Curbside Classic: 1963 Chrysler New Yorker: Virgil Exner Comes Full Circle (with some help?)

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The 1963 Chrysler has always been an odd vehicle, one that seems to have fallen from the sky bearing little stylistic relationship to its predecessors.  It disappeared very soon after its debut, and its replacement expressed yet another new design language that would carry Chrysler into the Iacocca era.  Is there another car from the entire Virgil Exner styling period that more strongly harkens back to the Ghia-built show cars of the early 1950s and the 1955 Chrysler line they inspired?

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Chrysler Corporation hired Virgil Exner in 1949, ostensibly to take over Chrysler’s Advanced Design Studio.  In truth, Chrysler chairman K. T. Keller knew that the uninspired styling then emanating from Chrysler’s studios was killing the company as the postwar seller’s market began to ebb, thus necessitating a new styling direction.

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Exner led off with a series of one-off show cars which explored some new styling ideas while showing the public that change was in the wind.  We showcased some of them here, here, and here (among other places).  By 1953, Exner had leapfrogged longtime styling chief Henry King to take over styling leadership for the entire company.

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In very short order, Chrysler went from this . . . .

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 . . . . to this.

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The Exner years at Chrysler were like much of Chrysler history: soaring highs and crashing lows.  After the brilliant 1957 models set a new design direction for the entire industry over the next four years, the stuff coming out of Chrysler studios started taking a bizarre turn with the 1960 and ’61 models (like this one).

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Actually, the entire 1960-61 period at Chrysler was a blur.  Vehicle build quality had been disastrous.  The top management that had taken over after K.T. Keller’s 1956 retirement seemed to act like schoolkids left unsupervised with no teachers in the building, only with well-stocked liquor cabinets and illegal supplier kickbacks.  Throw in some ugly cars that weren’t selling well, and it was not hard to see that Chrysler Corporation was in a full-throttle mess.

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As if all that wasn’t enough, we must not forget the oft-told story of how the short-tenured Chrysler president William Newberg overheard a discussion at a Detroit-area cocktail party, which led him to believe that General Motors was significantly downsizing its lineup.  Management’s response was to panic and dictate a crash program for a new, smaller line of Plymouths and Dodges.  We should add that Virgil Exner had suffered a serious heart attack in the period where styling was underway for the 1961 models and, to some degree, the Chrysler styling studios were operating on auto-pilot with limited oversight by Exner.

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Despite all that has been written about this period, it is hard to find any significant treatment of the ’63 Chrysler.  This unique car seems to have been largely ignored, both then and now, while everyone watched the high-stakes game being played with the higher volume or higher prestige car lines.  This series of Chrysler is really quite interesting, and deserves a closer look.

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1961 Dodge Flite Wing. Photo source: Allpar.com

As former Chrysler stylist John Samsen recalled on Allpar (here) some time in 1961, Exner gathered his designers and told them that in his view, the car of the future would have a short but high deck and open wheels.  Exner’s 1961 Dodge Flite Wing would be the template for the new look, which seemed to go back to Exner’s designs from the early 1950s.  In truth, given manufacturing lead times the proposals for the 1962 Plymouth and Dodge had to have been mostly done by the time the Flite Wing was completed in 1961. Regardless of which design came first, it is clear that the Flite Wing ‘s proportions are in many ways similar to today’s cars.  However, shortly after the Flite Wing had been completed (and with product planning well underway) Exner was terminated. He was replaced by Elwood Engel, whom new management had poached from the Ford Motor Company, thus ending the tumultuous Exner era.  Almost.

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In the abstract, it is easy to distinguish the work of Virgil Exner from that of Elwood Engel.  The differences are easily seen in the cars that were made during the transition between the two styling regimes.  The 1962 lineup was all Exner; in fact, the ’62 cars were headed for showrooms by the time he was fired. With the 1963 models, however, Engel set to work, doing what little he could with the Plymouth and Dodge lines and a bit of cleanup on the all-new Valiant and Dart.  Engel also took charge of Chrysler’s 1963 gas-turbine car program, producing a stunning car that would show the styling direction of Chrysler styling for the next decade and beyond.  Engel also oversaw a second major restyling of the 1964 Plymouth and Dodge lineup, as well as a completely restyled 1964 Imperial–and oh yes, also dealing with the completely restyled 1963 Chryslers in the midst of this storm.

1962 DeSoto styling studies.  Source of all photos: Allpar.com

1962 DeSoto styling studies. Source of all photos: Allpar.com

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Proposed 1962 Chrysler 300. Source: Forwardlook.net (from Richard M. Langworth)

 

It is known that Exner had been planning new 1962 Chrysler and DeSoto lines.  There are quite a few pictures of proposals for a new 1962 DeSoto that borrowed many cues from the Flite Wing (or vise-versa, given that these prototypes were done in late 1959 to early 1960).  It is not hard to imagine that both the planned 1962 Chrysler and DeSoto were shelved for a year, given the “all hands on deck” crash program to revamp the suddenly-shrunken ’62 Plymouth and Dodge.  And of course, the DeSoto expired by the beginning of 1961 anyway, leaving the Chrysler all alone on the larger platform.

Photo source: Allpar.com

A prototype for the 1962 (later 1963) Imperial is at left, next to a nearly complete 1962 Dodge prototype. Note the unconnected front and rear fender blades on the Imperial, a common Exner theme at the time. Photo source: Allpar.com. A discussion forum at Forwardlook.net (citing Richard Langworth) dates these photos to February, 1960.

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John Samsen’s drawing of another Imperial concept, dated December of 1960.

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Undated proposals for the 1963 Chrysler. Note the 1963 Valiant and Dart proposals on the wall. The heavy ornamentation and odd headlight configuration would indicate that these proposals would have been done under Exner’s direction. This car appears to ride a wheelbase significantly longer than 122 inches.

