This is the story of a dreamer and his dream machine. It's about a man named Exner...and a show car named the XNR. The similarity of the names is not coincidental.
Like most artists, Virgil Exner thrived on ego. Yet there are few who would say that his self-pride was undeserved. The 1960 Plymouth XNR represented the functional and aesthetic lessons that Exner learned from 26 years of styling automobiles.
Exner was one of the pioneers in the industrial design profession. His career began with Pontiac, in 1934. At the time, he was only 25 years old. After serving five years as chief of the company's styling studio, he set off in search of new challenges. Immediately after World War II, one of his sketches was selected by Studebaker to become an all-new 1947 model. It was picked over another proposal submitted by Raymond Loewy, who was then considered the dean of American car design.
Chrysler hired Exner in 1950. Two years later, he was appointed to be the vice-president of design for America's Number Three automaker. One of his first theories about styling was heard in 1953, when he referred to color harmony as the "third dimension" of automotive design. Many other Exner theories would follow and bring with them sweeping changes in the appearance of U.S. cars.
"The automobile cannot be properly styled unless it is first conceived of as a whole unit," Exner said in the mid 50's to explain the thinking behind his new Forward Look for Chrysler products. "The theme must be a single one to which all components are intimately related."
Stressing the slogan Suddenly It's 1960, the cars from Chrysler grew fins in 1956-tail fins which sprouted to unheard of heights the next season. Exner felt that those tall, upsweeping fins actually stabilized an automobile in crosswinds.
"The fins came out of the theory that Virgil Exner had," says Homer LaGassey-a Plymouth designer-in C. Edson Armi's book The Art Of American Car Design. "He wanted to move the stabilizing forces, the center of pressure, towards the rear of the car," LaGassey notes. "He was a race car nut and had a lot of good theories about driving pressures."
To accomplish his goals on full size passenger cars, Exner thinned the body sections-especially those above the beltline-and attempted to expose certain areas of sheetmetal (the headlight surrounds on the '57 Plymouth are a good example) as delicate membranes.
The Forward Look Chryslers, DeSotos, Dodges and Plymouths proved immediately popular with buyers. By 1957, even conservative GM was aping their image. Yet those big Mopars were quite different than the racing cars from which the designer grew inspiration. And this brings our story back to Exner's 1960 dream machine.
Although it caused a sensation on the auto show circuit, the XNR was meant to be more than just a factory dream car. Exner had something quite different in mind-a limited-edition production model that fit into the market between the 2-passenger Corvette and the 4-seat Thunderbird image-wise.
At the same time, the proposed Mopar sports car (its divisional affiliation was still undetermined) seemed quite unique in terms of engineering and price. Based on the compact Valiant, it used a heated up Slant Six for motivation and promised a below-$3,000 window sticker. Ample in size, heavy with performance and light on the pocketbook the production version of the XNR would have appealed to those buyers who, just a few short years later, might have been lining up to get a Ford Mustang.
If no one at Chrysler came to regret the company's failure to market this car in 1961, it would be a surprise. It would have been easy and economical to build and simple to sell at a time when Highland Park really needed a winner.
Even the show car version was very marketable. Its steel body sat very neatly on the 106.5 inch wheelbase Valiant platform. Sharing the front torsion bars and leaf spring rear suspension of the economy compact, the show car could have been easily brought to the assembly line.
Special bucket seats with light alloy frames accommodated the driver and front passenger. There was a small, but usable rear compartment, usually hidden below a removable, streamlined metal tonneau cover.
Only in styling was the XNR a radical departure from conventional cars of the time though. It looked more like a racing car than a passenger vehicle. The design was asymmetrical. A prominent hood scoop was faired into the windscreen and cowl. A matching bulge on the rear deck formed a headrest-fin behind the driver. There was no matching scoop or fin for the passenger's side. This gave it the appearance of having an offset driver's position, a feature of many Indy cars at that time.
The bumper/grille was unitized into a simple, pleasing oval. Inside the oval was a mesh grille and quad headlamps. The metal tonneau covered the passenger seat during exhibitions at auto shows. There was a small racing windscreen that popped up when the cover was removed and the passenger seat was used.
