Five Things You Might Not Have Known About Virgil Exner

People will appreciate anything with good design. It doesn't matter if that happens to be a cute Mini Cooper parked on the street or an espresso machine in a café.  Truth be told, careful planning and engineering goes into making an everyday object stand out, and Virgil Max Exner cranked out his fair share of them. From post-war Studebakers to the fabulous finned Chryslers of the mid-50s, Exner created some of the most beautiful automobiles ever to roll off an assembly line.

Virgil M. Exner posing next to one of his creations, a 1957 DeSoto  

Exner's biography reads like a VH1 Behind the Music documentary. Good times, bad times, and good times again. It starts in 1909 in Buchanan, Michigan with a young small-town boy who likes to sketch, and loves automobiles. Young boy then goes to Notre Dame, graduates, and gets a job as an advertising sketch artist. Young boy matures into a man, gets married, has a family, and continues in an exciting automotive design career during Detroit's heyday. Man eventually gets sacked from dream automotive job due to political maneuvering and poor corporate management and spends the rest of his life dreaming of a better tomorrow.

As popular as he was back in the day, the Michigan native had a few remarkable traits that many of his admirers may not be hip to. According to Peter Grist, author of Virgil Exner: Visioneer, the talented designer of legedary motorcars like the Chrysler 300 and DeSoto Adventurer was known for working alone. He preferred to keep to himself, but he was a warm, personable man who got along with nearly everybody he worked with. Exner was admired by most of his colleagues because he gave them credit in a dog-eat-dog industrial atmosphere where the boss usually took credit for someone else's work. When he wasn't sculpting clay models of 'idea cars' in the basement of the family home, he enjoyed auto racing, vacations to Florida, and spending time with his family. That's what you may know about the 'father of the fin'.

Here are five things you might not have known about Virgil Exner...


1. Exner developed the streamlined trim that first appeared on Pontiac Silver Streak back in 1935. 

Advertisement for the sleek new 1935 Pontiac    
Photo Credit: General Motors
Before Chrysler and Studebaker, Exner briefly worked for Harley Earl in the General Motors Art and Color Section, a predecessor to the design studios of today. One of his early jobs in 1934 was to head up Pontiac's design moving forward. He spruced up the dull sedans with a streak of stainless trim that gave the lowly cars the illusion of speed. While the new trim didn't improve sales, Harley Earl liked Exner's work and he remained there until 1938. As a perk, Exner received a Pontiac sedan as a daily driver...but didn't care for it too much. Other design work for GM included the tapered grille design for the 1939 Buick models.

2. Wheels, not tail fins, were his favorite part of the car. 

White whites and wide wheel wells adorn this 1954 Chrysler Ghia Special G1.
Photo: Rex Gray / Flickr
You'll notice on many of his Chrysler designs that Exner stretched the wheel arches and allowed for large, usually wire wheels to be displayed prominently. This came as a result of Exner's love of early race cars. Growing up in Michigan and attending school in South Bend allowed Ex easy access to "The Brickyard", where he and his father used to take in the Indianapolis 500. In a time of fender skirts and low-slung tail-draggers, Exner's cars of the late 1950s and early 60s were large but maintained a sporty European profile thanks to his love of the open wheel. 

3. He liked race cars so much, he drove a retired Indy car on the street. 

The 1932 Studebaker Special in race trim (left) and street trim (right). Exner is visible on the far left.    
Photo Credit: Peter Grist / Veloce Books

While working at Studebaker, Exner came across an old straight-eight-powered Studebaker indy car from 1932 stored inside the design building he worked in. Being an Indy 500 fan and a gearhead by trade, he made an offer on it, and it found its way home to Exner's garage. The designer then turned it into a custom street-legal car. Ex and his son drove it around to various road race events and barked the tires quite a bit with 336 cubic inches of inline eight-cylinder power. He sold it when he took the job at Chrysler in 1949. But his racing days weren't over.

Exner and one of three Chrysler Falcons in 1955 at a Michigan SCCA event.
Photo Credit: Peter Grist / Veloce Books
Exner remained active in the early days of the Sports Car Club of America, which sanctioned racing for enthusiasts looking to get the most out of their cars in a safe, controlled environment. Often times he would take one of his Chrysler 'idea cars' for a spin on a road course to see how it would handle. To see Ex push a one-off, hand-built, Hemi-powered show car to it limits, tires howling around an empty Air Force base...would have been quite a treat to see.

4. He liked Italian cars, suits, and people. 

Exner leans on the 1952 Chrysler K-310 next to Ghia's Luigi Segre.
Photo Credit: Peter Grist / Veloce Books
Early on at Chrysler, Exner created several stylish 'idea cars', or design studies for the cars of tomorrow. He made good friends with his counterparts at coachbuilder Carrozzeria Ghia of Turin, Italy and by 1950 the company was building idea cars by hand for Chrysler Corporation. Exner liked what the Italians brought to the table in terms of style and performance. He long admired Enzo Ferrari and the purebred performance of his cars. He also liked his overseas work trips because they allowed him to buy fine Italian suits in bulk. He was a sharp dresser, and a flashy suit went well with his flashy cars.

Volkswagen Type 14 Karmann-Ghia with styling by Virgil Exner and Luigi Segre.
Photo Credit: Georg Sander / Flickr
While at Ghia, he would develop a close working relationship with Luigi Segre, one of Ghia's designers and engineers who also contributed a great deal of input to the Chrysler cars. Ex's sketches for the 1952 Chrysler D'Elegance would later be re-purposed and scaled down to become the 1955 Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia, a sought-after coupe that remained virtually unchanged during its 19 year run. Segre took the credit for the overall Karman-Ghia design and won over Volkswagen, but sent Exner the first production Karmann-Ghia imported into the state of Michigan as a token of his appreciation.

5. At the end of a hard day, he enjoyed a good, strong Manhattan.    

Who wants a cocktail? 

The AMC series Mad Men may have nailed 1950's executive culture when they showed their characters knocking back a few drinks at the drop of a hat. Folks in high-stress, white-collar jobs (like Exner) embraced the cocktail. Ex preferred the traditional Manhattan and perfected making them at home while entertaining friends, usually fellow engineers. He was so precise about it, he used a file to notch fill marks on his glass cocktail shaker. That's my kind of guy!

Virgil, Mildred, and Bronwen Exner board a flight to France in the fall of 1956. The European vacation would prove therapeutic for Ex after suffering a heart attack earlier in the year.
Photo Credit: Peter Grist / Veloce Books

Those are five things you might not have known about Chrysler's idea man, Virgil Exner. The success of his work at GM, Studebaker and later Chrysler would cement his legacy as an industrial designer for the ages. From the beauty of his Forward Look Chryslers to his Italian-American collaborations, Ex gave the slab-sided American car some much-needed flair. I guess you could say Virgil Exner lived life in the fast lane, and eventually it caught up with him. Between his serious smoking habit, and the demands of staying on top of the automotive game, Exner's health took a back seat to his career. At the young age of 46, he suffered a heart attack and followed the advice of his doctor and took some time away from work in 1957. It was this absence that sowed the seeds of his demise at Chrysler, but that's another story for another day.

For more of that story...

Exner's life and work are excellently chronicled in Peter Grist's Virgil Exner: Visioneer, a book my parents picked up for me this Christmas. I couldn't have asked for a better gift, and I look forward to finishing it. If you have a 50's Chrysler product, or are a fan of mid-century design, I cannot recommend a better read. Try it on for size and learn countless other details about the man who ushered in the next generation of American motoring by putting pen to paper.



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