The Forward Look
Virgil Max ‘Ex’ Exner, Sr. (1909–1973) was one of the greats among American stylists. ‘Detroit was king’ thanks to men like Exner, His thrilling automobile designs from the mid-fifties took the world by storm and put Chrysler at the top, wresting styling leadership from General Motors’ Harley Earl. He is best known for his extravagant ‘idea cars’ and sculptural essays in ‘space age’ tail fins. Even to this day, his distinctive name is synonymous with styling.
Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Virgil showed an early interest in art and automobiles. He attended art classes at the University of Notre Dame in 1926-7 before taking up a job working on advertisements for the Studebaker Company. Thereafter followed a meteoric rise, recalled in part here "in Exner’s own words:"
1934-1938 GENERAL MOTORS, Detroit, Michigan
Executive Stylist & Studio Manager, GM Styling Division
“At 27, was the youngest ever to hold this position.”
Having come to the attention of Harley Earl, he was hired to work in the Pontiac design studio.
1938-1949 STUDEBAKER, South Bend, Indiana
Chief Styling Engineer
“Created numerous ‘firsts,’ many of which did not appear until three to five years later on most GM products.”
In fact from 1938-1944 he worked for Raymond Loewy's consultancy on the design of Studebaker cars. In 1944, he was hired directly by Studebaker. He was instrumental in the design of some of the first cars to be produced after World War II, including the 1947 Starlight coupe, for which most of the critical acclaim has gone to Loewy.
1949-1963 CHRYSLER, Highland Park, Michigan
Vice President in Charge of Styling
“1953: Was company’s first Director of Styling, reporting directly to the President. During 1953-56 styling action at Chrysler was revolutionized. All-new Chrysler and DeSoto lines appeared in 1955; in 1957 complete new lines of Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, Chrysler and Imperial were introduced. This constituted the largest group of all-new cars ever to appear in one year from one company. 1957: Elected as the corporation’s Vice President in Charge of Styling, directing over 300 personnel."
In 1949 he became head of the Advanced Styling Studio at Chrysler. While there he collaborated 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, ‘idea cars’ such as the Chrysler K-310, Dodge Firearrow, DeSoto Adventurer, and Plymouth XNR, all of which were crafted by the Ghia coachbuilders in Italy.
Exner made his
most lasting impression from 1955 to 1961 with a design theme he called the ‘Forward Look.’ Featuring
streamlined bodies and tail fins, these cars were responsible for turning
around Chrysler’s slumping sales. The 1957 Chryslers were advertised with the slogan, "Suddenly, it's 1960!"
GM design chief Chuck Jordan later recalled his first sight of those '57 cars: “I peeked through the fence where the new ’57 Plymouths were stored, and I was dumbfounded. In fact, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was a whole field full of sensational cars: low, lean, and sleek, with new proportions and a stance that made them look like they were moving even standing still. I went directly to Bill Mitchell and described what I had seen. We drove to the Plymouth plant again. That afternoon Mitchell did a very brave thing -- he started an alternate design for each car line, Chevrolet through Cadillac.”
So Exner was responsible for a new design direction at GM and, indirectly, Ford. In 1957, he and his design team received a Gold Medal award from the Industrial Designers Institute. However Cadillac and Chrysler escalated the size of fins until they became a symbol of American excess, and were discontinued in the early '60s.
One of the reasons for the strongly ‘sculpted’ feel of many of these designs resulted from Exner's tight control of the clay modeling studio and insistence on the final say in the approval of die models. Exner himself felt that his major contribution at Chrysler was not so much his designs but the ways in which he transformed the styling organization.
In 1963 he set up his own industrial design company, Virgil M. Exner, Inc. in Birmingham, Michigan, consulting for many companies. He worked on a variety of projects including pleasure boats for the Buehler Corporation, and designed a series of ‘Revival Cars’ with production plans for classic marques like Duesenberg, Stutz, Packard and Mercer. His revival of Duesenberg failed, but he was instrumental in the revival of Stutz in the 1970s.
Following his untimely death in 1973, he received these posthumous awards:
1990 Eyes on the Classics: Designer Lifetime Achievement Award
1993 Henry Ford Museum: Lifelong Accomplishments in American Automotive Design
1995 Inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame -- Dearborn, Michigan. This is the single greatest award in the motor vehicle industry,
intended to honor a career and/or lifetime achievement. Recipients must have significantly impacted the development of the
automobile or the motor vehicle industry. Exner's citation
reads in part:
Virgil Exner gave a new shape to motion with innovative designs that made many American cars of the 1950s true 'dream machines.' Although Exner is best remembered as 'The Fin Man,' his talents
extended to all areas of styling. One historian noted: “Exner’s designs
incorporated elements of art and science to create practical
transportation that also had grace and flair.”