Virgil Exner's 'Forward Look' changed Chrysler's design philosophy
DETROIT – The first great era of Chrysler concept car creation and design came when Virgil Exner was hired away from his post at Studebaker in 1949 to develop a series of "idea cars" for Chrysler. The president of Chrysler, K.T. Keller, hired Exner to bring the company to the next level.
Not long after his hiring, Exner introduced the 1950 Chrysler K-310 "idea car." Exner used "idea cars" to help influence new production vehicles. In that vein, the K-310 was designed to showcase Chrysler's upcoming revolutionary 1951 Hemi V8.
In creating the K-310, Exner developed his "pure automobile" design philosophy in which functional elements of the car were featured instead of being disguised – elements like the wheels, the radiator grille, spare tire storage, taillights, etc. Prior to the K-310, those features had been hidden. Exner went in a different direction because, as he said, "The wheel is one of mankind's greatest inventions. Why attempt to hide it?"
After the success of the K-310, Exner continued to climb the ladder at Chrysler. In 1953 he was named Director of Styling. Then in 1957, he became Chrysler's first Vice President of Styling. In that time, Exner insisted on having complete control of the clay modeling room and final approval of die models. Keller granted him the control and Exner made history.
Exner designed production models to be lower and sleeker, an appearance he called the "Forward Look". His designs combined with Chrysler’s technology (Hemi engines, the first alternator, the first power steering, a shifter on the dashboard) increased Chrysler Corporation’s market share.
Exner continued to refine his designs through the ‘50s and, in doing so, he created some of the most inventive work ever produced by an automotive company. Some of his highlights include:
The 1955 Flight Sweep I and Flight Sweep II. These two cars – a convertible and a hardtop – were used to explore the idea of prominent tailfins, a styling theme the company pursued in its 1957 lineup. The Flight Sweeps were members of the commercially successful lineup of Forward Look cars.
The 1955 Chrysler Falcon . This has been described as Exner's Viper. It was a two-seat, long-hood, short-deck sport convertible noted for its "pure automobile" shapes like its prominent radiator grille and exposed side exhaust pipes. The Falcon's egg crate grille was later adapted for the 1957-59 Chrysler 300s, while its side-mounted exhausts were adopted by the Dodge Viper.
The 1957 Imperial. This was the first American car to have curved side glass – a feature now present in every car on the road today. The designers said the side glass cheated the wind while saving space. No wonder everyone copied it.
The 1960 XNR. Exner used this compact two-seat roadster to explore an asymmetrical, driver-oriented design theme with sculptural fender blades.
The 1961 TurboFlite. The radical two-door coupe with a retractable flight cockpit-style roof canopy featured a prominent winged spoiler high over the rear deck. This design and aerodynamic feature would later be used successfully by the 1969-70 Dodge Charger Daytona and Plymouth Road Runner Superbird in NASCAR competition.
Exner left Chrysler in 1961, leaving as his legacy a new styling organization at Chrysler and clearing the way for another new era in Chrysler design – an era led by Elwood Engel and the Turbine Car designs.
For more about the history of Chrysler design from the company’s beginnning to the present day, visit the Chrysler Design Institute Web site. On the site you can learn about other Chrysler designers, view scores of vehicle photos and get an insider's view of the design process.