1953 Chrysler D’Elegance

Since creative types live and breathe through the ideas they propose, they may become frustrated when certain concepts are appropriated by others. Virgil Exner, on the other hand, couldn’t be happier with the striking parallels between his 1953 Chrysler D’Elegance concept car and the Karmann Ghia, which will be auctioned next month in New York City.

“The illegal plaigarism did not enrage Ex,” Peter Grist wrote in his biography of the legendary Studebaker and Chrysler builder. “He was delighted with the result and grateful that one of his prototypes had made it into large-scale manufacturing when he actually saw the production car in 1955.” Around 440,000 Volkswagen Karmann Ghias were produced with the violent haunches and ovoid roofline that originated in Exner’s Birmingham, Michigan home studio.

Though Exner joined Chrysler in 1949 as the head of the Advanced Styling Studio, his designs would not be used in production Chryslers for several years, if ever. Instead, he and his team focused on modernizing Chrysler styling and used a sequence of concept cars to pry the final look of Chrysler corporation cars from its technical personnel.

In this pursuit, Exner had a lot going for him. K.T. Keller, Chrysler’s president at the time, had negotiated for Ghia to produce the company’s one-off vehicles. Exner could develop on a solid Hemi V-8 platform built by the company’s engineers. Exner also has a well-defined proposed design that he planned to incorporate.

According to Grist, the concept mandated “easy, classic surfaces with minimal ornamentation, accentuating utilitarian elements of the car instead of covering them” in his design proposals to Briggs Cunningham for the Cunningham C-3 coupe. It combined Exner’s interest in stylish 1930s classics with the comparatively streamlined low-slung postwar sports cars tearing up racecourses at the time.

The K-310 was followed by the convertible C-200, the Chrysler Styling Special (along with the Thomas Special and the GS-1 exclusive edition cars), the De Soto Adventurer, and the D’Elegance over the next few years.