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.
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Development of the Simca Special
Paul Farago had very specific ideas while developing the Simca Special. He wanted the body from a 1950 Simca "Huit" ("Eight") four-door sedan that fellow Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) member Louie Turco was selling.
Farago also had a Fiat 1100 chassis, with a wheelbase of 95.5 inches and track of 48 inches, front and rear, on which he planned to build his own sports car. He had already spread the side rails in order to get an unusually low seating position.
But Farago was so busy building cars for other people that he had no time to work on his own. Knowing that Exner needed a chassis, he prompted him to buy Turco's Simca. He then traded his Fiat chassis to Exner in exchange for the Simca's body.
Farago had what he wanted, and that left Exner with the Simca's 1.2-liter engine, driveline, and suspension that he, in turn, used to complete the Fiat chassis (Simca was a licensee of Fiat, so many components of the two manufacturers' cars were interchangeable).
Young Exner mounted the engine four inches farther back than Farago had planned to, and 3.5 inches lower, to improve weight distribution and the center of gravity. He finished the structure by adding a tubular roll bar as well as tubular body hoops and braces. He fitted 10-inch Al-Fin brakes with steel liners, 15-inch Dayton knock-off wire wheels, and a 10.5-gallon Volkswagen gas tank.
Trailered to South Bend, the nonfunctional chassis then took up residence in the basement of Notre Dame's new Arts & Letters Building. Exner suspended work on it during the spring 1955 in order to study in Vienna.
This allowed time to concentrate on body design. Foregoing the more traditional form of his earlier design, he built several 1/10-scale models of designs featuring fins.
But it wasn't until he left Vienna for home that a concept truly gelled both rationally and emotionally: "It was in a little hotel room on the Left Bank [in Paris] that I actually hit on what was to become the final design. It was just a tiny sketch on a 3 X 5 card. But it represented much more of an original and practical design than my previous Bertone B.A.T.-like sketches -- perhaps the romanticism of Paris influenced me."
Back at Notre Dame for his senior year (1955-1956), he worked a little on the chassis but concentrated on development of the Paris design concept with sketches, a 1/8-scale airbrush rendering (now at the Henry Ford Museum), and a 1/4-scale fiberglass model. For his senior thesis, Exner wrote a paper describing the proposed car.
He won the University's Jacques Gold Medal of Fine Art for the best thesis that year and a graduate teaching fellowship that would allow him to continue work on what became known as the Simca Special. It also enabled him to teach in a fledgling automotive design program that he put together.
Chrysler Styling, headed by his father since 1949, helped with money and supplies, and by periodically sending Chrysler designers to lecture and supervise projects. (Several Notre Dame alumni reached notable positions in the industry, including Dave Turner at Ford and Art Blakeslee, who now directs design at Citroen.)
Check out the next page to learn about the production of the Simca Special.
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Production of the Simca Special
Exner made considerable progress on the Simca Special during 1957. He got the chassis running during the spring. Progress slowed some during the summer because he accepted a job offer from Studebaker Styling. Nevertheless, he finished the full-size clay model of the body and began fabricating a 15-piece fiberglass mold of it.
In an unusual move, he used epoxy resin instead of the normal polyester resin because he had seen such good results from it during his summer stints at Creative Industries. Although more expensive than polyester, it shrank less during cure and thus yielded smoother, more accurate surfaces.
That fall, he entered the chassis in the Johnson Park Hill Climb near Grand Rapids, Michigan, and took second place overall, losing only to a BMW 328.
The Studebaker job was short-lived because in February 1958, the Air Force called him to active duty to fulfill a Reserve Officer Training Corps commitment. With just three months until he had to report, he quit Studebaker to concentrate on finishing the car.
Having also finished his course requirements at Notre Dame, he carted the mold back home to Detroit where the builder of Dual-Ghias, Gene Casaroll, gave him space to finish the body. Exner managed to lay up the body (also made with epoxy resin) and prep it for paint before leaving for Sheppard Air Force Base.
On a 30-day leave that fall, prior to leaving for Korea, Exner got Chrysler Styling's model shop to help him finish the car.
The finished car ended up 187.5 inches long, 72 inches wide, and just 45 inches high, with 4.5 inches of ground clearance. It weighed 1,650 pounds, with a weight distribution of 51.2 percent front and 48.8 percent rear (with Exner at the wheel and half a tank of gas).
Exner elected to use a clear plastic canopy as the simplest solution for a closed competition car (technically, then-new SCCA rules requiring doors likely would have barred it from competition). Air for ventilation entered through an intake near the driver's left foot and exited through a two-inch gap created by resting the rear edge of the canopy on two aluminum pads that held it off the body.
The canopy pivoted forward on hinges mounted to its front edge. Four thong-like rubber latches acquired from Volkswagen "Beetle" back seats held it down. These proved barely enough to do the job because, on the highway, aerodynamic forces would stretch them and lift the back of the canopy off the pads. The canopy provided exceptional vision in every direction except rearward, where the narrow ventilation gap provided the only clear view.
