Design History: Virgil Exner’s 1963 Stutz Revival – The Drawing (And Toy Cars) That Launched The Whole Neo-Classic-Brougham Era

(first posted 5/24/2012)   Virgil Exner is most often associated with the era of sweeping fins and other spacey design affectations during his tenure at Chrysler. But his most influential and enduring work was in ushering the whole neo-classic/brougham design era, and it all started with this 1963 drawing for a magazine.

In 1963, shortly after his departure from Chrysler, Esquire magazine contacted Virgil and his son Virgil Jr. and asked them where car design was headed, especially in the light of the growing interest in classic cars at the time. Exner always had one foot firmly in classic design, as his love (and repeated use) of the classical grille and toilet-seat fake spare tire trunk lids so obviously showed.

The Exners made four drawings, of a Mercer, Stutz, Duesenberg and Packard Revival. And although the Mercer roadster did get built, thanks to some support from the Copper Marketing Association, it more reflected Exner’s previous XNR roadster and the fuselage styling that first appeared on the 1960 Valiant than true classic lines.

These cars, along with some additional Exner revival drawings, were turned into a popular series of scale plastic models by Renwal. Perhaps it was them that really primed a generation with “Broughamitis”.

In 1964, the Exners happened to acquire a remaining un-bodied Bigatti Type 57C chassis (for $2500), and designed a revival body for it, which was turned into reality by Ghia. The Exners showed it at car shows in 1965, hoping to attract financing for a production run, but without success.

Inspired by Exner’s revivals and wanting to cash in on the family name while it still had caché, the Duesenbergs approached Exner about a production revival carrying that storied name. This became a serious undertaking, and the Exner’s invested considerable time and effort in the 1966 Duesenberg Model D concept, a large sedan based on Imperial underpinnings.

Its design owed much more to the Stutz drawing from 1963 than the Duesenberg. It’s a long sad story, but at the last minute, one of the investors backed out, and the whole project to sell them for $20k ($135k adjusted) collapsed. Exner was crushed, and never recouped his considerable investment of time.

The Duesenberg was originally designed to have 16 or 17 inch wheels, but there were no modern tires being made in those sizes then. The solution was that Firestone took a very large 15″ tire, and added a second whitewall right at the bead, which is intended to make the wheel look larger than it really is. That problem would be easily fixed today; put some 22s on that baby!

Henry Ford saw the Duesenberg Model D at the Exner Studios in 1966, and was obviously very smitten.

The 1969 Lincoln Continental Mark III arrived three years later in 1969, a highly flattering imitation of the Duesenberg indeed. And the rest is (well-known) brougham history.

Although the Duesenberg never took off, it did inspire a similar project, the Stutz Blackhawk, also designed by the Exners, and which went into limited production, and lingered around in various further permutation for way too long. The original 1971 version seen here was the beneficiary of Pontiac’s new 1969 Grand Prix, which had also adopted the neo-classic proportions, and donated (sold, actually) its chassis to the Stutz cause.

The Stutz initiated a whole genre itself, the beyond-the-brougham era of garish Superflys and Bugazzis (above). Thank you Virgil!