Style Council

Two giants of mid-20th century car design lay out their stall.

All images: Author’s collection

Both in oral and written communication the words Design and Styling are sometimes used as if they mean the same thing; this of course is not true. In broad terms styling is all about the visual qualities of a product, while design is more led by the functionality and consumer requirements. In the ideal fictitious case design leads to a product that is experienced as pleasing both in functionality as well as in aesthetics; for many, Dieter Rams for Braun or that of Jonathan Ive’s work for Apple fall within this treasured category.

The protagonists of both brochures presented here today belong wholeheartedly in the styling section, and are unapologetic for it – nor should they be. Harley Earl and Virgil Exner wielded tremendous influence and successfully dictated the look – for better or worse – of America’s cars for most of the 1950s. Eventually their influence would even reach across the Atlantic, witness the finned Mercedes-Benz and BMC Farina cars or the bonsai Buicks by Opel and Vauxhall for example.

Interestingly enough, within the space of two years – 1953 and 1954 respectively – both Chrysler and Cadillac issued dedicated brochures to present their star stylist and automotive products.

The Chrysler styling brochure is unusually large in size, huge actually. It introduces Virgil Exner who had joined Chrysler in 1949 and since had been appointed chief stylist for all of Chrysler Corporation’s vehicles. Compared to the Cadillac brochure more emphasis is shown on the work in the styling studios through several pages devoted to the styling process.

The overall writing style is more emotional than that in the Cadillac piece; witness the text on the page titled Drawing boards for example: “Here, the very air tingles with excitement – the excitement of new lines, new colors, new textures, new shapes. Here is talent on its toes – here is the adventure and daring of the fabric and plastics experts – here is the superb craftsmanship of clay modelers and woodworkers. Here is where the style is born to meet its match in engineering perfection – the sort of perfection all the world has come to expect of Chrysler Corporation cars.

Two concept cars (The C-200 and D’Elegance) are also prominently displayed; the reason may be that the actual production cars themselves shown do not yet show much evidence of Exner’s forward look style. One is overcome with the impression that a brochure such as this might have made a more powerful impression if it had presented the 1955 cars, or even better those of the 1957 model year.

Then again, perhaps those designs were strong enough that they did not need the extra publicity. Both 1953 and 1954 would not turn out to be great years for any of Chrysler’s brands – starting in 1955 until 1958 however, in no small part helped by Exner’s styling direction, the company would enjoy a period of rising sales and prosperity.

Cadillac’s brochure dedicated to Harley Earl allows only one single peek into a styling studio; the rest of the photographs present the all-new 1954 Cadillac line up – no concept cars are shown. While smaller than the Chrysler brochure it still is about the size of an LP album sleeve.

Perhaps mirroring each man’s personality Mr. Earl is present on almost every page of the Cadillac brochure, while Exner appears only two times in his document. Contrary to their competitors at Chrysler, Cadillac (and GM in general) was in rude commercial health at this time and by this time the undisputed ruler of the luxury field in America as the confident copy emphasises.

The 1954 Cadillac is the latest and finest heir to a great tradition of automotive beauty. This creation is distinctively Cadillac, and retains many of the general styling characteristics which motorists have come to know and respect the world over. And yet it advances – in full measure – the noblest ambitions of creative styling. Longer and lower in silhouette, more graceful and subtle in contour, and with greater dignity and bearing in every line- it is visual proof that Cadillac remains the Standard of the World.

Hyperbolic it might seem, but the sales data backed it up – and Cadillac would continue to ride this wave of success until the seventies.

Due to the unwieldy format of the Chrysler brochure and resultant storage difficulties, if you do find a copy today, chances are that it has been folded in half at some point of its life. The Cadillac brochure will usually have avoided this fate because it is more regular in size. Specialty brochures such as these were always printed in lower volumes than the regular showroom sales material so both of these brochures – especially the Chrysler catalogue – are not that common today.



