Eye Candy: Virgil Exner design at Concours d’Elegance of America

Photos by Larry Edsall

Harley Earl of General Motors was the showman. Hollywood history. Father of American car design. Ringmaster of the Motorama. Decades of dominance in the design studio.

But Earl wasn’t the only leader of an American automaker’s design department whose influence spread far beyond his own studio. Over at Chrysler, Virgil Exner wasn’t nearly so flamboyant. Although he had the looks of a leading man, he’d grown up in the Midwest, not Hollywood. And while illness cut short his career, his influence over automotive design stretched not only across the Atlantic but across town.

Spying Exner’s “Forward Look” Chrysler products behind a fence one day while on their lunch break, GM designers rushed back to their studio and hurried to try to update their own designs before production began. They were too late. Chrysler’s new 1955 models were so popular, sales doubled over the previous year.

Virgil Exner was known as 'Ex' within the Chrysler design studio | Chrysler archives
Virgil Exner was known as ‘Ex’ within the Chrysler design studio | Chrysler archives

At the recent Concours d’Elegance of America, three special displays of vehicles and a design seminar provided a retrospective on Exner’s work and influence.

Exner grew up in southwestern Michigan, knew early on that he wanted to design cars and enrolled at Notre Dame to study art. As a student, he started doing illustrations for the agency that handled advertising for Studebaker. His work was so good it was noticed by Harley Earl, who not only hired Exner, but before long promoted him, at age 27, to head design for the Pontiac division.

Two years later, Exner was back in South Bend, where he soon became chief designer for Studebaker.

In 1949, Exner joined Chrysler, where he and his staff revolutionized the way that company created its cars (previously, engineers or outside consultants had been responsible for how Chrysler products looked.)

To set a direction for design, Exner found a highly efficient way to produce what he called “idea cars,” forward-looking concept cars that Exner and his team designed, then turned over to the craftsmen and coachbuilders at Ghia in Italy to produce as full-scale, running prototypes. Not only could Ghia produce such cars, but it could do so for a fraction of what it cost Chrysler to build them in-house.

Though Exner is most remembered for the tail fins on his cars, long-time GM designer Bill Porter noted that it was Exner who “emboldened the grille and made it American.” Exner also used what he called “sweeps” of color to provide a graphic element on the otherwise slab-sided cars of the 1950s.

But, said Paul Down, head of industrial design at Notre Dame, Exner’s designs were true to what he saw as “the gesture of the automobile.” They focused on function and logic. “They didn’t try to do too many different things,” and thus, Down said, they were timeless.

Down said Exner was “a man with a vision.”

Down explained that Exner wanted his cars to look like “a graceful dart flying down the street.”

But, he added, Exner also wanted such design to be available at an affordable price, “so the common man or his wife could feel like they were driving a show car.”

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