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NEW: See the 2003 Imperial 'Eagle' design concept by Virgil Exner, Jr.
On January 8, 2003, Virgil Exner, Jr. gave me an opportunity to ask him many of the questions that we Chrysler fans, especially those of us in the Online Imperial and Forward Look clubs, have wondered about and discussed over the years. He is a wonderfully gracious man to talk to—extremely knowledgeable, considerate, funny, and passionate about automobiles. It became obvious that he and his father have always been, not only brilliant artists and automotive designers, but die-hard, race-loving, 'gas in the blood' car guys!
The following is a transcript of our conversation....
Move your mouse over any picture to read its caption.
XJR = Virgil Exner, Jr. (Ex, Jr.) MT = Mike Trettin
MT: Many of us 'Forward Look' fans were wondering whether the high speed cross-wind stability of the tailfins was really a design consideration for your father from the beginning, or whether they were used primarily as a styling element?
XJR: No, my father in the early days really believed in that tremendously, from a genuine aerodynamics standpoint, and we were influenced—he was especially, and I was too—by the late 1930's developments with Le Mans racing cars, and especially the Italian aerodynamic development that went into the Cisitalia and cars like that in Europe. Especially the Cisitalia from 1947, that was designed by Giovanni Savonuzzi in Italy. He later worked for Ghia himself and then my father actually managed to get him hired directly by Chrysler later on, on the Turbine project that was done while my father was still there.
MT: Which generation of the Turbine project would that have been?
XJR: The very first one with George Huebner, in the '50s.
MT: I guess we never doubted the functionality of the tailfins, but we were wondering if that was sort of a side benefit, whether styling was primary, or whether it was truly a case of form following function, and he came up with that design based on the functionality?
XJR: Well, based on the functionality, primarily. He had been involved even at Studebaker in aerodynamic testing with the post-war Studebaker at the University of Michigan. They tested 1/4-scale cars and were into aerodynamics, and of course they had been prior to the war, anyway. The Italians and the French came along—the Italians before the war—with Le Mans racing cars that had fins (especially the Italians) and he was influenced by that, and they were done from a genuine aerodynamic standpoint, too. He picked it up from two standpoints; primarily the first one was a functionality standpoint, and secondly he felt that it lifted the tail end up of the automobile from a visual standpoint and gave it a faster look.
MT: Yes, I think I've seen it referred to as giving "poise" to the rear end?
XJR: That's right. Everything before that was pretty much designed...except for like the 1949 Cadillac, which also was influenced of course by the war years and airplanes and things like that, but....
MT: I suppose that's the American car that's considered to have the first tailfins, but they're not in the same league, I don't think.
XJR: Well that's true, they really weren't. They were more or less of a take-off from what we used to call a "Buck Rogers" styling that went on at General Motors versus a genuine automotive styling, and my father always felt that he did at Chrysler. Really what happened is that these cars were tested in the wind tunnel, and the Chrysler aerodynamicists, the engineers, found out that the tailfins—and of course the larger they were, the better they were—added some directional stability to the vehicle, because in those days cars were not as stable as they are today.
MT: A lot more squirrelly handling, especially on bias-ply tires....
XJR: Well, the suspension geometry, as well as the basic mass of the body. They managed to get the center of air pressure moved behind the center of gravity by about—or they moved it back at least—by some 9 inches, where it approached or became further back behind the center of gravity, so that it resulted in an inherent directional stability. And so, in cross winds especially it was very effective, and at higher speeds, naturally, it was more effective. They anticipated turnpike cruising at 70-80 miles per hour, even in those days, and so it really did help. Now, the cars today...it's built into the cars today. Every car on the road, virtually, today is a wedge shape, fundamentally. And you've got the center of air pressure— because of the mass of sheet metal—further aft, and therefore they are more stable owing to the aerodynamics (and believe me, I've tested a lot of stuff in the wind tunnel myself) and so it really does help the basic stability as well as the center of gravity, especially with the front-wheel drive cars and the basic geometry of today's suspension and tires.
MT: It's wonderful for me to find that out, because a lot of us were led to believe that it was just Marketing who came up with that after the fact.
XJR: Well, a lot of the competition in those days liked to point out that it was just a marketing gimmick, and there was an awful lot of people who called tailfins 'phallic symbols' [laughing], but it was something that Chrysler really believed in, and took seriously, and tried to promote it from that standpoint. But of course, because Ford and GM got passed up there, they naturally pounded it with their own publicity, too.
MT: Speaking of their fins and the fin shape in general, did the canting of the fins affect the aerodynamics, the stability at all?
XJR: Not terribly. That was more or less to differentiate one year versus another, to have a little bit of a different take on it. I always believed that the fins myself ...when I did my Simca, for instance, that I tapered mine in towards the rear, but didn't cant them...but basically, it really didn't matter. The most important thing is to get the mass of sheet metal, or of surface area, towards the back.
The 1958 Virgil Exner, Jr. Simca Special. Photo by Del Coates.
MT: Do you have a favorite fin application?
XJR: Best ever application of fins on a car? Oh gosh, I'd have to say my own [laughing] ...my Simca Special, I think. But there were fabulous fins done by Bertone on the BAT series cars...well, the original Cisitalia, of course—the coupe especially, which isn't as well depicted in very many publications over here these days—or in the past, even, as it was in 1947....
1953 Alfa Romeo BAT 5 1954 Alfa Romeo BAT 7
XJR: ...but that was a beautiful car—small, but beautiful. And it didn't matter that it was small, it was beautifully proportioned, anyway.
MT: Oh, that's tough to make a small car look proportioned, isn't it?
XJR: Well, it is and it isn't. It's just as difficult for the Europeans to design a large car as it is for us to design a small one. [laughing] It's that kind of a thing—they're more used to it, and we're more used to it the other way around. In a lot of respects, it's more difficult to design a large car, because there's a lot more surface area to have to contend with, and to do something with. You can't just take a small, simple—and small cars ought to be very simple, and functional—and you just can't take a simple small car and 'blow it up' into a big car and have it make any sense at all. Pininfarina tried to do that with the Nashes at that time back in the '50s, and it was a terrible result...or it was with the Hudson.
1954 Hudson Italia (by Carrozzeria Touring) 1956 Nash Pininfarina Special
XJR: And then it goes the other way around. He also tried to take a big car design and make it smaller with the little bathtub Rambler. It's just a difficult kind of thing to do, and they weren't used to it. And our designers certainly weren't used to designing small European cars, and every time that we sent people over there—including myself, when I was with Ford of Europe—we found (or I found it, I had been used to doing it) that a lot of American designers didn't understand the simplicity that they ought to apply to designing small European cars. And then it went the other way around when their European designers had come over here and applied themselves to large American cars or SUVs, or any other kind of vehicle, for that matter.
MT: Now, I'm not a Ford aficionado by any means—not like Chrysler—but I understand you were with Ford of Europe when the Fiesta was designed?
XJR: Yeah, I was the...we established Ford of Europe. I was sent over there to help do that; I wasn't the only one. There had been Americans over there, you know, from the beginning, virtually. But Henry Ford II wanted to make a consolidation out of Ford of Germany and Ford of England, and at that time he concentrated on doing that. And the very first car that really resulted from that 'marriage', especially of Ford of England and Ford of Germany, was the Ford Fiesta, which I was in on from the very beginning, and was the manager of the studio that did the final design on that. Actually, the car was born out of a fairly radical small car that Ghia had actually done as an advance design for Ford at that time, Ford having just purchased Ghia in 1969. Of course, I had worked directly for Ghia before that myself, and then with my father, after my father retired from Chrysler. And so it was kind of ironic that the car that basically I got to work with, was one that Ghia had designed themselves with their own designers, and sent to us as a car that was well liked by Henry Ford II. Then it was given over to us in England to redo, and we redid it an awful lot! [laughing]
MT: Do you happen to have the original drawings of what the original design looked like?
XJR: No, it's been documented in a book that Ford put out, but I certainly don't have any of that stuff...I mean, that stuff is all the property of who you're working for. But it's around.
MT: When did you first go to Italy to work with Ghia, and did you go there in your younger days when your father first went? Did you get to go along with him when you were a teenager?
