“Art produces ugly things which frequently become more beautiful with time. Fashion, on the other hand, produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time.” – Jean Cocteau
Great automobile design is truly subjective. Its success can depend on everything from the designers tastes and ingenuity, the correct perception of the market, to even the financial and corporate backing of the automakers. The “perfect storm” of events needed to ensure a great car is so subjective that even with the best environment, things can go terribly wrong.
This week I wanted to feature some of the work of Chrysler during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Specifically, I wanted to feature the designs of Virgil Exner Sr., Advanced Styling Studio Chief at Chrysler. Mr. Exner is famous for many things, including his “Forward Look” designs of 1955-1957, his classic 1970’s Stutz Blackhawk, and his concepts for Bugatti, Duesenberg and Mercer. His amazing career was the subject of a book I recently viewed, modestly titled “Virgil Exner: Visioneer” by Peter Grist. Mr. Exner is not well known today, but his legendary designs and industry changing concepts ensure him a hallowed place in automotive design history.
Time is an important requirement for creating a good design, and it takes most manufacturers 2-4 years to go from concept to production. There are exceptions, as in the case of the Volkswagen Beetle, which took 15 years. (It should be noted that the Beetle was designed by Jewish engineer/car designer Josef Ganz, and not penned by Hitler or Porsche as publicized). On the other hand, the Ferrari Daytona took only 7 days to design. Time, or the lack of it, is what created Virgil Exner’s biggest design failure, tarnished his legacy, and eventually contributed to his downfall at Chrysler.
Much of the designs Virgil Exner did in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s were for large cars. For 1962, the designs for the new models were only months away from production when an event happened that would tarnish Exner’s career forever. During a garden party, then President of Chrysler, William Newberg thought he overheard a GM executive talking about downsizing their upcoming models. In actuality, the executive, Bob Cole was speaking about the new Chevy II and not the entire model lineup. This mistake cost Chrysler dearly, and eventually led to the downfall of Virgil Exner. Newberg immediately ordered Exner to rework the entire Chrysler lineup. Gone were the big designs, and team worked non-stop to squeeze the designs onto a smaller frame.
The result was some of the most abominable designs ever created by Detroit. The 1962 Dodge Dart/Valiant was over styled, poorly proportioned and universally panned by the press and public. Through it all, Exner warned that the result of this downsizing would be atrocious, and end in a colossal failure. Newberg assured him that he would not be held responsible, and the process slogged on. To add fuel to the fire, the engineers and bean counters imposed limitations due to cost cutting that doomed the effort. The original design for curved glass was eliminated, as was wraparound bumpers and new rooflines. They even went so far as to mandate the amount of chrome on the car. All this happened in an environment of turmoil. Executives, including the Chairman were embroiled in a payola scandal that cost more than a few their jobs.
In the end, the cars Exner had dubbed “plucked chickens” were so poorly received that when they were finally unveiled to the dealers, over 20 of them simply walked out. At year’s end the sales of Dodge cars were down 25% and despite assurances from management, Exner was relieved of his position as Design Chief and given a small room to ride out his remaining contract. Despite his success with the “Forward Look” designs, and his amazing concepts, the designs of the 1962 Dodge would haunt his legacy forever.
The 1962 Dodge cars were some of the most “aesthetically challenged” vehicles ever to be produced. The cars were so hideous that they are still loathed to this day by most critics, and will probably never enjoy the true following they deserve. At the time, design critics thought they looked “plain ugly” and had a front end “as if someone had taped two flashlights to the fenders.” Sales were terrible, and it took Chrysler almost 5 years to regain the ground lost. Time is lessening the blow, and the designs have softened over the years. The cars are still as “fugly” as a wart, they do appear more “European” in the right light and at the right angle. In hindsight, the cars have become a curious oddity from the golden age of the car styling.
Of course, Mr. Exner’s designs were always a little out there. His predilection for highlighting the functions of the car, rather than hiding them led to one outrageous move after another. One only needs to look at the 1961 Chrysler Crown Imperial’s free-standing headlights to see his unique taste in car design. Exner’s design cues include the reverse tailfin, the ingrown toenail lights, massive wings, sweeping chrome side panels, severely scalloped fender wells, gun sight taillights, concave grilles, as well as off centered and asymmetric wind splits, driver only dashboards, and his signature, the fake spare tire impression on the decklid. Separately, these items read like a list of “don’ts” for a car stylist, but in the hands of Exner, they were unique, thought provoking, sometimes controversial and always beautiful.
Throughout his career, Virgil Exner was an innovator, a visionary and to some, a victim of corporate stupidity. He will forever be remembered as the man who saved Chrysler, only to almost kill it. Though not on the same level as Pininfarina, Gandini, Sayer, or Giugiaro, his designs are timeless, beautiful and still relevant today. Even his most criticized work has grown to be more alluring than ever before, and with time I believe they will continue to soften. The cars featured here represent the best concept and production cars of a true master.