Carole Nash
Content Writer
Published: 26th September 2017

Designer Of The Day is a segment that puts the spotlight on a car manufacturer and examines how they’ve contributed to the industry. American designer Virgil Exner was a contemporary of Harley Earl, but his work is often overshadowed by an unlucky career. Exner was known for his ‘Forward Look’ design that incorporated a sleeker, smoother and more aggressive look.

Early life

Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Exner showed an interest in art and cars from an early age. He studied art at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, but dropped out after two years because of a lack of funding. Exner started working as a helper in an art studio that specialised in advertising for Studebaker trucks.

Car design career

Harley Earl recognised Exner’s talent and hand picked him to join the design team at General Motors. He went on to take control over the Pontiac design and came up with the 1937 – 1938 models. Exner proved to be so talented that he was in line to eventually succeed Earl, but he left GM in 1938 to join Loewy and Associates.

While a part of Loewy and Associates, Exner worked on the 1947 Starlight Coupe that featured a long rear deck and wraparound rear window. However, Raymond Loewy liked to take credit for his team’s work and made a point to have all designs signed off. Roy Cole, Studebaker’s engineering vice president, encouraged Exner to work on backup designs at home.

Loewy fired Exner in 1944, but he was quickly hired by Studebaker to work on the styling for post WW2 cars. Loewy and Exner were forced to work together and Exner couldn’t put up with him in the end, so he moved on to Chrysler.

At Chrysler, Exner came up with such memorable motors as the Ghia and Chrysler d’Elegance. Yet, the company needed a scapegoat in 1962 when a series of Plymouth and Dodge cars were poorly received by the public and Exner was fired.

Despite his misfortune, Exner’s impact on the car industry is undeniable. His ‘Forward Look’ design helped to make Chrysler relevant again at a time when it was behind the competition.