Monday, May 18, 2009

The Great Designers - Virgil Exner, by Larry L. Tebo

The great, and I'm talking about the really extraordinary automotive designers are truly artists, IMO. Battista (Pinin) Farina, Harley Earl, William Mitchell, E.T. Gregorie (Ford), Gordon Buehrig (Cord), etc are among the most artistically talented people of the twentieth century, and they just happened to focus their talent in the shaping of the cars we drive. From time to time I want to present some of the great automotive designers to the reader, and give a kind of "thumbnail" review of their careers and accomplishments, because these people deserve to be celebrated, as well as their creations, which have given so many people not only the utility of being an automobile, but also have graced our roads with beauty and originality. I've been learning more and more about the life of Virgil Exner lately, and he is definitely among the elite of the greatest designers, but he's not very well-known today. This is perhaps because his most famous accomplishment, the tail-finned "Forward Look" Chrysler Corporation cars of the 1950s, went from being industry sensations to their later, and more well-known role of being derided symbols of '50s excess, which was perhaps unfair to these cars and to their "father", Exner. The tailfins on these cars were conceived as part of a "clean break" with the past and into a new era of bold design, and moreover, Exner, in concert with Chrysler Corporation's engineering department, really did test these fins for their aerodynamic functionality, and they were touted as being beneficial to the directional stability of the cars that they appeared on. The actual amount of functional benefit, in retrospect, may be debatable, but the amount of excitement that this totally new look generated for Chrysler's cars when they debuted in 1957 is inarguable. The public LOVED the new look, and sales zoomed at Chrysler, and the competition's designers, on both sides of the Atlantic, were sent back to their drawing boards to catch-up with Exner's futuristic (at that time) look. All fashions fade though, and eventually Chrysler's, and Exner's insistence on hanging onto the tall fins led to the company's cars looking dated and out-of-step, but only because the company just wouldn't move ahead when they needed to. William Mitchell's design staff at General Motors pronounced the tailfin dead in the early sixties, but Exner didn't read the obituary, which led to his firing at Chrysler, but it doesn't detract from his brilliance as a designer in previous years.


Virgil M. Exner, proudly posing with his landmark 1957 Chrysler "New Look" lineup:




Just hitting on some of the high-points of Mr. Exner's distinguished career, one can see how influential this man was in the industry, and on the shape of cars that we drive to this day. It was Exner who was responsible for the landmark 1947 Studebakers, which established the completely new look of post-WWII, the "three box" design (hood, passenger cabin, trunk) that remains in existence today. The far more famous industrial designer, Raymond Loewy, is credited for the "Is it coming or going?" '47 Studebakers (the coming-or-going line came from the car's new and groundbreaking look of nose and trunk being of roughly equal length, which became the industry-wide norm), but Mr. Exner, who was employed by Loewy Studios at the time, was the principle designer of these cars. Raymond Loewy was a brilliant man and a great designer, but he was also a master of self-promotion, and this was not the only time that he accepted the applause for a design that wasn't actually his to claim, other than in name.

The following illustration is an advertising photograph of the 1947 Studebaker. These were among the most trendsetting cars of the post-WWII era, and were also notable in being the first brand-new designs of the postwar era, with the rest of Detroit's manufacturers still only offering warmed-over prewar automobiles. The bodystyle shown here is the "Starlight Coupe", which brought a unique new application of glazing with its multi-piece curved wraparound rear backlight. Studebaker resisted the Detroit "Big 3" carmakers' postwar policy of producing warmed-over versions of its prewar products, which happened largely because of the huge pent-up demand for new cars following World War II's end, combined with materials shortages and labor troubles that pre-occupied the carmakers to the point of delaying all-new products for several years into the future. Studebaker's bold strategy of bringing its all-new cars into the marketplace so soon, along with the similar actions at Packard, were to end-up costing them greatly less than 10 years hence, when they became out of step, both stylistically and financially, with the rest of the industry, thus forcing their somewhat desperate (and ultimately disastrous) merger:

