The son of Chrysler's legendary 1950s styling chief -- and the designer of the Simca Special -- almost couldn't help but grow up with a passion for car design. Then while studying at the University of Notre Dame, he created one heck of an extra-credit project.
It seemed only natural that 10-year-old Vigil Exner, Jr., wanted to become a car designer. He was best buddies with a father who shared his intense passion for cars. Virgil Exner, Sr., had worked as a designer for General Motors and, now, headed Raymond Loewy's design team at Studebaker.
The young Exner had a rare opportunity to witness the car design process up close because of an unusual -- and dramatic -- turn of events: Some of Studebaker's top brass, disappointed with how the design of their all-new 1947 model was turning out, sanctioned Exner to work on a clandestine alternative design at home in his basement. His son not only saw the whole process, he even had a hand in it by helping to apply clay to the model.
When management reviewed the two models side by side, with Loewy in attendance, it chose Exner's home-grown design. Loewy was understandably furious and fired Exner on the spot.
But the Studebaker people were so pleased with Exner's design that they immediately hired him to run the company's own design department alongside Loewy's (which had several years left on a longterm contract). So, while Loewy gets credit for the landmark postwar Studebaker to this day, Virgil Jr. and other insiders have always known that his dad actually deserves the credit.
Young Exner demonstrated design talent early. At age 13, a model of one of his designs won a college scholarship from GM's Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild competition. By the time he graduated from high school in 1951, he had decided to build a race-worthy sports car.
The opportunity came a few years later as he finished his fine arts degree at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana -- where he was born and where his dad had worked for Studebaker. He would build the car as a thesis project for his master's degree.
Actually, he had already accomplished a lot toward this objective while still an undergraduate. He built a 1/4-scale fiberglass model of an H-class car (750 cc engine) as a course project during the 1953-1954 school year.
Exner planned to use the chassis of a 1949 Crosley station wagon he had already bought for $50. He soon scrapped that plan as the Crosley proved to have not enough power.
He happened onto a much better option back home in Detroit the following summer while hanging around Paul Farago's sports car shop when he wasn't occupied at his summer job as a draftsman for Creative Industries. Go on to the next page to learn about the development of the Simca Special.