Virgil Exner: Visioneer: The official biography of Virgil M. Exner, designer extraordinaire

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9781845841188: Virgil Exner: Visioneer: The official biography of Virgil M. Exner, designer extraordinaire
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The official biography the man who brought his own personal style to the world of industrial design, from automobiles to powerboats. Some 50 years after his design masterpieces wrested styling leadership away from General Motors' Harley Earl.
 
Thirty four years after his untimely death, Virgil Exner's name still remains inexorably linked to the Chrysler Corporation in the minds of car enthusiasts worldwide. For an all too brief period, Exner's name epitomized all that was great and exciting in America.

His thrilling automobile designs from the mid-fifties took the world by storm and put Chrysler at the top. His work was nothing less than a revolution. Exner introduced to Chrysler, first with his "idea cars" then with production models, vehicles that were wanted for their looks but at the same time, were soundly engineered; automobiles that carried classic proportions and gave the illusion of movement even while stationary. His design of the 1947 Studebaker established the design pattern for all modern cars and was a huge success.

With many previously unseen works of art and family photos among the 150 color images throughout, this is a unique and fascinating insight into a pivotal player in the development of the modern automobile.

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About the Author:

Peter Grist has been writing about American automobiles for over 15 years. He started with the Chrysler Corp Club UK, which he ran for more than 10 years, editing it’s monthly magazine, TalkFlite. This lead to writing for high street magazines. He currently owns three Dodge vehicles, and has already published a book on Dodge. He is married to Catherine and has three children.  

Review:

Australian Classic Car, February 2008
Australian magazine
 
While I don’t hold a strong affection for new cars these days, I’ll admit that I admire the bold, assertive style of Chrysler’s 300 Series. Its style, especially around the front recalls the 1950s when Chrysler wooed stylist Virgil Exner away from Studebaker. It was a time when companies replaced the drab, carry-over, pre-war styles with the flowing extravagance of the 1950s, many of which had a helping hand from Virgil Exner.

This publication is Exner’s story, both private and public, from his school days when his drawing prowess was first recognised to his career styling boats and cars during the 1970s. If the evolution of the automobile in the US is of interest, you will find this biography quite fascinating. Through Exner’s work, it’s possible to track the changes during almost 40 years. Responsible for Studebaker’s Startlight Coupé, Chrysler’s C-300 of the 1950s, and 1960s Imperial and Valiant, he even designed the body for the last Bugatti Type 101. I could be persuaded to own the Exner-designed 1953 De Soto Adventurer any time. The book does not reflect only the good times, covering for example the death of Exner’s son Brian, but nevertheless comes highly recommended.



Classic Cars, January 2008

Review by Rob Scorah
UK magazine
 
This very readable biography of one of Americas most influential automotive designers introduces you to the politics and personal dramas that shaped the cars of the fifties and sixties as much as the prevailing aesthetics of the studios. The sweeping fins, long flanks and outlandish front-end designs act as a recurring motif throughout his work for the likes of Chrysler, Ghia and Karmann. Also included are examples of Exner's power-boat designs and his fine-art painting. It's as much a book for enthusiasts of design and aesthetics as it is for American car fans.

 

The Automobile, January 2008

As a student of automotive style I found this official biography exceptionally interesting, a long overdue and well-illustrated, complete life story of one of the most important designers of the 1950s and '60s. It is official as the De Soto-owning author has had much help from Virgil Exner Junior, himself a designer who worked alongside his father.

Exner, ever an artist, started his automotive career in an advertising agency with the Studebaker account. He joined Harley Earl’s fledgling Art and Color Section at GM in 1934, rising to head the Pontiac section a year later. He joined Raymond Loewy in 1938, working mostly on Studebaker before being employed by them in 1945. His move to Chrysler adn international fame came in 1949.  Few would forget the products of his association with Ghia. Having stayed at Chrysler till 1962, he set up on his own. He effectively created retro-styling, vide his creation on the Bugatti 101 and the Stutz Blackhawk and became equally known in the boating world.  An interesting character well recalled, and we learn much about other well-known designers of the time.

 



Avanti magazine, Winter 2007

Review by Lewis Schucart
Quarterly publication of the Avanti Owners Association International
USA


If not for the advertising experience and hence, automotive design experience that Virgil Exner gained from Studebaker, the design history of Chrysler Corp. might be much different.

In the recently released hardbound book by British author Peter Grist, we learn that art and design was a staple of the young designer's life while growing up in Buchanan, Mich., just 12 miles from South Bend. Exner would eventually attend Notre Dame University there, and later work for an advertising company, and later, Studebaker, on his way to Chrysler greatness.

Exner was an art student at Notre Dame in the 1920s and he went on to become one of the world's great automobile designers, responsible for the Chrysler Corporation's 'Forward Look' of the 1950s and 60s.

His style was inspired by race cars, airliners and speedboats. He was known for his sleek styling and his use of tail fins, which he claimed added stability at highway speeds. The aesthetic was dubbed the 'Forward Look', which set new design standards for all automobile manufacturers and designers.

He studied design at Notre Dame from 1926 to 1928, but dropped out when his money ran out. He took a job with Advertising Artists Inc., a South Bend advertising agency that had the Studebaker account.

