben­e­fits as well as added style, and Chrysler, Dodge, and Ply­mouth mod­els ri­valed Cadil­lac for fin size and promi­nence as the 1950s drew to a close. The blend of per­for­mance (thanks to the Hemi) and style (thanks to Exner) put Chrysler right at the top of the mar­ket in the late 1950s, but Exner’s ten­ure would be much shorter than that of his for­mer col­leagues over at GM. Qual­ity-con­trol prob­lems and rapidly im­prov­ing com­pe­ti­tion from both GM and Ford hurt Chrysler sales. Mean­while, Exner him­self was suf­fer­ing from health prob­lems and could not keep as tight a con­trol of the styling changes. When Chrysler man­age­ment chose to down­size much of

its model lineup for the 1962 model year, Exner’s “For­ward Look” styling was largely aban­doned and Exner him­self pushed to­ward the door. He was kept on as a con­sul­tant un­til 1964 so that he would be el­i­gi­ble for his pen­sion, but he had lit­tle stylis­tic in­put af­ter 1961.


It’s im­pos­si­ble to over­state the im­pact that these three men had on the Amer­i­can au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try—and of car cul­ture as a whole—dur­ing its most for­ma­tive years. Har­ley Earl is rightly revered for hav­ing changed the very method of how au­to­mo­biles are cre­ated: bring­ing the de­sign process in-house, in­no­vat­ing the use of clay mod­el­ing as a de­sign tool, and ul­ti­mately es­tab­lish­ing styling as a cru­cial as­pect of a car’s en­gi­neer­ing and mar­ket­ing from the ear­li­est con­cep­tual stages. The in­di­vid­ual cars he de­signed seem al­most sec­ondary to that. And of course, he re­cruited and men­tored the ma­jor­ity of the au­to­mo­tive stylists who would be­come Detroit’s most im­por­tant and in­flu­en­tial de­sign­ers over the next half cen­tury, in­clud­ing Bill Mitchell and Vir­gil Exner. Mitchell earned much praise for the iconic cars he had a hand in—the ’57 Chevy, the ’63 split-win­dow ’Vette, the Riviera, and the Toron­ado—but his rep­u­ta­tion is per­haps un­fairly tar­nished for hav­ing presided over the dis­mal de­sign decade of the 1970s. Cor­po­rate pol­i­tics con­spired to deny Vir­gil Exner much of the recog­ni­tion he de­served for his early work at Stude­baker, but the spec­tac­u­lar decade Chrysler had in the 1950s was al­most sin­gle­hand­edly due to Exner’s vi­sion—and he is justly lauded for it. One won­ders what might have been had he been able to have a longer ten­ure. As it stands, these three icons were the most im­por­tant de­sign­ers dur­ing Detroit’s most im­por­tant era. They were truly grand mas­ters.

When Exner ar­rived at Chrysler, one of the first things he did was set to work de­sign­ing a bunch of con­cept cars to show­case the bold new styling di­rec­tion of the com­pany. One of the first was the 1951 Chrysler K-310.

Vir­gil Exner’s early ca­reer was spent de­sign­ing some of Stude­baker’s most stylish mod­els, but he did so in rel­a­tive anonymity.

Exner looked to Ital­ian coach­builder Ghia to con­struct many of his con­cept cars. The Chrysler C-200 es­tab­lished a num­ber of themes as­so­ci­ated with the “For­ward Look” de­sign lan­guage, which would ap­pear on sev­eral Ghi­abuilt con­cepts and, even­tu­ally, on pro­duc­tion Chryslers.

The ’52 d’Ele­gance coupe bor­rowed the front fas­cia from the C-200, but the rest of the coupe styling was unique—at least un­til Ghia reap­plied it at 3/4 scale to the Volk­swa­gen Kar­mann Ghia three years later. Best of Show makes this lovely 1:18 ex­am­ple in resin.

With its 2-seater con­fig­u­ra­tion, vented fend­ers, and short, sculpted wind­screen, the 1955 Chrysler Ghia Fal­con bore sim­i­lar­i­ties to Ford’s ’55 T-Bird, but its side pipes and Euro­pean-style front fas­cia made it even more dra­matic. Minichamps has pro­duced the Fal­con in 1:43 as part of its Bortz col­lec­tion.

The 1953 Ghia GS Spe­cial was a more re­fined ver­sion of the pre­vi­ous year’s SS. Best of Show makes this 1:43 ver­sion. They ac­tu­ally badge it the “SS” even though it wears the ’53 GS re­vi­sions.

The SS was the third of three spe­cials Ghia built in 1952 that shared the same styling themes.

The con­cept car DNA re­ally showed through with the in­tro­duc­tion of the first Chrysler “let­ter car”: the C-300. With a 300hp Hemi for power, its styling wasn’t its only dra­matic fea­ture.

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