XJR: Yes, I was. The first time that he ever went over there was 1950, and I was a junior in high school (or just became a senior), and we were all excited about it, very much. He had just been hired at Chrysler in 1949 to be the Chief Advanced Designer, and we had moved to the Detroit area, and I went to Cranbrook School, which was a private school—it was very nearby our home, but I still was a boarding student there. But at any rate, he was all excited about going, and Ghia had come over prior to that and presented the Plymouth XX-500, which was their own idea of body design, that was a fairly dumpy little sedan on a Plymouth chassis. They did it very well, and he was curious about...and we were always, even from Studebaker days, of course, very much up on European design, especially following the war with the recovery of Europeans from the war and what they were doing, especially in racing. Of course, we were always extreme racing nuts, and that's the 'gasoline in the blood'! And so we followed that, and we were following sports cars of course and everything...especially the Italians, and got on top of it very quickly after the war with the Maseratis and the Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. So we followed that, and then of course we followed the coach-building efforts that they presented at auto shows and what-not, both over here and there. And he was excited about really making contact with the Italian coach-building industry, and had the opportunity—after Luigi Segre had come over and presented the Plymouth to Chrysler—and he went over there and examined their facilities and made contracts to do the K-310, which was his first show car for Chrysler.
MT: That's the one that had the free-standing taillights?
XJR: Yeah, that's right, they had the first microphone, or what they call 'microphone'.... [laughing]
MT: Yeah, it did look like an old radio microphone, didn't it?
Chrysler K-310 'experimental dream car', designed by Virgil Exner and built by Ghia of Italy.
XJR: Well, he always called them 'gunsight' taillights—he'd rather...he was always very romantic about all those things [laughing] and he always called them 'gunsight' taillights. You know, they were like a gun sight on a hood ornament, really, but that's....
MT: That's one of the key questions we have, too. Where did the inspiration for that come from?
XJR: Well basically, from that, from a gun sight....actually, a machine gun sight.
MT: Did your father coin that term, then?
XJR: Yeah, 'gunsight taillights'—he always called them that.
"Gunsight" taillights were an Imperial hallmark from 1955 through 1962. 1955 1959 1960 1962
MT: I mean, we all call them that, but I didn't know where that came from.
XJR: Yep, I think that basically...that he did, really. And of course they were born out of the K-310. And the idea was again to 'lift the eye', to get the eye up there....
MT: Get rid of that dumpy rear end look?
XJR: Yes, and get rid of the falling-off rear end...or what he always said, was 'drag-ass' rear ends [laughing] that were common to most American cars in those days.
MT: And I forget where I interrupted you....
XJR: Yeah, what color are your cars?
MT: My cars...one thing I've read, at least with the Imperial, is that he preferred solid tones to two-tones in those days, is that correct?
XJR: Well yes, very much so, to a great extent. The '56 Imperial is really a nice looking car—that was a beauty, and he always was very proud of that. And it was the cleanest, really, I think, of all the Imperials, to a great extent...and what color is yours?
MT: My car—I'm lucky to have a wonderful color, I think—it's a solid turquoise color, with a turquoise and black interior. And I've never seen one like it before—all the other Turquoise ones I've seen have a white roof. I really like the solid color.
XJR: Oh yeah, that's neat. They looked better when they were not two-toned. He preferred always to have a dark-colored roof when there was a two-tone, because he felt that it lowered the car, as opposed to a light-colored roof on a dark body. And, of course, his own favorite color was black... [laughing] I mean, when a car had really nice surfaces, and good lines...and he always preferred black for everything—with a dark red interior really, or with red accents. And he just loved that combination...of course we had a black race car, and he had black Imperials later on, and my mom always had kind of the latest, wildest Chrysler color with her cars.
MT: What were some of the cars your mother drove?
XJR: Oh, she had Plymouth Furys! [laughing] When he finally was allowed the cars that he was allowed, and got free cars for company cars—he had a lot of them, you know, he would bring home lots of test cars and all kinds of stuff—but she always got...as the company car she got one every year...and they were always the special trim jobs that he was able to get. There were lots of executives in the company—there practically was a special department, that did special trim—and she had some nice looking Furys, with some of the new colors that they would try out for possible production for the future years. One of the colors...she had one Plymouth that was a light blue color, sort of—not that 'white'—but it was a metallic, on the white side, blue. It was very nice, and my dad thought it was nice, although he never really liked blue cars....
MT: I don't like light blue cars myself, I guess 'cause it seems like that's all I find....
XJR: [laughing] Yeah, but that's pretty common with the public, overall...at any rate, it was called Westwood Blue, and it became a production color the following year. We lived on a street called Westwood in Birmingham, Michigan, and that's how it got named.
MT: That's where the name came from? That's fascinating. Speaking of names, I was curious....
XJR: And your New Yorker, what color is that?
MT: My New Yorker, sad to say, right now is the ubiquitous white.
XJR: Oh, that's OK!
MT: Well, it's OK, but I'm going to paint it a different color. I'm restoring that car, and I'm gonna do it in Ivy Green.
XJR: Oh yeah, that's nice. Great. That was one of the best looking New Yorkers, and of course, you know there's a very good article on those years in Collectible Automobile, December 1994.
MT: Oh, I've got it right in front of me! That's a great article, great car. I'm a little disappointed—I'm just teasing you—but I'm a little disappointed you didn't tell me that was your favorite tailfin application.
XJR: Well...yeah, it really has to be, to a great extent.
MT: I don't know of another one where the fin starts right at the front fender like that.
XJR: Yeah, that's true, that's very true. They were all pretty impressive, and that was a clean one, too...you know, there were just so many fins you could do. But generally speaking, the best fins were reserved...for the Chrysler itself, and the 300, of course.
MT: And how about the Imperial?
XJR: And Imperial also, yeah.
MT: We were curious how your father regarded the Imperial line—did he see that as a place to really showcase his best designs, or was it just another division?
XJR: Oh, very much so. No, that was really foremost. And of course the Imperial...later on he developed free-standing headlights, and started to get back into the classic kind of stuff that he was aiming to get back into...until the fins and type of things ran its course, into what became the 'plucked chickens'. But he had beautiful cars developed that were really just cost-cut something awful, and that resulted in how they came out, which wasn't nearly as good as the way were designed.
MT: Many of us have read quite a bit on that period, and I don't want to repeat things that have already been written, but we do have some specific questions about that.
XJR: Sure. Of course, he developed the Valiant and stuff like that, and of course the compact cars came along with the need for it and everything, and it was something he put his heart into...even before the compact crunch, he was really, truly aiming to do the long-hood, short-deck approach....
MT: That was way ahead of its time.
XJR: Yeah, it was, and he had back-room models—he was always doing his own back-room stuff, 'cause he hated to go to meetings [laughing]—and so, he always had a modeler, or himself, and he was always working. He had two offices at Chrysler—one was a big, fancy job [laughing] that was the showcase, and the other one was where he really spent his time, and had his own back room with the modelers and designers, and really worked out his own stuff. Especially after it got so big...Chrysler styling, when he first went there, there was only 17 people total....
MT: Yeah, I've read that quote from you somewhere....
XJR: Including the modelers, and he built it up, because at first he needed people very badly, and he hired some of the very best people he was able to get to begin with—a few, very few—and then it became, as it usually is in large corporations, necessary to build up, physically, people... [laughing] and it becomes sort of 'cast of thousands', you know? And he built it up to 300, which was still much smaller than GM or Ford, especially Ford. Ford had 1000 people in styling overall, and always did—even when I was there we had eight or nine hundred. (Not designers, but including all of the shop personnel, and the wheel wrights, and everybody involved in Design.) But he built it up to 300 people—it was mostly engineering layout people, that he had his own group of, and modelers, and designers, and office people and what-not. It became more and more necessary to do that from a political standpoint, and he was never a politician, but he found that it was necessary to combat the size of Engineering—especially in those days, they were pretty much at each other's throats, although he had his very good friends in Engineering, that were the more creative engineers, as opposed to the typical body engineers in those days. Nowadays, generally, engineers are a lot more creative and a lot more open-minded than they used to be.
MT: Well, I do love that piece that he wrote in his Studebaker days, in the Collectible Automobile article...he writes about how 'easy' it is to design a car, and then he talks about all the accountants, and the engineers, and the body people....
