Virgil Exner’s “Forward Look” cars rocket upward in a down market

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The story goes that back in 1953, one of Chrysler’s newest hires, designer Virgil Exner, said, “Let’s try giving the quarter panel this treatment.” And he waved his hand through the air in an up-swinging arc. With that, Chrysler’s so-called Forward Look was born. It hit the showrooms for the 1957 model year as a brace of lower and longer cars with elegant towering fins sweeping off the rear. All of Chrysler’s divisions, including Dodge, Plymouth, De Soto, and Imperial got a unique version, and the public went wild. Chrysler’s share of the U.S. market rose from 15–19 percent, market leader GM was forced to scrap its plans and respond, and Exner—his underlings called him “Ex”—would become a legend.

Exner’s creations have always stood out in the market for 1950s dreamboats, but at the Leake Auction in Scottsdale last week, a number of examples set stratospheric new prices. Liquidating some of the huge collection of New York-area car dealer and Florida collector John Staluppi, the auction put over the block exquisitely-restored examples of Exner’s Forward Look era from 1957–61.

Though Leake struggled, along with other auctions in Scottsdale, to move all the inventory in what is proving to be a slightly down market, a 1957 Chrysler 300C convertible with the correct 392-cubic-inch/375-horse dual carb V-8 pulled $357,500, or more than two and a half times Hagerty’s value for a #2-condition (Excellent) car. A ’58 Chrysler 300D gaveled at $162,800, a ’59 Chrysler 300E crossed the block at $242,000, and a ’60 300F took in $319,000. All three were convertibles. A ’59 300E hardtop brought $93,500, perhaps the only “affordable” car in the collection. The only unsold Staluppi fin car at Leake was a 1957 De Soto Adventurer convertible, which stalled at $280,000.

Chrysler 300 fin
taillight fin

Chrysler 300
Chrysler 300 interior

All the Exner love defies what is otherwise a soft market for 1950s cars. Hagerty senior valuation data analyst John Wiley notes that the index for 1950s cars is down nine percent in the past year, and that “Insurance quotes for these vehicles are almost entirely from people born before 1965, with over 80 percent of the share.” Meaning, ’50s cars are loved by the Greatest Generation and the Boomers, not so much by younger buyers.

However, Exner’s designs seem to defy the trend. When a young, Michigan-born Exner joined Chrysler in 1949 after stints at GM and Studebaker, the company believed its buyers were far more concerned about interior headroom than styling. It took Exner years to expel the ghost of the Chrysler Airflow flop of the mid 1930s and get Highland Park to swing for the fences with styling again. Exner relied on universally popular aerospace themes and used wind tunnel data—perhaps optimistic—to convince executives that they could sell tailfin cars as being more stable at speed. “Missile and aircraft shapes, which include fins and tapered noses, educate the people to accept these concepts of streamlining,” he said. “But a natural kinship exists between a car and an aircraft design.”

The last time a Chrysler fin car did this well was in 2016, when Gooding & Company sold a 1960 300F hardtop for $440,000. However, it was the exact car that set the 1960 Daytona Beach Flying Mile record with a pass at 144.9 mph, observes Wiley.

Are Exner’s cars poised to transcend the generational trends pushing down ’50s cars in general and become universally collectible? It’s possible these prices will seem low someday. “Timing is everything,” said Exner himself back in 1957 when his cars debuted. “You can be just as wrong by being too soon with an idea as being too late.”

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