 

It is clear from period photos that the Chrysler/DeSoto body was to be all-new.  However, it also stands to reason that with only the relatively low-volume Chrysler alive at the end of 1961, a thorough re-skin of the 1960-62 body would have to do instead of the all-new car initially planned.  The little side mystery is the planned 1962 Imperial.  The studio photo (above, top) from February 1960 shows a very Exner-ish version.  However, John Samsen, posting on Forwardlook.net (here), presents a drawing he authored in December 1960, for an Imperial that looks very much like the production ’63 Chrysler.  Several models later, it is clear that the Imperial would remain without major change for 1962-63 (except for a de-finning), and that the “Plan B” Imperial would become the ’63 Chrysler.

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It is not hard to imagine (although I have never seen it in print) that the ’63 Chrysler was also affected by Newberg’s downsizing edict.  After all, the 1963 New Yorker lost four inches of wheelbase and would share a 122-inch wheelbase with the Chrysler Newport and Dodge Custom 880.  The ’63 Chrysler, while not a small car, was certainly not of the imposing dimensions of the 126-inch wheelbase Buick Electra, the New Yorker’s primary competitor.

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The other explanation is that the ’63 Chrysler, having no other line with which to share its body, was done completely on the cheap.  This would explain the single short wheelbase, and the fact that the two-door hardtop shared its roof with the four-door cars, a decision that did not help the looks of the two-doors at all.

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The company’s decision to continue the Dodge 880 (as an attempt to plug the gap left by DeSoto’s demise) on another version of the 1960-62 Chrysler body is mystifying as well.  “Hey boss – here’s a great idea:  Lets take two of our lowest volume cars and make them share the same 122-inch wheelbase, platform and inner structure.  But for kicks, lets give one all-new styling, and then keep the other one looking like last year’s model.”  The result was curious. New management probably didn’t like either of these cars very much, and likely did as little as possible to make it to the fall of 1964, when Elwood Engel’s  all-new generation of big cars would arrive.

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If Virgil Exner was the ’63 Chrysler’s Yin, Elwood Engel was its Yang.  Engel was fresh off the triumphant and groundbreaking design for the 1961 Lincoln Continental that was everything Exner’s designs were not–clean, restrained and elegant.  It is not hard to see the eventual ’63 Chrysler in several of the late Exner-era styling studies; however, neither is it hard to see the work of Elwood Engel in this car.  Actually, the interplay between the two design philosophies is nothing short of fascinating.  The voluptuous curves, full wheel cutouts and short, sloping deck are pure Exner.  The trapezoidal grille and the hint of the wraparound fender blades above the headlights are straight from the Flite Wing.   However, the solid front-to-back crease, with thin chrome molding highlighting the slab sides, and the restrained trim would indicate that Engel devoted some last-minute attention to the details. The wraparound windshield also makes plain that the ’63 Chrysler was a merely a heavy restyling of the 1960-62 structure and not the all-new car Exner had envisioned.  The big bucks for an all-new car would instead be re-directed to the make-or-break 1965 C-body line.

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Somehow, though, the best of both designers came through in what looks to me to be a modern version of Exner’s 1955 model concepts.  Park a 1955 and 1963 Chrysler together, and you’ll see similar design themes where sculpted curves exist in tension with angular lines.  It takes only a little imagination to envision the 1957 and 1960 versions that could have linked these designs together.  The actual 1957 and ’60 designs, of course, could not have been more unrelated to the ’55s and ’63s, but it is an interesting concept to contemplate on a rainy fall day.

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The result of this unintentional collaboration of two very different stylists is a unique and fascinating car.  In truth, it probably pleased neither of its designers very much, which is likely why it was such an orphan, both then and now.  However, I see the very best parts of both styling schools, each balancing out the excesses of the other.  Gone were Exner’s excessive use of sculpting and ornamentation, but what’s left tempers Engel’s tendencies toward excessive angularity.  Where most undoubtedly see a hash of disarray and compromise, I see a car with a unique appeal.  Am I in a very small fan club?  Likely.

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The artist took some liberties with the car’s dimensions. Is this what this car could have looked like on a longer 126 inch wheelbase?

 

Perhaps my appreciation for this car stems from my spending quite a bit of time in and around a ’63 Chrysler in my youth.  In my high-school circle of friends were a sister and brother who drove a hand-me-down ’63 Newport.  Their car may have been the most attractive of all of the ’63 Chryslers–a Newport four-door hardtop, painted in Holiday Turquoise (just like the Indy Pace Car convertible that year).  The four-door hardtop was an unusually low-production body style, but the pillarless design, mated to the Newport’s restrained trim, seems to do full justice to this car.  In contrast, the bolder (clunkier?) trim on this New Yorker, with the overly thick painted frames around the sedan’s upper door glass is reminiscent of that imaginary Aunt Gertrude who made up for her dowdy wardrobe with liberal applications of lipstick and jewelry.

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Inside, however, we are greeted by what is (in my estimation) one of the greatest dashboards in a large car of the era.  The wide, sweeping panel with numerous round instruments is both businesslike and sporting.  The outside of these cars took a long time to grow on me, but after my first ride in the front seat of that turquoise Newport of long ago, I was smitten.  Of course, the Torqueflite transmission’s heavy chrome push buttons at the driver’s left only served to sealed the deal for me.

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The 1963 Chrysler is a unique car, yet also a somewhat strange one.  Never really accepted by lovers of the Forward Look nor by devotees of Engel’s classic mid-1960s style, it has sat largely unappreciated and forgotten even by Mopar acolytes.  However, for those of us who think about such things, this may be the most successful blending of the very best of both the Virgil Exner and Elwood Engel styling eras at Chrysler.

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