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Virgil Exner Retrospective, Notre Dame University, 9/29/2007

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Published on Apr 18, 2012

On a gorgeous autumn Saturday in 2007, Chrysler owners, automotive designers, and University of Notre Dame faculty and students gathered at the geodesic-domed Stepan Center on the South Bend campus to celebrate the life and career of one of the University's most famous alumni: Virgil Exner, whose career spanned nearly 40 years of automotive history.

Exner was born in 1909, and showed artistic talent and enthusiasm for cars at an early age. After two years as an art student at Notre Dame, he started as a hired by a South Bend commercial art studio, where he worked his way up from errand boy to staff illustrator, working on sales brochures for Studebaker.

Next was the Art and Color Section at General Motors under Harley Earl, where he worked on mid-to-late thirties Pontiacs, then Raymond Loewy in 1939, under whom he penned client Studebaker's '47 "coming or going" line of streamlined postwar cars, including the Starlight coupe with its semicircular 4-piece wraparound rear window.

A dispute with Loewy and a reneged job promise from Ford landed him at Chrysler in 1949, where he was made Chief of Advanced Styling, keeping the public's appetite whetted with a series of sleek, low-slung Ghia-built concept cars during the early fifties era of tall, boxy Chrysler products. In 1954, as the newly installed head of Styling for production cars, his first job was to completely redo Chrysler's 1955 lineup -- in eighteen months! The result was his best known work, the "Forward Look" models, which doubled Chrysler sales and grabbed 20% of the market, and which first showed off the tailfins that would grow to prodigious heights in 1957 and remain so for the next four years and a series of annual restylings.

Exner lost his job in 1962, having been scapegoated for the 1962 downsized full-size Plymouths and Dodges, which he styled on orders from management and against his better judgement, and which he predicted would be sales disasters (they were). He was kept on as a consultant for two more years, until he reached retirement age; because of long automotive development times, the '63 models, which he was directly responsible for, were sales successes even as he was being dismissed.

He segued into boat design as the head of Virgil Exner Designs, which he started with his son, Virgil Jr., also a Notre Dame alum. The firm also worked on demonstration and concept cars for various nonautomotive companies and revival models for Stutz and Duesenberg, His concept for the Duesenberg, which in production would have cost the astronomical sum of $19,000, actually made it as far as a running concept car and brought in cash deposits from a variety of celebrities before the investors got nervous and pulled the plug in 1966. Henry Ford II greatly admired this car, and several of its styling features appeared on the 1968 Continental Mark III.

The last production car whose styling he was directly for was the 1971-87 Stutz Blackhawk, the first example of which was bought by Elvis Presley, who was so happy with it that he bought three more.

Exner died in 1973, and was interred at St. Joseph County Memorial Cemetery in South Bend.

At the retrospective were examples of most of the cars he designed, including a huge contingent of Forward Look Chryslers and Stutz Blackhawks. The highlight of the day was the presence of his son Virgil Exner Jr., next to the tiny blue-and-white Simca Special he designed while a graduate student at Notre Dame in the 1950's. After the car show closed at 4:00, there were a few hours for dinner before an evening lecture at Notre Dame's Snite Art Museum by Exner biographer Peter Grist. One of the treasures of my book collection is a copy of "Virgil Exner: Visioneer, signed by Grist and by Virgil Exner Jr. A beautiful day, and a fitting tribute to one of history's most influential automotive designers.

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