What other talents Harley Earl – apart from his sharp sensibility in terms of knowing how to guide and sell a design – possessed is not recorded. In the case of Virgil Exner however it seems that the man could wield his pen not just to design, he also had some writing talent- witness this delightful short essay written during his period at Studebaker, courtesy of Richard Quinn:

It’s easy to design an automobile

“Three things the average business man can do instinctively: write a great advertisement, play an astute game of poker (when he gets the cards), and design a beautiful automobile. Although I’m in no position to second guess his advertising genius or his poker hands, I can appreciate his flair for design.

Anyone with a pencil and a piece of paper can do the job. But there is a catch in it. Experience has taught me that it’s a long, tortuous road from the sketchpad to the assembly line. Manufacturing problems are a controlling factor. Driving safety must be considered.

There’s a problem called “roadability” that can never be solved on the drawing board. Then, sales officials will argue plausibly that they want an automobile and not an autogyro. By and large, customers seem fond of modern car design. The public lacks the taste of Buck Rogers.

For the purpose of citing a few difficulties in sound car designing, let’s say that your particular effort has been awarded a $ 25000 top prize by the Blinx Motor Company and that they have promised to put it into production. Let’s assume further that your brain plum carries the streamlined motif 19 years ahead of the pack (as I’m sure it would), introduces a lovely filigreed grille, a tapered tail with fins, and hugs the road like gravy on a new suit.

Your creation goes to the design department. The head designer looks it over and, after admiring your $25,000 check, offers a “suggestion”. He says: “The first thing we establish here is wheelbase. This isn’t entirely because more wheelbase increases cost. The factory assembly line is just so long and no longer. When you add to the wheelbase of your car, you reduce the capacity of the assembly line. So we’ll cut the wheelbase down to what our factory considers a workable length. Okay?”

Naturally, you agree. The statements make sense. He sends your design to the modelling department some 15 inches shorter than your original intentions. From your plans a modeler builds a quarter-size replica of an automobile. He fashions a model of clay and casts the car in plaster. Then miniature fittings are made, paint is applied, and your design is exactly proportioned in three dimensions. To you it looks good.

About this time, a representative of the sales department drops in. A gleam comes to his eye, which you probably misinterpret. “How long is that job?” he asks. Your are well armed for the query. Patiently you explain about the length of the assembly line and how the car has been designed for “standard production”.

“I don’t care about that stuff” he says. “What’s the overall length? The average garage is 20 feet long. This thing will have its tail sticking out in the open all year round. Shorten it up!” The designer backs up the sales official. He calls the modeler again and another quarter-size image is built up – somewhat shorter, not quite so effective, and yet still carrying much of your “advanced thinking”.

No one offers any criticisms of the model before the next step. (We deviate somewhat from general practice here, If there’s any point in a new-car development where the design escapes criticism, it must be that the work is being done by a crew of deaf mutes behind locked doors.) Anyway, the modeler works up a full-size model in clay.

Now is the time for your old pal, the designer, to get nasty. He circles the clay model, squinting and muttering about “compound surfaces”. Finally, he motions you over. “See that highlight on the roof?” he asks. You do, now that he mentions it. “See how the reflections make your car look cock-eyed.” You smile indulgently and remark that it must be “the way the light hits it”.

“Exactly” he says. “But walk around the car and notice how it hangs on. Try to picture the car on a showroom floor. That highlight may be the very thing that would convince a prospect to shop next door. Nope, the roof surface will have to be changed.” You know this guy is merely suffering from an unrequited pang of professional jealousy. No one ever heard of designing a car by highlights. However, you decide to be magnanimous. The curve of the roof is flattened.

About here the chassis engineer calls. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t appear in person- he’d just glance at the specifications and start screaming. Inasmuch as you have taken his and his’n for 25 grand, he may be curious about what you look like. He begins courteously enough, although a quaver can be detected in his voice.