Inside, only essential gauges and toggles occupied an instrument panel that had the simplest black leather cover. Floated black leather covered thinly padded, low-backed bucket seats. The exposed frame members, padded and upholstered, served as both armrests and grab bars.
The polished aluminum driveshaft-tunnel housing rose high enough to serve as a central armrest. Spaces between the frame rails and the bodysides formed ample storage wells. A larger storage area behind the seats was normally hidden by a snap-down leather cover.
So was the Simca Special successful? Find out on the next page.
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Success of the Simca Special
Exner's achievement in designing the Simca Special was undoubtedly shaded by his father's eminence. By the time the article on the Simca appeared in the April 1959 issue of Road & Track, Exner's father had at last emerged from Loewy's shadow by creating a stunning string of Chrysler show cars, beginning with the K310.
Young Exner had achieved legendary status as the catalyst of the finned 1950s. His "wedge look" catapulted Chrysler from the design doldrums, where the company had languished since its inception, into its first legitimate reign as design leader.
Even though the younger Exner had taken the wedge theme beyond anything yet offered in Chrysler showrooms, both in extent and abstract purity, readers might have nevertheless assumed that he had merely aped his father -- as many stylists already had.
Worse yet, they might have assumed that his father bore some direct responsibility for the Simca's design. Other writers, who chose to feature both father and son in their photos of the car, reinforced this mistaken impression.
The Simca happened to break new ground that no one, including his father, had tread. It represented the simplest, most straight-forward expression of the wedge theme up to that time.
The flat ovoid constituting the basic body form -- especially as expressed in the nose and where it protruded through the fins to create ribs running the car's length -- foreshadowed the Corvette Sting Ray by some three years. (With enough time, Exner had planned to install pop-up headlights that would have presaged the Sting Ray even more.)
The innovative hood scoops, placed above the wheels to provide room for jounce, permitted a lower, flatter hood that seemed to run the full width of the car.
Other critics might have dismissed the car's design as merely irrelevant. By 1959 the short-lived fin era, discredited by flamboyant and excessive attempts by other manufacturers to outdo Chrysler, had about run its course.
So designers like Exner's father, who wanted to grow them large enough to offset the destabilizing effects of crosswinds (by shifting the car's center of air pressure aft of its center of gravity, as an arrow's feathers do), lost their opportunity.
To this day a designer would not dare to propose fins. Fins soon became irrelevant, anyway; as computer-aided design of compliant suspension systems began to solve the crosswind problem by the early 1960s -- with no impact on styling.
While in Korea, Exner arranged to exhibit the Simca and to win some trophies. Simca representatives saw the car at the Henry Ford Museum's Sports Cars in Review and sent word they'd like to borrow it. After refinishing it and installing a more plush interior, they showed it in the 1959 Paris Auto Show with Talbot nameplates (Simca had recently bought Talbot).
Simca shipped the car back to Exner in 1960, soon after he arrived at Travis Air Force Base, near San Francisco, for his next assignment. (As a token of their gratitude, they also shipped him a new Fiat 1500 Osca cabriolet!)
Exner showed the Simca around the Bay Area and won more awards, including one for the most creative car design at the 1960 Oakland Roadster Show. He picked up other trophies at area drag strips.
Exner sold the Simca and the Fiat to a car dealer in 1961 as he left the Air Force and the San Francisco Bay area. He had decided to return to Michigan where, among other things, he would continue design work for Ghia he had begun while in the service as a partner in his father's new consulting business. He is uncertain where the dealer's lot was but thinks it was somewhere in the East Bay, probably Oakland.
Go on to the next page to learn about the changes the Simca Special's current owner has made to the car.
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Beau Hickory's Changes to the Simca Special
Neither Exner nor the Simca Special's current owner, Beau Hickory, know precisely its history from when Exner sold it to a car dealer until the winter of 1964-1965 when Hickory spied it parked on a side street in Daly City just south of San Francisco.
However, somebody had taken enough interest in it during the interval to replace the relatively thin sheet aluminum floor with a chrome-plated piece of 1/8-inch-thick checker-plate. They also chromed the wire wheels and installed chrome-plated wheelhouses. Hickory later discovered that blue lights placed in these mirror-like wheelhouses and under the chromed floor pan cast an eerie glow at night.
Hickory was a long-time car enthusiast who owned the Sports Race Car Lab in nearby Colma, California. He built SCCA race cars and manufactured Formula V cars, so he immediately recognized the car from the Road & Track article.
The Simca was in pretty sad shape. The acrylic canopy had disappeared, and the interior had obviously suffered several years of exposure to the Bay Area's rain, fog, sun, and salt air. Still, he resolved to find the owner and make an offer.
But he couldn't make contact; he found the car parked in different places each day, sometimes in different neighborhoods. The owner seemed to be evading him. Actually, he was evading the Walnut Creek car dealer who sold it to him on credit and was trying to repossess it. Hickory finally traced the dealer through the license plate number and struck a deal to pay off the delinquent loan and repossess the car for himself.
