1960 Plymouth XNR concept car

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Legendary Chrysler Corporation design chief Virgil Exner had a passion for sports cars. Attempting to inspire a production model, he designed a series of brilliant concepts that, one after another, failed to win approval from company executives. But, though rivals Chevrolet and Ford successfully introduced racy sports models, Chrysler’s bean counters refused to give. Finally, near the end of his term as chief stylist, he proposed an affordable, six-cylinder sports car based on the company’s then new Valiant compact. 

The XNR’s dramatic asymmetric styling put it squarely in the early 1960s, when off-center was on trend. As Chrysler’s promotional brochure put it, “Functional, beautiful, unprecedented: The entire design is concentrated around the driver.” That meant a passenger seat four inches lower than the driver’s for better aerodynamics. As Exner put it, “With the XNR, I was striving to avoid a static and bulky look. The goal was to create a graceful form with a built-in feeling of motion. The wedge shape expresses the function of automobiles because it imparts a sense of direction.” Exner was way ahead design-wise; the wedge shape wouldn’t dominate auto design for decades to come. Nowadays it’s hard to find a car without some degree of wedge to its profile. An admirer of Jaguar’s stunning D-Type racecar, Exner incorporated its integrated fin/headrest into the XNR. The fin was wind-tunnel tuned to add straight line stability at speed.

Exner drove his dream boat to 143 M.P.H. on a test track, then handed the keys to a race car driver who pushed it to 153 M.P.H. Though Plymouth's Slant 6 engine became legendary for its dogged durability, it was also a hot little motivator with its Hyper-Pak option. NASCAR began a compact car racing division after Detroit's small cars arrived in 1960, but canceled the series when Valiants with Hyper-Paks copped the top seven slots in the first two races.

Chrysler executives didn't envision a sufficient market for a stylish, sporty car based on lowly compact car mechanical bits, but a couple of years later, Hal Sperlich and Lee Iacocca at Ford did have that vision, resulting in the explosively popular Mustang that set sales records, moving a million units in its first eighteen months. Though ignored at the time, Exner's XNR concept predicted what became the most successful car launch in history.

The XNR was Exner’s last concept car for Chrysler as he was forced to retire in 1962. Like most Chrysler concepts, it was sold overseas after its show car career ended. After changing hands a few times, it rode out the Lebanese civil war hidden in a basement, later emerging to be fully restored and win the Gran Turismo trophy at the prestigious 2011 Pebble Beach Concours. It sold for a little under a million at auction in 2012.

Written by Jim Cherry