As disparate as the 1955 Chrysler Falcon and 1966 Duesenberg Model D appear at first glance, the two concept-slash-prototype cars have quite a bit in common. Both result from designs by famed stylist Virgil Exner and feature a number of Exner hallmarks; both were slated to enter production, but missed that goal; and both have been scheduled to appear at next year’s Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.
Throughout his career, Exner expressed a fondness for certain classic elements of automobile design, particularly for those that highlighted the mechanical functionality of a car. He liked round, open wheel arches; he liked upright grilles; and he especially liked fast, powerful cars. So by the early to mid-1950s, after Exner became Chrysler’s first director of styling and when he felt it was finally time to design a car for himself, he didn’t design just another sedan or luxury car; instead, he designed a two-seat convertible sports car. As Peter Grist wrote in his biography of the designer, Virgil Exner: Visioneer, Exner wanted “a car that embodied everything that he wanted to see in a classic automobile; sports, thoroughbred styling and power to match.”
With help from designer Maurice Baldwin, Exner came up with a logical, though slightly larger, competitor to Chevrolet’s Corvette and Ford’s Thunderbird. Sitting on a 105-inch wheelbase (in 1955, both Corvette and Thunderbird rode 102-inch wheelbases) and coming in at 182 inches total length (compared to 167 inches for Corvette and 175 inches for Thunderbird), the Falcon used integrated body and frame construction as well as a 276-cu.in. Hemi V-8 backed by a PowerFlite automatic transmission. As with other Exner idea cars, Ghia built the Falcon for Chrysler.
According to Grist, however, Exner envisioned the Falcon as more than an idea car. It borrowed heavily from the Chrysler parts bin and didn’t require any advanced production techniques, so why not develop it as a production car, he reasoned. But Chrysler’s engineering staff, with which Exner fought incessantly, blocked the Falcon from becoming a reality, noting that the company already had a couple of performance vehicles in the Chrysler 300-series cars and Dodge D-500; why would it need another?
Nevertheless, more than one Falcon was built; just how many is up for debate. The original one, finished in black, went to Exner, who competed with it at SCCA races, but a number of sources have pointed to a May 27, 1954, letter from Ghia’s Luigi Segre to Chrysler’s C.B. Thomas mentioning two different Falcons (designated A-488 and called “Chrysler Sports Roadster”) as well as a near-identical De Soto Sports Roadster (designated A-489). Exner’s black Falcon has gone missing and wasn’t recorded as destroyed, and the third one – reportedly painted red – was apparently never photographed, but the second one, a light blue example, wound up in Joe Bortz’s collection in 1987, and will make its way to Amelia in March.
Also appearing from Bortz’s collection, the 1966 Duesenberg Model D showcases typical Exner design language – upright grille, open wheel arches – but to a different purpose. One of a number of attempts to revive the Duesenberg name, this one originated with Fritz Duesenberg, son of August Duesenberg, who reportedly took inspiration from the four neoclassic designs that Exner and his son, Virgil Exner Jr., drew up for the December 1963 issue of Esquire. Sitting on a 137.5-inch-wheelbase Imperial chassis, powered by a 440-cu.in. Chrysler V-8, and exuding luxury from its cashmere-and-leather interior to its custom double-whitewall tires, the Ghia-built Model D prototype debuted in March 1966 in Indianapolis. Fritz Duesenberg and his business partners spoke of limited production of the near-$20,000 car and even began construction of a factory in Indianapolis with orders in hand, but only the prototype ever materialized.
That prototype then went to auction a couple of years later to help pay down the company’s debts and ended up in the hands of collector Sam Schwartz of Long Island, who displayed it for a number of years in the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum. Bortz said that he first met Schwartz in the early 1970s and even got Schwartz to agree to sell it to him then, but it wasn’t for another 30-plus years that Bortz and Schwartz actually completed the transaction. According to Bortz, it retains its original paint and interior, and has benefited from a recent tune-up and sprucing to ready it for show.
With these two cars, the Amelia Island Concours will be one of two major U.S. concours events to highlight Exner cars next year; the Concours of America has also announced that it will spotlight Exner’s automotive designs with a special class.
Next year’s Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance will take place March 7-9. For more information, visit AmeliaConcours.org.
Article courtesy of Hemings Daily, written by Daniel Strohl.