Opening Statement From Road & Track Magazine:
Virgil Exner, Jr., has an understandable interest in automotive styling. But the fins-with-a-purpose that dominate his car could be misinterpreted as slavish duplication of those on his father’s ’57 Chryslers. This they are not. Instead, they make the younger designer’s car look light, fast and compact.
Ribs, formed along the sides by the junction of the fins and the ovoid body form, help to break up what would otherwise be a huge flat area. The ribs also provide a sort of visual backbone or platform that orients all the car’s elements and gives tautness to the form. Small wheel openings help reduce drag around the wheels and give a pleasing proportion of height to width.
We’ve covered Virgil Exner Jr before here on Forgotten Fiberglass. While today’s article charts his progress on his latest futuristic, elegant, and exciting design in 1959, he first appeared here in a story about his participation in the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild in 1947:
Click here to learn review earlier story on Virgil Exner Jr.
A lot can happen in 12 years, and Virgil was 26 years old when the article we are featuring today appeared in print. We covered this same car last week in a book written by Jim Potter and published in 1961 by Trend called “Restyle Your Car.”
Click here to review this earlier story / book featuring Virgil Exner Jr.’s sports car
Let’s take a closer look at this car and what Road & Track had to say about this car and its designer back when it debuted in 1959.
A Sound Approach, A strong Solution
Story and Anscochrome by Del Coates
Road & Track: April, 1959
Problem: to design a 1200 cubic centimeter competition sports car, with emphasis on making a dual-purpose machine embodying ease of maintenance with minimum road equipment. Virgil Exner, Jr., Fine Arts student at the University of Notre Dame, chose this problem as the project for his master’s thesis, and the resulting car represents, among some of today’s mass-effort attempts, a more creative way to design an automobile.
The body of Exner’s special, made of fiberglass, is mounted on a chassis built up from two Simca “8” four-door sedans, circa 1948, with a 1221 cc engine. The side frame rails were split and spread out in the mid-section so that the interior components could be placed between them, resulting in a lower center of gravity. This places the floor pan at the lowest point of the car, where it becomes a belly pan shrouding the drive line components from the air stream.
Supplementary structure of 1 and 1.5 inch steel tubing was added to the basic frame members, including very substantial roll bars behind the seats and over the cowl. The engine has been lowered 3 inches and moved back 4.5 inches. The fuel system begins with a 10.5 gallon Volkswagen tank, and a Bendix electric fuel pump feeds the dual-throat Weber carburetor.
The ignition system has been modified by the addition of a Mallory coil, a 1955 Chevrolet generator, and a Bowers aircraft battery chosen for its compact size and light weight. The wheelbase is 95.5 inches and the tread, front and rear, 49 inches. The brake and wheel assembly is made up of 10 inch Al-Fins with steel liners and 15 inch Dayton knock-off wire wheels.
The long, graceful hood and exposed exhaust pipe (a Harley Buco muffler, covered with a section of stock aluminum extrusion) are intended to express the power of the low-placed Simca “8” engine.
The instrument board, simply covered with black leather, has essential gauges and no added decorative devices. Electrical switches are all toggles. The seats are low-backed buckets, covered with pleated leather over firm padding. Canopy hinges at the front.
With the body, the car is 187.5 inches long, 72 inches wide, and a scant 45 inches to the top of the canopy. Ground clearance is 4.5 inches at the lowest point. It weighs 1650 pounds; weight distribution is 51.2% on the front and 48.8% on the rear with Exner at the wheel and with half a tank of gas.
The extremely low hood line was made possible by ingeniously placing the front-wheel air scoops directly over the wheels, providing adequate suspension jounce, and by using small, rectangular Ciebe driving lights for headlighting. Because they are outside the scoops, the fins are uninterrupted. This placement necessarily means additional overhang on the sides and increased frontal area; it is partly offset by permitting smaller wheel openings.
Exner elected the clear plastic canopy as the simplest solution for a closed competition car. It is hinged at the front and secured in the closed position by four rubber “latches” acquired from the back seat of a VW. This arrangement allows the canopy to swing completely clear of the cockpit area so that the doors can be abolished.
Editor’s Note: Present competition rules require doors.
Ventilation is provided by an intake near the driver’s left foot and an exhaust through a gap formed at the rear of the canopy as it rests about 2 inches above the body surface on two aluminum struts. Storage room is provided behind the seats and is enclosed from the passengers by a leather snap cover.
Tubular members of the frame pass just to the outside of the seats and are upholstered, providing combination arm rests and grab bars. Large storage wells are formed just below these bars between the main frame rails and the body sides. The polished aluminum tunnel housing serves as an arm rest between the seats.
Vision is not exceptional to the right rear from the driver’s seat, although it proves to be substantial after one becomes accustomed to rising and looking back through the canopy and ventilation slot. Not recommended for racing, this maneuver is easier than it sounds. The outside mirror otherwise provides a good view to the rear.
As closely as can be judged without a wind tunnel (that is, comparing high-speed runs with and without the body), the fins seem to be functioning. Directional stability is very good at high speeds, and the effects of passing vehicles or side winds are easily controlled.
The Exner car was a thoroughly planned project from the beginning. Objectives were chosen and solutions toward them selected according to definite criteria, in startling contrast to what often happens to production cars both here and abroad. The elder Exner’s ’57 and ’58 designs – and, we trust, those for 1960 – show how very rewarding it can be to leave a stylist alone.
When I first learned about Virgil Exner Jr’s car, it was owned by a person who would later become a good friend – Beau Hickory. Beau and I became good friends when we tracked him down to learn more about his Virgo Sports Car – a car that Rick D’Louhy and I are still looking for today.
Click here to learn more about Beau Hickory’s Virgo Sports Car
Beau had this car for many years, and helped us appreciate Virgil’s design and accomplishment even more. And, for those of you wanting to learn more about this car and the designer, check out an excellent article in the April, 1998 issue of Collectible Automobile.
Great job Virgil – I look forward to seeing this beautiful sports car in person in the near future and am proud to display such a great design and designer – here at Forgotten Fiberglass.
Hope you enjoyed the story, and until next time…
Glass on gang…
Has anyone else noticed the complete lack of shade for the occupants and openings in the shell to provide fresh air? It would have been much the same as sitting in a crock pot set on “Stew”. The fins also block rearward vision (is there any at all?) and provide fragile points of impact in lieu of a bumper.
I take it back about the fins blocking vision. Since there are no rear-view mirrors of any kind, and since the body meets the back of the canopy at just above eye level anyway, it’s a moot point. Though the bodywork looks pretty good in the photos, the basic concept seems like it sprang from the land of Imprakticalia (with a little help from 50’s Science Fiction). It’s quite an effort, none the less!
Had the great pleasure of meeting Virgil Exner Jr. and hearing him speak and seeing the car at the 2007 retrospective of his father’s works on the campus of Notre Dame University. Peter Grist’s “Virgil Exner, Visioneer” was available that day w/ Mr. Grist signing and speaking. There was a display of 10 of the Exner designs inside a domed hall from the concept in this article to a Gauguin Red production 300C hardtop. More cars were outside. Virgil Jr’s concept is thrilling in person. Quite a big day and unforgettable.