Virgil Exner Is a Little-Known Design Giant
When we think of the heart of American industrialism in the 20th century, the city of Detroit most certainly comes to mind; and when we imagine a designer who was representative of the pinnacle of the American automotive landscape, most people would place GM’s Harley Earl at the top of the list. Unbeknownst to many today, however, there was another midwestern automotive mecca in South Bend, Indiana that nurtured and brought forth an automotive visionary who was arguably the greatest contender for Earl’s throne to date–Mr. Virgil Exner.
A man with a highly decorated but tumultuous career, Exner was a South Bend native. He studied art at Notre Dame University but was forced to bow out when his funding dried up. Exner landed on his feet, in a job that allowed him to create advertisements for South Bend-based Studebaker. His artistic prowess did not go unnoticed, and in 1934 he was hand picked by Earl himself to join his design team at General Motors–going on to spearhead Pontiac design and creating the well-regarded 1937-’38 models.
His early designs were a great success, and while he was in line to eventually succeed Harley Earl, he ultimately parted ways with GM for what became a bumpier ride at Loewy and Associates, where he returned to his roots working on designs for Studebaker under the supervision of Mr. Raymond Loewy. While the war came and went, Exner was hard at work on the gorgeous Starlight Coupe–one of the first American cars to see production in the post-war era. This sleek five-passenger coupe featured a number of styling departures, such as a long rear deck and a unique wraparound rear window that offered fantastic visibility and panoramic views.
While most today have rightly given credit to Exner for the 1947 Studebaker Starlight design, it wasn’t always so. Loewy was known as the face of Studebaker design–and openly took credit for his team’s work (not uncommon for design managers). Loewy liked to have full control of the artistic process even if he wasn’t the man penning the designs, and he made it a point to have all design components require his signature of approval.
Many higher-ups at Studebaker saw through this and encouraged Exner to work on his own side-projects in the event that Loewy’s were not up to snuff. This angered Loewy and he ultimately canned Exner when Studebaker chose his unique projects over Loewy’s output. Well, that didn’t fly with Studebaker and Exner was hired directly, while Loewy was forced to work with Exner in his new role as chief of styling. Unfortunately for Studebaker, this proved to be short lived as Exner found it impossible to work alongside a stubborn Loewy and he cut ties with the automaker to move into his most famous and influential role in 1949, at Chrysler.
Prior to Exner’s tenure, Chrysler’s designs were bland to say the least. Chrysler generally used a design-by committee method to churn out new models and as a result they proved to be as flavorful as a stale bran muffin. Much like Mr. Sergio Marchionne has lambasted “Old Chrysler” and forced an emergency refresh of today’s Chrysler, Exner could be considered the father of this process when he joined and immediately went to the drawing board producing a series of beautiful concept cars–such as the magnificent Ghia-built K-310, the C-200, and the Dodge Firearrow–to show the world what kind of styling revolution was underway at the also-ran automaker.
These “Idea Cars” went on to inspire Exner’s “Forward Look” generation of Chrysler automobiles, which hit American roads in 1955 most notably with the Chrysler 300 that sported a muscular Hemi V8. Forward Look transformed the Chrysler lineup seemingly overnight as restyled Dodge and Plymouth models hit the streets in 1955 under Exner’s leadership. Dealerships reported that it became impossible to even navigate a showroom as so many onlookers were drawn in to ogle the new models.
In 1957, the famed 300C became the most powerful production car in America with a 375-horsepower Hemi underhood, and the 300 became a celebrated marvel at the speedway setting record after record throughout the Exner era.
While the elegance and initial hype were there, Exner’s prominence continued on for only a handful of years following as declining sales came as a result of quality issues and competition quickly catching up. 1963 proved to be the last run of Chrysler models heavily influenced by Exner and his team.
He continued on in his career as a styling consultant for a number of obscure and lesser-known models, such as the 1966 Duesenberg Ghia, and he played an integral role in the revival of the high-lux Stutz Motor Car Company during the early 1970s.
Virgil Max Exner, Sr. died an untimely death in 1973 at the age of 64. His far-reaching legacy has amassed into one of the most revolutionary eras of American automotive design, with his forward-thinking and innovative designs spanning decades across a multitude of great American automakers.