Virgil Exner, the ‘man who put the fins on the fifties’ in auto design

Auto design’s ‘Mister X’

by Andy Bryenton

When the second world war came to an end, there was an immediate rush to deliver the ‘future’ of peace and prosperity to a conflict-weary American public. At the forefront of this charge was the auto industry, freed from building jeeps and tanks and ready to look ahead.

Enter Virgil Max ‘Ex’ Exner, a young designer at Studebaker, who had the idea that a new generation of cars should have the aggressive lines and futuristic styling of the newly minted jet age. He’d worked with GM design kingpin Harley Earl before the war, and came out immediately afterwards with the streamlined Studebaker Starlight coupe — a radical design for its day. His boss took all the credit, leading to Exner leaving to join Chrysler.

There, he partnered up with a group of auto designers, including Luigi Segre of Italian coachbuilders Ghia.

Together they blended what we would now call ‘retro-futurism’ with continental style. Exner copied jet planes and sketches of rocket ships from Popular Mechanics to develop cars like the Chrysler K-310, then the 1955 Chrysler ‘letter cars’ including the original 300c. Famously, General Motors’ spies sneaked a peek at these mid-50s icons while they were in production, then set to remaking every Chevy and Cadillac. Fins were in, and Exner tried to prove they were aerodynamic with wind tunnel tests. Eventually he was forced to admit they just looked cool but did little to affect top speed.

This trend brought about the heyday of US auto design, with Exner personally responsible for the Plymouth Fury (Stephen King’s Christine), the DeSoto Adventurer and a line-up of Chryslers.

He was the father of the Valiant, which went on to enjoy success as a Kiwi and Aussie icon in later model years. It was Exner’s love of the combination of elegance and power exemplified by his finned 50s masterpieces that sustained him in his later years. He sought to bring back 1930s American supercar brand Duesenberg, sketched concepts of modern vehicles to revive Bugatti years before the Veyron or EB110, and even had a hand in the design of the VW Karmann-Ghia.

His big, bold, low-roofline, long hood, big wheel-arch language of design was carried on into the modern Chrysler 300C. While he called modern cars, shorn of their fins and bullet-shaped tail lamps ‘plucked chickens’, he’d be pleased to know that today, his designs are among the most sought-after classics at auction.