Interview with Ex

Your banter here!
Post Reply
User avatar
Posts: 5034
Joined: Sun Mar 07, 2004 6:59 pm
Location: Upper Darby, PA

Interview with Ex

Post by Faulkner »

[Excerpted from Popular Mechanics, January, 1959.]


Taking part in the Popular Mechanics interview were Virgil M. Exner, Chrysler Vice-President and Director of Styling, and William M. Schmidt, Executive Stylist. Arthur R. Railton, PM's Automotive Editor, asked the questions.


RAILTON: Why is there so much criticism of auto styling today?

EXNER: Everyone is looking for some place to lay the blame for the poor business conditions of the past year. If cars had sold the way they did in 1955 you wouldn't have heard any of this.

RAILTON: How do you define an automobile? How do you think of it while designing one?

EXNER: First, it's a means of transportation, but it must be as exciting as possible. It should create a desire for ownership and a pride of ownership. A person is looking for something with a feeling of motion that inspires him with its grace and excitement.

SCHMIDT: If we can bring out a new car that is a fine means of transportation, but makes you enthusiastic about going into the showroom to buy it, then we've done an excellent job.


RAILTON: Then the stylist must create demand?

SCHMIDT: I'd say so. We are really merchandisers.

EXNER: Your product must look more exciting than the other fellow's. First of all, though, it must look like an automobile. That's why we have this Dart theme, this look of motion.

RAILTON: You must be flattered to be imitated in this concept by General Motors.

EXNER: Yes, we are somewhat flattered.

RAILTON: What is a good automobile design?

EXNER: I think we've already answered that. Excitement is the word for it. It must excite your desire to own it.

RAILTON: But aren't there people who don't like to be excited into buying something?

EXNER: There are, I suppose, people who might be content with just transportation, without this excitement. But I think if they were put to the test, they would feel just a bit cheated if you gave them just transportation.

SCHMIDT: They can go out and buy many automobiles that have nothing but transportation right now. Automobiles with no excitement, no flair, no modern feeling, but with just a way to get from one place to another. But sales don't indicate that there is a majority in this group.


RAILTON: Do we need bigness to get this excitement you talk about?

EXNER: It could be done in a smaller package. But the public has indicated its preference for larger packages through the years, through sales experience. Stylists don't want a lot of chrome either. But people have demanded it through the years. Every attempt I know of that has ever been made to strip a car, to take off its chrome, has met with failure.

RAILTON: Are you concerned with more than looks, with the practical nature of the car?

EXNER: Contrary to what a lot of people think, we work very closely with engineering and manufacturing groups. Many things we might want to do strictly for looks are not practical and have to be turned down.

RAILTON: It seems to me that there have been great changes in styling in recent years, but few in engineering. Are engineers failing to keep up?

EXNER: They are always working on changes, but many are too costly. That is one reason why they haven't appeared. But I would say that engineers have kept up. In fact, we couldn't have done many things we've done in styling if they hadn't.

SCHMIDT: No matter what car he buys today, the customer assumes it will be dependable. So the next question is, which car does he want to be seen driving? And then you're talking about the appearance factor. We make you want to buy our car because you'd rather be seen in it than in somebody else's.

RAILTON: Who initiated the demand for a lower car? Stylists or engineers?

EXNER: The stylists. It is to get better proportions. But in most cases engineering agrees with us because it gives the car more stability and that reflects well on them. The styling reflects well on us, so we both stand to gain from it.

RAILTON: Aren't there undesirable complications that go along with lowness?

EXNER: That's true. But we feel that the plusses outweigh the minuses. It took a lot of engineering, a lot of head scratching and hard work by a lot of people to get cars down as low as we have while retaining the same major chassis components. There's plenty of engineering in that low package. Perhaps it isn't as sensational as the styling changes, but it's still a lot of achievement.

RAILTON: Are we ever going to have comfortable six-passenger cars as long as we have low cars with high center tunnels?

EXNER: I believe so. Continuous effort is being made, although it may seem slow to the public. Seats are being made more comfortable. We need some major changes in the chassis, such as moving the transmission to the rear, but they would be very costly.

RAILTON: The public seems to be showing better taste about furniture and homes these days. And cars too, I think. But it seems to me that car interiors are still very garish when compared with living rooms. Why are they that way?

EXNER: The type of interior we are doing is what the sales department has indicated that the buyer wants.

SCHMIDT: It's the same story as the exterior chrome story. We designers would have very few moldings if we had our way. But if you put a chromed-up job beside a plain job in a showroom, in most cases the car with the brightwork will sell sooner than the plain one.

EXNER: Perhaps it is the initial impression that sells. Maybe that is where this extra "busyness" is needed.

SCHMIDT: Remember we are merchandising people. A stylist is here to design cars that will sell, so we must satisfy the tastes of most people.

EXNER: Product planners may feel that the busy design makes the average buyer think that he is getting more for his money. But there is a very slow move towards greater simplicity and we stylists like it. But we may have to get busy again later. Look at the appliance business. Washing machines are simpler to use than ever, but they are designed to look busy.

RAILTON: A favorite charge of the iconoclast is that of sex symbolism in styling. Is there anything to this charge?