“Just a few more revisions” he purrs. “Your tread – you know, the distance between the wheels – is such that the car would always be falling off grease racks. There isn’t enough road clearance. The oilpan would play pat-a-cake with every bump in the country.” “The hood seems a smidgen too low. We have what we call an air cleaner extending above the spark plugs. If we made our engines like flapjacks, we might be able to squeeze power into the car. Unfortunately, we don’t.”

The chassis engineer is now acting violent. “What” he screams, “are you going to do about cooling in this mess you claim is a radiator?” “Where will we put shock absorbers in this **** underslung hack?” Did your mother ever tell you about banjo-axle housings? Are you going to steer this monstrosity by remote control or isn’t it any of my ******* business?”

By this time, the chassis engineer has been surrounded by strong, quick young men. He is frothing at the mouth. He is is uprooting handsful of hair. He is blabbering insanely. Only when the head designer assures him that his complaints will be met does he permit himself to be led away.

A lot of things now happen to your dreamboat. The entire body rises, the hood takes on depth and avoirdupois, the rear end is hiked. Frankly, it doesn’t much resemble your $25,000 sketch. At that, you have something left besides your money. Remnants remain of a rakish bodyline and its aerodynamic tail. Thus, you look forward eagerly, if somewhat innocently, to the next design step- the wooden model.

The wood model is the same size as the clay model and has an interior in order to try out comfort, space and accessories. Evidently, you forgot to allow for center pillars and neglected that passengers have heads, but you have become hardened to minor revisions.

The body engineer has more emotional equilibrium than the chassis engineer – he starts mad and stays that way. “How many sheets do you break the body into?” he demands. “Where are we expected to weld?” Actually, you hadn’t thought about it. You are an artist, you remind him, not a mechanic.

“Don’t you know the size of our flat-plate presses?” he growls. “We can’t handle hoods that big. Doors can’t be hung at that angle. And what’s this sticking out at the rear- a fin? What’s it for? Looks pretty, huh? A special jig and 10 hours of welding- to hell with it!”

Goodbye tail, goodbye fins, goodbye “advanced streamlining”. From your original design only the charming filigreed grille is intact. The fact offers some consolation. Many’s the time in the uproar of getting production settled you have gazed at that grille. Even if the car doesn’t look precisely as you had planned, its shining face will be seen and remembered on thousands of highways. Or will it?

So many people have descended on your car that few have made any lasting impression. With regard to the grille, you have noticed one man in particular, a quiet fellow who has been vaguely described as “from purchasing”. Frequently during the travail he had brought in strangers to inspect the grille. The viewed it from all angles, tested the heft and took samples away. This was indeed flattering – very likely the young man himself had artistic leanings. He knew beauty when he saw it!

One day, near the end of your troubles, the young man “from purchasing” approaches. After the kicking around you’ve been getting, you appreciate his politeness. “I sure liked that grille” he says. The past tense tugs at your heart. Had you heard correctly? You inquire.

“That’s right. We’re not going to take it. We checked with our suppliers and find we can get another design for 18 cents less.” You stagger backward, maybe you fall. For a small sum like 18 cents the company is going to discard the last fragment of your dream. Surely it isn’t true; surely they wouldn’t do that to you for a lousy
18 cents.

“Eighteen cents per car based on volume production can mean quite a lot of dough” he informs you laconically. “We’ve got to watch pennies in this business. How else do you think we could pay you that $25,000?”

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

12 thoughts on “Style Council”

  1. Good morning, Bruno. That was a lovely read and an interesting insight in the automotive brochures of this era. The brochures look great, surely a highpoint of your collection. The story at the end made me smile.

  2. I couldn’t agree more Freerk, the Exner essay is wonderful and the brochures themselves look beautiful. Thank you Bruno.

