Virgil M. Exner Papers

Biographical / Historical Note

Born in 1909 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Virgil Max Exner exhibited artistic talent and an interest in automobile design early in life. He studied art at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana (1927-1928) but left before completing a degree to take employment...

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Born in 1909 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Virgil Max Exner exhibited artistic talent and an interest in automobile design early in life. He studied art at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana (1927-1928) but left before completing a degree to take employment as a layout artist and illustrator with a South Bend, Indiana firm, Advertising Artists. It was while at Advertising Artists, that Exner began his association with Studebaker Corporation, who held an account with the agency. Exner's illustrations for Studebaker catalogs are among his finest work in this period.

In 1934, Exner moved to Harley Earl's Art and Colour Section at General Motors Corporation, where he was quickly promoted to the position of Chief Designer for Pontiac Studios. After only four years at GM, however, Exner was lured away to join Raymond Loewy's industrial design firm and was placed in charge of the Studebaker Corporation account. Now, as chief styling engineer for Studebaker, Exner was responsible for developing several new lines of automobiles: the first Champion in 1939, a new line of Champion, Commander, and President models in 1941, and the 1947 post-war model, the Starlight coupe.

In 1949, Exner joined Chrysler Corporation as head of the newly established Advanced Design Studio. By 1953, Exner was put in charge of all corporation styling, and in 1957, he was named Vice-president of Styling, a post he held until his retirement from Chrysler in 1961. While at Chrysler, Exner was responsible for the development of sixteen "idea" cars, built by the Ghia firm of Italy. These cars were used by Chrysler as styling survey and sales promotion products. In the area of production vehicles, Exner was responsible for the "Forward Look" lines of 1955 and 1956. His revolutionary line of 1957 "wedge theme" cars were the culmination of the Forward Look line and epitomize Exner's contribution to Chrysler Corporation, to the automobile industry, and to the art of automotive styling.

Exner resigned from Chrysler in 1961 to begin his own design and development firm, Virgil Exner Inc., with his son Virgil, Jr., also an automotive designer. Most notable was Virgil Exner Sr. series of "classic revivals" (redesigning classic cars for a modern market) such as his design of the 1963 Mercer-Cobra, the 1966 Duesenberg, and his late-1960s Stutz Blackhawk. Until his death in 1973, Exner and his son were also involved in a variety of automotive and pleasure boat design initiatives.

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Scope and Content Note

The materials comprising the collection were received from Virgil Exner Jr. in 1990. Prior to donating the collection to the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village Research Center, Exner Jr. had organized the materials into numerous groups and prepared...

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The materials comprising the collection were received from Virgil Exner Jr. in 1990. Prior to donating the collection to the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village Research Center, Exner Jr. had organized the materials into numerous groups and prepared detailed labels identifying the specific design project or period in his father's career which they documented. This original arrangement was retained as the basis for the collection's arrangement; only obvious mistakes in filing were corrected.

The collection has been divided into four series. The Student Work series, 1909-1928 (.2 cubic feet and oversize) is comprised of adolescent drawings, student sketches and early design work; Design Projects series, 1928-1973 consists of five subseries arranged by company. The Advertising Artists subseries, 1928-1934 (.2 cubic ft. and oversize), contains concept drawings, renderings, and product literature detailing Exner's design work, particularly with Studebaker. The General Motors subseries, 1934-1938 (.2 cubic ft. and oversize) 1934-1938 contains concept drawings, renderings, photographs and product literature relating to GM design work and includes an early Exner patent for a bumper. The Raymond Loewy subseries, 1938-1972 (.4 cubic ft. and oversize) documents Exner's work for Raymond Loewy and Studebaker and includes concept drawings of automobiles and race cars, photographs of automobiles and design facilities and personal, a midget racing engineering notebook. The Chrysler subseries, 1949-1961 (1.4 cubic ft. and oversize),is arranged by date and project and is made up of concept and engineering drawings, renderings, product literature, photographs, and periodical articles (some by Virgil Exner). The Virgil Exner Inc. subseries, 1961-1973 (2 cubic ft. and oversize), is organized by project and contains concept and engineering drawings, renderings, product literature, photographs, and transparencies and deals with Exner's work on both automobile and boat design. The Art Work series, 1930-1973 (oversize) contains actual art work created by Virgil Exner and consists of watercolors, acrylics, paint on canvas and numerous charcoal and pencil sketches of non automotive subjects. The Virgil Exner Jr. series, 1940-1959 (.1 cubic ft. and 1 oversize folder) collects together artistic and biographical materials related to Virgil Jr. It should be noted, however, that much of the design work completed by Virgil Exner Inc. represents collaboration between Virgil Sr. and Jr., and that often the principal design responsibility was not recorded.

Additional biographical information on Virgil M. Exner Sr. and Jr. can be obtained in the bound Automotive Design Oral History Virgil M. Exner Sr. and Jr.

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Collection Details

Object ID: 90.1.1741.0
Creator: Exner, Virgil M. (Virgil Max), 1909-1973 
Inclusive Dates: 1913-1986
Size: 6 cubic ft. and 23 oversize boxes
Language: English

Collection Access & Use

Item Location: Benson Ford Research Center

Access Restrictions: The papers are open for research.

Credit: From the Collections of the Henry Ford. Gift of Virgil M. Exner, Jr.