XJR: [laughing] Yeah, that's pretty true. Believe me, we all went through that...literally, my father came home one night and said, "My God, Mildred!"—my mother's name is Mildred—"They want to cut...." They wanted to turn down the beautiful Imperial bumper design that he had [still laughing] for one of the models—I don't know what year it was—"...because they can save 38 cents!" on doing a real cheapo bumper, and those things just galled him. And then, of course, he always got into it with body engineers, in particular, because they always wanted to save welds [laughing] and things like that, and, my God, welding costs a lot of money, with all the special jigs and everything. And so, it was always a constant battle, and we approach it differently these days...also, the sheetmetal is not as interesting these days, either. [laughing]
MT: You mentioned in one of your emails to me that you spend 7 hours a day or so working on the computer. What type of...I assume you're using some CAD software?
XJR: No, I just use plain, ordinary ClarisWorks software in my Apple McIntosh system, and I just play with it all day long. It works good enough for me to make decent illustrations and what-not.
MT: What do you think of the use of CAD now—do you think that enhances design, or do you think it takes away from creativity?
XJR: A person, to really design, still needs to know how to draw, and art—he needs to know that. The truer designers are doing both, and they're able to handle it. It has wonderful attributes to it that's possible. Before I left Ford, the last managerial job that I had was the first computer studio set up for Designers (as opposed to Design Engineers) to bring the computer to everyone, all Designers....and I learned an awful lot from it, more than anything, 'cause it was really new to me then, too, and came to love it, and was able to do things that I wasn't, frankly, able to do, in a lot of respects, as an artist. I'm not nearly as good an artist as my father was, but I've learned to handle it pretty well, and it's resulted in some illustrations of my own (not that I couldn't before) that my father would be very proud of, I think. And we were really close, you know, very, very close, always.
1960 Ghia Selene II, designed by Virgil Exner, Jr. Front Rear
MT: Well, I have loads more questions for you, but I hope I'm not wearing out my welcome already!
XJR: No, that's all right, that's OK, you had a couple other questions you wanted to ask me about...oh, one of the things I noticed, in a chat room situation, it was kicked around about where my Simca was shown, and somebody said....
MT: Is your Simca the sports car that you did at Notre Dame? Did you have a name for that, or you called it the Simca Special?
XJR: Yeah, I call it a Simca Special, because to me it was just a car that I purchased a chassis of, and I designed a new body for.
MT: Was the body done in fiberglass?
XJR: Yeah, I built the body in fiberglass—epoxy, all epoxy/glass body.
MT: Do you still have the car, or does it still exist?
Virgil Exner, Jr. and Sr. with the 'Simca Special' that Ex, Jr. designed for his master's thesis at Notre Dame.
XJR: No no no, it's owned by a friend of mine in Arizona, that became actually the third owner of the car. After I left California—I still had it when I was at Travis Air Force Base, California—and when I got out of the service, I sold it to a guy there in the Bay area. Then he sold it to this fellow that owns it today, and he drove it [laughing] for something like ten years out there in San Francisco. At the time, he was a young guy that worked for a race car body shop, and he saw the car and bought it after I had left. And then he moved on...he did a lot of racing and stuff like that—not with that car, but with others—and moved on to Arizona, and retired, sort of, out there. He still owns the car to this day, and he's restoring it now, from what I understand, and he did some design changes on it a bit....
MT: How did the car drive?
XJR: Well, when I had it, it drove just beautifully! [laughing] It was a simple little Simca chassis, and handled very nicely—of course, it was a much hotter car when it didn't have the body—and I raced it in hill climbs and things like that before I put the body on it, just as a chassis with the roll structure, and very minimal seating.
MT: The car did not have opening doors, did it?
XJR: No no no, not at all. I had a bubble canopy that hinged forward. That's missing now, it's no longer there—it deteriorated. But one just had to sit on the fin, and swing one's feet into the cockpit.
MT: It is a very sharp, wedge shape.
XJR: Yeah, it's meant to be a racing sports car.
MT: Obviously it came ahead of the mid-sixties Corvettes, but it reminds me a little bit....
XJR: In the front end in particular...it was virtually swiped by my friend at GM, Larry Shinoda, who was a young designer at that time, and he saw my development on it, and he virtually swiped it as a Corvette design...he was working for Bill Mitchell at that time at GM. Larry Shinoda was a good guy—Larry was interested and involved in Indianapolis racing cars, and he actually designed the beautiful AJ Watson bodies, that I've always regarded as the best-looking Indinanapolis cars of all time. He did the body design for AJ Watson in 1956, and had a nose on those that's somewhat similar—in a race car version, open-wheeled—to that general style. He had a feel for racing cars, and he basically designed the Sting Ray Corvette.
MT: The side exhausts on that car are very cool, not unlike a Viper...where did you get the inspiration for that?
XJR: Oh, that type of thing was done before, on rods and on some foreign sports cars, and things like that—that type of open exhaust— and on racing cars also, as opposed to having to route the exhaust underneath the car and all the way to the rear. I do that, [laughing] I use that today on some of my designs, so that one doesn't have to do that—but of course it's not practical for production cars today.
MT: Just because of the heat, you mean?
XJR: Yeah, sure, because of the heat—well, catalytic converters, too, and all the plumbing that has to be for the exhaust these days.
MT: I thought maybe they could get around that now with some of the modern materials, insulating materials?
XJR: Well, they could, but it's really not that good to have the exhausts come out before the rear wheels, anyways—it's not a safe sort of thing.
MT: Well, I'm glad to know that car survives. I did not want to make you repeat things that'll be in the book that's coming out, but I trust there will be something written about the car in your book?
XJR: Oh yeah, I'm sure there will, because, you know, my good friend Del Coates is compiling the book, and of course...he was one of my friends that I came to know in my last two years at Notre Dame, when I set up the Transportation Design course at Notre Dame. He was working at Studebaker at that time, and I had him come out—we got to be friends—and he came out and lectured, and gave some rendering demonstrations to my class when I was running that course there, that I set up in my graduate year. Then I went to work for Studebaker just as soon as I finished my graduate school, and I still had the full-size clay model that I modeled of the Simca up in one of the buildings at Notre Dame, above the art department, and hadn't taken the molds from it yet. Well, I went to Air Force summer camp in 1957, after I finished my graduate school work. Then when I came back from there, Del got me hired by Duncan McRae, whom I had known at Studebaker as the Head Designer of Studebaker. Del was from Pasadena, from Art Center school in Los Angeles, and he was working as a designer at Studebaker, and I joined him then as a designer, as my first real, true design job (except I had been teaching it). [laughing] We became good friends, and he pursued more and more of a writing career and a teaching career then, after that, through all of these years, and is mostly responsible for having really made the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, as it's known now, into a first-class automotive/transportation design course. Now he's an associate professor, he's virtually the Head Professor of Design at San Jose State in California. He's always been quite a scribe, really, a Design scribe—and so he's putting together the book. He knew my father, and he's a great designer himself—of course, through me he knew my father—and my father nearly hired him [laughing] but my father got into one of those economic crunches where he had to lay off people. Of course, we were all getting laid off at that time—that was when Studebaker had to let everybody go, shortly after I got there.
MT: Was this after the '58 recession?
XJR: Yeah, that was right, that's what happened, and I just missed it myself. I had been hired by Studebaker that fall, and my call to active duty came up, and so I finished my molds off of my Simca up at Notre Dame, and packed 'em up and took 'em up to Detroit. I quit Studebaker, and I only had three months to finish the car—and I managed to do that before I was called to active duty. So that's how that all came about, and then those guys, good friends of mine they became, were all laid off at Studebaker. I tried to get Del a job at Chrysler, but my father couldn't hire him....
MT: He was in the same position?
XJR: Yeah, he—yeah, that's right. Del did wind up going to Ford for a while then. After that, he really started to get into the teaching aspect of it, and brought what used to be known as Arts & Crafts in Detroit along to the status that they are today, which is virtually just as good as Art Center in Los Angeles. So he's writing the book.
MT: Oh, I really look forward to it—do you expect it later this year?
XJR: Yeah, he's shooting for late this year, if he can satisfy the publisher—and that's the whole name of the game there.