Overall length of the show car was 195 inches. The height from the ground to the top of the tailfin was 43 inches. Exner said that the Plymouth XNR stressed the real focus of an automobile as a driver's machine. This focus was carried through with special-though not radical, high performance engineering features.
Sitting under the hood was a 225 cid Slant Six that was re-worked to produce about 1.11 horsepower per cubic inch and redline at 7,500 rpm. Exner confirmed that the car was fast. "After we showed it around a bit, we took it to the road test people," he once revealed. "The laboratory really hopped up the engine-to 250 hp, a tremendous amount of power. We took it to the proving grounds and had a professional drive it. He lapped at 151 or 152 mph, which wasn't bad at that time." The designer once drove the XNR to 135 mph himself.
Following up on a positive response at auto shows, Chrysler began formulating a plan to schedule a very similar car for introduction in 1962 or 1963 as a limited-edition sport model. "Projected Chrysler sports car shows similarities to XNR," read the caption below a sketch that appeared in the June 1961 issue of Motor Life magazine. The caption pointed out that some XNR features like external mufflers and a full-sweeping headrest, would be dropped, but the rest of the car's styling-including the grille and hood scoop-survived intact.
As depicted in the drawing, the showroom version of the sports car was to have a rolled rear deck and different taillamps than the prototype XNR. The changes cut the length to about 180 inches on the same wheelbase. Width was about 68 inches and the measurement from the ground to the highest point on the removable hardtop was 49 inches. Chrysler planned to install an aluminum block version of its 225 cid Slant Six good for around 230 hp and possibly hooked up to a 4-speed gearbox. The single exhaust system fed into an oval muffler with the tailpipe exiting just ahead of the left rear wheel. The sketch showed 15 inch aluminum wheels with knock-off hubs and brake drums cast integrally into the webs.
Of course, we all know that the car was never built. Chrysler ultimately decided that the XNR was too radical to be put into production. It was aimed at what seemed to be, back then, too small a market niche. In addition, Chrysler's 1961 management shake up based on conflicts of interest, sent Virgil Exner packing his bags as a new regime came into power. At age 52, he was eased out of the company to start his own industrial design firm. Several pseudo-Classic cars called the Mercer, Stutz and Duesenberg were developed for the specialty/luxury market, but never produced except as scale models. In 1973, at age 64, Exner died of heart failure.
Surprisingly, the XNR did not die immediately after being dropped by Chrysler. During 1962, the Italian coachbuilder Ghia, who had built the original show car's body, exhibited a one-off vehicle called the Assimetrica at the major European auto shows. Then later the same year another Ghia creation called the St. Regis hardtop was also displayed at European salons. Both of these cars were XNR copycats that could have been produced had a foreign automaker felt there was sufficient demand. However, there turned out to be no one interested in such a project and the idea of marketing a low-priced sports car with radical asymmetrical styling disappeared on both sides of the Atlantic.
As for the original XNR, Chrysler sold it to a butcher in Geneva, Switzerland. He, in turn, sold it to the Shah of Iran around 1968 or 1969. In the early 1970's, Anwar al-Mulla, a car dealer in Kuwait, showed up in a National Geographic magazine photo behind the wheel of the show car.
*Sue's Note: Regretfully, I do not know the origin of this story.
In March 1983, Chrysler stylist, Don Butler, gave some information to Classic Sixties magazine. He states that the XNR measured 46 inches in height, as opposed to Jesse Thomas' report of a 43 inch measurement. Mr. Butler is also the person responsible for tracing the whereabouts of the XNR after it left Chrysler. He stated it was the May, 1969 issue of National Geographic that carried the photos of Anwar al-Mulla driving the XNR on a Kuwait road.
On a different note, you may be interested to know that in 1960, Chrysler actually printed an eight-page brochure on the XNR, which is shown in its entirety here. Note that according to Chrysler's specs in the brochure, we're back to the 43 inch measurement for the height of the car. I would assume Don Butler was mistaken about this measurement. This is the only full front view I've ever seen of the XNR.
It's almost uncanny now to read Virgil Exner's references to the XNR's aerodynamics and stability!
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