Virgil Exner

Last updated
Virgil Exner
Virgil Max Exner Sr.

(1909-09-24)September 24, 1909
DiedDecember 22, 1973(1973-12-22) (aged 64)
Royal Oak, Michigan, U.S.
Nationality American
Occupation Automotive designer
Chrysler Vice President of Design

Virgil Max "Ex" Exner Sr. (September 24, 1909 December 22, 1973) was an automobile designer for numerous American companies, most notably Chrysler and Studebaker.


Exner is widely known for the Forward Look he created for the 1955-1963 Chrysler products and his fondness of tailfins on cars for both aesthetics and aerodynamics.

Exner introduced the Forward Look at Chrysler and was copied before the designs hit the road when GM designer Chuck Jordan spied Exner's hidden 1955 Chrysler lineup, prompting Bill Mitchell, head of General Motors styling, "to begin redesigning each car line, Chevrolet through Cadillac.” [1] Exner's work effectively "change[d] the course of automotive design."

Early life

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 went to Buchanan High School in Buchanan, Michigan then 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 died of injuries after falling from a window. Exner also adopted and raised his niece, Marie Exner, born in 1947, who had become an orphan as a young child.

Design work

General Motors

His first work in design was for General Motors, where he was hired by GM styling czar Harley Earl. Before age 30, he was in charge of Pontiac styling. [2]

Loewy and Associates

1939 Studebaker Champion G 4-door sedan Studebaker Champion 4-Door Sedan 1939.jpg
1939 Studebaker Champion G 4-door sedan

In 1938, he joined Raymond Loewy's industrial design firm Loewy and Associates, where he worked on World War II military vehicles and cars, notably Studebaker's 1939-40 models, and advance plans for their revolutionary post-war cars. [3] "But working on Studebaker designs… Exner struggled to get the attention of his boss, who had to sign off on every facet of the designs. Exner was encouraged by Roy Cole, Studebaker’s engineering vice president, to work on his own at home on backup designs in case the company’s touchy relationship with Loewy blew up". [2]

Studebaker Corporation

1951 Studebaker Champion Starlight coupe 51StudeStar.jpg
1951 Studebaker Champion Starlight coupé

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 with all new styling to be produced after World War II (Studebaker's slogan during this period was "First by far with a post war car"). As acknowledged by Robert Bourke, [3] Virgil was the final designer of the acclaimed 1947 Studebaker Starlight coupe, though Raymond Loewy received the public acknowledgment because his legendary name was a major advertising attraction. Exner is actually listed as the sole inventor on the design patent. [4] Rivalry and bad feeling between the two resulted in Exner having to leave Studebaker, whose engineering chief Roy Cole provided personal introductions for him to Ford and Chrysler. [2]

Chrysler Corporation

In 1949, Exner started working in Chrysler's Advanced Styling Group, where he partnered with Cliff Voss and Maury Baldwin. He also worked with Luigi "Gigi" Segre, of Italian coach builder 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, the mid-1950s Dodge Firearrow series show cars, as well as the Chrysler d'Elegance and DeSoto Adventurer.

Forward Look design program

The Flookerang, the logo for the Chrysler Corporations "Forward Look" design program Forward Look.jpg
The Flookerang, the logo for the Chrysler Corporations "Forward Look" design program

When Exner joined Chrysler, the company's vehicles were being fashioned by engineers instead of designers, and so were considered outmoded, unstylish designs.

After seeing the Lockheed P-38 Lightning-inspired tailfins on the 1948 Cadillac, Exner adopted fins as a central element of his vehicle designs. He 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. Exner lowered the roofline and made the cars sleeker, smoother, and more aggressive. In 1955, Chrysler introduced "The New 100-Million Dollar Look". With a long hood and short deck, the wedgelike designs of the Chrysler 300 letter series and revised 1957 models suddenly brought the company to the forefront of design, with Ford and General Motors quickly working to catch up. The 1957 Plymouths were advertised with the slogan, "Suddenly, it's 1960!" In 1958, Chrysler's Forward Look was the sponsor of the groundbreaking An Evening with Fred Astaire TV special.

Impact on automobile design

1955 Imperial, one of the first Exner-styled Chrysler vehicles 1955 Imperial.jpg
1955 Imperial, one of the first Exner-styled Chrysler vehicles
1956 DeSoto Adventurer DeSoto Adventurer (1956 Indianapolis 500 Pace Car).jpg
1956 DeSoto Adventurer
Exner's 1957 Chrysler 300C had a lasting impact on car styling in Detroit Chrysler 300C.jpg
Exner's 1957 Chrysler 300C had a lasting impact on car styling in Detroit
Tail fin of a 1959 Dodge Custom Royal Customroyalfin.jpg
Tail fin of a 1959 Dodge Custom Royal

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 1950s. 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. This was the method to develop the Dodge Firearrow concept that was constructed by Ghia.