MT: Well, I know of several hundred people who will be buying it when it comes out....
XJR: Well, good—have 'em give Del a call on the website and say, "Tell your publisher we'll buy it!" [laughing]
[At this point, Mr. Exner gave me the contact information for Mr. Coates, and also made the generous offer—and took down my address, etc.—to send an extensive bibliography of published Exner-related material.]
XJR: Yeah, that's east of Des Moines, right? There's some good Sprint car fans out in those woods, too. [laughing]
MT: Oh, you bet! Knoxville is not far from here. You are a racer, aren't you? [laughing]
XJR: Oh yeah, oh yeah, those are always our favorites. Of course, I like the European stuff, too, but nothing compares with a good old American Sprint car.
MT: What cars do you drive today? What's your regular driver?
XJR: I have a Ford Focus, and that's it, and I love it. It's one of the best cars I've ever had—of course, I get cars from Ford....
MT: Now, did you have any influence on that, when you were in the Advanced Studio?
XJR: No no, that was done by the Europeans, in Germany, and that was done later on—I retired in 1988, and that was a little bit later than my latest stuff, which ran into close to the year 2000. I was in the Advanced Studio from the time that I came back from Europe, virtually, although I did—we all got involved in production stuff, too. Some of the production cars that I had to do with at Ford was—of course, when I first went there, one of the first cars was a Maverick, and the Pinto, and after that a bit of work on the big Fords at that time—I was in the Ford Production Studio for a while. And then when I came back from Europe, I did a lot of interior work, but not extensive...I always did more exterior than interior work, by a long shot...and did advanced stuff like, well, the '80 T-Bird. Back before that, I did the long-nose T-Bird, the '70 Bird, I guess that was it—they got all mixed up because you're always working so far ahead of time that we don't know....
XJR: Then one of the big projects which I'm quite proud of, even though it's pretty slab-sided stuff, was the first changeover to the Grand Marquis and the Crown Victoria—what was it, 1977 or '78, whatever it was.
MT: The first downsized '70s ones?
XJR: Yeah, the first downsized ones.
MT: Well, those had a clean, kind of a crisp look to 'em, though.
XJR: Very much so. [laughing] Very, very straight. We stretched 'em as far as we could stretch 'em with the dimensional limitations, and made 'em as wide as possible, and as flat as possible, to make 'em look as big as possible— because they were downsized—for the American public...that's the way it goes, and it worked! [laughing]
MT: It did work. I remember even the Ford Granada— a similar kind of thing—for a small car, it didn't look like a small car.
XJR: No, that's true. We consciously tried to do things like that. And it was all fun and everything...I always felt that Ford never did anything great, even of my own. [laughing] Because they always called themselves 'number two', they'll always be number two with that attitude, which the Fords have. They were in better hands when—except for Henry II, he was OK—but they were in better hands after he passed away, and they had Peterson and people like that, before the younger Fords got back into it [laughing] nowadays, I think. But they've always been—oh, I don't know, they're always kinda funny—it's a big social company more than anything. Even Henry—the original Henry Ford—had more philosophical belief in....oh, in people, like social reform—more than love for cars, I think, to a great extent. Really, he didn't invent mass production, but he certainly gave a great deal of social reform to industry, in general.
MT: And it's funny how that's reflected even—'cause I do agree with you—in general, over the years, Ford I don't think had quite the styling panache of the others.
XJR: No, we're 'number two'. They were always too—well, cast of thousands—boy, that's really something else. I mean, we would make—in those days, in the heydays of styling when I was in it there—we would make a full-size clay model proposal per week, and take 'em into the showroom and have a show every single Friday, of 7 or 8 full-size proposals that were virtually critiqued and redone totally for the next week. And, I mean, that's a pretty big hassle—lots of midnights.
MT: Oh yeah, lot's of scrambling.
XJR: Yeah, lots of scrambling...and we didn't have the greatest head leadership in those days, and the vice-presidents were always kind of weak, that Ford had, from a styling standpoint. They would rather have the designers put up thousands of pretty pictures and have management choose from that, rather than have their own conviction of design....
MT: Of some general direction?
XJR: Yeah, with a true direction, that a designer must give. You know, my father had strong convictions about cars, and Chrysler listened. And they were successful from that standpoint—but, of course, a great deal smaller than Ford. But Ford really...the Fords were the bosses, you know, and they didn't want to hear anything but...they didn't want anybody to be that strong. I worked directly under Iacocca at that time, and he was really strong, and Ford, you know, didn't kinda like that, [laughing] so that's what happened there.
MT: Speaking of Ford, I do have to give 'em some credit for a couple of things they've come out with....
XJR: Oh, the Mustang? Was great. When I went to work for them.... I had my choice of going to GM or Ford, when I left my dad, because I got married at that time, and I needed money—and we never made any money, it wasn't the object of the game [laughing] and we were happy to do stuff for nothin', virtually—but nevertheless, it was necessary, and so I could take my choice. And when I went to Ford, then, I thought, "boy, things are really lookin' good" at Ford. They had done the Mustang, they had just come out with the Cougar, (I thought the Cougar was very nice) and the T-Bird was shaping up pretty well—at least it was the best T-Bird they ever had, except for the original—and stuff like that. Things were looking decent; it looked like they had some direction overall. And the first day that I went in there and was hired, [laughing] I was taken throughout the whole big, huge complex, and looked at the model development that was going on, and the stuff that was going on, and decided, "Nah-ah! They're zero." [laughing] The stuff that they were doing absolutely had no continuity at all, it was just simply—just a hodge-podge, and it just happened—it was just lucky that it had been happening, and it wasn't planned at all.... [laughing]
MT: Try a little of this, and a little of that?
XJR: And I was stuck there for 21 years! [laughing]
MT: Well, what do you think of the current T-Bird, and what do you think your father would think of its retro styling?
XJR: Well, it's retro, all right, from the standpoint that it gets back to some of the old T-Bird flair, but I think the old, original T-Bird is a heck of a lot better by proportion.
MT: Especially the rear end, do you think?
XJR: Yeah, the rear end drags off, and the proportions are ill—you know, it's a heck of a nice car (I drove one) and they do some nice detail work. The interior's better than anything else—it's the best part of it. But it's really...it's cartoonish. Of course, the original T-Bird was a bit cartoonish, also....
MT: With a little more class, though. I think.
XJR: Yeah, better proportioned—well, newer design at that time, too, you know. It's not bad, but it's certainly not what it ought to be, and it's still a T-Bird, and not an automobile, [laughing] you know. It's just that way—I mean, long ago, the Corvette became an automobile, and the T-Bird didn't. That's the way it goes, and that's the way it still is—it's a...sissy car. [laughing] But at any rate, it certainly has its appeal, and there's certainly a niche for it. And it certainly isn't as bad as what has been going on for quite a long time, lacking character completely, like....
MT: True, at least they tried something....
XJR: At least...there's a little bit of 'gasoline in the blood' coming back up now, again, and things are looking up, I think, from what they had been in the past 10 years—10 or 12 or 13 years—and the designers are...getting with it, character-wise, a lot more than what they had been before. And, of course, there was a need to get back to genuine simplicity and honest-looking cars—but, just like everything else, you go through these phases where...everything is always going to look the same, to a great extent, 'cause the designers all think the same way, for the most part, throughout the world. And so, you're going to see everything look one way, or another, all the time. But at least they're thinking in terms of being a little bit different within their own psychological make-up, as opposed to wanting to all be the same, like they did for years and years—being accepted, I think it is, and not going off on a daring track. I think they're more readily wanting to be a little bit more daring, now, and get back...and I think they'll accomplish more. Anybody can—well, not anybody—but most designers can design a very nice, simple little car any day, and now we need some more character, and I think they're gonna answer that, without being as....
MT: Without being cartoonish?
XJR: Without being as outlandish [laughing] as the years of my father—or myself, even—were.
MT: What a fun time, though, to be designing cars.
XJR: Yeah, it would be. Gosh, I wish I was 30 years younger, [laughing] because it is fun, and it's back to fun now, again.
MT: Are there any of the other sort-of retro designs that you do like? The Prowler or...?
