Virgil Max Exner Sr.
September 24, 1909
|Died||December 22, 1973 (aged 64)|
Royal Oak, Michigan, U.S.
Chrysler Vice President of Design
Virgil Max "Ex" Exner Sr. (September 24, 1909 – December 22, 1973) was an automobile designer for numerous American companies, most notably Chrysler and Studebaker.
Exner is widely known for the Forward Look he created for the 1955-1963 Chrysler products and his fondness of tailfins on cars for both aesthetics and aerodynamics.
Exner introduced the Forward Look at Chrysler and was copied before the designs hit the road — when GM designer Chuck Jordan spied Exner's hidden 1955 Chrysler lineup, prompting Bill Mitchell, head of General Motors styling, "to begin redesigning each car line, Chevrolet through Cadillac.” Exner's work effectively "change[d] the course of automotive design."
Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Virgil Exner was adopted by George W. and Iva Exner as a baby. Virgil showed a strong interest in art and automobiles. He went to Buchanan High School in Buchanan, Michigan then studied art at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana but, in 1928, dropped out after two years due to lack of funds. He then took a job as a helper at an art studio specializing in advertising. In 1931 he married Mildred Marie Eshleman, who also worked for the studio and, on April 17, 1933, they had their first child, Virgil Exner Jr. By that time, Exner Sr. had been promoted to drawing advertisements for Studebaker trucks. They had a second son in 1940, Brian, who died of injuries after falling from a window. Exner also adopted and raised his niece, Marie Exner, born in 1947, who had become an orphan as a young child.
His first work in design was for General Motors, where he was hired by GM styling czar Harley Earl. Before age 30, he was in charge of Pontiac styling.
In 1938, he joined Raymond Loewy's industrial design firm Loewy and Associates, where he worked on World War II military vehicles and cars, notably Studebaker's 1939-40 models, and advance plans for their revolutionary post-war cars. "But working on Studebaker designs… Exner struggled to get the attention of his boss, who had to sign off on every facet of the designs. Exner was encouraged by Roy Cole, Studebaker’s engineering vice president, to work on his own at home on backup designs in case the company’s touchy relationship with Loewy blew up".
In 1944, he was fired by Loewy and was hired directly by Studebaker in South Bend, Indiana. There he was involved in the design of some of the first cars with all new styling to be produced after World War II (Studebaker's slogan during this period was "First by far with a post war car"). As acknowledged by Robert Bourke, Virgil was the final designer of the acclaimed 1947 Studebaker Starlight coupe, though Raymond Loewy received the public acknowledgment because his legendary name was a major advertising attraction. Exner is actually listed as the sole inventor on the design patent. Rivalry and bad feeling between the two resulted in Exner having to leave Studebaker, whose engineering chief Roy Cole provided personal introductions for him to Ford and Chrysler.
In 1949, Exner started working in Chrysler's Advanced Styling Group, where he partnered with Cliff Voss and Maury Baldwin. He also worked with Luigi "Gigi" Segre, of Italian coach builder Carrozzeria Ghia S.p.A. The men created a strong personal bond, which helped link the companies closely throughout the 1950s. The alliance produced the Chrysler Ghia designs, such as the 1952 Chrysler K-310, the mid-1950s Dodge Firearrow series show cars, as well as the Chrysler d'Elegance and DeSoto Adventurer.
When Exner joined Chrysler, the company's vehicles were being fashioned by engineers instead of designers, and so were considered outmoded, unstylish designs.
After seeing the Lockheed P-38 Lightning-inspired tailfins on the 1948 Cadillac, Exner adopted fins as a central element of his vehicle designs. He believed in the aerodynamic benefits of the fins, and even used wind tunnel testing at the University of Michigan—but he also liked their visual effects on the car. Exner lowered the roofline and made the cars sleeker, smoother, and more aggressive looking. In 1955, Chrysler introduced "The New 100-Million Dollar Look". With a long hood and short deck, the wedgelike designs of the Chrysler 300 letter series and revised 1957 models suddenly brought the company to the forefront of design, with Ford and General Motors quickly working to catch up. The 1957 Plymouths were advertised with the slogan, "Suddenly, it's 1960!" In 1958, Chrysler's Forward Look was the sponsor of the groundbreaking An Evening with Fred Astaire TV special.
When Exner joined Chrysler, the car's body was fashioned by engineers instead of designers — leading to what many thought were old-fashioned, boxy designs on Chryslers of the 1940s and early 1950s. Exner fought to change this structuring and got control over the design process, including the clay prototypes and the die models used to create production tooling. This was the method to develop the Dodge Firearrow concept that was constructed by Ghia.
Inspired by the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, GM's Harley Earl incorporated small "fins" on the rear fenders of the 1948 Cadillac models. Exner saw the design detail (also being experimented with by some Italian manufacturers) and made it his own by enlarging the fins and making them a more prominent feature. Exner believed in the aerodynamic benefits of the fins and even used wind tunnel testing at the University of Michigan — but he also liked their visual effects on the car. They were showcased on the first cars to enter the market designed under his full supervision: the 1955 Chrysler 300 series, and the Imperial. The hardtop versions of 1957 Chrysler Corporation cars also featured compound curved glass, the first to be used in a production car.
These tailfin designs also premiered his "Forward Look." In the late 1940s, Chrysler had been behind the times in terms of styling with what were considered tall, boxy cars. Exner lowered the roofline and made the cars sleeker, smoother, and more aggressive. With a long hood and short deck, the wedgelike designs of the 300 series and revised 1957 models suddenly brought Chrysler to the forefront of design, with Ford and General Motors quickly working to catch up. Advertising campaigns for the 1957 model year sang that "Suddenly, it's 1960!" In June of that year, Exner and his team were awarded a Gold Medal Award by the Industrial Designers Institute (IDI).
