1950s Chrysler Concept Cars

Image Gallery: Concept Cars The 1951 K-310 was the second of the Ghia-built Chrysler concept cars designed under the watchful eye of company styling director Virgil Exner. See more concept car pictures.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

It's a pity 1950s Chrysler concept cars -- such as the sleek Chrysler K-310, the lovely DeSoto Adventurer, and the burly Chrysler Falcon -- didn't make it onto America's roads. It's easy to imagine how pleasing they would have been.

History must forever record the unfortunate 1989-1990 TC by Maserati as Chrysler's first production "sports car." Which is a real shame considering the hot Dodge Viper that followed it -- or, for that matter, the many sports and GT concept cars Chrysler cooked up in the 1950s.

Virgil Exner headed Chrysler styling in those days. He's perhaps best remembered as instigator of the 1955 and 1957 "Forward Look" cars that turned the company's red ink to black by bringing real excitement to its products for the first time in decades.

But his influence was apparent much earlier. Teaming up with Italy's renowned Carrozzeria Ghia, Exner created a series of glamorous "idea cars," as Chrysler called them, starting with the four-door Plymouth XX-500 of 1950. Though not often appreciated, some of his sportier concepts came close to reaching dealerships.

Whatever their ultimate fate, 1950s Chrysler, Dodge, DeSoto, and Plymouth concept cars remain among the best examples of Exner's inimitable legacy. As a designer he was as unique as any of his creations and the time in which he flourished -- a younger, more innocent age we'll never see again.

This article will explore development of these 1950s concept cars, including what made them special and why they never made it into production. Let's begin with the K-310 and C-200 concept cars of 1951 and 1951. Go to the next page to learn more.

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1951 and 1952 Chrysler K-310 and C-200 Concept Cars

The 1951 Chrysler K-310 concept car had a dummy spare tire outline on the trunk. Dubbed the "toilet seat," it would show up on later Exner production designs.
The 1951 Chrysler K-310 concept car had a dummy spare tire outline on the trunk. Dubbed the "toilet seat," it would show up on later Exner production designs.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The 1951 and 1952 Chrysler K-310 and C-200 concept cars were among the first Mopar dream cars to receive the design "magic touch" of Virgil Exner.

Like most of Exner's Ghia-built specials, the dashing five-passenger K-310 coupe was designed in Detroit under Ex's eye. In this case, Ghia received a 3/8-scale clay plaster to guide construction of a full-size running prototype.

The "K" stood for then-company president K. T. Keller; the "310" for the alleged horsepower of the 331-cubic-inch hemi-head V-8 beneath the hood, though the then-new stock version produced only 180 horsepower.

No matter. The K-310 was stunning. "Elements of Continental styling" were featured, according to Chrysler, but also several "classic" touches -- like the dummy "toilet seat" spare tire outline -- that would typify future Exner designs.

Bulging integral rear fenders avoided period slab-sidedness, while prominently crowned front fenders emphasized a classic front with prow-style hood and headlamps recessed in scalloped nacelles astride a low, rounded, roughly triangular eggcrate grille.

The 1952 Chrysler C-200 concept car was a convertible companion to the K-310 coupe.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Full cutouts emphasized the wheels, which Ex seldom covered on any of his designs. Subtle two-toning delineated upper from lower body. The roof and deck were proportioned to accent the hood, which wasn't easy given the contemporary Chrysler Saratoga chassis with 125.5-inch wheelbase.

The K-310's warm reception prompted construction of a soft-top companion called the Chrysler C-200, unveiled in 1952. Also built on a stock Chrysler Saratoga chassis, the C-200 shared the distinctive "gunsight" taillamps that would transfer virtually without change to the 1955-1956 Imperial.

Both the K-310 and C-200 were strongly considered for showroom sale. As Exner later recalled, K.T. Keller liked the K-310: "He thought it was something they should promote. . . . Of course, it was also something into which they could put their Hemi engine. It was a perfect combination."

