As a kid, I wanted design cars. It was all I thought of. I'd sketch them all day long, then come home and make designs out of Lego. I'd draw, and go through white copy paper faster than a lawyer's office. Somewhere along the line, I got it into my head that I wouldn't be a very good car designer…and that was the end of that.
Maybe it would have been easier if my father was a car designer, like Virgil Exner Jr's father, Virgil Exner Sr. Car design isn't exactly a classic profession, like ship captain or farmer; cars have been around only so long, and there have been just a few generations of people who can say that they've worked in the automotive industry in some way.
Exner Sr helped pave the way for his son by dropping out of college due to a lack of funds and eventually finding a place at an ad agency that held an automotive account. When Exner Jr was born in 1933, Exner Sr was drawing ads for Studebaker. Soon after, General Motors' Harley Earl had spotted his work and—by 30—was in charge of Pontiac styling.
His work quickly caught the eye of another design-crazy icon, Raymond Loewy, who offered Exner Sr a job at his styling firm, along with a substantial bump in pay and the promise to be more autonomous. As Loewy insisted on signing off on everything, their relationship soured, with Exner Sr fired and quickly hired directly by Studebaker to complete its post-war lineup.
Exner Sr's first well-known design is one of my personal favourites: the Studebaker Champion Starlight Coupé—even though his former boss Loewy ended up with the credit. From there, Exner Sr joined Chrysler, helping to create many of the company's most well-known designs of the 1950s.
Importantly, he'd be one of the main links between Chrysler and the Italian design house Ghia—with that particular tie-up essential to not only Chrysler's often fully-functional concept cars (like the Firearrow, which was constructed by Ghia) but to its high-end collaboration in a limited run of re-bodied, coachbuilt cars.
I'll go so far as to say that Exner Jr's work with Chrysler and Ghia as the head of Chrysler's Advanced Styling Studio helped show the automotive industry that well-engineered cars and great styling weren't mutually exclusive.
Not bad for an orphan…and college drop-out.
By the late 1950s, Exner Jr was making his way through Notre Dame college—the same place his dad went to school—with his father's success helping to ensure that dropping out of that famed institution due to a lack of funds was not going to happen.
The Simca Special is actually Exner Jr's first full car design, the subject of his Master's Thesis while in school. Even though there's no doubt in my mind that Exner Jr would have been a successful car designer, that his father helped pave the way certainly allowed Exner Jr to become successful much faster.
Presumably encouraged by his father, Exner Jr turned his Thesis into a real car; with help from a Detroit-area sports car dealer he bought and modified a Simca Huit. Underneath the rebadged French bodywork sat a Fiat 1100 chassis; Exner ditched the body and started to transfer his design into fibreglass—still somewhat of a novelty, I should add—at the Chrysler-Ghia assembly plant. Underneath the car's incredibly complex sports car shape, complete with stunning tail fins and a bubble canopy sat the 1.2-litre 4-cylinder engine from a Simca Huit, itself a slightly restyled version of the Fiat 508C "Nuova Balilla" 1100.
Remember, Simca for a number of years was basically Fiat's French operation…before being taken over by Chrysler.
Through all of this, there's a common thread: Ghia. With contracts between both Chrysler and Fiat, and a personal friendship between Ghia's chief designer Luigi Segre and Exner Sr, word of Exner Jr's Simca-based design got around quickly.
Once completed, Exner Jr would have both the cover of Road & Track and his small sports car flown to Paris to take the stage at Simca's booth. Not bad for his very first design. Before you ask: yes, the car is still around today.