In the recent article on the 1954 Plymouth Belmont concept car, many people expressed doubt that Virgil Exner actually penned the Belmont’s lines, despite the fact that Exner had taken credit for the car for many years. Indeed, it would be a stretch to say that the Belmont uses any of Exner’s love-it-or-hate-it design language, but that’s the way design studios worked at that time – the head of the studio would more often than not take credit for the work that the designers who worked under him produced, no matter how many brushstrokes he applied to the work.
Still, the truth eventually makes its way out, and we have reader Dave Langstone and author Peter Grist to thank for setting the record straight here. Grist, author of Virgil Exner, Visioneer, pointed out in his 2007 biography of the designer that Bill Robinson, a designer with Briggs Manufacturing, actually designed the Belmont and that he later let Exner take credit for the design. Langstone pointed that out to us too, and took it a step further, not only by providing photos of Robinson’s sketches for the Belmont, which he donated to the Walter P. Chrysler Museum last year, but also by putting us in touch with Robinson.
Robinson said that Chrysler’s K.T. Keller did indeed want a Corvette competitor and that he instructed Al Prance at Briggs to begin work on one. Prance turned to Robinson, who had been with Briggs as a designer for about five years at that time. “At first, I was thinking they wanted a real concept car, so I had drawings with fins and that nature,” Robinson said. “But as the project progressed, I figured that they were looking more for a true sports car than a concept car, so I grew more conservative in my designs.”
According to Robinson, he wasn’t much of a fan of sports cars at the time, so he didn’t take inspiration from any particular car. In addition, he had a few design limitations around using production pieces – specifically the chassis and bumpers – so he said he instead wanted to experiment with new forms and shapes in his design. “I was most concerned with getting rid of the outboard headlamps,” he said. “The body shapes trail off from outboard headlamps, so I figured that if I moved them inboard, I could try out different side contours.”
That effort shows in at least a few of the design sketches that Robinson provided to the museum, in particular the two-tone copper-over-gold sketch and the pair of sketches with the iridescent blue paint that rather closely matches the color the Belmont originally wore.
Of course, a number of changes took place between sketch and final product. “Any time you see a concept drawing that looks just like the real-life car, you know it’s a fraud and was done after the fact,” Robinson said. The most significant change that took place was, of course, his superiors’ insistence that the headlamps be moved back to an outboard position, thus scrubbing most of the impact Robinson aimed for. Robinson said he also didn’t much like having to change his design to raise the hood a couple of inches for engine clearance. “The hood and the decklid had the same contour until then,” he said. “Fortunately, Walt Brocker, who worked with me on the full-size drawing, kept as much of the existing form as he could when he added the hoodscoop.”
Sometime during or shortly after the completion of the Belmont, Chrysler purchased Briggs and Robinson transferred to Chrysler’s styling department. He said he wasn’t too pleased with the result (“Those gunsight headlamps were the only real way to make it distinctive.”), so when Exner approached him and asked to take credit for the Belmont, Robinson was more than happy to let him do so. “I felt good that Exner thought enough of it to want to take credit for it,” he said. Over the years, he remained silent on the issue because “I always felt the owner could get more for it as an Exner car than as a Robinson car.”
Robinson stayed with Chrysler until 1980 and followed his career there by teaching automotive and transportation design at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit.
Article courtesy of Hemings Daily.