Among American car designers, the name Virgil Exner remains prominent nearly two decades since his death in 1973. More than most stylists, probably more than any of his contemporaries, Exner produced show cars bearing his personal stamp. Between 1951 and 1962, when he left the company, he successfully spun-off their ideas on numerous production models. It is generally conceded that by 1957 -- largely with design ideas evolved from his earlier show cars -- Exner's blend of extroverted innovation and classic-era hallmarks had the legs of everybody else in the industry, including Harley Earl's vaunted General Motors.
Ex's formula was simple: conventional passenger car chassis, occasionally shortened but otherwise mostly stock, combined with svelte bodies and interiors handcrafted by Ghia coachworks in Torino, Italy, for a fraction of what they would have cost to build in Detroit.
Asked about his show cars by writer Michael Lamm in the early Seventies, Exner explained: "There was really only a single purpose in all of them, and that was to let the public know that Chrysler was thinking ahead as far as styling was concerned." But in contrast to the contemporary specials from General Motors, for example, Exner's cars were always built with production requirements in mind. "As a result," Exner continued, "they had to be compromised to a certain degree from what you normally would do with a strict 'dream car.' But two or three of them came very close to being built."
In my own conversations with Exner, he was almost wistful about this last point; he really did want Chrysler to build a sporting rival to the Corvette and Thunderbird. On at least three occasions he created show cars which could easily have been translated into production automobiles. One of these was his 1953-1954 series of Dodge Firearrows.
Virgil Exner and Chrysler Corporation built three and one-half Firearrow show cars. Though it never saw production, it influenced the low-volume 1956 Dual-Ghia.
The Firearrows followed a logical progression from dream car to producible vehicle. The first one-which we ought only to count as one-half-was a "buck" on a Dodge chassis. It didn't run and was really only one step up from a full-size clay model. Establishing a proportion Exner strove for, this 1953 Firearrow I was more than twice as wide as its body height at the cowl. "The body itself is flat and broad with only a slight crown, or slope, in its top and side surfaces," said a contemporary description. "Stylists have a word for this . . . they call it 'tautness': the metal between any two points seems stretched to fill the space smoothly, with no wasted contour, rather than appearing full-blown or overly curvaceous." It was the diametric opposite of typical mid-Fifties design.
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Design of the 1953-1954 Firearrow
Certain themes showed cross-pollination -- everyone in Detroit knew each other and ideas got around. For example, the concept of a massive bumper/grille, flowing around at the sides, may have originated at the Kaiser-Frazer studios in the late 1940s, while the Firearrow's chrome exterior tailpipes were seen in almost the same place on Frank Spring's Hudson Italia, the first of which was built in mid-1953. On the latter they merely housed taillights; on the Firearrow they were fully functional.
The full-perimeter bumper was painted metallic gray rather than chromed; the car itself was red metallic, with a yellow-buff leather interior piped in maroon. This model also had quad headlamps, possibly their first appearance on a show car. (They first appeared in production on the 1957 Nash and Cadillac Eldorado Brougham.)
Next in line was the 1954 Firearrow II, another roadster, but modified in detail. Mounted on a stock 119-inch Dodge Royal wheelbase, it was powered by a 250-horsepower Royal V-8 with Gyro-Torque Drive (Chrysler's famed M-6 Fluid Drive with torque converter). While its basic shape was unchanged from the Firearrow I, the quad headlights had disappeared, replaced by single lamps faired into pods at the front end, breaking up the full-perimeter bumper. The grille and taillights were restyled and there were two rear deck hatches: one to hold luggage, another for the spare tire and fuel filler. Each was counter-balanced and spring-loaded to pop open when levers were pulled inside the driver's door. Other features attested to the Firearrow II's pure experimental nature: There were no door handles, no rearview mirrors, no side windows, no top. Doors were opened by pressing a flat metal release bar at the top inner molding or, from the inside, by pulling a knob that extended into the painted armrest support.
The Firearrow II was painted pale yellow with a black central bar through the grille (similar to the 1953 Plymouth grille bar) and black bodyside molding; black leather adorned the interior. The doors were similarly upholstered, and because of their deep curves they allowed generous armrests, which gave "a pronounced recessed effect to the cockpit sides," according to Chrysler. The dash contained full instrumentation, including tachometer, plus toggle lever controls and an aluminum-spoked steering wheel with a wooden rim.
One novel feature of the dummy roadster was carried over to Firearrow II: a huge, one-piece, glass windshield. But whereas the mock-up's windshield had a thin frame and was carried in a grooved metal base affixed to the cowl, Firearrow II's was sunk into a deep "slot." The glass you saw was only the tip of this glacial mass: There were 14 inches showing above the cowl and 24 inches sunk into the slot! Unlike the mock-up, the Mark II's glass was tempered, but owner Joe Bortz is wary of taking chances with it: "It's crystal, and very fragile. We've made a foam slipcover for it and a metal cage to protect it when traveling. The restoration man wanted to make a plexiglas copy but I was afraid he'd break the original in the process -- and once gone, it would be gone for good."