The C-200 was built on a production Chrysler Saratoga chassis and featured "gunsight" taillamps.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

But the K-310 would be a never-was for the most basic of reasons: lack of money. Chrysler sales began to free-fall after 1949, and within three years the firm was outproduced by Ford for the first time since the Depression.

Although plans for a limited run of "street" K-310s were shelved, Exner continued campaigning for a Chrysler-based sportster the public could buy. Go to the next page to learn about his next concept cars, the Chrysler Special and D'Elegance.

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1952, 1953, 1954 Chrysler Special and D'Elegance Concept Cars

The graceful 1953 Chrysler Thomas Special concept car had a European elegance. It was a modified version of the 1952 Chrysler Special concept car.
The graceful 1953 Chrysler Thomas Special concept car had a European elegance. It was a modified version of the 1952 Chrysler Special concept car.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Concept cars have always been great attention-getters, with sales- and profit-boosting potential, so it makes sense that Virgil Exner got the nod to do the 1952, 1953, 1954 Chrysler Special and D'Elegance concept cars in the midst of Chrysler's cash-flow crisis of the early 1950s.

First up was the Chrysler Special, which was built in two versions. The original premiered at the 1952 Paris Salon as a three-place fastback built on a cut-down New Yorker chassis (119-inch wheelbase).

As a follow-up to the K-310/C-200, it sported similar "elements of Continental styling" -- long-hood/short-deck profile, big wire wheels within full cutouts -- but differed most everywhere else.

Fenderlines were squared-up knife-edge types holding slim vertical bumperettes; headlights lived in prominent thrusting pods -- the grille was an inverted trapezoid with horizontal bars.

Also, bodysides curved less and combined with a low roofline for a husky "masculine" air. Though handsome, the first Chrysler Special would remain one-of-a-kind.

So, too, the second version built in 1953 for C. B. Thomas, the head of Chrysler's Export Division, thus prompting the nickname "Thomas Special."

Though similar to the 1952 car, this mounted a stock 125.5-inch New Yorker chassis and measured 10 inches longer overall (214 total). Exner used the extra length to provide what we'd now term a notchback profile, with a normal trunk and external lid, plus four/five-passenger seating. There were also various detail changes, such as outside door handles instead of solenoid-activated pushbuttons.

The tastefully plush interior of the 1953 Thomas Special concept car was just one highlight of this one-of-a-kind Exner exercise.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

In one sense, the Chrysler Specials were not dead-ends, for positive public reception prompted some 400 copies of a third version in 1954. This was dubbed GS-1, likely for "Ghia Special," though the styling was again Exner's.

Overall appearance was somewhere between the two Specials. The main differences involved a larger and squarer grille, reshaped roof and fenderlines, and stock 1954 New Yorker bumpers.

All GS-1s carried the by-then familiar 331 Hemi V-8, linked to Chrysler's new fully automatic two-speed PowerFlite transmission. Sales were handled by Société France Motors, Chrysler's French distributor.

Meanwhile, Exner returned to close-coupled fastbacks with 1953's Chrysler D'Elegance. This was more two-seater than three-place car, for its New Yorker wheelbase was trimmed to a tight (for the time) 115 inches.

Though clearly evolved from the first Special, the D'Elegance was busier: gunsight taillights astride a dummy decklid spare and a face much like the K-310's, right down to a prominently peaked bumper.

Rear fenders were noticeably bulged, with leading edges dropped down from beltline level to near the rockers, where they continued to the front wheel arches as a horizontal creaseline.

The essential shape of the Ghia-built 1953 Chrysler D'Elegance concept car was later scaled down and adapted for the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

If the Ghia-built D'Elegance looks familiar, it should. Though little appreciated for some years, Volkswagen acquired manufacturing rights to this design, which was then downscaled by Ghia to fit the chassis of VW's small, 1930s-era Beetle sedan.