  3. Thanks for this Bruno. The backdrop for Exner’s frustration was his being forced to face his reality at Studabaker largely alone, pulled out of the Lowey industrial design pond and pitted against his former boss who helmed a well-equipped industrial design house with the nous and clout to have designs sorted and built with less adulteration. Studebaker, on the other hand found in Exner a means, if only temporary, to circumvent Lowey’s dicta.

    Knowing he would be faced with a similar set of limits at Chrysler, Exner cleverly arranged an unlikely but successful detour, crossing the ocean to seek out Ghia, who helped him engineer and build his dream cars, and deliver most of them* back home as faits accompli, as with the two depicted in the 1953 brochure.

    Exner was appreciative enough of Ghia that he is said to have been pleased that his D’Elegance design was adapted for the VW Karmann Ghia**. Two lessons I derive from this story are to find compromises that circumvent one’s own limits but permit cultivating one’s dreams, and the desideratum of the full service Turinese carrozzeria in postwar automobile design and production (including Pininfarina’s longstanding relationship with Cadillac).

    * Exner’s 1956 Chrysler Norseman concept went down with the Andrea Doria


  4. Génial, comme d’habitude … 😀
    Cette histoire de designer me rappelle la chanson :
    Ils ont changé ma chanson

    Great, as usual … 😀
    This designer story reminds me of the song :
    What Have They Done To My Song

  5. A lovely article and I think Harris Mann would certainly agree with Mr Exner’s thoughts.

    Here’s a GM documentary from 1958 about styling – stylists who design – as they put it.

    It’s an attractive film and I found it relaxing to watch. It covers more than just cars and there are some good visual jokes in it too, where scale and perspective are played with.

    A Barcelona chair is included (it’s mandatory, I believe). I found it interesting that so much emphasis was placed on everything being opened-up and effectively put on display in the name of ‘informal luxury’. That’d be quite wearing, after a while, I would think.

    1. Thanks, Charles. That was lovely throw back in time. It seems the emphasis was on lifestyle and not so much on cars. The Barcelona chair was already 29 years old when this movie was released, but at the time it was indeed an almost mandatory accessory.

  6. I’m late to the schoolroom today, but thoroughly enjoyed today’s lesson. What lovely images, and Virgil Exner’s essay is a gem. I’m pleased to hear that he wasn’t upset by Ghia repurposing his 1953 Chrysler d’Elegance concept. Actually, I think they improved it: the front end on Exner’s car is a bit ungainly:

    Incidentally, there’s a piece on the Karmann Ghia coming up in the near future. Stay tuned to DTW!

  7. Hi Brrruno, a very interesting article once more, many thanks for that. I guess car brochures present a very sharp and astute reflection of their time indeed. The article also reminds me of a book on Harvey Earl I’ve read a long time ago (can’t seem to remember the title) which suggested Earl put styling above anything else, in that even e.g. disc brakes were rejected in favour of the latest stylistic gimmick…
    That aside, somehow the 1953 Chrysler concept to me brings an instant association with the Bentley Continental GT (since 2003). I’m sure someone is able to quickly upload a picture of that to see if that makes any sense.
    Final word on the title of this essay: if anything is about “My Ever Changing Moods” it is indeed the concept of styling… Very nice choice Brrruno!

    1. Happy to oblige, Joost:

      I see the similarity in the rear haunches, but not elsewhere.

  8. Thanks for that Daniel, most attentive. Ah well, there’s some 50-odd years between the two…

  9. Fantastic brochures. They look so modern – even now, more than half a century later.

  10. Nice brochures!

    It’s worth reading the transcript of the tape of the reminiscences of Virgil Exner Jr concerning both he and his father’s career. Bit more detail than can be gleaned from a brochure as it’s many thousands of words. You need a rainy day and a full pot of tea to get through it.

    At the same website, there are similar transcripts of Bob Gregorie and Bill Mitchell interviews, plus a half-dozen others, mostly Ford people. Like most transcripts, they can be a bit disjointed, but I’ve found them fun to read over again through time.

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