In 1956, during the design of the 1961 models, Exner suffered a heart attack. He resumed work in 1957, working on the designs for the 1962 cars. On July 25, 1957, Exner was elected the first vice president of styling at Chrysler. Unfortunately, a rumor that GM was reducing the size of their cars caused the president of Chrysler, Lester Lum ("Tex") Colbert, to order Exner to do the same to his 1962 design – a change Exner disagreed with, thinking it would make his cars "ugly." Exner with his associates had completed work on the second full-sized finless Plymouth since 1955, this one for 1962, described as a strikingly attractive automobile. While he was still recovering from the heart attack, the 1962 models Exner took credit for were downsized by associates. This downsizing drastically changed the cars' appearance. This reduced the cars' appeal and caused a significant drop in sales. It turned out that the Chevrolet rumor was false and consumers disliked the smaller Plymouth and Dodge cars introduced for 1962, the styling of which was bizarre compared to more sedate Ford and GM products. Needing a scapegoat, Chrysler fired Exner. He was allowed to retain a position as a consultant so he could retire with a pension at age 55. He was replaced by Elwood Engel, who had been lured from Ford. Engel was highly regarded for his design of the classic 1961 Lincoln Continental.
Tailfins soon lost popularity. By the late 1950s, Cadillac and Chrysler – driven by the respective competing visions of GM's Earl and Chrysler's Exner – had escalated the size of fins till some thought they were stylistically questionable and they became a symbol of American excess in the early 1960s. The 1961 models are considered the last of the "Forward Look" designs; Exner later referred to the finless 1962 downsized Plymouth and Dodge models as "plucked chickens". He believed Chrysler executives had "picked" away at the cars to make them lower in cost.
Although fins were out of favor by the early 1960s, fins could still give aerodynamic advantages. In the early 1970s, Porsche 917 racing automobiles sported fins reminiscent of Exner's designs.
Three entities came together in the history of the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia — a design that ultimately reflected strong influence from Virgil Exner. In the early 1950s, Volkswagen was producing its Type 1 (Beetle) as post-war standards of living increased, executives at Volkswagen were at least receptive to adding a halo model to its range, if not proactive. Luigi Segre was committed to expanding the international reputation of Carrozzeria Ghia. And Wilhelm Karmann had taken over his family coachbuilding firm Karmann and was eager to augment his contracts building Volkswagen's convertible models.
As the head of Ghia, Segre singularly directed and incubated the project through conception and prototyping, delivering a feasible project that Willhelm Karmann both wanted to and could practically build — the project Willhelm Karmann would in turn present to Volkswagen. The styling itself, however, integrated work by Segre as well as Mario Boano, Sergio Coggiola, and designer/engineer Giovanni Savonuzzi — and at various times they each took credit for the design. Furthermore, the design bore striking styling similarities to Virgil Exner's Chrysler D'Elegance and K-310 concepts, which Ghia had been tasked with prototyping — and which in turn reflected numerous cues and themes developed previously by Mario Boano. The precise styling responsibilities were never documented before the passing of the designers, further complicated by the overlapping work of the key players. A definitive individual attribution on Karmann Ghia's was never made.
Segre and Virgil Exner had become close professionally and personally, eventually traveling Europe together. Peter Grist wrote in a 2007 Exner biography that when Exner in 1955 eventually saw the Karmann Ghia, which cribbed heavily from his Chrysler D'Elegance, "he was pleased with the outcome and glad that one of his designs had made it into large-scale production.” Chris Voss, a stylist in Exner's office, reported in 1993, that Exner considered the Karmann Ghia the ultimate form of flattery. Segre in turn sent Exner the first production Karmann Ghia imported into the state of Michigan, in gratitude.
After Volkswagen approved the design in November 1953, the Karmann Ghia debuted at the 1955 Paris Auto show and went into production, first at Ghia and then in Osnabrück — ultimately to reach a production over 445,000, running 19 years virtually unchanged.
Exner continued consulting for many car companies from his office in Birmingham, Michigan. He also teamed up with his son, Virgil Exner Jr., designing watercraft for Buehler Corporation. In 1963, he designed a series of "Revival Cars" with production plans. His revival of Duesenberg failed, but he was instrumental in the revival of Stutz in the 1970s.
Seeking to reenter the automotive field, Exner drafted a resume, describing himself as having "extensive, responsible and successful experience in all areas.” Exner died of heart failure on December 22, 1973, at the William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan.
Virgil Exner Jr., [Segre] was a real nice guy -- super guy -- great big fellow. He married quite a wealthy Brazilian gal. They were a neat couple and raised a nice family. They became very good friends with my family. I liked Luigi very much.
[Segre] approached [Chrysler] through C.B. Thomas and engineering to Jim Zeder who was the vice-president of engineering to show what they called the Plymouth 500X. And it was shown to my father [Virgil Exner], and, oh, he thought that their workmanship was wonderful, and just unbelievable compared to these parade cars which had been built by the Chrysler shops at an enormous cost – two hundred/three hundred thousand dollars. At that time, that was a tremendous amount of money, while Ghia was showing this little Plymouth. It wasn't nearly as big, but it was a totally new body built on a standard chassis, but they were quoting prices for show cars to be built from ten to twenty thousand dollars at that time, and the workmanship was excellent. There was a bit of fear on the part of Chrysler that they would be taking work away from union shops to have these cars built in Italy. But, nevertheless, they signed a contract with Segre to go ahead. Chrysler would design a car, and Ghia would build what became the first true show car that my father was responsible for [from] the new design section at Chrysler.