Forgotten concept: Chrysler D'Elegance
Get to know Virgil Exner's most successful design
Another day, another article about a classic car. The car in this article is a 1952 Chrysler, and by looking at its design, you’ll notice that it looks similar to the Cadillac I posted a while ago. Well, that’s because both of these cars were styled by the famous Virgil Exner with some help from Ghia.
The story of this Chrysler begins in 1940s. Exner was working at Studebaker, and had just finished designing the cool Commander Starlight Coupe (pictured below). But after the Starlight was finished, Exner and another designer, Raymond Loewy, started arguing over which one of them should get the credits for Starlight’s design. Loewy then fired Exner, and took all of the credits.
Studebaker Commander Starlight Coupe. Credit: Mecum
At the same time, Chrysler was struggling. They had a history of bad designs, so they hired Exner to enliven the brand. Exner picked a handful of young designers and got to work. Their first project was called K-310, which was a luxury coupe that formed the basis of many design experiments.
Chrysler K-310 concept. Credit: CarStyling.ru
Back in those days, many American car companies (including Chrysler) were forming a relationship with Italian coachbuilders. Chrysler started working Ghia, and together they made a big series of cars. The most important car of these series was the very first one. Ghia took Exner’s K-310 and gave it some updates. They even changed the name so that it sounds more sophisticated and refined-D’Elegance.
Credit: RM Sotheby's
The car was 5.194mm long and 1.371mm high. It featured three seats, a long hood, short nose and a quite long rear overhang. It also included many Exner’s design cues that Chyrsler used on other cars for the next decade: wheel arches trimmed in chrome, a fancy-looking spare tire compartment on the rear deck with a telescopic hydraulic opener, 17in wire wheels and gunsight taillights.
The front of the car resembled a lot to the K-310, but Ghia got rid of the sad-looking front and gave it a more robust overall appearance. The interior was made in a schematic way, but it wasn’t as sophisticated as the exterior. It was still very nice, having leather seats, hidden pull-down armrests, leather trim on the dash and jet-inspired instruments.
D’Elegance was presented at the 1952 Paris Motor Show, and was a huge success. But, even though there were rumors about going into a limited production run of 25 units, Exner denied that by saying that it would remain a one-off. The design got so much attention that it was even used by a German coachbuilder Karmann.
Like Chrysler, Volkswagen needed a sportier car so that the brand could get some attention. At that time, Karmann was making convertible versions of the VW Beetle, and they turned to Ghia to see if the Beetle could receive an Italian makeover. Ghia made some sketches which were basically scaled-down versions of the D’Elegance. They even copied the long rear overhang because it turned out to be perfect for a rear-engined VW.
VW Karmann Ghia. Credit: Motorhood
The Karmann Ghia was presented at the 1955 Paris Motor Show. Chrysler was worried that Exner might be angry towards Ghia for copying him, but he was actually very pleased, probably because he moved on from the Chrysler’s “old” styling. He was already making newer designs with “forward-looking” Chryslers, and luxury cars with tailfins. So, it seemed that D’Elegance had its time.
Chrysler D’Elegance proved to be Exner’s most successful design, as well as the Karmann Ghia (although passively, of course). The Karmann was produced from 1957 to 1974, and its design outlived the iconic tailfins, forward-looking cars and even some sportier 1960s Exner’s designs. The D’Elegance remained a one-off, but its looks still lived in Karmann Ghia’s body. This American land yacht is eye-catching even today. In 2011, it was sold at an auction for $946.000.