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Virgil Exner

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Virgil Exner
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Virgil Exner

Virgil "Ex" Exner (September 24, 1909–December 22, 1973) was an automobile designer for numerous American companies, notably Chrysler and Studebaker. He is known for his "Forward Look" design on the 1955 through 1961 Chrysler products and his fondness of fins on cars for both aesthetic and aerodynamic reasons.

Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Virgil Exner was adopted by George W. and Iva Exner as a baby. Virgil showed a strong interest in art and automobiles. He studied art at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, but in 1928 dropped out after two years due to lack of funds. He then took a job as a helper at an art studio specializing in advertising. In 1931 he married Mildred Marie Eshleman, who also worked for the studio, and on April 17, 1933 they had their first child, Virgil Exner Jr. By that time Exner Sr. had been promoted to drawing advertisements for Studebaker trucks. They had a second son in 1940, Brian, who tragically fell from a window and later died from his injuries.

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Design work

His first work in design was for General Motors, where he was hired by GM styling czar Harley Earl. In 1938 he left to work at Raymond Loewy Associates, an industrial design firm where he worked on cars and military vehicles prior to, and during World War II. In 1944, he was fired by Loewy and was hired directly by Studebaker in South Bend, Indiana. There he was involved in the design of some of the first cars to be produced after World War II (Studebaker's slogan during this period was "First by far with a post war car"). There is some debate, but many feel that Virgil was the main designer of the acclaimed 1947 Studebaker Starlight coupe, although Raymond Loewy got most of the credit for the car's design. In 1949 Exner started working in Chrysler's Advanced Styling Group, where he partnered with Cliff Voss and Maury Baldwin. There he also worked with Luigi "Gigi" Segre, of Italian car company Carrozzeria Ghia S.p.A. The men created a strong personal bond, which helped link the companies closely throughout the 1950s. The alliance produced the Chrysler-Ghia designs, such as the 1952 Chrysler K-310, as well as the Chrysler d'Elegance and DeSoto Adventurer.

Impact on automobile design

When Exner joined Chrysler, the car's body was fashioned by engineers instead of designers — leading to what many thought were old-fashioned, boxy designs on Chryslers of the 1940s and early 50s. Exner fought to change this structuring, and got control over the design process, including the clay prototypes and the die models used to create production tooling. Here he created the Dodge Firearrow concept, constructed by Ghia.

The 1955 Imperial, one of the first Exner-styled Chrysler vehicles
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The 1955 Imperial, one of the first Exner-styled Chrysler vehicles
Inspired by the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, GM's Harley Earl incorporated small "fins" on the rear fenders of the 1948 Cadillac models. Exner saw the design detail (also being experimented with by some Italian manufacturers) and made it his own by enlarging the fins and making them a more prominent feature. Exner believed in the aerodynamic benefits of the fins and even used wind tunnel testing at the University of Michigan – but he also liked their visual effects on the car. They were showcased on the first cars designed under his full supervision for sale: the 1955 Chrysler 300 series, and the Imperial. The 1957 Imperial also featured compound curved glass, the first to be used in a production car.
Exner's 1957 Chrysler 300C had a lasting impact on car stying in Detroit
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Exner's 1957 Chrysler 300C had a lasting impact on car stying in Detroit

These fin designs also premiered his "Forward Look." In the late 1940s, Chrysler was behind the times in terms of styling with what were considered tall, boxy cars. Exner lowered the roofline and made the cars sleeker, smoother and more aggressive. With a long hood and short deck, the wedgelike designs of the 300 series and revised 1957 models suddenly brought Chrysler to the forefront of design, with Ford and General Motors quickly working to catch up. Advertising campaigns for the 1957 model year sang that "Suddenly, it's 1960!" In June of that year Exner and his team were awarded the Industrial Designers' Institute's Gold Medal Award.

In 1956, during the design of the 1961 models, Exner had a heart attack. He resumed work in 1957, working on the designs for the 1962 cars. On July 25, 1957 Exner was elected the first Vice President of Styling at Chrysler. Unfortunately, a rumor that GM was reducing the size of their cars caused the President of Chrysler to order Exner to do the same to his 1962 design — a change Exner disagreed with, thinking it would make his cars "ugly." This change, coupled with build quality problems, reduced the cars appeal and caused a significant drop in sales. It turned out that the rumor was false and consumers disliked the smaller Plymouth and Dodge cars introduced for 1962. Needing a scapegoat, Chrysler brass fired Exner. He was allowed to retain a position as a consultant so he could retire with pension at age 55. He was replaced by Elwood Engel, who had been lured from Ford. Engel was highly regarded for his design of the classic 1961 Lincoln Continental. Fins soon lost popularity. By the late 1950s, Cadillac and Chrysler had escalated the size of fins till some thought they were stylistically questionable and they became a symbol of American excess in the early 60s. 1961 is considered the last of the "Forward Look" designs.

Retirement

Exner continued consulting for many car companies and also teamed up with his son, Virgil Exner Jr., designing watercraft for Buehler Corporation. In 1963, he designed a series of "Revival Cars" with production plans. His revival of Duesenberg failed, but he was instrumental in the revival of Stutz in the 1970s.

He died on December 22, 1973 at the William Beaumont Hospital in Birmingham, Michigan.

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