designer extraordinaire Peter Grist
Virgil Exner: Visioneer: The official biography of Virgil M. Exner, designer extraordinaire offers an extensive look at one of the great auto designers of the Twentieth Century. Virgil Exner is probably best known for Chrysler’s ‘Forward Look’ automobiles of the mid 1950’s. His industrial design legacy is traced from 1934 through 1972.
Virgil Exner, known simply as Ex, made the transition to auto designer with General Motors Art and Color Section in early 1934. One year later, he became head of the Pontiac Studio, where some credit him with designing the Silver Streak trim on the 1936 Pontiac. This feature would adorn Pontiac hoods for two decades.
In 1938, Ex assumed control of the Raymond Loewy Associates in-house design studio at Studebaker in South Bend, Indiana. His first task was finalizing the all-new 1939 Champion. A distinguishing feature was a horizontal butterfly-shaped grille with headlights integrated into the fenders.
In the spring of 1944, Ex’s design team began working on Studebaker’s post-war production car, which debuted as the 1947 model. A gently-curved, one-piece windshield and the dramatically curved three-piece windscreen wrapped around the car almost door-to-door. The front fenders were flush with the body, which emphasized the full-width grille.
Chrysler Corporation decided to establish an advanced styling studio and selected Virgil Exner as studio Chief in 1949. Ex’s first design was the parade phaeton followed by the Chrysler K-310, featuring a two-tone paint job, with large wire wheels housed in raduised wheelarches, a faux spare tire on the rear desk, and ‘gun-sight’ taillights. The 1955 Imperial styling took design cues from the parade car and the K-310. Chryslers had front and rear wraparound windshields and chrome taillight housings mounted on top the fenders marking a precursor to tail fins. The rest of the corporate offerings shared in what came to be known as ‘Forward Look’ styling.
The complete 1957 Chrysler Corporation line ‘swept-wing’ styling emphasized soaring tail fins, large glass areas, dual headlamps, low belt-lines, with a restrained use of chrome ornamentation. The design led to Motor Trend presenting its ‘Car of the Year’ award to Chrysler.
Exner’s 1960 Valiant styling included a long-hood and short rear-deck, distinct body side chrome trim flowing from the front fender to the taillight edge, open wheelarches, and rear deck lid with tire cover stamping. A miscue by Chrysler Corporation’s upper management to downsize the 1962 Plymouth and Dodge forced styling to adapt designs late in the production cycle that proved to be unpopular in the market. Unfortunately, Exner became the fall guy, and he was replaced as Vice President of Styling in the fall of 1961.
But he rebounded. Ex and his son Virgil Jr. formed Virgil M. Exner, Inc., an industrial design consultancy in 1962. Buehler Turbocraft Division of Indiana Gearworks in Indianapolis commissioned the firm to develop a complete line of fishing boats, sports runabouts, and cruisers measuring up to 28 feet.
The December 1963 Esquire published Exner designs for what would become known as the ‘revival cars.’ The four neo-classic cars drew on Duesenberg, Mercer, Packard, and Stutz origins and projected them into present day designs. The 1966 Duesenberg came close to one of the ‘revival cars’ seeing production. This car drew on Ex’s classic design cues and his early passion for 1920’s Duesenbergs. After the prototype debuted in Indianapolis, suitable production financing failed to materialize. Fortunately, this Duesenberg proved to be the genesis for the 1970 Stutz Blackhawk produced by Stutz Motor Cars of America. The new Stutz company produced various models in the line through 1988.
Author Peter Grist does an exceptional job of showing Virgil M. Exner’s contributions to automotive design in its historical setting. He provides insights about Ex’s early artistic endeavors, his design process, and the transfer from concept model to finished product. The book includes previously unseen works and family photos among the 150 color images. It is interesting to note Exner’s links to Indiana with Studebaker, Buehler, and Duesenberg.
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