THE ARRIVAL OF VIRGIL EXNER
K.T. Keller was not oblivious to the widespread criticism of Chrysler styling, nor was he unconcerned. In the short term, the problem was not that a lack of design pizzazz was hurting sales — it wasn’t, at least not yet — but that it might send a dangerous message to Chrysler’s investors and potential investors, suggesting that the company itself was becoming moribund.
Only six months after introducing some of the industry’s most conservatively styled cars, Keller took the unusual step of hiring the man responsible for one of Detroit’s most radical recent designs: Virgil M. Exner, Sr., designer of the 1947 Studebaker.
Virgil Exner was originally from Michigan, but he began his career as an advertising artist for a firm in South Bend, Indiana, that did work for Studebaker. In 1934, he joined GM’s Art & Colour department, eventually becoming head of the Pontiac studio. In 1938, he was lured away to join Raymond Loewy Associates, which had just landed a major contract with Studebaker.
In 1944, Studebaker chief engineer Roy Cole and chairman Harold Vance persuaded Exner to create his own design for the first postwar Studebaker, without Loewy’s knowledge or authorization. As soon as Loewy found out, Exner was fired and went to work for Studebaker directly. The design he created debuted in the spring of 1946 as the ’47 Studebaker, immediately drawing both acclaim and mockery for its futuristic, slab-sided styling and the dramatic wraparound rear glass of the two-door Starlight coupe, a frequent subject of mirth for popular comedians like Jack Benny.
Exner remained a Studebaker employee for about four and a half years, but in 1949, Cole, about to retire, suggested that Exner look elsewhere. That summer, Exner accepted an offer from K.T. Keller to become the director of Chrysler’s new advanced styling studio.
In that capacity, Exner initially had no direct involvement with Chrysler’s production cars. His task was to develop drivable concept cars along the lines of the Newport and Thunderbolt: not starry-eyed dream machines like GM’s later Motorama show cars (although Chrysler would eventually build its share of those), but idea cars whose themes could inspire future production models.
Exner’s new role was an interesting study in compromise. Given his previous experience, it was arguably a step down, but it gave him a level of autonomy that no other Chrysler stylist enjoyed. The fact that his designs were not intended for production (although Keller wanted them to be production-feasible) would also help defuse the inevitable resistance from Engineering and make it possible for Exner to explore new ideas without being immediately shot down. More importantly, Exner’s concept cars would help to show Chrysler’s critics that the company still had blood in its veins.
Although Exner would hire his own staff, including Maury Baldwin, Henry Peterson, Ted Pietsch, and former Kaiser-Frazer stylist Cliff Voss, they would also have support from overseas: the craftsmen of Carrozzeria Ghia in Turin.
Shortly after the end of the war, Vittorio Valletta, president of the Italian automaker Fiat, had engaged Chrysler to advise Fiat on modern manufacturing techniques; there was even some (ultimately abortive) discussion of shared production. During those talks, C.B. Thomas, president of Chrysler Export, had become acquainted with Fiat sales manager Luigi Gajal de la Chenaye, who remarked that northern Italy had an abundance of talented coachbuilders for whom work was sadly lacking; the devastated Italian economy in no position to absorb many expensive coachbuilt cars. In 1950, at Gajal’s suggestion, Thomas decided to approach Carrozzeria Farina and Carrozzeria Ghia, providing each with a new Chrysler chassis and specifications for custom bodywork, which would be shipped back to Detroit for evaluation.
Ghia, founded in 1915 as Carrozzeria Ghia & Gariglio, had recently come through a difficult transitional period. The Ghia works in Turin had been decimated by an Allied air raid in 1943 and the founder, Giacinto Ghia, had died early the following year. Control of the company subsequently passed to designer Felice Mario Boano, who in 1948 hired Luigi Segre as managing director, allowing Boano to focus on design work.