Exner began dabbling in auto design back in the 1920s, and his early work was for General Motors.

In 1938, Exner joined Raymond Loewy Associates, led by the industrial designer and Avanti creator Raymond Loewy.

While with Loewy Associates, Exner was assigned to Loewy's account with Studebaker in South Bend. He worked on cars and military vehicles just before and during World War II, heading Studebaker's design activity for Loewy.

In what later was to become a parting between the two designers, Studebaker's chief engineer convinced Exner to work secretly at home on an alternative design for the first post-war cars. When the designs were unveiled in 1944, Exner's model gained Studebaker approval.

According to the book's author, the two men didn't get along.

"Loewy always took credit for his designers' work, saying he personally created each design", Grist said while at a book signing in South Bend.

"'Ex' took umbrage at this and Loewy's arrogant manner."

But in fairness to both men, those that worked for each enjoyed their time under the men's watch and held both with high respect. Although the book points out on several occasions that Exner preferred to work alone – probably from his years of working on personal projects from the basement of his home. By the time he took the reins at Chrysler design studios, he was set up in a private office, apart from the other 17 designers and modelers at the time. Exner felt "right at home" in his new studio.

A variety of internal politics at Studebaker conspired to favor Exner's new post-war 1947 Studebaker over the design that Loewy's team of designers had been working on at the same time.

Loewy knew about the dual projects that lead up to the 1947 automobiles, but due to his contract with Studebaker, there was little he could do about the situation.

Loewy fired Exner, who immediately was hired by Studebaker as chief of design. He was involved in the first cars to be produced after the war. Studebaker's advertising slogan was: "First by far with a post-war car." Some auto enthusiasts believe Exner was the main designer of the acclaimed 1947 Studebaker Champion Starlight coupe, although Loewy got the credit. The car was known for its full body size and integrated fenders.

In the book, Grist writes that Exner was solely responsible for the design of the '47 Starlight coupé. Exner deserves virtually all the credit for Studebaker's 1947, 1948 and 1949 designs, while the famous 1950 'bullet-nose' Studebaker was a blend of the work of Exner and Vince Gardner of Loewy's design team, the author says.

'Virgil Exner – Visioneer: The official biography of Virgil M Exner, designer extraordinaire' begins with a foreword by Virgil M Exner Jr, himself a automotive designer but now retired. The younger Exner, who till lives in South Bend, earned degrees at Notre Dame in the 1950s, and briefly designed for Studebaker before going on to work for GM, Ford and other companies.

There are many sketches and photographs throughout the book detailing Exner's career. The fin era of the late 1950s was one of his finest, showing off the huge bodywork on those big and bulky Plymouths, Chryslers and De Sotos.

From a Studebaker or Avanti enthusiast's perspective, the book's early chapters offers many color photographs from Exner's time with Studebaker and Loewy. Those include the company's war time advertisements of the military Weasel – Exner's most successful military design.

Included are unique line drawings of his proposal for the post-war car, signed: Virgil M Exner, Inventor.



Review from Car Collector magazine, May 2008
US magazine
 
I had the honor of knowing several of the greatest 20th century designers, Frank Hershey, Gordon Buebrig, Ralph Roberts, Tom Hibbard, and Alec Tremulis. All of them left an indelible mark on the history of automotive design, and Virgil Exner, who I never had the good fortune of meeting, belongs on any list of legendary 20th century American stylists. His influence on 1950s automotive styling is second only to Harley Farl's.  Author Peter Grist takes Exner's legendary career to task in this superb official biography. The book begins with a foreword by Virgil M Exner Jr, who describes his father as a "... romantic at heart. He loved the Wild West, collected guns, a few swords, [and] he liked to read about Civil War battles." Not exactly the depiction of a man who almost single-handedly turned the American automotive industry on its ear in the 1950s.
As the author unravels the chain of events that led Exner from Studebaker to Chrysler, one can see that it was almost Ex's destiny to step in and change Chrysler's future, and that of American automotive styling in the 1950s. In 1949 he almost became chief designer at Ford, but fate instead directed him to K T Keller at Chrysler. The rest, as they say, is history. Grist tells that story in chapter four, a remarkable 61 pages in length and so lavishly illustrated that it makes the entire book worth purchasing.  Chapters five, six, and seven, bring the story full circle with Exner's decline at Chrysler in the early 1960s and the changes that came after he was replaced as Vice President of Styling by ex-Ford designer Elwood Engel. In one of the most interesting design segues of the mid-20th century, Grist tells how Exner moved from designing sleek American cars to styling sleek American speedboats in the 1960s, doing for powerboats what he had done for automobiles. Among his designs in the 1960s were the concept Mercer Cobra, the 1965 Bugatti 101C-X, the 1966 Duesenberg concept (which greatly influenced the design of the Mk III Continental), and of course, the trendy Stutz Blackhawk models produced from 1968 to 1988.  Grist concludes the book with a look at another side of Virgil Exner, his beautiful watercolor and acrylic paintings, and a final chapter on the equally interesting career of Virgil Exner Jr, who spent many years working alongside his father, as well as becoming a successful stylist in his own right.  This is a book that goes under the skin and into the mind of a legendary stylist and his creations. It is an intuitive and beautifully illustrated work that belongs on every auto enthusiast's book shelf.

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