XJR: Well, the Chrysler stuff is all damn good, and it has been, because of Lutz, and Tom Gale. Tom Gale has real gasoline in his blood, and Lutz—a real car lover. And so, they really were the ones that started to get back and do something about it—even though the shapes are simple, and they're kind of fat and what-not, overall, and have been for a few years—but they really got the ball rolling again, here, more than anything else (and I'm anxious to see what GM actually comes out with, production-wise), but they're certainly going to do the right thing, I think, now, and I think that'll be successful again for GM. Ford is still 'number two'. And Chrysler is a little bit more, of course, under the influence of Mercedes/Daimler.
MT: I was gonna ask you what you thought of the merger—do you have any thoughts?
XJR: Oh, I was kinda sick about it, to a great extent—although, really, Daimler-Benz needed Chrysler more than Chrysler needed them. And they did it for that reason. And, of course, they were able to do it, because they had the financial clout to be able to do it. I tried to remind Tom Gale, and some people there—Jeff Godshaw, people like that—"Don't be disheartened, 'cause they need you."
MT: So, you don't think that's the beginning of the end of Chrysler, then?
XJR: Oh no—not at all—no no no. I mean, you know there's nothing ever been terribly wrong with Mercedes, and so...and the Germans are very conscientious, and they uphold great engineering.... They're a little stodgy styling-wise—they always have been—but that's something that's very international nowadays, and they'll be just as good as anybody, from that standpoint. At least, they have been showing the way from that standpoint, too.
MT: And from my selfish collector's standpoint, they do seem to be respecting Chrysler's history more than I thought they would.
XJR: Oh yes, oh yes they do. They always had a healthy respect for that, anyway. And it went both ways. You know, they were always kinda close together, especially right after the war—you know my father owned a Mercedes 300 sedan that Chrysler had bought from Mercedes. And he loved it—my mother loved it, especially. It was a great car, and one of the chief engineers of Chrysler was German—the Advanced Chief Engineer was German, and had been with Mercedes before the war. And so there was always a healthy respect there, anyway—it went deeper than many people would ever believe.
MT: Well, that's encouraging. You mentioned some of the other cars your father owned. One that I'm really curious to know about—I've read that he drove the DeSoto Adventurer for a couple years?
XJR: Oh yeah, we had that at home for 2 or 3 years.
MT: So you drove that car yourself?
1952 DeSoto Adventurer. Designed by Ex, Sr., built by Ghia...drag raced by Ex, Jr.!
XJR: Yeah, I dragged it.
MT: You dragged it?! [laughing] Do you remember how it did?
XJR: It did great. There was one real hot Fordillac that beat me one time, but that was about it. [laughing] It would go. It was a bit heavy, too, but it would still....
MT: Heavy—you mean it had a lot of lead in it?
XJR: Well, not that much. It's just that those bodies...they were heavier—they were built out of heavier sheet metal because it was easier to form by hand...and so, they were a little bit heavier. Beautifully done, but on the heavy side.
MT: Do you know what happened to that car?
XJR: It was destroyed.
MT: A lot of them had to be crushed for tax purposes?
XJR: Yeah, that's right, they did—more than anything else. They either had to be sent back to Ghia after a certain period of time, or paid a heavy penalty. But that wasn't so important as it was to destroy 'em because there were so many people who wanted to get their hands on 'em, and Chrysler didn't want to favor anybody at all—dealers, and people like that, that wanted to have them.
MT: Boy, sort of a shame today.
XJR: Yeah, it is...the K-310, C-200—the d'Elegance still exists.
MT: It does still exist?
XJR: Yeah, some of those cars were sent back, and Ghia had them for a while, and they went off to various people, and then they found their way back here—like the d'Elegance, and some of the Chrysler Specials (there were several of them, of course.) Last I knew, it was in the Blackhawk Collection in California.
MT: I'm really curious to know—which is your favorite, of those early Ghia show cars?
XJR: Well, that's certainly one of them—that is absolutely one of them.
MT: I love the Chrysler Special, myself.
XJR: Yeah, the Special we did in our basement, and that was done for CB Thomas. He was the Export Chief of Chrysler at that time, and my father had just done the K-310, and CB Thomas was in France at that time...they met, and he said "Boy, design me a car, too. Don't just do it for...."
MT: I wanted to ask you—now, you would have been maybe a high school kid, then?
XJR: Yeah, a senior in high school.
MT: Did you ever get to offer suggestions or refinements?
XJR: Oh, all the time, uh-huh. Oh yeah, very much so.
MT: Any in particular that you remember from the early Ghia Special cars?
1953 Chrysler Special, designed by Virgil Exner, Sr. (and Jr.!), built by Ghia
XJR: Yes, very much so. I feel that I was greatly responsible for the squared fender designs, that then hooked down and blended into the body, and then picked up again at the rear end. Now, my father had made some beautiful drawings and what-not, and sketches, that had more of a blister-type of a fender feel, like the K-310, where it was more of a rounded type of feel.
MT: And you squared it up, almost like the Lincoln Continental? I guess I'm thinking of the '61—not that square, obviously.
XJR: Well sort of—no, not that square. No, but it was...on the Chrysler Special, it was a straighter fender, with a blade type of front fender/front end to it, and then at the back end, it hooked down and blended into the body. I was fooling with a model of my own at that time that my dad saw, and he said, "Boy, I like that idea! It's newer than the curved-type blister front fenders, and I wanna use that on the Chrysler Special." And he did. And that's where I had an influence in it.
MT: That's a huge influence—I love that feature of the car.
XJR: Oh, you asked me about the Studebaker.... [laughing] When I was a kid, you know, I actually—I didn't suggest any design work on it, but the car was modeled in our basement during the war....
MT: You got to help with the clay work, though.
XJR: I helped put some clay on it. [laughing] And then, I was always playing with the modelers that were there (that my dad had come in, and were modeling the car). A couple of them had been in the service, and had served in the Pacific, and they were keeping track of the war—they had a map on the basement wall—and, as it turned out (and this is kind of ironic) the two modelers that were assigned— names were Vic Clark, and the other was Fred Hornung. Later on, when I worked at Studebaker myself, they were still there, at Studebaker (as modelers), and then they went to Ford, and when I worked at Ford, they worked for me, at Ford, as clay modelers.
MT: Boy, they must have been young guys at the time.
XJR: They were. They were young—they were only 19, 20 years old—and had been called, and already done their service time, and come back, during the war. This was in 1943/44,—winter 1943, I think it was. And that became the postwar Studebaker.
MT: You don't have memories of the '39, I wouldn't think—do you?
XJR: A little bit...you know, I was born into this business, [laughing] and my father brought me up from the time I was a little, bitty kid...and he painted numbers on my kiddy cars, and drew me race car pictures, and then encouraged my own art development (when we lived in New York), and I knew Raymond Loewy, myself—my folks had him over to the house a couple times, and things like that. And my dad would take me down to the studio in New York City, and I had my favorite—you know, I was 6, 7 years old—I had my favorite land speed record cars, and toy race cars, and stuff like that, at that time. And my dad encouraged me to take art lessons, and things like that, and I was just cars from the day one, and could remember that stuff from the time I was little. I remember my dad driving home in his 1938 Pontiac, pulling into the driveway of a flat that we lived in— in Detroit, when he worked for General Motors—and I remember my mother saying, "Now you look out for your daddy, he's going to come home in a new car!" (and that was the one that he had designed, the '38 Pontiac).
Virgil, Jr. in ‘OL No. 5’ (Father's favorite number) in 1937 (Detroit)
MT: Was that the first one with the silver streaks, or no?
XJR: No, it wasn't the first one with the silver streaks—that was '35. But this was an all-new body then, '37/'38...he got it in '37...and he had a '34 Ford up until that time, and he didn't-come-home-in-the-Ford! [laughing] He came home in this maroon Pontiac, which was huge, and was our family car for a couple years—it was just a lousy car, [laughing] Dad complained about it terribly—until he got into Studebakers.
MT: So, you remember Loewy? I've read some things about him where he was maybe a kind of a guy that took credit for stuff....
XJR: Oh, yeah, he was a....oh, well, we have our words.... [laughing]
MT: Yeah, you don't need...it's probably been written about.
