I love some of the cars of the late 50’s and early 60’s. Some were huge and of course there were the fins. Fins were in at the time because designers were taking their cues from the jet age. The luxury cars all had them like the Chrysler Imperial. Early on these cars were all designed by one of the legends of auto design, Virgil Exner. When he joined Chrysler, he discovered that the company’s vehicles were being styled by engineers and not by designers making the cars kind of frumpy looking.
Exner took over and frumpy was gone. General Motors and Ford were caught napping as Exner’s designs featured a lowered roofline making the cars sleeker, smoother, and more aggressive. These were really wild for the time period. The front featured featuring a swooping bumper, gaping mesh grille, giant chrome eagle, and hooded quad headlights, and tall rear fins with bullet style tail lamps with a chrome ring surrounding it. The chrome ring called a “Sparrow Strainer” an element taken from jets at the time that utilized a functional treatment meant to keep the birds out. This car looked like it had an attitude with all the chrome and extended fenders giving it the look of some big cat on the attack.
He also had some really cool design elements inside the car like a space age dashboard. No incandescent bulbs were used instead electricity running through a five-layer laminate caused the phosphorescent paint to glow in the dark. Chrysler called it “Panelescent”. With its glowing green face and red needles it looked eerie and surprisingly modern. Does this design sound familiar? Most of the new cars use updated lighting technology to achieve this look. Let’s not forget about the squared off at the top and bottom steering wheel designed for better leg room and view through the windshield in the straight ahead position. Exner was always battling the board with his designs and won until sales started to slip. The public hand grown tired of the look.
Exner out, Engel in, fins out
In 1961, Chrysler scored a coup by hiring Elwood Engel away from Ford, where he had designed the 1961 Lincoln Continental. Engel’s waisted little time making his mark on future Imperials featuring the more familiar three-box design. His first car was the ’64 and some said it looked similar in design to was thought to strongly resemble the 1961 Lincoln Continental. However, Engel used subtle curves and parallelogram angles to give the Imperial a distinct and novel look.
If you’re looking to collect the real deal, you better have deep pockets. The older ones, like the 1958 are prized possessions of collectors. This is a frame off restoration that began as a rust-free project. For cars of this era, finding a car with out it are hard to come by since they have all rusted away. There are however examples, not as good as this one, that are nice and can be bought in the mid 20’s.
Even though the promotional models don’t have to deal with rust, they too can command a decent amount of cash. I found several going for $150 but these examples, a 10 on the 10 scale 64 convertible (super rare) was going for $800 while the 62 was going for $750.
So which is my favorite designer? I would have to go with Virgil Exner just because I love the fins and that might be because I am an aviation nut.