Exner was very creative during his Loewy years, and here are just two samples of his work while on the Studebaker account. The first is of a proposal for what became the '47 production Studebaker, and shows the flair and elegance that he brought to his art. This model also reveals the beginnings of the famous Studebaker "bullet-nose" styling trademark that would appear on the 1950 models. Note also the hinting at rear-engine configuration. The postwar American automotive industry seemed to have an obsession with rear-engine placement (Tucker, Ford prototypes, Studebaker here, among others), and this would ultimately show itself in production, when Ed Cole (Chevrolet's engineering chief and later GM president) realized his dream of a rear-engined Chevrolet with the 1960 Corvair:

This rendering, of a proposed new Studebaker coupe, was rendered probably during the late 1940s, and again, it shows the foresight and European influence that showed-up so frequently in Exner's work. It also is a strong, yet odd, preview of a historic Studebaker that Exner had nothing to do with; the classic 1953 Starliner coupe. This could have been, as was the Robert Bourke-designed Starliner, a very lovely automobile in its own right:




In 1950, when Exner moved over to Chrysler as their director of design (he was fired by Raymond Loewy when he discovered that Exner was working directly for Studebaker in secret), he was instrumental in creating a series of concept/show cars that brought huge amounts of European design influence into the American mainstream. He was greatly influenced by the already in-place cooperative effort between Chrysler, and Italy's Ghia Carrozzeria, which had designed and built a proposed replacement for the current Plymouth sedans. An interesting footnote to this story is that it was Fiat's management who referred Chrysler's management to the Ghia Studios, through their postwar Marshall Plan-arranged cooperative work in production and engineering projects. This presaged the current Fiat-Chrysler merger proceedings by nearly 60 years. The automobile that initiated Chrysler's relationship with Ghia was the 1950 Plymouth XX-500 sedan prototype. The car was initially to have been a "by the book" construction project for Ghia, as Chrysler sent the complete specifications of what they desired, and Ghia was to have built the car exactly as instructed. But, Luigi Segre, the head of Ghia Studios, "took liberties" with the design, and the improvements he made were med with delight by Chrysler's management, along with Virgil Exner. It was ultimately rejected, however, by Chrysler management as being too European looking for domestic tastes of the time (Chrysler's management was largely Texas-based, and notoriously cautious, at the time). This is arguable today, of course, in hindsight, but the important thing about this concept car was that it got Ghia's "foot in the door" at Chrysler, and, with Mr. Exner's new presence there, the die was cast for a coming decade of great European-American cooperation in the design of coming Chrysler Corporation automobiles, both concept and production models.

It's interesting to contrast the Chrysler Corporation of the pre-Exner years, design-wise. Chrysler's automobiles were famed at this time for their world-leading engineering excellence, but, when it came to styling and "eye appeal", they were pretty much of the "sensible shoes" school of thought. The company's president, K.T. Keller was a well-known "fuddy duddy" in his personal life, and he issued a company directive to the effect of forcing all of Chrysler's automobiles to have roofs tall enough to allow a man to wear a fedora hat while driving. Wearing of fedoras by men was still commonplace then, but was showing the first signs of losing popularity, and this enforced stodginess in the design of Plymouths, Dodges, DeSotos, and Chryslers did no favors for their sales numbers in a postwar society that was filled with young people looking for something with some STYLE. This advertisement for the 1950 Plymouth amply illustrates the fuddy-duddy look of all of Chrysler's cars in this period, since they were all pretty much "same look, different sizes":