XJR: Yeah, it has. It's all been written about...the guy was just blatant about it— it wasn't anything half-way. [laughing] It's too bad, but on the other hand, it served a purpose, too—well, it turned out that way.
MT: Do you also have some early memories of Ray Dietrich, or maybe Ralph Roberts?
XJR: No, no, none whatsoever—not of the coach-building people, or people like that. Later on, I met Buzz Grisinger, and some people like that. But they were older, and had established the coach-building business, and of course Ray Dietrich was associated with great coach-building.
MT: Right. Ralph Roberts—I guess I'm curious what you thought about the 1940 Thunderbolt, and the Newport phaetons?
XJR: Well, they were interesting cars. I mean, they were, of their time, just as good as the Buick Y-job, to a great extent, and served their purpose. Of course, those guys had a tough time of it at Chrysler, because they did have to outlive—as my father even had to, to a certain extent...
1934 Imperial Airflow
MT: K.T. Keller?
XJR: ...the Airflow. No, K.T. was great, he was great, he was....
MT: I always read that he was sort of stodgy, and didn't like the advanced designs. Is that...?
XJR: No, sir! He supported it 1000%, and he was responsible, more than anyone, for bringing my father into it, and was very supportive of it, and encouraged him all the way...he was great.
MT: Well, I'm glad you set the record straight there, 'cause that's kind of a common misconception we all think.
XJR: Yeah, I think so, I think so. He was enthusiastic, and he and Fred Zeder—of course, Dick Zeder was my father's immediate boss, and he was the Vice-President of Engineering at that time. But K.T. just...let him go! And then, especially after my father had done the K-310, and a few of those early show cars—then he definitely proved himself, and then that is when K.T. said, "O.K. You do the production stuff, too" and take it all over. So, that's what happened.
MT: Wow. What do you think your father's favorite time at Chrysler was? Was it the early days working with Ghia, or was it the '57 line, or what do you think he enjoyed the most?
XJR: Oh, I think it was the earliest days, because he really liked to do the special stuff, more than anything else. And he got good people to work with him, and kept his eye on it—was able to do that for a while—on the earlier, good production stuff, that developed up to the '57's. Of course, he had his heart attack, and got in trouble that way—from being away from work—they had to something about it. That's when they brought in Bill Schmidt, (and he screwed up things greatly) but my father had some good people, like Cliff Voss, and Maury Baldwin, Ted Pietsch—lots of people, good modelers, and they worked together very, very well. And Bill Brownly...a great group of people. My father can't take credit for all the stuff himself, either...but he really—especially the earlier stuff that he had a heavy hand in—he always had a heavy hand in all of it.
MT: I assume, though, that he always had the final say on things?
XJR: Oh yes, definitely. He had to—somebody always has to. But he listened to his people, and tried to give 'em credit—he tried to get those guys promoted [laughing]—and Chrysler was...oh, they wanted people with more managerial/paperwork ability than real designers. I guess that's their role, and that's why designers have never really been that way.
MT: Was your father involved with the design of the '61 Chrysler Turbo-Flite?
XJR: Well, there's an example—he let Maury Baldwin do that, primarily. And Cliff Voss did the Chrysler d'Elegance, and the Norseman....Cliff was great—good designer.
MT: Did those guys...most of the time they didn't handle interior design—that was a separate group?
XJR: It became a separate group, but back in the earlier days they handled both, and were interested in both—my father was always interested in both, especially when it came to designing the cockpit—instrumentation, and things like that, as well as the entire interiors. People like Cliff, and Maury—they could do it all, and it wasn't broken up, like it was, especially, at Ford.
MT: My favorite all-time dash has gotta be my 1960 Chrysler dash—the Astradome—and I guess I've read that it was handled by the exterior group. Do you know who did the work on that?
XJR: I don't know specifically who did it—there were a lot of younger people that were involved in those things at that time, too....
MT: But it was all underneath your father...do you ever recall any comments—what did he think of that dash?
XJR: No...well he went along with all of it, virtually, after he set the tone of the kind of stuff that he wanted to do in the earlier-type show cars, and what-not, and get more of an instrumentation-type look to everything, and have wrap-around interiors that have finally become the vogue these days. And really get away from the "couch put in the middle of the car" [laughing] type of design...with bucket seats, and a cockpit feeling.
MT: I think there's been quite a bit, probably, written about the work that you did with your father on the 1964 kind-of retro cars that you did, including the Stutz....
XJR: Oh yeah, that's very popular, especially in Europe. It's amazing, I find that on the web—how popular—how avid [laughing] some of these people are, about that sort of thing, in particular. Yeah, we had a lot of fun doing that, and that's what we wanted to get across—get back to some character, and not just great big blobs...and get back into more of what we call an automotive, classic feel. We both got interested at the same time, virtually, when I came back out of the service. He was pushing for that sort of thing (as well as power boat design, which was a big thing) at that time. He was developing...back to his own childhood, or own early days, his love for Duesenbergs, and things like that—and we always had that, anyway. But then there started to be—in the early '60s, especially—there started to be a rebirth of enthusiasm, on the part of collectors, for the classics, for classic cars. Boy! That appealed to us immediately, as soon as we saw that happening. And it started to happen right around us, in Detroit—although Detroit's never been hugely avid about cars, really—but even in Detroit, there started to be people collecting Bugattis, and Mercedes, and stuff like that, as well as Duesenbergs, and Stutzes, and everything else, and restoring them. And—boy, we jumped into that, and decided....hey, what would a modern Duesenberg look like today? And then we did that series for Esquire magazine, that set the whole thing really off—even to the point where, when we did those cars (the Duesenberg, and the Stutz, and the Mercer Cobra, and cars like that) that they were actually built, and especially the Stutz, continued on for a number for years....
MT: The Stutz...now, the Duesenberg nearly became production?
The 1966 Duesenberg came close to production, as evidenced by this drawing from the 10-page sales brochure.
XJR: Yeah, it nearly did. The guy backed out, and we tried to save it, but unfortunately, the Duesenbergs themselves didn't have any money to do it. We had it all lined up, and everything, and the guy that we had lined up—he backed out on the whole thing, and it became a flop. [laughing] But that's the way those things go. But it was a beautiful car—it was going to be very successful—it had orders, and it was just fantastic.
MT: I'm particularly interested, from the Imperial angle...I think it was built—wasn't it to be built—basically on an Imperial chassis?
XJR: Yes, that's right, it was.
MT: And one thing we're all curious about—I don't think this has been written about—when you and your father did that car, was there any kind of thinking of...showing Chrysler "this is the kind of Imperial you could have had"?
XJR: Not really at Chrysler. But Henry Ford came running and saw the car when it made its debut, when we had it at our studio, and it had an immediate, direct influence on the Lincoln Continental—when they picked up the radiator shell, very shortly after that, and started to go towards a classic revival themselves, for—what was it...the Mark IV?
MT: Yeah, the Mark III, I think—'69?
XJR: Yeah, so that's where it had its immediate impact, and then Detroit started to pick it just a little bit, too—with the Eldorado and a couple others cars like that, that had those kind of overtones. And then when I went to Ford... [laughing] I had a direct influence myself with...like I say, the '70 T-Bird. And we started to get into it a little bit more, especially front end, radiator shape—get away from the typical, just big 'mouth' look that cars had up until that time, and get back into some character with the front ends. So it did have its influence that way....
MT: Well, it must have been a really fun time, in the early 60's, when you were working with your father....
XJ: It was, very much so.
MT: Well, I think I've probably worn out my welcome long since already....
XJR: Well, you're perfectly welcome. Like I say, let me send you copies of this stuff. I'll keep track on the web, but it's something that I'd rather...be doing my own advanced stuff, rather than anything else. [laughing] I appreciate your enthusiasm, and your interest, and...keep going, OK?
MT: I may call you back, if that would be all right.
XJR: Sure, that's all right.
[I really should have let Ex, Jr. off the phone at this point. But the combination of my anxiousness to ask him more, and his gracious, polite nature, meant that the discussion continued....]
MT: One thing I really want you to know—and this is not flattery, this is sincere—is that I don't know of any other designer, including Harley Earl, that generates this kind of enthusiasm that your father's cars do, to the Forward Look fans of Chrysler.
