Virgil Exner

In 1909 Virgil was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and adopted by the Exner family as a baby. From a very young age he showed a tremendous interest in art and cars. Virgil Exner had actually studied art at the Notre Dame University, but dropped out when he ran out of funds.

It was the 1930s when he took a job as a helper at an advertising studio. There he met his future wife Mildred Marie Eshleman, who was also in charge of various advertisement campaigns.

His first automotive design work was for the General Motors Company, under the legendary styling head Harley Earl. Virgil quickly gained reputation by showing his creativity and became the head of Pontiac Division Styling team at the age of 30.

Pontiac needed a fresh approach, a sort of rebranding process to make it more popular among younger generations. Virgil's talent didn't go unnoticed on the American market.

Raymond Loewy from the major industrial design firm Loewy and Associates also needed someone to help them develop military vehicles and make plans for revolutionary post World War II cars. They hired Exner in 1938 to design different Studebaker models. Virgil worked there for the next six years before being fired because of various conflicts with the owner.

Studebaker took the opportunity to directly hire the man who worked previously on their models and make use of his experience. Designer rivalry in Studebaker was strong enough to eventually force Virgil Exner out of the company, but not before the engineering chief Roy Cole personally recommended him to the Chrysler Corporation.

At the time, Walter Chrysler had just founded the Chrysler's Advanced Styling Group, which was a special team gathered to envision the cars of the future. In 1949, Exner officially started reshaping the older boxier designs on different Chrysler models. His thrilling ideas were based on aerodynamic features and round beauty of the vehicle. Exner's work became known as the "Forward Look".

Longer, wider cars were becoming more popular on the American car market and Chrysler was more than happy to provide them for the general public. Remember, in those days engineers generally controlled the design process. Soundly engineered automobiles were creating the illusion of movement even while standing still.

In a sense, Virgil Exner established one of the first modern car design patterns. Details such as fins, sleek chassis and many more captured the attention of ordinary people during the 1950s. On July 25, 1957, Exner was elected the first Vice President of Styling at Chrysler. After having a serious heart attack, he was demoted to a consultant position. Virgil left Chrysler Corporation in the early 1960s to run his own industrial design company in Birmingham, Michigan.

Until his death in 1973, he worked on a numerous automotive projects. Aside from General Motors' Harley Earl, Virgil Exner is probably one of the biggest names in world of American industrial car design. When Chrysler Corporation tried to best the popular Corvette model in the late 1950s, they needed someone with an equally unique approach to design.

For a brief period, Virgil Exner's name represented the most exciting prospects of the automobile industry. He produced some of the most beautiful and influential concept cars in the automotive history such as Chrysler D'Elegance, DeSoto Adventurer II, Dodge Firearrow, Chrysler Falcon, etc.

Pictures of Virgil Exner

Virgil Exner profile   Virgil Exner picture   Virgil Exner working


Next: William C. Durant | Return to library | Follow on Facebook