The Staff of Motorsport Marketing
June 12, 2018 12:52 p.m.

Story By Matt Stone • Photos Courtesy Chrysler

Today, people mostly refer to them as concept cars. Others know them as those one-off dream machines, mock-ups, and design studies intended to dazzle at auto shows, hint at soon-to-be-released vehicles and automotive design languages, and even gauge how the public and media will react to such new ideas.

Virgil M. Exner Sr. had a different name for them. He called them Idea Cars because, in his mind, the power of good ideas was everything. He began his career as an advertising illustrator. As a young design phenom and protégé of GM design boss Harley Earl, Exner ran the Pontiac styling department before leaving to join Raymond Loewy and Associates in 1938, where he worked primarily on Studebaker projects.

Exner was dismissed by Loewy in 1944, only to join Studebaker directly. Even though Loewy gets most of the credit for Studebaker’s fresh postwar designs, much of that effort should be more correctly attributed to Exner. Exner left Studebaker in 1949 to join Chrysler’s design studio, ultimately to become Chrysler’s styling chief and a member of the board.

Exner rightly assessed that Chrysler’s early postwar cars were staid and boxy, so he went to work revolutionizing their look to be more in step with the Jet Age. He was immediately successful, as his new Forward Look designs were sexy and exciting, and sales improved dramatically.

Ex, as he was affectionately nicknamed, respected the great work being done by so many of Italy’s design houses and automotive bodybuilders, and soon established a friendship and business relationship with one of the best: Luigi Segre, who ran Ghia in Turin, Italy. Exner saw the value of a relationship with an Italian carrozzeria who could turn out high-quality one-offs in relatively little time and at affordable costs. A decade-plus-long parade of Idea Cars soon followed that enthused the public, the media, and Chrysler management.

In an internally published catalog about idea cars, Chrysler stated that these vehicles had to be more than just show cars. That meant they couldn’t be models simply wearing special paint and upholstery. At the same time, they could be impractical dream cars. They had to have completely new bodies that would interest and even startle the casual observer. They had to feature new, practical, usable ideas in styling and passenger accommodation.

Once their days as dazzling turntable toys are over, some concept cars spend a quiet retirement in the carmaker’s museum or heritage collection. Over the years, many have been appropriated by design studio chiefs or other corporate executives for use as personal transport. Others have been disassembled and their parts reused in the creation of other concept cars. Far too many have been cut into pieces or crushed whole and destroyed.

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