XJR: It's sort of true, you know! Because there's virtually no one else...well, Gordon Buehrig was pretty much that way, but he was more engineer than anything, and really only did one thing. He was a good friend of ours, too—all these guys were friends of ours, you know, and fun to be with, and there were fun times among designers back in those days, that there wasn't so much, until recently. And we always felt that the public, in general, were enthusiastic about cars. In fact, my father always used to say, that the three most talked-about things among men, were "women, politics, and automobiles—and not necessarily in that order!" [laughing] At any rate, it's fun for me—and always has been all my life— and I'm just so lucky myself to....
MT: I'm thrilled to know that both you and your father are true car guys, because I don't know that that's always true with designers?
XJR: Well, it generally is, love of cars—yeah, it pretty much is that way. But designers can be funny breeds. There are designers, and there's designers. [laughing]
MT: There are some designers that are more on the artistic side, and not so much on the drag racing side, I guess.... [laughing]
XJR: Well, that's true. We're both, I think. And my father was a fantastic fine artist, and that is something that hasn't been brought out as much as it should. And Del will ensure that some of his fine art works are in this book, that's for sure. But...God, he could handle any kind of art medium, and he really was good at it. Really, he was always torn between being a pure, fine artist, and being a designer—and he was both, and did it very well. Of course, he was always romantically interested in everything. He was a romanticist, you might say. I mean, he liked sword fighting—when he was a kid, he liked....
MT: He liked the Errol Flynn movies?
XJR: Yeah, yeah. He liked the wild, wild west—that was one of his favorite subjects. He liked...to paint the French countryside, he liked Joan of Arc—oh, he was a huge fan—he had a great collection of Joan of Arc objects, and art, and things like that. And was a great sports fan, at the same time—he went to Notre Dame, after all. [laughing] And those were great years when he went, under Rockne, and was always an influence in our lives—all sports, and then particularly, automobile racing. It's something that just goes...in the family, as part of the enthusiasm, I guess.
MT: Would he have had any influence on some of the sales literature?—the brochures, the artwork in those—because I find those to be very romantic, like the '59 brochure....
Portion of a scene from the 1959 Imperial sales brochure
XJR: Oh, definitely! Oh, he was close with the Sales Department. The Sales Department's always been very much heavily on the side of the Design Department, as opposed to Engineering [laughing] or Marketing. But, yeah, Sales...he got along beautifully with all the Sales people. [laughing]
MT: Were the Sales artists underneath your father then, or did he have anything to do with some of the artwork in the brochures?
XJR: No, not really. But we've always...even today, in all Design sections, we have to approve, as designers. We are given the opportunity to review advertising campaigns, where it pertains to advertising art, and to make sure that they get the cars correct (because usually they have to deal with the prototypes, and stuff that's not even finally finished, before their ad campaigns come out). And so...final approval rests a great deal on the designer's shoulders, for ad campaigns, and ad design—the make-up of ads, overall. And it's fun; it's a great thing. And of course he started out, at his first job, (he loved cars, and thought he'd eventually get into cars) as an advertising artist himself, and started to do Studebaker catalogs, and things like that, when he was very young. Because he was so interested in cars, he finally got to do the Studebaker catalogs, but he did advertising in the local area there, in South Bend. There was Elkhart, Indiana, and nearby was the musical instruments—Conn instruments—and beer ads. It was fun to do, and he liked to do all kinds of other ads, besides just cars, too.
MT: Well, I will check the bibliography. I'd love to see if there are any examples of that, because I enjoy advertising, as well.
XJR: Oh, you do? What do you do, in particular—what do you do yourself?
MT: Well, I have to say, I'm one of those rotten engineers. [laughing]
XJR: Oh, you are? Well, that's good—what kind of engineer?
MT: I'm a mechanical engineer, a plastic mold and process engineer—I design molds, and set up the processes, and robotics....not very creative, just pretty practical.
XJR: Oh, that's very important. I got into that quite a bit, and learned more about it myself, when we did the Renwal models, with the injection molding—and that was fun to do. And, oh my God, what goes on these days is just incredible with the plastics, especially—but everything else, too, I'm sure. No....we've always depended on, heavily—the family has, myself and my father both, in our times, individually—depended heavily on engineers, and our best friends were engineers, like Dale Cosper, who was both my own, and one of my father's very best friends.
MT: Was he a body engineer?
XJR: He started out as just a design detailer, on the boards. He was a chemical engineer, originally—he graduated from Tri-State, Indiana, as a chemical engineer—and worked at Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg, in the days when they did the great stuff, with Gordon Buehrig....
MT: Back in the Boattail days? Oh, my!
XJR: Yeah, that's right. And he modeled clay and he did everything. [laughing] The guy could do anything—great, creative guy. Then he worked as a design engineer, on the boards, at Studebaker (my father was there, and got to know him very well). And Dale got sick o' doin' that, right after the war, and he got the idea he could buy up all kinds of tube-bending equipment from surplus, after the war...and he knew all about fiberglass—God, he got me so interested in fiberglass!—and designed a folding, at-home rinse board for women doin' their hair, for washing their hair...a 'shampoo chair' he called it. He built it out of aluminum tubing—beautiful job of it—and it had a rinse board in the back of it, and she could lean back in the chair, a canvas sling chair, and then she could rinse her hair on that fiberglass rinse board. He sold it to Sears & Roebuck, they put it in production...and out of that he became just about the largest wheelchair manufacturer in this country. He designed his own wire wheels, and built his own machinery—he built a beautiful plant in South Bend—and then he always consulted with us on the Duesenberg project, and all the things we were involved in, and he just continued to be a great friend—a super guy....
XJR: The other guy, the seat-of-the-pants engineer type, was Paul Farago, who was the Italian aspect of most all these projects. Out of running a little sports car shop in Detroit—and he was Italian, himself—he became my father's primary interpreter and spokesman for Chrysler when my father was dealing with Ghia, and all of the Italian bodywork. And then continued on, with us—not directly, but as a consultant to us—when we got into all those project cars. Of course, I had my own contract—even when I was in the service—with Ghia, separately, and then I took that to be part of our business when we were in business together, and we continued consulting with Ghia, designing advance cars for them. But, those people are always close friends—I have a very, very good friend that was one of the chief engineers at McDonnell Douglas, that I was long-time school friends with....
MT: From Notre Dame?
XJR: Yeah, from Notre Dame, mechanical engineer—Mike Clary—who is on the west coast, and has a collection of about 15 cars, including one of the Indianapolis Studebakers. You know, we were always just tight [laughing] with all of the engineers, especially...because we always needed 'em. When we got into the boat building business, we didn't know anything about boats, so we hooked up with a terrific guy—Carnegie Tech. graduate—that designed hulls for high-speed racing boats. But that's something we always believed in...there's a lot of designers that don't....
MT: Well, if you wanna see that design go into production, you've gotta work with the engineers.
XJR: That's right, you sure do; absolutely. Even at Chrysler, my father had lots of design & design engineering friends. And I did, too, at Ford—and we had the best of them, within our own complex, of true design engineers...and, you know, it takes every kind, really, 'cause there's everything that has to go into a car, from ergonomics to chemical makeup of steel...everything is there in a car.
MT: Well, I'm pleased to find out the relationship your father had with Sales, because I just had an instinct that he did. I know I've seen him in a 1955 Chrysler sales film, and ads....
XJR: Yeah, they featured him in magazines...in ads surrounded by the show cars.
MT: I wouldn't think that would be typical, at that time, to feature the designer?
XJR: Well, it was...it was something that a company like GM and Ford doesn't do, because...they're so big, that people get touchy about that sort of thing. [laughing] But Chrysler was smaller....
MT: His personality could kinda pervade the company.
XJR: That's right, yeah. But the Harley Earl stuff today... [laughing] which is interesting—Harley was a great guy!
MT: Oh, you mean the TV ads they're doing now?
XJR: Yeah. Harley was a terrific guy—you know, he was a great, big fella—he was six foot three or four—just a big, friendly guy [laughing] and...in these ads, these days, they portray him as almost a gangster [laughing] type. It's really funny, because it's totally, totally different (their take on it)...they're getting a lot of mileage out of it.
MT: Yeah, they are...well, I wonder how much mileage? It has to be among car fans—I can't imagine the average Joe knows who Harley Earl is.