So we come to Virgil Exner leaving Studebaker for Chrysler in 1950. What Exner accomplished at Chrysler Corporation is the kind of thing that legends are made of. He turned the company's image upside-down in a matter of just a short few years, and brought profits and success to the company, throughout all of its divisions, btw, that shocked its competitors to the point of their scrapping entire plans for forthcoming new products and literally starting all over again, in order to answer the challenge of the futuristic Chrysler cars. Where the Ghia/Plymouth XX-500 had established the Italian studio as Chrysler's carrozzeria of choice, the addition of Exner and his talented staff brought the imagination and design-power into Highland Park's fold. The "high hat" Keller years were OVER. One of the most celebrated examples of the feeling of complete change that Exner brought to Chrysler is embodied in the 1953 Chrysler "d'Elegance". Nine examples of this car were built, and the impact that this design had on the company, and indeed on the industry, on both sides of the Atlantic, was great. Today it is regarded as one of the true milestone automobiles of the post-WWII era. After Chrysler had finished its cycle of showing the car at auto shows, the company released the design rights to Ghia, the constructor. When, in 1954, the management of Volkswagen went shopping for an outside design for its upcoming sporty coupe, based on the Beetle's mechanicals, Ghia's managers presented an adapted (smaller, rear-engine configuration) version of the d'Elegance to them for appraisal. VW's people liked the car so much that it went into production, almost unchanged, as the famed Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. Look at the d'Elegance from the B-pillar rearward, and the similarities with the VW are obvious:

Another of the many varied Exner/Chrysler/Ghia concepts was the Dodge Firearrow of 1954; an interesting and attractive concept for its time. Notice the early and pioneering use of curved side windows. The Chrysler Imperial of 1957 became the first production American car (Volkswagen Karmann Ghia of '55 being the first ever) to use this advanced glazing, which has become standard industry-wide in the years since:


This car is the 1954 Plymouth Explorer concept car (again from Ghia). It is one of my personal favorites because of its beautifully done "eyes", those being the headlamps. The best-looking automobiles always have one common characteristic for me, and that is their ability to effect the look of having "eyes", and thus, a kind of "face" in their design. Even certain cars with concealed headlamps manage to accomplish this. My favorite design of all time, the 1936 Cord 810, has concealed headlamps that give the car a look of a "sleeping beauty", that I find irresistible. But, I digress. (Mention a Cord and I ALWAYS digress...):


By 1955, Exner's revolution at Chrysler was in full-song. The tailfins of the 1950s have undergone a kind of "rehabilitation" in recent years, with the high-flying and flamboyant styling gimmick having fallen into ridicule and parody during the intervening years; particulary the 1960s and 1970s, when they were symbols of obsolescence and excess. But Exner's tailfins began as a legitimate design departure, and an attempt to provide something really new and daring to the buying public. In fact, the first Exner fins were pretty modest, as this advertisement for the 1955 Plymouths shows, as well as the following detail shot from a 1955 Chrysler 300. If anything, they were understated and extremely attractive, IMO. Note also the way Plymouth went from "old maid" appearance (the 1950 model above) to "sexy debutante" in just 5 years. Exner was truly and agent of change:



The 1956 Chrysler 300 is a greatly admired automobile today, both for is high-performance abilities, and for its temendously successful styling. This was perhaps the apogee of Detroit's "1950s flamboyance, yet without excess". The flair and excitement were there, but were not overpowering, as coming years would bring, unfortunately:

This car, the 1955 Chrysler Falcon, is every bit as beautiful and elegant, and sporty-looking, as anything coming from the European makers of that time IMO. Imagine how successful this car might have been if Chrysler's executives had made the decision to manufacture it as a competitor to the two-seater Thunderbird (it reportedly came close to going into production), which debuted the same year.