Hickory then set out to make the car fully streetworthy and licensable. The windshield probably constituted his most important contribution. Fortunately, he spent a great deal of time drawing windshield and roof profiles while second-guessing Exner's aesthetic intentions and speculating about what Exner would do under the circumstances.
He guessed that the high point of the original canopy, as shown in the magazine article, was too far forward and curved too abruptly. Indeed, because of the capricious variables involved in forming such pieces, it did not match the canopy of the 1/4-scale model as Exner had expected.
But, again, Exner didn't have enough time before going to Korea to have another one made. Hickory knew none of this, of course, because he had been unable to contact Exner for direct input (as it turned out, he didn't contact him until 1994).
Determining the profile turned out to be the easy part. Finding a piece of glass with just the right dimensions and shape, which turned out to be the backlite of a 1959 Opel coupe, took much longer. He also fitted windshield wipers and added two small grilled air outlets just ahead of the windshield to solve an engine cooling problem.
Hickory then affixed a carefully fabricated T-top structure with removable roof panels to complete replacement of the canopy. He extended the ribs alongside the T-bar down the fastback in order to further integrate the roof visually, and made frames for gullwing-type side windows that disappeared somewhere along the way.
While the new roof succeeded aesthetically in completing the profile he thought Exner would have approved, it aggravated the rearward vision problem; the ventilation/rear-vision gap of the original canopy no longer existed.
To fix this, he cut an opening in the fastback section behind the cockpit. In order to retain as much of the original look as possible, the opening matched the width of the T-bar and lined up with it. It also happened to approximate the width of the blue racing stripe of Exner's original paint scheme. If the dark stripe were eventually restored, the window might virtually disappear.
Hickory drove the car on a daily basis for some time. He exhibited it twice more at the Oakland Roadster Show and at a few other venues. For a while, it served as a photo prop for a well-known British fashion designer.
For that purpose, Hickory refurbished the car a second time; "It became a real cream puff," to use his words. The passenger side of the cockpit had makeup mirrors, high-intensity lamps, and two boxes containing miniature Avon cosmetics that swung out from the dash.
About that time, a Ford dealer proposed putting the body in limited production on Mustang chassis but never got past the planning stage.
Learn about yet another owner's changes to the Simca Special in the next section.
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Rod Neubert's Changes to the Simca Special
Sometime around 1974, Hickory sold the Simca Special car to a friend: Rod Neubert of Pacifica, who owned it for the next 10 years.
The car underwent changes to the wheels and powertrain during that period. Over the years, the chrome plating on the wire wheels had rusted badly, and Hickory had always thought they seemed aesthetically too light to bear the body's visual mass.
So he and Neubert swapped wheels: The cast wheels of Hickory's Castagna-bodied Fiat went to the Simca; the Davtons -- with fresh paint instead of chrome -- went to the Fiat. Hickory thinks both cars benefited.
Not content with the car's performance, Neubert had a service station in Pacifica install the car's current engine, a 1.4-liter Datsun, with an automatic transmission. The swap never has been quite complete because the engine's downdraft carburetor sits so high that, with the hood closed, it can hardly breathe (Hickory plans to solve this problem with sidedraft carburetion).
As a result of its poor drivability the car sat behind the service station for five or six years. It proceeded to deteriorate there, not only from ocean weather, but at the hands and feet of kids from a nearby school who regularly played in and on it.
The car eventually found its way back to Neubert's garage but lost its spot in 1984 to his wife's new Jaguar. Faced with the prospect of scrapping the car, he traded it back to Hickory, who was moving to Chino Valley, Arizona, at the time.
Luckily, the Exner thesis car has survived some 40 years and several close scrapes with oblivion. It is in need of restoration again, and Hickory says it will get one. He has begun bringing it back to the condition in which it was circa 1966, albeit with the Datsun engine still in place.
In our final section, learn more about Virgil Exner, Jr., and his career since the Simca Special.
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Virgil Exner, Jr., and the Simca Special
Virgil Exner, Jr. -- designer of the Simca Special -- was (and probably still is) a "purist" with regard to sports cars. Whenever a car qualified as a sports car, he imposed rigorous restrictions on it.
Among other things, a sports car could not have whitewall tires. Nor could it have a radio. These restrictions extended even to his 1957 Volkswagen, which he entered at the Johnson Park Hillclimb near Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the fall of 1957.
While he served in the U.S. Air Force from 1958 to 1961, Virgil Exner, Jr., had a contract with Ghia to provide a design a month. Several notable designs resulted from this arrangement, including the Fiat 2100 S Sport Coupe, the Selene II show car, the Karmann-Ghia 1500 VW coupe, and the Renault Caravelle.
He continued this arrangement as a partner in his father's design business between 1961 and 1967. While there, he worked on revivals of the Stutz and Duesenberg.
He was a Ford designer from 1967 until his retirement in 1988. Exner worked in Ford's studios in Michigan, Germany, and England on such cars as the 1970 Thunderbird and 1971 Pinto for the domestic market, and the Fiesta, Escort, and Granada for Europe. He now lives in Florida.