EXNER: Absolutely not. Frankly I think that's coming from people who are more concerned with that sort of thing than they should be.

RAILTON: What about the push-button control? Is it a styling or an engineering device?

EXNER: It's a combination. It's a very simple, functional control that meets both esthetic and functional requirements.

RAILTON: Don't you think all controls of this type should be standardized?

EXNER: Strictly from a safety standpoint, I could see that it would be an advantage to have every transmission control the same. But if you come out each year with exactly the same arrangement, somebody is apt to say this instrument panel doesn't look much different from my old one. You have to have new arrangements to make the panel more attractive, more exciting.

SCHMIDT: The whole industry puts the light switch at the extreme left side of the panel so you know where you reach to turn on the lights in the dark. It's not a written law but we all do it — perhaps there will evolve some similar system for push buttons.

EXNER: I think the stylist has a right to put the buttons in a new location if he wants to, providing he can find an equally functional location. He almost has to have this freedom because the dashboard arrangement is never fixed — it changes.

RAILTON: Why is so much effort spent on hiding the gas filler pipe?

EXNER: One reason could be that shapes are more complicated in the quarter panel and you don't have the right kind of surface for placing the filler cap.

RAILTON: Isn't upholstery unnecessarily luxurious for use in the automobile? Shouldn't it be more practical?

SCHMIDT: In general, upholstery is expensive and getting more so. We're going to materials that have bolder, tweedy effects. Instead of putting a lot of trim on the seat as we do today we're coming out with striped materials that have the design right in them.

EXNER: Of course, we put sprays on fabrics so they can be washed. And they are impregnated with solutions so you can spill ice cream on them and still wipe it off. You couldn't do that with most upholstery on your home furniture.

RAILTON: Why must we have such a broad, useless shelf over the dashboard? It reflects sunlight and takes up needed legroom, doesn't it? EXNER: Just put your hand under there and you'll see there is no wasted room in it. We must leave space for a radio, a speaker, for air-conditioning parts as well as other things.

SCHMIDT: That's proved by the small glove boxes. They are left until last, after all the functional units are located. That is the most complicated area in the body.

RAILTON: Why do we have expensive-looking carpeting in cars? Why not rubber mats?

EXNER: It's not so expensive. A rubber pad would be more practical, but the buyer certainly prefers rugs. They look much better.

RAILTON: Stylists have been saying cars won't get much longer for 10 years now, yet they keep getting longer. Will cars continue to get longer?

EXNER: I really don't feel that they will get much longer. We're asking for fractions of inches now. There won't be the increases in the next five years that there have been in the past. Maybe we need a little more clearance for bumper protection or for taillight clearance, but that's all.

RAILTON: There seems to be a tendency for all cars to be getting closer together both in size and in luxury. How do you keep your Plymouth from looking more expensive than a Dodge, for example?

SCHMIDT: You put more money into the fabrics, in the carpets, in the engine. The cost factor automatically keeps the cars in proper price categories.

RAILTON: Suppose you came up with a design that was elegant enough for the Imperial yet cost no more to make than a Plymouth. Would you make it an Imperial or a Plymouth?

SCHMIDT: You wouldn't say that just because it was cheaper it was in the Plymouth bracket. If it fits in the Imperial picture you'd make it and spend any money you might save on the rest of the package, on the fabric, the carpeting, the hardware.

EXNER: We call it horsetrading. If we can save $5 on a rear bumper we might take that money and put it into a more expensive grille. We are given a cost target. We don't have to spend a certain amount on each part of the package, but the total cost must not exceed a certain amount.


SCHMIDT: Elegance usually costs more. Low price cars often have an inexpensive stamped grille. You touch it and it's sharp. It rattles in the wind. The diecast grille costs more money and looks more elegant. It adds richness. You feel it and you know it costs more. It's stiffer and doesn't rattle in the wind.

RAILTON: What would you stylists do if the industry gave up its annual styling changes?

EXNER: There would still be plenty of work because there will always be this desire to have something better looking than the other fellow has.

SCHMIDT: We just wouldn't be so rushed.

RAILTON: Will the day come when the automobile will be completely devoted to passenger space, from stem to stern, rather than being divided into engine compartment, greenhouse and trunk?

EXNER: It's always easy to predict in this business because if you live long enough it will probably happen. But that hinges on the size of the power plant.

RAILTON: Do you think engines are coming down in size rather than getting bigger?

EXNER: I think so. They will, I think, get more efficient so they should get smaller. But that's strictly in the prediction department. Strictly a guess.
"If it's new, Plymouth's got it!"
User avatar
Posts: 5034
Joined: Sun Mar 07, 2004 6:59 pm
Location: Upper Darby, PA

Re: Interview with Ex

Post by Faulkner »

Gordon Davis wrote:Interesting, to think that Schmidt had to be cautious about what he said, and to not contradict Exner, who was not only Schmidt's boss, but also an impediment to take over Chrysler styling as its VP Styling. The timing is also interesting, because it was about that time when Chrysler contracted with Schmidt to set up an independent design studio located in East Detroit to compete with Exner's guys. I, of course, was one three Chrysler designers who Schmidt "pirated" to join his competing styling studio.
"If it's new, Plymouth's got it!"
Post Reply