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Virgil Exner: Chrysler's fintastic wizard of design


Chrysler’s great era of modern design began when Virgil Exner was hired away from Studebaker in 1949 to develop a series of "idea cars.” Chrysler’s president K.T. Keller, let Exner loose to bring the company’s dowdy box-like cars into the mid-century jet age.

Not long after his hiring, Exner produced Chrysler’s 1950 K-310 "idea car." Exner used what he called "idea cars" to influence new production vehicles and bolster interest in Chrysler styling. The K-310 was designed to showcase Chrysler's upcoming revolutionary 1951 Hemi V8. In creating it, Exner expressed his "pure automobile" design philosophy that featured functional elements instead of disguising things like wheels, radiator grille, spare tire storage, and taillights. Prior to the K-310, such features were usually understated or hidden. Exner went a different direction because, as he said, "The wheel is one of mankind's greatest inventions. Why attempt to hide it?"

After the success of the K-310, Exner continued to climb the ladder at Chrysler, being named Director of Styling in 1953. In 1957 he became Chrysler's first Vice President of Styling. He insisted on complete control of the clay modeling room and final approval of die models, a rare degree of autonomy in the industry. After Keller granted him control, Exner got to work making history.

An early sneak peak at Chrysler’s radically innovative 1957 designs caused a panic amongst General Motors designers, inspiring the company to scrap its planned ’59 designs and retool all new bodies at great expense.

Exner continued to refine his designs through the fifties, creating some of the most inventive work produced by any automotive company of the time. Highlights include:

  • The 1955 Flight Sweep I/Flight Sweep II - These two cars - a convertible and hardtop - were used to explore the idea of prominent tailfins, a styling theme the company pursued with great drama in its 1957 lineup. 
  • 1955 Chrysler Falcon - Exner's answer to the Thunderbird and Corvette was a two-seat long hood-short deck sport convertible noted for its "pure automobile" features like a prominent radiator grille and exposed exhaust pipes. The Falcon's egg crate grille was later adapted for the 1957-59 Chrysler 300s, while its side-mounted exhausts were seen on  the 1991 Dodge Viper.
  • 1957 Imperial - The first American car to feature curved side glass, a feature now found on nearly every car. Exner said it helped cheat the wind while saving space. Little wonder everyone copied it.
  • 1960 XNR - Exner used this compact two-seat roadster to explore an asymmetrical, driver-oriented design theme with sculptural fender blades and slant-six power.
  • 1961 TurboFlite - The radical two-door coupe with a retractable flight cockpit-style roof canopy featured a prominent winged spoiler positioned high over the rear deck. This aerodynamic feature would later be successfully used by the 1969-70 Dodge Charger Daytona and Plymouth Road Runner Superbird in NASCAR competition.
  • 1961 Imperial – Its free standing, teardrop shaped headlights meant to evoke classic era cars were the first instance of retro design on a modern car.
  • The famous Dual-Ghia convertible was based on Exner’s idea cars and produced in over 100 copies.
  • Volkswagen’s sporty Karmann-Ghia was a scaled-down copy of Exner’s Chrysler D’Elegance idea car.
  • Exner’s dramatic Chrysler Norseman idea car was lost at sea in the Andrea Doria’s sinking and never shown.
  • After leaving Chrysler, Exner continued to explore retro themed designs thirty years ahead of the trend, producing one-offs including a proposed Duesenberg revival, a Mercer Cobra, and a Bugatti.

Unfortunately, 1961 was Exner’s final year at Chrysler. He’d been forced to institute a crash program to downsize his already completed 1962 designs and nobody, least of all the car buying public, liked the result. When it was over, Exner said his greatest pride wasn't in the designs he’d created, but in the creation of Chrysler’s styling department, which had been all but non-existent before he took charge.

Exner’s departure cleared the way for a new era in Chrysler design led by former Ford designer Elwood Engel.

Written by Jim Cherry