XJR: Well, I think it's just putting something across, you know? [laughing] It's just a reminder, and those kinds of things will work with the public, once in a while, you know—they really do.
MT: What did your father think...he started out working for Harley Earl, didn't he?
XJR: At Pontiac, yeah—at GM.
MT: How did he like working for him?
XJR: Oh, he loved it—it was just really something. And of course, he loved cars, and it was something that was just fantastic. It was just a whole new world to him—as it was to the other guys, too, like Clare Hodgman, and Paul Zimmermann, and his friends there...Tom Banister, and some of the people who later on worked with him at Chrysler—the modeling aspect, and everything.... He succeeded very fast, and became the fair-haired boy of Harley, and loved Harley, but he just could not afford to turn down the Loewy offer, when Loewy came along and hired him away (along with Hodgman and Zimmermann).
MT: Wow! He must have made an impression very fast, because he must have been very young, even at that point?
XJR: Yeah, he was virtually the youngest person that ever was a studio head, at that time—youngest person ever to have been a studio head at GM, until recently. Yeah, he was only about 25...when was it, 1933?...but, he didn't become a studio head until '36—he didn't manage the Pontiac studio until 1936, 'cause he worked for Frank Hershey, until Frank went to Opel.
MT: Well, I've got a couple of questions...the Imperial Club really wants to know: What is your favorite Imperial, and what do you think your father's favorite Imperial was?
And the winner is... The 1957, best-selling of all time, was also Virgil Exner's favorite Imperial.
XJR: Oh, the '57, I think, really.
MT: For both of you?
XJR: Yeah, overall—he kept his for a long time. [laughing]
MT: Oh, I didn't know he drove one?
XJR: Oh yeah, he had one—black—and it was really his favorite (of the Imperials, certainly). It wasn't his favorite car—of course, his favorite car was the Indianapolis race car, but... [laughing] (well, he liked the Mercedes, too, though)—but his favorite car was really a '41 Studebaker President. We had one of those for quite a long time, during the war, and he just loved that car.
MT: What was it he liked about that, in particular?
XJR: Well, he had designed it, of course, and the Studebaker straight 8 was a beautiful, smooth-running engine, and the car was a very, very nice car—he just loved that car.
MT: OK, not the styling alone, but the overall car?
XJR: No, the overall car. Oh, he never could separate styling from the overall car...every aspect of it, and the handling especially, and driveability, and comfort—everything about it. One of his favorite cars was his '34 Ford, too.
MT: Hot rodded? [laughing]
XJR: Yeah, he used to love that—that used to handle—Ford coupe.
MT: That was a racy car, back then.
XJR: Yeah, it was.
MT: Do you have a favorite, or do you know if your father had a favorite, among all the Chrysler cars during his time there?
XJR: Oh, I don't think so, really. His favorite cars were really the show cars, you know, so it's hard to separate, or have a favorite. You don't almost have a favorite car, anyway, because you design 'em, and so....
MT: They're all your babies, I guess.
XJR: It's that, plus none of 'em are. I mean...you can't be prejudiced, sort of, you know? You have to take the attitude of...like colors—you can't have a favorite color, because all colors are great, you know?—it's that way among cars, too. Certainly there's ones that are outstanding in your mind...not just the ones he designed—like a Gullwing Mercedes is one of his favorites—or, you know, all kinds of stuff....
MT: Duesenbergs, apparently, I would guess?
XJR: Oh, yeah, Duesenbergs, absolutely. [laughing] Yeah, that's right, Model J's...he liked the Model A, more than anything, because he was really brought up with Model A Duesenbergs. Model A's were great, and of course, the influence on Indianapolis, and Indianapolis Millers, and stuff like that...and the mechanics of things, the beautiful mechanics of various cars.... He always appreciated the Model J engine, of course, which we all did—I always tried to tell kids, when I was younger, that they thought that Cadillacs were powerful, and Chrysler hemi's were powerful, and I used to say, "That's nothing compared to a Model J Duesy with 320 honest-to-God horsepower!", you know. [laughing]
MT: Yeah, it's amazing what they were doing...people think that 4 valves per cylinder were invented recently, you know?
XJR: Yeah, just go back and look at an old Miller. And the Europeans have always been right up there, all the time, with everything. You know, Americans are typical...they take so much credit for—we accuse the Russians of 'inventing' everything; well, my God, we're just as bad [laughing]—whereas the Europeans have been doin' this stuff, with the efficiency (and the Japanese, of course, too) and they don't get the credit that they ought to, for a lot of stuff. I go over there once a year, and we spend some time over there, and I rent the smallest little car I can—and I just have a ball driving it. Last year, it was a Renault Twingo, and, oh, what a beautiful-driving little car that was. Because it's hard to find parkin' places, you want as small a car as possible over there. [laughing] They got some beautiful stuff; it's really great—fun to participate in.
MT: One of the first things I wanted to ask you, was what other cars do you own—or do you own some other collector cars today?
Virgil Jr. at speed in 1927 Type 40 Bugatti (Waterford Hills, MI) in 1965.
XJR: No, I did. I owned three Bugattis at one time, and I had a 1915 Saxon roadster, and you know I've owned all kinds of stuff, but never really gotten too enamored—I'm always continuing to want to build something myself, and so never really got back into the restoration aspect of it, like I was when we were doin' that stuff. At that time, is when I had a couple of Bugattis myself—raced one of 'em—and then just simply sold 'em. [laughing]
MT: When you say the restoration stuff, you mean the early '60s?
XJR: Yeah, mid-sixties, the retro years. I had a type 57 Bugatti, and a type 40 Bugatti that I restored. And then I had this 1915 Saxon—never was terribly fond of real antiques, but it was a gemmie of a little car. Took it to meets, and things like that...and then got rid of all of 'em, when I got married. [laughing] Got into boats, then, really, to a great extent, and that was fun, to us, for a long time.
MT: Well, I hope there will be quite a bit written about the boat designs you've done in the book.
XJR: Oh, I hope so, too. We did quite a bit—influenced the industry almost as much as that revival series did for the automobile industry. And that was fun to design, too. It had, in a lot of respects, more to it than car design, even, because it's a...piece of transportation home. [laughing] And so, it's something that's got other design problems to it, and fun to solve. And boats today are very good looking, compared to what they were in those days. Cars are, too, overall—cars are great, of course—cars are far better, today, than they were when we did them, in every respect. [laughing] So, it's something that...can't lose sight of that, of real progress.
MT: Well, what must it be like, when you see some of your boat designs, or your Simca Special—some of the aspects being taken, and you see the resemblances in future production—what is that like to see that happen?
XJR: Well, some of that stuff is already old... [laughing] it's beyond that!
MT: Well, I know... [laughing] but, I mean, at that time, when it was...did it give you a lot of pride to see that?
XJR: Yes, it does—uh huh, it really does. Once in a while, I see a Renault Caravelle in France, and I tell my wife, "I designed that! Look how ugly it is!" [laughing]
MT: [laughing] Do you ever think, "Hey, that guy stole my front end", or....
XJR: No, I usually try to give it another critique. [laughing]
MT: I'm kind of interested in the ugly cars, too...what was the ugliest tailfin application that you can think of? (Or do you even care?)
XJR: Boy, I don't know. I can't really say that, at all—I never really thought about it.. Some of the GM stuff was uglier than Chrysler, by a long shot, 'cause they weren't as pure....
MT: Do you think of the '59 as an ugly one? [Note: I was actually thinking of the '59 Chevy.]
XJR: Well, no. The '59 Cadillac is pretty decent, really...the tailfins are OK—the rest of the car is a blob, but that's the way they were, you know. They got with it in '59, with the GM stuff, and they straightened themselves out, after they got the shock. Mitchell did a good job for 'em, and Charlie Jordan, and they did some good stuff. They just got wishy-washy with everything, to a certain extent, and lost some design direction. Ford never had any, to a great extent.... [laughing]
1959 Cadillac Eldorado
That concluded our talk, except for a few personal, closing comments. One thing Mr. Exner did mention that's worth noting is that 'almost everything' that he and his father ever did has been donated to the Henry Ford museum—one more great reason for me to take my boys up there next summer!
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