Germany's Karosserie Karmann was contracted as body supplier for what was introduced in late 1954 as the VW Karmann-Ghia -- a gross misnomer, as the Italian firm had nothing to do with the original styling. It was one of the few times Ex didn't get the credit he deserved.

See the next section for details on another Exner creation, the Dodge Firearrow.

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1953 and 1954 Dodge Firearrow Concept Cars

The Dodge Firearrow II concept car was a modified 1954 version of the original Firearrow roadster concept. Note the frameless windshield.
The Dodge Firearrow II concept car was a modified 1954 version of the original Firearrow roadster concept. Note the frameless windshield.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The Ghia-built 1953 and 1954 Dodge Firearrow concept cars first appeared as a two-seat mockup that rode atop a 1954 Dodge chassis. Bright red and circumscribed by a dramatic gray molding that culminated up front in a handsome, blade-like bumper split by a single (and rather phallic) pod, Firearrow I carried dual headlamps and full wheel covers. Exposed exhaust pipes, two per side, rode low on the car's flanks.

Inside, the seats were well-padded yellow leather adorned with narrow maroon piping. A wood-rimmed steering wheel brought an additional touch of Italian style.

Firearrow II, a modified version of the original car, retained the mockup's two-place seating and striking frameless windshield when it appeared in 1954.

Riding on a 119-inch wheelbase and painted a subdued yellow, Firearrow II sported chrome-plated wire wheels instead of the previous full-wheel discs. The body molding was no longer a wraparound affair but ended at the headlamps and taillights.

In front, the dual headlights had become single units, and the original's gracious-looking split-bumper design was replaced by a more aggressive "mouth" horizontally bisected by an uninterrupted bumper. Five vertical design elements on the bumper gave the grille a toothy look.

Later in 1954, the two-seat Firearrow Sport Coupe appeared. As with the earlier roadster, the metallic blue coupe was essentially a 1954 Dodge. Dual headlights returned and now flanked a concave grille cut with narrow verticals.

Crash protection front and rear was provided by modest bumperettes. A wraparound backlight gave the Sport Coupe a particularly rakish aspect.

And the car went as good as it looked (with a modified engine, that is). Driving at Chrysler's Chelsea, Michigan, proving grounds in 1954, racer/flier Betty Skelton set a women's closed-course record at an impressive 143.4 mph.

The last of Virgil Exner's Firearrow series, the Firearrow convertible, arrived late in 1954. Despite being the series' first four-seater, it shared many styling cues with the Sport Coupe.

The 1954 Dodge Firearrow Sport Coupe was another variation on the Firearrow theme. Note the token bumperettes and wraparound backlight.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The concave grille returned, though it now carried a grid treatment instead of the coupe's slim verticals. As for the convertible's leather interior -- well, as it was a diamond pattern done in hard-to-ignore black and white, it was definitely an acquired taste. Additional sizzle was provided by the car's bright red body.

Happily, Exner's Firearrow series tickled the fancy of wealthy car enthusiast Eugene Casaroll, who purchased production rights to the design and teamed with engineer Paul Farago to create a practical road car. The result was the 1956-1958 Dual-Ghia -- proof that concept cars given cavalier treatment by the companies that commission them can sometimes be taken very seriously indeed by others.

Go to the next page to read about the 1954 DeSoto Adventurer.

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1954 and 1955 DeSoto Adventurer Concept Cars

The 1954 DeSoto Adventurer concept car could seat four, despite its closely coupled styling.
The 1954 DeSoto Adventurer concept car could seat four, despite its closely coupled styling.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The arrival of Chevy's two-seat Corvette in 1953 prompted the dashing one-off 1954 and 1955 DeSoto Adventurer concept cars.

Though visually related to earlier Exner specials, it mounted a 1953 DeSoto chassis cut to a suitably sporty 111-inch wheelbase. Despite the close-coupled coupe styling with no rear side windows, the Adventurer could hold four in comfort.