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 to enter the market designed under his full supervision: the 1955 Chrysler 300 series, and the Imperial. The hardtop versions of 1957 Chrysler Corporation cars also featured compound curved glass, the first to be used in a production car.

These tailfin designs also premiered his "Forward Look." In the late 1940s, Chrysler had been 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 a Gold Medal Award by the Industrial Designers Institute (IDI).

In 1956, during the design of the 1961 models, Exner suffered 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, Lester Lum ("Tex") Colbert, to order Exner to do the same to his 1962 design – a change Exner disagreed with, thinking it would make his cars "ugly." Exner with his associates had completed work on the second full-sized finless Plymouth since 1955, this one for 1962, described as a strikingly attractive automobile. While he was still recovering from the heart attack, the 1962 models Exner took credit for were downsized by associates. This downsizing drastically changed the cars' appearance. This reduced the cars' appeal and caused a significant drop in sales. It turned out that the Chevrolet rumor was false and consumers disliked the smaller Plymouth and Dodge cars introduced for 1962, the styling of which was bizarre compared to more sedate Ford and GM products. Needing a scapegoat, Chrysler fired Exner. He was allowed to retain a position as a consultant so he could retire with a 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. [5]

Tailfins soon lost popularity. By the late 1950s, Cadillac and Chrysler – driven by the respective competing visions of GM's Earl and Chrysler's Exner – had escalated the size of fins till some thought they were stylistically questionable and they became a symbol of American excess in the early 1960s. The 1961 models are considered the last of the "Forward Look" designs; Exner later referred to the finless 1962 downsized Plymouth and Dodge models as "plucked chickens". [6] He believed Chrysler executives had "picked" away at the cars to make them lower in cost.

Although fins were out of favor by the early 1960s, fins could still give aerodynamic advantages. In the early 1970s, Porsche 917 racing automobiles sported fins reminiscent of Exner's designs. [5] [7]

Volkswagen Karmann Ghia

Three entities came together in the history of the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia a design that ultimately reflected strong influence from Virgil Exner. In the early 1950s, Volkswagen was producing its Type 1 (Beetle) as post-war standards of living increased, executives at Volkswagen were at least receptive to adding a halo model to its range, if not proactive. Luigi Segre was committed to expanding the international reputation of Carrozzeria Ghia. And Wilhelm Karmann had taken over his family coachbuilding firm Karmann and was eager to augment his contracts building Volkswagen's convertible models.

As the head of Ghia, Segre singularly directed and incubated the project through conception and prototyping, delivering a feasible project that Willhelm Karmann both wanted to and could practically build the project Willhelm Karmann would in turn present to Volkswagen. The styling itself, however, integrated work by Segre as well as Mario Boano, Sergio Coggiola, and designer/engineer Giovanni Savonuzzi and at various times they each took credit for the design. [8] Furthermore, the design bore striking styling similarities to Virgil Exner's Chrysler D'Elegance and K-310 concepts, which Ghia had been tasked with prototyping and which in turn reflected numerous cues and themes developed previously by Mario Boano. [9] The precise styling responsibilities were never documented before the passing of the designers, [9] further complicated by the overlapping work of the key players. A definitive individual attribution on Karmann Ghia's was never made. [9]

Segre and Virgil Exner had become close professionally and personally, eventually traveling Europe together. [10] Peter Grist wrote in a 2007 Exner biography that when Exner in 1955 eventually saw the Karmann Ghia, which cribbed heavily from his Chrysler D'Elegance, "he was pleased with the outcome and glad that one of his designs had made it into large-scale production.” [11] Chris Voss, a stylist in Exner's office, reported in 1993, that Exner considered the Karmann Ghia the ultimate form of flattery. [8] Segre in turn sent Exner the first production Karmann Ghia imported into the state of Michigan, in gratitude. [12]

After Volkswagen approved the design in November 1953, the Karmann Ghia debuted at the 1955 Paris Auto show and went into production, first at Ghia [13] and then in Osnabrück ultimately to reach a production over 445,000, running 19 years virtually unchanged. [14]


Exner continued consulting for many car companies from his office in Birmingham, Michigan. He 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.

Seeking to reenter the automotive field, Exner drafted a resume, describing himself as having "extensive, responsible and successful experience in all areas.” [1] Exner died of heart failure on December 22, 1973, at the William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan.

