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.
DESIGNING A LEGACY
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.