SEPTEMBER 10, VIRGIL EXNER – A LOOK AT THE STORY BEHIND THE PATRON SAINT OF FIN CAR GUYS

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Regular MSCC readers have probably noticed the September 2014 car stories section is heavily weighted (3) with Mopar fin cars.

 

This was actually due to circumstances thanks to a backlog of stories from 2013, but it’s also a reflection of my automotive past because I literally grew up in fin cars.

 

The timing on the September fin car stories was great because I just finished reading a biography on the legendary Virgil Exner so it may have been a form of car guy Karma…or Carma.

 

Virgil Exner was the mastermind behind the Forward Look era at Chrysler Corporation so he is a lifetime hero to me because I truly believe fins were the coolest styling cues ever put on a car.

 

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Part of the reason goes back to my first sentient memories of my Dad’s 1956 Plymouth Belvedere. This car made such a large impression I can remember it from when I was three-years-old—including the car sick episodes.

 

I realize that a three-year-old’s mental capacity is on a par with your average poodle but that ’56 Plymouth was a life-affirming moment for me and my brother Jim.

 

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The fin tradition continued with his next car. This time it was a 1959 Plymouth Belvedere—arguably the coolest car and possibly fastest car he ever owned.

 

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Surprisingly, I have many vivid memories of this car – from the dust kicking up behind it on dirt roads thanks to an aerodynamic vortex from the fins to the inevitable bouts of car sickness on vacation road trips.

 

His last fin car was a beast too. It was a 1960 Dodge Seneca and it had a 361 4-barrel engine. He didn’t own it for very long but he did have it long enough for me to face a recurring theme – car sickness on a road trip to the mountains.

 

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That fin car could haul – I remember one Sunday we were headed to a function at an out of town school next to a two-lane highway and he punched it, got my Mom really mad and blew the turnoff to the school because he was doing well over 100 mph and the brakes faded.

 

The next car was finless (a ’63 Plymouth) so life moved on – except for the car sickness, but I never lost the passion for the fin.

 

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That’s why the Exner book was a big disappointment for me because the guy who wrote it was clearly not a fin car guy.

 

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Unfortunately, he described some of the excitement when the ‘57 and up models were introduced but he focused on the negatives like quality issues and design flaws like the fake continental kits on some of these finned Mopars.

 

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Obviously, I understand Exner wasn’t totally onside with the speeded-up introduction of the ‘57 models but can you really throw rocks at an era that gave us the 300C and D Chrysler letter cars?

 

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Worse yet, the fin car era was a small part of the Exner biography. The author dedicated far more pages to Exner’s boat designs and his forays into modern interpretations of the Stutz Bearcat.

 

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Surprisingly, he skipped over any lengthy discussion about classic designs like the ’57-8 DeSotos or the ‘59 Custom Royals and that was a huge omission.

 

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This is like taking the Mona Lisa out of a story about Leonardo Da Vinci.

 

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There’s little doubt the biography was written to explore the big picture about Virgil Exner’s career and he may have succeeded but most Exner fans want to see more ’58 Fury and less ’68 Stutz Bearcat.

 

We’re called fin car guys for a reason.

 

Jerry Sutherland

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