List of Exner-designed vehicles


  1. 1 2 Garrett, Jerry (October 21, 2007). "Where Credit Is Due: A Fresh View on the Exner Designs". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 December 2020.
  2. 1 2 3 Garrett, Jerry (21 October 2007). "Where Credit Is Due: A Fresh View on the Exner Designs". The New York Times.
  3. 1 2 Bourke, Robert E. (1972). "The Starlight and the Starliner: Some recollections of a designer". Automobile Quarterly. X (3): 266–273.
  4. Exner, Virgil M.; Studebaker Corp. (18 January 1949). "US Patent #D152400: Exner Automobile".
  5. 1 2 "Allpar Home Page".
  6. Niedermeyer, Paul (4 December 2017). "Automotive & Design History: 1962 Plymouth & Dodge – Brilliant Blunder, or Suddenly It's 1977". Curbside Classic. Retrieved 22 December 2020.
  7. Fitzgerald, Craig (1 June 2005). "Sport Sensation: Celebrating Chrysler's 300 Sport convertible exactly as it left the factory in 1962". Hemmings Classic Car.
  8. 1 2 Lamm, Michael (23 December 2012) [July1993]. "SIA Flashback - 1953 Chrysler D'Elegance: Deja Vu All Over Again". Special Interest Autos. Hemmings. Retrieved 22 December 2020.
  9. 1 2 3 Bobbitt, Malcolm (2004). Karmann Ghia. Veloce Publishing. p. 7. ISBN   9781845845513.
  10. "Automotive Design Oral History Project: The Reminiscences of Virgil Max Exner, Jr". Benson Ford Research Center. The Henry Ford. 1989. Virgil Exner Jr., [Segre] was a real nice guy -- super guy -- great big fellow. He married quite a wealthy Brazilian gal. They were a neat couple and raised a nice family. They became very good friends with my family. I liked Luigi very much.
  11. Strohl, Daniel (November 10, 2017). "Virgil Exner actually didn't mind that the Karmann Ghia directly copied his 1953 Chrysler D'Elegance". Hemmings Motor News.
  12. Scott, Daryl (January 17, 2016). "Five Things You Might Not Have Known About Virgil Exner". Throwing wrenches.
  13. "Automotive Design Oral History Project: The Reminiscences of Virgil Max Exner, Jr". Automobile in American Life and Society. [Segre] approached [Chrysler] through C.B. Thomas and engineering to Jim Zeder who was the vice-president of engineering to show what they called the Plymouth 500X. And it was shown to my father [Virgil Exner], and, oh, he thought that their workmanship was wonderful, and just unbelievable compared to these parade cars which had been built by the Chrysler shops at an enormous cost – two hundred/three hundred thousand dollars. At that time, that was a tremendous amount of money, while Ghia was showing this little Plymouth. It wasn't nearly as big, but it was a totally new body built on a standard chassis, but they were quoting prices for show cars to be built from ten to twenty thousand dollars at that time, and the workmanship was excellent. There was a bit of fear on the part of Chrysler that they would be taking work away from union shops to have these cars built in Italy. But, nevertheless, they signed a contract with Segre to go ahead. Chrysler would design a car, and Ghia would build what became the first true show car that my father was responsible for [from] the new design section at Chrysler.
  14. "Classic Cars: Volkswagen Karmann Ghia". 2007-12-04. Retrieved 2008-01-22.
  15. "Volkswagen - Cars People Love - Max Wagner - pub Todtri 1998
  16. Hart, Roger (3 August 2012). "Escape Roads: 1960 Plymouth XNR, Virgil Exner's dream car". Autoweek.


Related Research Articles

Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Motor vehicle

The Volkswagen Karmann Ghia is a sports car marketed in 2+2 coupe (1955–1974) and 2+2 convertible (1957–1974) body styles by Volkswagen. Internally designated the Type 14, the Karmann Ghia combined the chassis and mechanicals of the Type 1 (Beetle) with styling by Italy's Carrozzeria Ghia and hand-built bodywork by German coachbuilding house Karmann.


Wilhelm Karmann GmbH, commonly known as simply Karmann, was a German automobile manufacturer and contract manufacturer based in Osnabrück.

Imperial (automobile) Motor vehicle

Imperial was the Chrysler Corporation's luxury automobile brand from 1955 to 1975, and again from 1981 to 1983.

Volkswagen Type 3 Compact car built from 1961–1973

The Volkswagen Type 3 is a compact car that was manufactured and marketed by Volkswagen from 1961 to 1973. Introduced at the 1961 Frankfurt Motor Show, Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung (IAA), the Type 3 was marketed as the Volkswagen 1500 and later as the Volkswagen 1600, in three body styles: two-door Notchback, Fastback and Variant, the latter marketed as the 'Squareback' in the United States.

Dual-Ghia Motor vehicle

Dual-Ghia is a rare, short-lived, automobile make, produced in the United States between 1956 and 1958. The idea for a sporty limited production car came from Eugene Casaroll, who controlled specialized vehicle builder Dual-Motors Corporation based in Detroit, Michigan; the name Dual-Ghia is representative of the collaborative efforts between the two builders.

