Virgil Exner Unfulfilled

Sadly, most people in the industry have no idea of who Virgil M.

Sadly, most people in the industry have no idea of who Virgil M. Exner was, or the effect he had on the industry. Yet this man, who was born in Ann Arbor, MI, in 1909 and died in 1973, rose from a hard-scrabble background to become the first-ever vice president of Design at Chrysler, and member of that company’s board of directors. Though he had started his career as an illustrator creating layouts and illustrations for Studebaker’s brochures, Exner was hired by legendary GM Design director Harley Earl and swiftly became head of the Pontiac studio. He later left to join Studebaker in an official capacity before settling in at Chrysler. There he created the famed Ghia-built “Idea Cars” (which included the Chrysler D’Elegance that was shrunken to create VW’s Karmann Ghia and the Norseman that sunk along with the Andrea Doria off the coast of Nantucket), and ushered in the “Forward Look” that literally sent Harley Earl’s eventual successor, Bill Mitchell, back to the drawing board.

Thanks to Peter Grist and Veloce Books (, Exner is no longer a shadowy figure on the outer edges of automotive lore. His book Virgil Exner Visioneer (160 pp. $59) tells the story of the quiet man who preferred to be called “Ex” and was as responsible for the stylistic overtones of the late 1950s and early 1960s as any of his contemporaries. Grist comes by his passion for the subject honestly as he is the founder of a club for fellow U.K. and European Chrysler enthusiasts. This, however, is something of a problem as he has produced a fair, if uneven, version of Exner’s story that would have benefited from a sympathetic editor to guide his hand and a copy editor with even a modicum of talent.

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Perhaps this is too much to ask, not of the author, but of a publisher so intent on promoting its wares that it includes advertisements for other books it prints just inside the front and back covers. In addition, Veloce burdened this effort with unimaginative, ham-handed layouts, and the aforementioned copy editing gaffes. However, its biggest sin is in printing an exposition about a truly influential American designer that shows a stunning lack of visual creativity. Though kudos should be extended for seeing fit to include 150 photos, some of concepts never before seen or otherwise forgotten, this story would have been better served by a cleaner, more creative and Exner-like attention to detail. My advice is to do as I did—buy it at a discount.—CAS