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virgil exner AP Photo
AP Photo

If you rewind a bit through the history of American automobiles, you might discover something about those first cars that wouldn’t fly today. Well, it didn’t really fly then, either, but that was before Virgil Exner.

Early American cars were quite literally boxes on wheels. Everything about them was square. They were tall, bulky, not particularly aerodynamic, and definitely not sexy. Virgil M. Exner changed the course of history with his innovative car design, taking production cars to an entirely new level with his application of industrial design to the automotive world. The result would change automotive styling forever.

Who Was Virgil Exner?

Virgil M. Exner was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan on September 9, 1909. He was adopted by George W. and Iva Exner, and attended Buchanan High School, where his interest in art led him to study the subject at the University of Notre Dame. Lacking the funding to continue his academic career, he dropped out after just two years to work as an art assistant at local firm Advertising Artists.

It’s often said that the connection you make early in your career are some of the most important of your life, and that’s definitely true for Exner. He began working on the Studebaker advertising account, creating sketches and drawings for the manufacturer’s catalogs.

His work gained the attention of Harley Earl, who was leading the new Art and Colour Section at General Motors. By age 30, he was named Chief Designer of Pontiac Studios and had a bright future in the field of automotive design, which was starting to gain traction under Earl.

On the other hand, an industrial designer by the name of Raymond Loewy was intent on adding Exner to his design firm staff. Loewy offered to double his salary, and Exner became a staff member of Loewy and Associates, working on World War II automobile design before being assigned to work on the Studebaker account.

Reunited with his former star client in a new capacity, Virgil Exner gained the approval of Studebaker, but his employer was less enthused about his design work. Despite working on the new Champion, Commander, and President models, Raymond Loewy fired the designer in 1944.

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Design In Demand

With his connections in the world of automotive design, Virgil Exner landed on his feet after his dismissal from Loewy & Associates. He was hired directly by Studebaker and moved to South Bend, Indiana to officially join the brand as Chief of Styling.

Throughout his years with Loewy, engineering executives at Studebaker had encouraged Exner to keep his own files of car designs, and now it was time to let his talent shine. Most experts agree today that Exner was the official designer for the nationally hailed 1947 Studebaker Starlight coupe, along with the 1948 and 1949 models. However, all of the credit at the time went to Raymond Loewy’s design firm, as his name had greater star power when it came to marketing the new vehicle.

In 1949, it became obvious that Raymond Loewy’s ego and Virgil Exner were incompatible as colleagues, and Roy Cole, engineering vice president at Studebaker, personally introduced Virgil Exner to his contacts at the Chrysler Corporation.

The “Forward Look”

Chrysler was suffering a bit of a crisis regarding its appearance when Virgil Exner came on board. The manufacturer’s prior process of designing by committee had resulted in the brand being universally acknowledged as unappealing, aesthetically speaking. Determined not to lose the brand over this new-fangled concept of styling, a design studio was created, and Virgil Exner was put in charge of it.

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Harley Earl introduced tailfins with the 1948 Cadillac, and while the trend was starting to catch on with American automakers, Virgil Exner was curious about their implications in improving the aerodynamics of vehicles. Exner went so far as to test tailfins in a wind tunnel at the University of Michigan, and based his design concepts around his findings.

This led to a series of highly acclaimed concept cars, nicknamed “Idea Cars.” This included several impressive collaborations with Exner’s good friend Luigi Segre of Carrozzeria Ghia S.p.A. of Italy. Some of these early Idea Cars are the K-310, the C-200, and the Dodge Firearrow. In fact, the Chrysler coupe d’Elegance prototype designed by the two later became the basis for the famous Karmann Ghia. Exner felt this was a flattering gesture from his friend.

Vehicles designed by Virgil Exner began to hit the streets in 1955. The Chrysler 300, the Plymouth Savoy, the DeSoto Adventurer, and the Dodge Coronet were just a few examples of Exner designs. The designer transformed the fenders, lowered the vehicles to hug the road more closely, and incorporated a wedge shape that would become the new ideal among these now-classic cars.

“Designer Extraordinaire”

In 1957, Virgil Exner was named Vice President of Styling for Chrysler design while recovering from a heart attack he suffered the previous year. Designers across Detroit were gearing up for the 1962 model year in 1957, and a rumor surfaced that General Motors was doing away with tailfins and producing smaller, boxier cars going forward.

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While Exner had already acknowledged that tailfins were on the way out, his designs for 1962 Plymouth and Dodge vehicles were not compact by any means. While he was recovering from his heart attack, the design team members at Chrysler downsized his designs to match the rumored designs coming from Ford and Chevrolet. Exner was not a fan of these changes, referring to his doctored designs as “plucked chickens” for their bare, incomplete appearance.

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Predictably enough, the American public did not receive the plucked chickens well, and sales suffered. Needing a name to put to the crime, Virgil Exner was fired from Chrysler, though he was given a consultant role to allow him access to retirement benefits at age 55. He was succeeded by Elwood Engel. By 1963, the elements of Exner’s designs had faded from the lineup.

Joined by his son, Virgil Exner Jr., the man who had brought automotive design into a new era continued independently developing and designing for the remainder of his life. His “Revival Cars,” including a re-imagined Stutz Blackhawk, a Mercer-Cobra, and a Packard demonstrated his skills through the early 1970s.

In his book Virgil Exner: Visioneer, author Peter Grist refers to his subject as a “designer extraordinaire.” Given his lasting impact on the automotive industry, it’s clear that there is truth to these words. With Exner, Raymond Loewy, and Harley Earl at the helm of style and design of automobiles in the 1930s-1960s, our nation gained a new outlook towards the family car as a method of transportation. More aerodynamic, stylish vehicles with better fuel economy and plenty of creature comforts established a new market for automobiles. Who knows what today’s vehicles would look like, if not for the efforts, experimentation, and pure talent of these men?

They definitely wouldn’t be cool. That’s for sure.

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