Boano took the Chrysler project very seriously — the prospect of an entrée to the big American automakers was undoubtedly enticing — and asked Thomas for permission to deviate from the specified design. The result was the XX-500, a four-door sedan riding a long-wheelbase Plymouth P23 platform, with bodywork inspired by an award-winning design Boano had created a year or so earlier for the Alfa Romeo 6C 2500.
Virgil Exner, who evaluated the Italian submissions, was not particularly inspired by the styling of the XX-500, but that had never really been the point. The object of the exercise was to see what sort of quality and workmanship the Italian design houses were capable of producing and how much it might cost. In these areas, Ghia’s entry scored highly, actually somewhat better than Pinin Farina’s.
Segre and Boano subsequently came to Detroit to meet with Keller and Exner. Paul Farago, owner of a local sports car shop (and a talented engineer in his own right), was enlisted as an interpreter. A deal was soon struck, and the Plymouth XX-500 was exhibited at the Chicago Auto Show later that year.
With some exceptions, Chrysler would make little use of Ghia’s styling talents. Most of the cars Ghia built for Chrysler were designed either in the advanced studio or occasionally at Exner’s home in Birmingham, Michigan. Three-eighths-scale plaster models were then shipped to Turin to be translated into full-size cars. However, Ghia was capable of building complete one-off cars for a fraction of what it have would cost to construct the same car in Chrysler’s own prototype shop, even factoring in the transatlantic shipping costs. Ghia would eventually build more than two dozen idea cars for Chrysler.
CHRYSLER’S HEMI V8
While Exner and his small staff were designing Chrysler’s first postwar concept cars, the company’s Engine Development & Testing lab, headed since 1943 by William E. Drinkard and Mel Carpentier, was working on Chrysler’s first postwar engine.
During World War II, Chrysler developed V-8, V-12, and V-16 engine designs for the Army, although none got past the prototype stage, and work on a new production engine didn’t begin in earnest until the war was over. Although Chrysler had explored a variety of exotic alternatives back in the late thirties, Drinkard, Carpentier, and their staff ultimately followed what was fast becoming standard practice: a short-stroke, overhead valve V-8, which offered better breathing, lower piston speeds, and the potential for higher compression ratios than existing long-stroke L-head engines. Chrysler departed from the orthodox in only one major respect: the use of hemispherical combustion chambers.
As its name implies, a hemispherical combustion chamber is as close to spherical in shape as possible, with cross-flow valves set at very large included angles. Such a layout offers several significant advantages for spark-fired engines: The hemispherical shape minimizes combustion chamber surface area, reducing heat loss through the chamber walls, while the valve placement allows larger valves and improves airflow into and out of the chamber. Better thermal and volumetric efficiency improve power and reduce fuel consumption. In principle, hemispherical combustion chambers also allow a centrally located spark plug, reducing flame travel (the distance from the spark plug electrode to the richest part of the mixture) and thus decreasing the risk of detonation. However, in practice — particularly with cam-in-block engines — central spark plug placement is often sacrificed for better valve placement.
Against these advantages are levied some serious drawbacks. Hemispherical combustion chambers make an engine’s cylinder heads significantly bulkier and heavier, in part because the heads must be wider and/or taller to accommodate the widely splayed valves. The valve positions also make the valvegear more complicated, typically requiring either multiple camshafts or a convoluted array of pushrods, rocker shafts, and rocker arms. Those factors make engines with hemispherical combustion chambers significantly costlier than many alternative OHV designs — enough to limit the layout’s popularity to pricier makes (like Alfa Romeo, Duesenberg, and Stutz) or applications that put a high priority on specific output. Hemispherical combustion chambers had been used for some race cars since before World War I and had been commonplace for aircraft engines since around 1918.
The association with racing and aviation did no particular favors for the hemispherical combustion chamber’s reputation among American automotive engineers. When Chrysler started looking seriously at the layout in the mid-forties, the conventional wisdom was that hemispherical combustion chambers were poorly suited to everyday driving, with a rough idle and high octane requirements. As Chrysler engineers determined after experimenting with different head designs in 1946, neither assumption was entirely valid: The hemispherical chamber was actually less prone to detonation on low-octane fuel than many other combustion chamber designs, and the rough idle of racing or aviation engines with this layout had more to do with their being tuned for maximum power than with the intrinsic characteristics of the design.
