A Chrysler visionary to get his due

A 1957 Chrysler Imperial Crown Sedan that was designed by Virgil Exner is displayed at the Concours d'Elegance at the Inn at St. John's in Plymouth, Mich., on July 15, 2014. (Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press/MCT)

(MCT) -- Virgil Exner, the king of the tail fin and the designer who helped save Chrysler with an injection of style that shook up the industry, will get his due Sunday, July 27, when the Concours d'Elegance of America honors some of his finest works.

"He was one of the giants of the golden years of automotive design," said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich. "He was also one of the few who worked with other giants."

Exner began his career at General Motors in 1934, hired by Harley Earl, the man who created the very concept of automotive design. After rising to director of Pontiac design in a few years, Exner left GM to work with another towering figure, Raymond Loewy, whose work ranged from the Studebaker Avanti to the blue-and-white livery of Air Force One to the Coca-Cola machine - but not, as is often reported, the original Coke bottle.

A man of vision and convictions, Exner was miscast playing second banana to anybody. While Exner was working for Loewy's firm during World War II, the president of Studebaker grew frustrated with the slow pace of work and asked Exner to sketch some designs on his own time, without Loewy's knowledge.

When Studebaker picked Exner's design over Loewy's proposal for what would become America's first postwar new car, Loewy fired Exner. Studebaker hired him the next day, creating its first internal design department.

The dramatic new 1947 models gave Studebaker a jump on Detroit's Big Three, but GM and Ford responded with striking new designs for 1948. Chrysler design was near an all-time low in those years. After buyers spurned the radical Airflow designs in the 1930s, Chrysler management distrusted designers with flashy ideas. Despite that, the company hired Exner to create concept cars in 1949.

"Exner totally turned Chrysler around," historian and curator Ken Gross said. "He had a vision."

While Exner's concepts won praise, its production cars flopped. He didn't hide his disdain, and the company's conservative management told him to put his money where his mouth was.

"They asked Exner if he could do better, and if he could have a new family of cars ready in 18 months," Anderson said. "He did."

The result was the futuristic "forward look" 1955 models that propelled Chrysler to its best sales year ever, doubling 1954 to nearly 1.6 million vehicles.

"The cars were years ahead of their time. He had a great interest in aerodynamics and modern design," said Greg Cockerill, a GM engineer who helped put together the Concours' collection of about 20 Exner production cars and two concepts.

Exner enlisted Italy's famous Carrozzeria Ghia styling house to help him convince Chrysler's hard-headed engineers that designers could contribute more than pretty shapes and bright colors. He put Giovanni Savonuzzi's space-age Gilda concept car in the company's wind tunnel. When it proved that fins conferred an aerodynamic benefit, Exner was off to the races. In addition to the Imperials and Furys at the Concours, the 1960 Plymouth XNR and '56 Chrysler Diablo concept cars demonstrate Exner's affinity for aerodynamics, tail fins and Ghia.

Sadly, Exner's tenure at Chrysler was cut short.

"The brightest flame burns the quickest," Anderson said. "He was doing another total redesign for 1957 when he had a heart attack in 1956."

Exner came back to work in a wheelchair, and the '57 line was another triumph.

"Suddenly, it's 1960," ads for the 1957 Plymouth boasted. For the first time, GM and Ford were forced to follow Chrysler's styling lead.

"Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell got the accolades in that era, but the '57 Plymouth was a stunning car," Gross said. A 1957 Plymouth Fury will be among the cars on display at the Concours.

Despite his successes, Exner's poor health made him an easy target for corporate politics. When Chrysler guessed wrong and downsized its new models while GM and Ford built larger cars in 1961, Exner's designs took the blame for the inevitable flop. He left Chrysler not long after, turning to projects that included work for Esquire magazine, Dow Chemical and U.S. Steel.

"He built Chrysler into a company that values style," Anderson said. "That's his legacy."


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