Highlights included a new iteration of the inverted-trapezoid grille, functional side exhausts, another quick-fill fuel cap, the usual chrome wires wearing "wide whites," off-white paint, and minimal bright accents.

Aggressive side exhausts foreshadowed a feature of the far-distant Dodge Viper. A small rear hatch allowed access to the spare tire, but luggage space was evidently next to nil.

The interior was swathed in black leather with white piping, and satin-finish aluminum set off a dashboard with a complete bank of circular gauges.

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Exner tried very hard to get the DeSoto Adventurer approved for limited production. But as Maury Baldwin, one of his staffers, later recalled, "Management at that point was very stodgy. A lot of people attributed it to the old Airflow disaster. They were afraid to make any new inroads."

Exner lobbied hard for a production version of the racy 1954 DeSoto Adventurer, and though it came closer to approval than any of his other specials, Chrysler management just didn't have the courage.

"If it had been built, it would have been the first four-passenger sports car made in this country. . . ." Ex said. "Of course, it had the DeSoto Hemi [a 1953 stock 273 with 170 horsepower]. It was my favorite car always . . . "

The 1955 DeSoto Adventurer II concept car was more Ghia of Italy than Exner of Detroit.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

A second DeSoto-based exercise, the 1955 Adventurer II, was mainly Ghia's work and never a serious production prospect. Though larger than the original Adventurer, it had seats for only two. The front bumper was dispensed with; up back, the plastic backlight was retractable into the rear deck.

Check out the next section for details on the 1955 Chrysler Falcon.

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1955 Chrysler Falcon Concept Car

The 1955 Chrysler Falcon concept car was as close as Chrysler got to a production two-seat sports car until the 1991 Dodge Viper.
The 1955 Chrysler Falcon concept car was as close as Chrysler got to a production two-seat sports car until the 1991 Dodge Viper.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The two-seat 1955 Chrysler Falcon concept car was the closest Chrysler came to a classic sports car until it unleashed the 1992 Dodge Viper. Many still think the 1955 Chrysler Falcon concept car was the one Exner special that should have been built for sale.

After all, by the time it appeared, Ford had introduced the 1955 Thunderbird, and Highland Park sales were fast recovering, so a Mopar reply to both the Corvette and the "personal" Ford would have been quite timely.

Chrysler must have thought so, too, for three Falcons were built by Chrysler's Advanced Styling Studio. Though they differed somewhat in details, all rode a 105-inch wheelbase, comparable to the 102-inch T-Bird and Corvette. Styling details differed among them, and only one is known to have survived.

The ruggedly handsome styling was mainly the work of Maury Baldwin and still looks good today, especially the big heart-shaped eggcrate grille and rakish side exhausts. Even the trendy 1950s fins and wrapped windshield don't seem particularly dated.

The Falcon's most noteworthy feature lay beneath the car's skin: unit construction with an integral cellular platform frame. Although the Falcon had the look of a posh boulevardier, it was envisioned as a potent performer, as well.

Road manners were reportedly impeccable; performance at least adequate. The Falcon carried a 170-horsepower DeSoto Hemi, like Adventurer I, but bypassed its old "fluid-torque" semi-automatic transmission for fully automatic PowerFlite, which was controlled -- none too positively -- by a wispy floor-mounted wand.

In a brief road test of the only known survivor some years back, a contributor to this article clocked 0-60 mph in 10 seconds flat, about 115 mph all out, and a standing quarter-mile of 17.5 seconds at 82.0 mph -- all more than adequate for 1955. Mileage? About 15 mpg.

Unitized steel construction hinted at things to come from Chrysler, though it pushed curb weight to a portly 3,300 pounds. The convertible top was operated manually and could be stowed beneath a folding lid located behind the seat.