Nonetheless, when Drinkard and Carpentier’s boss, research chief James C. Zeder (the younger brother of Fred Zeder), formally presented the Hemi to the board of directors, even his brother was prepared to dismiss the idea out of hand. However, K.T. Keller thought it sounded promising and, as usual, when Keller spoke, other senior executives quickly fell in line.
CHRYSLER FIREPOWER HEMI
One of the major headaches of developing the new engine — which would be Chrysler’s first production V-8 — was the valvegear. For testing purposes, the engine lab staff created a Hemi head for the existing Chrysler six, using dual overhead camshafts for valve actuation in the manner of contemporary Alfa Romeos or the forthcoming Jaguar XK engine. While the DOHC layout provided fine performance, the cost of the extra camshaft and its associated drive system was deemed prohibitive. We assume there were also maintenance issues to consider; contemporary OHC engines typically required regular and often laborious adjustment. (Hydraulic valve lash adjusters for OHC engines were still some years in the future.)
Chrysler eventually decided to stick with a conventional block-mounted camshaft actuating the valves via pushrods and rocker arms. This, too, had its costs: The position of the valves required two rocker shafts and two distinct sets of rocker arms for each cylinder head. However, this arrangement didn’t require complex cam drive gear, and allowed the use of hydraulic lifters to simplify maintenance.
In other respects, the new engine had many general similarities to Cadillac’s new OHV V-8, which was introduced for the 1949 model year. Like all Cadillac V-8s since the early twenties, the Chrysler engine had a 90-degree bank angle and a split-plane crankshaft for even firing intervals. Like the Cadillac OHV engine, the Chrysler V-8 even adopted “slipper” pistons with portions of the skirt cut away to enable the piston to fit between the crankshaft counterweights, allowing a shorter, stiffer cylinder block. Both engines shared a 7.5:1 compression ratio — a concession to the modest octane ratings of contemporary pump gasoline — and even had the same bore and stroke dimensions: 3-13/16 and 3-5/8 inches (96.8 and 92.1 mm) respectively. Where the two engines parted ways was in cylinder heads and valvegear. The Chrysler engine’s intake and exhaust valves were larger than the Cadillac’s — 1.81-inch (46mm) intakes and 1.50-inch (38.1mm) exhausts compared to Cadillac’s 1.75-inch (44.5mm) and 1.44-inch (36.5mm) diameters — and had dual conical valve springs to resist valve float. With a dry weight of 729 lb (331 kg) complete, the Chrysler V8 was 117 lb (53 kg) heavier than the Cadillac, due mostly to the bulkier cylinder heads. (The weight of the Cadillac engine is sometimes quoted at 699 lb/317 kg, but that’s with flywheel and clutch housing.)
The new V-8, which Chrysler dubbed FirePower, debuted in February 1951, about two years after Cadillac’s OHV V-8 and 20 years after the first eight-cylinder Chryslers. In its initial form, with a two-throat Carter WCD-8305 carburetor, the 331 cu. in. (5,425 cc) FirePower was advertised at 180 gross horsepower (134 kW) and 312 lb-ft (423 N-m) of torque. Torque output was almost the same as the Cadillac engine, whose displacement was identical, but the Chrysler engine boasted an additional 20 gross horsepower (15 kW). The difference was probably even greater than that, since the FirePower’s output was measured with accessories installed, rather than with a completely stripped engine; Speed Age magazine later estimated the actual gross output at 187 hp (139 kW). Either way, the FirePower was one of the most powerful regular production engines in the world, although with the horsepower race that ensued, Chrysler would have to fight to retain that title.
[Author’s note: As many readers are probably aware, Chrysler eventually registered the term “HEMI” as a trademark. Today, it is a registered trademark of FCA US LLC.]