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Exner gained fame as the "fin man"

July 09, 2006|by JASON STEIN / Wheelbase Communications

There was only one "Fin Man."

Walk the halls at the corporate headquarters of the Chrysler Group, just east of Interstate 75 in Auburn Hills, Mich., or in the General Motors design offices near Warren, Mich., and the name still brings a smile.

To car guys, he was special.

To designers, he was a legend.

To everyone else, Virgil Exner was "The Father of Fins," a reference to his propensity in the 1950s to add tail fins to vehicles. It was simply the design of the times. And Exner was holding the auto world's pencil.

"Exner's designs incorporated elements of art and science to create practical transportation that also had grace and flair," one Detroit designer told the Automotive Hall of Fame upon Exner's induction in 1995.

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Exner is best known for his work as vice president of styling at Chrysler in the 1950s where he revolutionized automotive design with the so-called "Forward Look" line of cars, streamlined bodies and tail fins that made the cars appear "ready for action even when parked," as one Chrysler ad at the time stated.

But Exner was so much more than all of that.

Deeply talented, emotionally supportive and daring to his final day, Exner would avoid a board meeting just so he could model something new.

Adopted from birth in 1909 in Ann Arbor, Mich., Exner attended Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., but dropped out for financial reasons after only two years. Exner stayed in Indiana and began working for the Studebaker car company, drawing advertisements to make a living.

Impressed with some of his early work, a friend suggested Exner contact Harley Earl, GM's head of design.

Earl hired him on the spot.

Exner was placed in charge of GM's "art and color section," and then Pontiac's studio. He was 24, the youngest head of a GM styling division.

After three years with GM, Exner went back to Studebaker, working for Raymond Loewy's industrial design group where he really began to make his mark in the post-war era. Over the next 11 years, Exner was responsible for the famous "bullet-nosed" Studebakers, as well as the 1947 Starlight coupe, a revolutionary style for its era.

In 1949, Exner joined Chrysler as head of the Advance Styling Group, where he helped change the look of the company and the fortunes of the automaker. Until that point, Chrysler was producing stodgy, boxy vehicles that allowed "a man to wear his hat while driving," a former Chrysler executive said.

Exner wanted no part of that and fought for change.

With a new generation turning to sleek, sporty and low-slung cars, Exner helped contribute to the trend at Chrysler, with his own touch, of course.

Slowly, tiny fins began to sprout.

GM's Earl had been incorporating small fins on the rear fenders on 1948 Cadillac models, a trait also used in Italy at the time. Exner saw the design and made it his own, enlarging the fins and making them more prominent.

"He felt that it lifted the tail end of the automobile from a visual standpoint," said Exner's son, Virgil Jr., in a 2003 interview with a Chrysler design fan Web site. "And it gave it a faster look."

Exner called his design the "Forward Look" and believed the fins were aesthetic as well as somewhat functional.

The look caught on, and Chrysler soon became the talk of the automotive world.

The Chrysler 300 in 1955 was a start, followed by the Imperial in 1957, which also featured compound curved glass, the first used in a production car.

When Chrysler's accountants and engineers wanted to change the look of the Imperial concept car - his first extravagant "fin" design - Exner went home and told his wife: "My God, Mildred! They want to cut (the fins) because they can save 38 cents!"

Exner got his way and, in the end he gave a new shape to motion with innovative designs that made many classics of many 1950s American cars.

And Exner loved to create classics.

At Chrysler, he had two offices, "one was a big, fancy job that was his showcase," his son said, "and the other was where he really spent his time, and his own back room with the modelers and designers and really worked out his own stuff."

Exner even pushed to expand Chrysler's design shop to more than 300 staff from just 17.

But it all ended very abruptly.

Exner would become a scapegoat for other problems at Chrysler.

According to Dave Schultz, an author and Exner historian, in the summer of 1959, a Chrysler executive received a tip that Ford and GM were going to dramatically downsize their cars. Executives saw the concepts in spy photos obtained by Chrysler. In their panic to downsize their own cars, Exner was given the directive to shorten the wheelbase and narrow Chrysler's next generation of product. Exner argued that it would ruin his design. It didn't matter, he was told.

When the 1962 models from Ford and GM appeared, Chrysler discovered it had been a hoax. Chrysler unveiled its own chopped sedans, and they tanked.

Exner was fired.

But he didn't avoid the car business. Exner and his son went to work for a boat company and later wanted to bring back the Duesenberg. But the project fizzled when the money didn't line up in time.

Virgil Exner died on December 22, 1973, at 64, but the name and the images live on.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

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