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The Discovery of the 1953-1954 Firearrow
Joe Bortz is now a familiar name among car collectors, a man who has earned their admiration for his single-minded dedication to finding, rescuing, restoring, and displaying show cars from the heroic age of styling, the Forties through the early Sixties. "I could name every car on the road by the time I was five," Joe remembers. "By age 12 I was answering for sale ads in the Chicago Tribune, calling sellers just to talk about their cars and telling them I was 17." My love has always been for the visual -- I don't know anything about cams or crankshafts, and racing bores me."
But Joe's first collector car was a 1920 Chevy two-door landau coupe, so how did he get from there to the finest collection of postwar dream cars in the country? "I went from Chevys to Classics, like the Cadillac V-8, Cord 812 Sportsman, and '31 Duesenberg Rollston Victoria. Around 1971, I began to get interested in special-interest cars of the Fifties and Sixties. It was before their time. People would say, 'I can see why you'd want one of those things -- but six?' Of course, nobody says that anymore."
When Joe found Pontiac's 1960 X-400 show car, he suddenly realized that it was possible for one-offs to survive -- "until then, like everyone else, I just assumed they were all cut up or junked." So he went hunting in a serious way.
Today the Bortz Auto Collection under Joe's son Marc owns two dozen one-offs representing the Big Three and several independents. Joe, who serves as curator, is writing a book on American designers, in between showing his wonderful collection.
"We have a rule," he continues. "Every car must be registered and driveable at a moment's notice at least 300 miles. This is a big responsibility for Marc, because although we have a self-imposed limit of 50 cars, that's a lot to worry about and something is always needing a fix." Joe likes to show dream cars in groups of three to six, which he believes lends necessary visual impact. From August 12 to mid-September 1991, however, the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana, showed a dozen Bortz dream cars, the Firearrow II among them.
"Chrysler's attitude toward one-offs was different from GM's or Ford's," Joe says. "They tended to store or destroy their cars, but Chrysler, being harder up, often sold them. This helped pay the overhead, but to avoid heavy import duties after all that expensive Italian bodywork, they often sold a car out of the continental United States, to places like South America, Europe, or the Middle East."
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The Firearrow II and Firearrow III
The Firearrow II did manage to stay on U.S. territory. After finishing the 1955 round of car shows, it was sold in Hawaii, possibly to a member of the Hearst family. There it remained for about 20 years. "A California collector then got it, and offered it to me in the mid-Eighties," Joe continues. "He had it apart, a basket case. It would need heavy restoration, but he wanted it to join the family. He knew about the dream car collection and wanted it to be there. That's the chief reason why owners of these cars come to us. Our goal is to preserve a unique heritage: to ensure that 200 years from now, people will still be able to experience these examples of automotive sculpture."
Another Firearrow now under restoration by Marc and Joe is the 1954 sport coupe, Virgil Exner's further step toward a production Dodge sports car -- as indicated by its door handles, roll-up windows, fully-framed windshield, and rearview mirrors. Handsomely finished in metallic blue with gray side molding and a blue and white interior, Firearrow III sported a huge, new grille cavity with concave vertical bars, flanked by quad headlamps. Though the chassis/drivetrain was initially stock Dodge, the coupe body aided streamlining. After engine modifications, Betty Skelton took the Mark III around Chrysler's new Chelsea, Michigan, banked test track at 143.44 mph, setting a new ladies' closed-course world speed record.
Last of the Firearrows was a late 1954 convertible, another practical car with roll-up windows, trunk, and conventional door handles; it also had a functional soft top. "I think we could have built that," Maury Baldwin, an Exner colleague who himself designed the 1955 Plymouth, told this writer. "But 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." Flashiest of the series, Firearrow IV had a bold quilted black and white diamond-pattern leather interior; the front seats reclined, while the rears could be lifted out, revealing a mahogany luggage platform with chrome skid strips. Painted bright red, it was probably the most significant of the series, because it influenced a limited-production car, the 1956-1958 Dual-Ghia (of which 177 were reportedly built). "There are no interchangeable panels [between the two]," says Joe Bortz, "but it is long established that this car was the Dual-Ghia's inspiration."
Unfortunately, Firearrow IV has thus far eluded the Bortz net.
Since Joe Bortz is now probably more familiar than any person alive with the myriad curves and contours of two dozen dream cars, I was interested in his opinion: How do Exner's creations compare, say, with those of General Motors, which had 10 times the staff and 50 times the money? "Exner's cars were more finely executed as 'sculpture,'" Joe said after reflection. "As pure 'expressions,' GM had the edge. But Exner was taking sheetmetal, chrome, leather, and glass and combining it in different values to make a statement, an automotive sculpture. In his early years at Chrysler he was a one-man band."
What music Virgil made. . .
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