Carrozzeria Ghia

Carrozzeria Ghia SpA is an Italian automobile design and coachbuilding firm, established by Giacinto Ghia and Gariglio as Carrozzeria Ghia & Gariglio. The headquarters is located at 4 Corso Valentino in Turin.

Raymond Loewy French-born American industrial designer

Raymond Loewy was a French-born American industrial designer who achieved fame for the magnitude of his design efforts across a variety of industries. He was recognized for this by Time magazine and featured on its cover on October 31, 1949.

Car tailfin

The tailfin era of automobile styling encompassed the 1950s and 1960s, peaking between 1955 and 1961. It was a style that spread worldwide, as car designers picked up styling trends from the US automobile industry, where it was regarded as the "golden age" of American auto design.

Studebaker Starlight Motor vehicle

The Starlight coupe was a unique 2-door body style offered by Studebaker Corporation of South Bend, Indiana from 1947 to 1955 in its Champion and Commander model series. It was designed by Virgil Exner, formerly of Raymond Loewy Associates.

Automotive design

Automotive design is the process of developing the appearance, and to some extent the ergonomics, of motor vehicles, including automobiles, motorcycles, trucks, buses, coaches, and vans.

Chrysler Norseman 1956 concept car

The Chrysler Norseman was a four-seat fastback coupe built in 1956 as a concept car. Although designed by Chrysler's stylists, actual construction was contracted out to the Italian coach-building firm of Carrozzeria Ghia. The concept car was lost during the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria.

Dodge Polara Motor vehicle

The Dodge Polara is an automobile introduced in the United States for the 1960 model year as Dodge's top-of-the-line full-size car. After the introduction of the Dodge Custom 880 in 1962, the Polara nameplate designated a step below the full-sized best trimmed Dodge model; the Polara that year had been downsized to what was in effect intermediate, or mid-size status. In its various forms, the Polara name was used by Dodge until 1973, when its position in Dodge's line-up was replaced by the Dodge Monaco.

Chrysler Falcon

The Chrysler Falcon was a two-seater roadster concept car designed by Virgil Exner, and built by Chrysler for the 1955 model year. The car was never put into production, but many of the ideas and styling elements used in the Falcon would be used in other Chrysler designs. Some features would not appear for many years, like the exposed side exhaust pipes which would not be used in a Chrysler production car until the Dodge Viper in 1992. The name Falcon was originally intended to be the name of the Plymouth Valiant, but Ford Motor Company released the Ford Falcon production car with the name first, after Henry Ford II requested use of the name. Chrysler agreed, scrambling to change it at the last minute with a contest among their employees.

Exner Revival Cars were created by noted automobile designer, Virgil Exner, produced a series of "Revival Car" concepts for a December, 1963 issue of Esquire magazine. His designs included an updated model for four famous American marques: Stutz, Duesenberg, Packard, and Mercer. He later designed updated Bugatti, Pierce-Arrow, and Jordan cars. Little came of these designs, though they became well known as plastic model kits produced by Renwal.

1955 Dodge Motor vehicle

The 1955 Dodge lineup, consisting of the entry-level Coronet, Royal, and ornate Custom Royal, was a major departure for the company. Driven almost out of business in 1953 and 1954, the Chrysler Corporation was revived with a $250 million loan from Prudential and new models designed by Virgil Exner. The Dodge lineup was positioned as the mainstream line in Chrysler's hierarchy, between DeSoto and Plymouth.

Luigi Segre

Luigi "Gigi" Segre was an Italian automotive designer noted for his business and engineering acumen during his stewardship and ownership of Carrozzeria Ghia (1953–63), one of an Italy's premier automobile design and coachbuilders.

Plymouth Belmont Motor vehicle

The Plymouth Belmont was a 1954 concept sports car built by Plymouth. It were the first plastic-bodied cars by the Chrysler Corporation. The Belmont seated two and used a V8 engine, that produced up to 150 hp (112 kW). It was originally painted in a light blue metallic, it was painted red later. It was 191.5" long. Had it ever become a production model, its main competitors would have been the Chevrolet Corvette and the Ford Thunderbird.

Sergio Sartorelli was a noted Italian automotive designer and engineer.

Theodore Wells Pietsch II

Theodore Wells Pietsch II was an American automobile stylist and industrial designer who, with little formal education, managed to launch a career in automobile design that took him over a period of 38 years to nearly every major automobile company in the nation.

Plymouth XNR Motor vehicle

The 1960 Plymouth XNR was a concept car developed by Chrysler and Plymouth and designed by Virgil Exner as a sports roadster to add to the Plymouth line and possibly compete with the Ford Falcon and the Chevrolet Corvette. There exists a 1:1 replica of Exner's Plymouth XNR in the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California, designed by Mark Towle and the Gotham Garage team as seen on Car Masters: Rust to Riches.