Three Falcon concept cars were built by Chrysler's Advanced Styling Studio, each with a 105-inch wheelbase and 170-horsepower DeSoto Hemi V-8.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Despite its heft, the Falcon had beautifully balanced handling and easy yet precise steering of the sort virtually unknown in period Detroiters, especially Chryslers. Its one real drawback was lack of top-up headroom due to its very low windshield, though that would have been fixed for production.

Which, of course, didn't happen. Though the Falcon would have been a strong competitor for Corvette and Thunderbird, with arguably superior refinement and performance, it was doomed by the minuscule sports-car market of the time. Also, Chrysler likely felt it really didn't need such a car so long as overall sales were good -- which they weren't after 1957.

Learn about Exner's most radical 1950s concept car -- the XNR -- in our final section.

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1960 Plymouth XNR Concept Car

The 1960 Plymouth XNR concept car borrowed a cue from Jaguar race cars and put a tailfin behind the driver. A hard tonneau covers the passenger seat.
The 1960 Plymouth XNR concept car borrowed a cue from Jaguar race cars and put a tailfin behind the driver. A hard tonneau covers the passenger seat.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

While Ford's Falcon was running away with the compact-car market, Exner was transforming Chrysler's compact, the Plymouth Valiant, into his most radical idea car of all, the 1960 Plymouth XNR concept car. (Say the initials quickly.)

Representing the peak of his enthusiasm as head of Chrysler design, its imaginative "Asymmetrical Styling" was bold, to say the least -- especially for a Plymouth. The car was likely intended to be a preview of the similar but far more subtle styling then being planned for Chrysler's 1962 showroom models.

The car could seat two, but was best suited for a single occupant, the driver.

Thus the huge port-side headrest-cum-tailfin, which was intended to emphasize the driver while harkening back to late-1950s racing-car design, exemplified by the likes of Jaguar's D-Type and XKSS.

The driver sat behind a dramatically curved "personal" windshield; a smaller, fold-own windscreen was available for the protection of a passenger. Additionally, the passenger sat somewhat lower than the driver -- a design touch intended to minimize the negative effects of the wind.

The frame of the XNR's grille was constructed of heavy-duty materials and doubled as the car's front bumper. The "X-motif" rear bumper was a visual reminder of the car's name and essentially asymmetric nature.

Quad headlamps nestled in a big mesh-filled bumper/grille roughly oval in shape. The passenger seat was normally covered by a metal tonneau, but a small fold-flat auxiliary windshield was provided should a co-pilot be aboard.

The interior was finished in black leather and aluminum. Of the car, Exner remarked he was "striving to avoid the static and bulky, which is ugly and not what an automobile should look like. The goal is to try for the graceful look, with a built-in feeling of motion. The wedge shape expresses the function of automobiles because it imparts a sense of direction."

Though XNR rode Valiant's tidy 106-inch wheelbase, prominent overhangs stretched overall length to 195 inches. Height was just 43 inches to the top of the fin.

What excited sports-car fans -- and prompted rumors of imminent sale -- was the XNR's engine. Power came from the hairiest version ever developed of Valiant's 225 Slant Six, which pumped out 250 horsepower -- 1.11 horses per cubic inch.

"We took [XNR] to the Proving Grounds and had a professional drive it," Exner said later. "He lapped at 151 or 152, which wasn't bad for that time."

As a production sports car the XNR would have been unique; in racing guise it would likely have trimmed most anything in its displacement class.

The XNR featured a prominent offset hood scoop faired back into the cowl, which was topped by a squat, racer-style windscreen.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

But again, Chrysler decided there was just no market; even if there had been the styling would likely have seemed just too far out to sell well. Finally, Exner's abrupt firing in 1962 killed any chance the design might have had for being refined into something more practical for production.

Incidentally, the XNR was one Exner special not built by Ghia, though the Italian coachbuilder did manage something similar on its own a bit later. Alas, its Valiant Assimetrica had none of the XNR's flair, and never went beyond the one-off stage.

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