Exner was not just good at sporty-looking automobiles, though. Chrysler made one of their several intermittent attempts to create a separate division out of the Imperial nameplate (usually Imperial being the top-echelon Chrysler model) in the middle 1950s. Exner's studios designed a handsome and sophisticated Imperial Crown Executive Sedan, which was built by Ghia in limited numbers, for 1955. Very conservative, yet dashing and elegant at the same time:

The year 1957 was the real "no turning back" point for Chrysler and its Exner designs. The company was flush with cash, and they wanted desperately to overtake Ford for the #2 spot in sales, behind evergreen GM. The cars that Chrysler Corporation fielded for 1957 were new, literally, from the "ground-up". Even the tires were new, with smaller, 14" tires becoming standardized in order to bring the cars even lower to the ground. The suspension was new, with Chrysler's torsion-bar front suspension bringing improved handling and ride to the general public. But the REAL new was the styling. This advertisement looks quaint to us today, but put yourself in 1957, when these cars hit the scene with a BANG. Razor-thin rooflines, huge glass areas, low-low waistlines and hoodlines, "space-age" sleekness oozing from every line, and those FINS! The ad-copy was not hyperbole at the time. It was FACT. These cars were Virgil Exner's personal triumph. They literally sent GM's designers back to the drawing boards. They had been caught flat-footed and behind the times for the first time in decades:


Even Chrysler's "red-headed stepchild division", DeSoto, got the youthful makeover treatment for 1957, and, in fact, just may have been one of the most exciting looking cars from any American maker of that year. Chrysler's cup, styling-wise, was running over. Sales set new records across the board at Chrysler:



The tailfins had a fatal, built-in flaw, though. They aged VERY quickly, and became passe in just a few years' time, yet Exner, who had heretofore been an industry trendsetter, now, inexplicably, fell into a kind of design stupor, and with him so did Chrysler Corporation's products. Harley Earl, GM's design chief since 1927, and the "Grand Old Man" of automotive design worldwide, retired in 1959, and his successor, William Mitchell, brought an entirely new, and just as revolutionary as Exner had been, sensibility to automotive design that was all his own, and it was the antithesis of Exner's latter-day approach. Tailfins and chrome, suddenly, were OUT. The "extruded look" of GM's early 1960s cars, such as the linear and sleek 1961 Pontiac, were IN, and almost overnight, GM's position as the "Pied Piper" of the industry, in terms of design trends, was re-established. Exner's Chrysler cars persisted, stubbornly, with ever-taller and more elaborate tailfins, as if to say to its competitors that, if the public was bored with the tall fins, then by golly, even BIGGER fins is the answer! It didn't work, and Chrysler's sales in the early 1960s went into a tailspin that the company never completely recovered from.

By 1962, Virgil M. Exner was fired from Chrysler Corporation. He became, unfairly in my view, a scapegoat for many of the problems that Chrysler experienced in those times. He had actually, in the time just before his termination, developed proposals for new, finless and very sleek/modern Chrysler models, yet a recessionary economy, combined with a management scandal at Chrysler in 1961, along with incorrect information about GM's upcoming new products (they were rumored to be "downsizing" for 1962, which never happened), caused the cancellation of Exner's programs in favor of smaller, hastily developed cars for 1962 that have now been judged to be among the most homely and undesirable automobiles in history. Those were not Exner's fault, but the damage had been done.

Mr. Exner went on, after leaving Chrysler, to design several independent projects, including a really novel and attractive Bugatti-revival prototype (Bugatti has been revived over and over again). He also was involved in an abortive project to revive both Stutz and Duesenberg automobiles. These designs are best left unseen, IMO:



This has been just a thumbnail review of a great designer's long and distinguished career, but it's worth knowing a little bit about Virgil Exner's influence on the products that we hold so dear. He was one of the real giants, and deserves far more recognition that he receives. Thank you for reading.

1 comment:

  1. I've admired for a long tim, the work of Virgil Exner. I may be one of the very few Bugatti Owners Club members who thought Exner's Bugatti 101 was great. A very independent mind and sure line he could easily have followed the great lines of Jean Bugatti, but he found a new line of his own for the last chassis made.
    I also think his Duesenberg and Stutz designs were great, though few seem to agree. He was a styling genius, the best of all the great American stylists.
    His De Soto, Plymouths and Dodges of the early 60's were the high point of American car styling.
    Did he style the '57 Studebaker Golden Hawk? One of my favourutes and it appears to carry some of his signature details and elegance.

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