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1951 Studebaker Champion Starlight Coupe

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1957 De Soto Fireflite Hardtop

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Digitized Artifacts From This Collection

In many cases, not all artifacts have been digitized.
Contact us for more information about this collection.

1/4 Scale Model Automobile Created for Dow Chemical Company Based upon Virgil Exner Design, circa 1965

  Details

1/4 Scale Model Automobile Created for Dow Chemical Company Based upon Virgil Exner Design, circa 1965

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Photographic print

Object ID

90.1.1741.233

Credit

From the Collections of the Henry Ford. Gift of Virgil M. Exner, Jr.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

1/4 Scale Model Automobile Created for Dow Chemical Company Based upon Virgil Exner Design, circa 1965

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

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1932 Studebaker Sales Brochure Designed by Virgil M. Exner

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1932 Studebaker Sales Brochure Designed by Virgil M. Exner

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Trade catalog

Object ID

90.1.1741.207

Credit

From the Collections of the Henry Ford. Gift of Virgil M. Exner, Jr.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

1932 Studebaker Sales Brochure Designed by Virgil M. Exner

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

1932 Studebaker Sales Brochure Designed by Virgil M. Exner

  Details

1932 Studebaker Sales Brochure Designed by Virgil M. Exner

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Trade catalog

Object ID

90.1.1741.208

Credit

From the Collections of the Henry Ford. Gift of Virgil M. Exner, Jr.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

1932 Studebaker Sales Brochure Designed by Virgil M. Exner

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

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  Details

1956 "Flight Sweep" Line of Chrysler Corporation Automobiles

  Details

1956 "Flight Sweep" Line of Chrysler Corporation Automobiles

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Photographic print

Object ID

90.1.1741.90

Credit

From the Collections of the Henry Ford. Gift of Virgil M. Exner, Jr.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

1956 "Flight Sweep" Line of Chrysler Corporation Automobiles

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

Advertising Art for Studebaker 2-Ton Truck, "Reduce Costs, Haul More," circa 1932

  Details

Advertising Art for Studebaker 2-Ton Truck, "Reduce Costs, Haul More," circa 1932

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Advertisement

Date Made

circa 1932

Object ID

90.1.1741.211

Credit

From the Collections of the Henry Ford. Gift of Virgil M. Exner, Jr.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

Advertising Art for Studebaker 2-Ton Truck, "Reduce Costs, Haul More," circa 1932

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

Afternoon Sun, 1960

  Details
Artifact

Watercolor (Painting)

Date Made

1960

Summary

Though best remembered for his design work under Harley Earl at General Motors Corporation, at Raymond Loewy's industrial design firm, at Studebaker Corporation, and in Chrysler Corporation's Advanced Styling Studio, Virgil Exner was also an artist at home. He made time for the fine arts, especially while recuperating from a 1956 heart attack. Exner painted this scenic watercolor in 1960.

Object ID

90.1.1741.247

Credit

From the Collections of the Henry Ford. Gift of Virgil M. Exner, Jr.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

Alpine Snow Scene, 1957

  Details
Artifact

Watercolor (Painting)

Date Made

1957

Summary

Though best remembered for his design work under Harley Earl at General Motors Corporation, at Raymond Loewy's industrial design firm, at Studebaker Corporation, and in Chrysler Corporation's Advanced Styling Studio, Virgil Exner was also an artist at home. He made time for the fine arts, especially while recuperating from a 1956 heart attack. Exner painted this scenic watercolor in 1958.

Object ID

90.1.1741.245

Credit

From the Collections of the Henry Ford. Gift of Virgil M. Exner, Jr.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

"Ballerina in Dressing Room" by Virgil M. Exner, 1957

  Details

"Ballerina in Dressing Room" by Virgil M. Exner, 1957

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Pastel (Visual work)

Date Made

1957

Summary

Though best remembered for his design work under Harley Earl at General Motors Corporation, at Raymond Loewy's industrial design firm, at Studebaker Corporation, and in Chrysler Corporation's Advanced Styling Studio, Virgil Exner was also an artist at home. He made time for the fine arts, especially while recuperating from a 1956 heart attack. Exner created this expressive pastel in 1957.

Object ID

90.1.1741.24

Credit

From the Collections of the Henry Ford. Gift of Virgil M. Exner, Jr.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

"Ballerina in Dressing Room" by Virgil M. Exner, 1957

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details

"Ballerina on Stage" by Virgil M. Exner, 1957

  Details

"Ballerina on Stage" by Virgil M. Exner, 1957

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

Artifact

Pastel (Visual work)

Date Made

1957

Summary

Though best remembered for his design work under Harley Earl at General Motors Corporation, at Raymond Loewy's industrial design firm, at Studebaker Corporation, and in Chrysler Corporation's Advanced Styling Studio, Virgil Exner was also an artist at home. He made time for the fine arts, especially while recuperating from a 1956 heart attack. Exner created this expressive pastel in 1957.

Object ID

90.1.1741.136

Credit

From the Collections of the Henry Ford. Gift of Virgil M. Exner, Jr.

Location

By Request in the Benson Ford Research Center

Get more details in Digital Collections at:

thehenryford.org

"Ballerina on Stage" by Virgil M. Exner, 1957

View in our Collectionson thehenryford.org 

What is The Henry Ford?

The national attraction for discovering your ingenuity while exploring America’s spirit of innovation. There is always much to see and do at The Henry Ford.

VIEW CALENDAR

  Details