A Car So Personal Virgil Exner Named It After Himself, the Plymouth XNR
In the late 1950s, when Chrysler executives asked Virgil Exner Sr to show them what could be done with a highly personalized future car for the popularly priced Plymouth brand, the Chrysler design chief took them at their word and came up with something so personal that he named it XNR, after himself. One of a series of Chrysler Corp show cars built by Ghia in Italy, the XNR was based on the compact Valiant chassis. Unlike many of the other Exner-Ghia concepts that featured Mopar’s marquee motor, the Hemi, the XNR is powered by a souped up version of what would in time become venerable but what was then a new engine, the Slant Six. With its asymmetrical and quirky styling, the little speedster is quite an interesting car, but its provenance, which includes being both Exner’s and the Shah of Iran’s personal vehicles and surviving a Mideast civil war, is even more interesting.
As with Harley Earl’s Buick Y-Job and Bill Mitchell’s Stingray, two concept cars that were also their designer’s personal rides, Exner designed himself a sporty open car. Some call it a roadster but speedster seems more appropriate since as far as the sources indicate, it never had any kind of roof, hardtop or soft.
Sports cars are generally not as big as sedans so the XNR was fabricated on an altered Valiant chassis with a 106.5″ wheelbase and it’s torsion bar suspension up front. The relatively high-revving Slant Six, in its original 170 cubic inch displacement, earned its name because it lays 30 degrees from upright. One of the XNR’s inspirations were the “lay-down” Watson Indy racers whose Offenhauser engines were also canted over. The Slant Six allowed for the XNR’s sleek hood. With a four barrel carburetor, the 170 CI engine was good for 250 horsepower and as assembled with a manual 3 speed transmission with a floor shifter, the XNR saw 146 mph on the Chrysler test track. Eager to see the 150 mph mark, Exner had engineer Dick Burke design and build a “shark nose” mouth for the front end with a shrouded radiator cooled by electric fans. The modified XNR reached 153 mph at the company proving grounds. The Slant Six’s 6 into 1 exhaust manifold was replaced by a custom cast header with two outlets, one for each of the visible side pipes, both of them mounted, again asymmetrically, on the driver’s side. In addition to the bigger carb and special tuned exhaust system, the Slant Six in the XNR was fitted with a Hyperpak tuned ram intake manifold, a ported cylinder head, special cam and special pistons.
Polarizing in its day and still a bit radical, the XNR has an asymmetrical design. A chrome bumper flush to the sheet metal surrounds a drilled grille inset with quad headlamps, a touch that seems to me to be inspired by trends in the custom car world at the time. An offset scoop, with its own matching drilled grille, dominates the hood and the lines of that scoop fair into the cowl and driver’s windshield and then flow elegantly into a single offset fin that Virgil Exner Jr. a successful car designer in his own right, said was inspired by the Jaguar D-Type. Nominally a two-seater, the passenger was protected by a flat, Brooklands style windshield. When not carrying two, that screen folded down and an aerodynamic and snug fitting steel tonneau was installed to cover the passenger seat. In keeping with the asymmetry theme, and perhaps as a nod towards aerodynamics, the passenger seat sits four inches lower than the driver’s seat. The shape of the wheel wells and winglet fenders would later show up on the production Valiant. Exner neatly tucked possibly aircraft-inspired running lights under the front winglets.
An elegant styling touch is the way the bladed rear bumper incorporates a vertical element that is integrated into the car’s monofin. That vertical element is mirrored by one that drops below the bumper line. The resulting star shape is eye catching to say the least.
After Exner and his team did sketches in 1958 and the following year, a 3/8ths scale clay model was sculpted in Detroit. That model and the modified Valiant unibody was shipped to Ghia in Turin. Ghia and Chrysler had a very successful relationship in the 1950s, with the Italian coachbuilder fabricating most of the company’s high profile concept cars. As was Ghia’s practice with those Chrysler “idea cars”, the XNR’s body was made of hand formed steel.
While Chrysler hype that the car might see production was typical of the day, the XNR was fully engineered and featured a complete black leather interior. While there was a small trunk lid in back, it was easier to access storage for luggage from behind the seats. Instrumentation reflected Exner’s passion for photography, with dial covers that mimic camera lenses.
Once built, the XNR was shipped to the United States where it went on the show circuit, appearing on Road & Track’s cover. Exner drove it as much as he could but after it was no longer needed as a show car prohibitive customs tariffs meant that it had to either be crushed or returned to Italy to Carrozzeria Ghia. “My dad wanted to buy it,” Exner Jr. says, “but if it had stayed in the U.S., it would have to have been destroyed.”
That’s where the story gets interesting. A man from Switzerland, variously identified by the sources as either a businessman or a butcher, bought the XNR from Ghia. He sold it to a man named Mohammad Reza Pahlevi, a Persian collector of rare automobiles better known as the Shah of Iran. The Shah was still ensconced on the Peacock Throne when he sold it to a Kuwaiti, as evidenced by a May 1969 issue of National Geographic magazine that had a photograph of the XNR representing Kuwait’s affluence. It was sold again in the early 1970s to a Lebanese collector. To protect the one of a kind vehicle, the owner hid it in an underground garage for the duration of the Lebanese Civil War that raged from 1975 to 1991.
Karim Edde is a personable Lebanese man who started collecting cars when he was just 15 years old, in 1977, inheriting the hobby from his father. Trying to find classic sports during a civil war proved to be a challenge. By the ’80s Edde was paying local teenagers in Beirut “…go on their scooters to search the underground garages in the upscale areas—I was looking for Ferraris—and one day, they were all excited about a ‘weird’ car they’d found in a garage just 200 meters from my home. I recognized the XNR from a Swiss book I owned called Dream Cars.”
Though there was a war raging, Edde immediately bought the XNR. That presented him with another challenge: how to keep it safe during the conflict. “I hid the XNR in an underground warehouse,” he told RM Auctions, “that seemed safe at the time, but when the conflict became more global, I had to move it to a different location. In fact, the last two years of the war were so bad, I had to move the car many times to save it from destruction. We had no flat bed trucks, so we used long arm tow trucks to lift the car and put it on a truck and move it around. It was a delicate operation, but we had no choice, we had to move the car to safer locations. After the war ended, the car waited patiently for me to find a restorer that could bring back its past glory.”
Eventually, Edde decided on using RM’s restoration subsidiary in Ontario, Canada, which started work on a two year restoration in the spring of 2009. The car was finished in time for the 2011 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, where it won best in class.
Restoring a one-off car can be harder than doing a similar quality job on a production vehicle. Mario Van Raay, general manager of RM Restoration says, “When we received the XNR in 2008, the body shell was intact and, considering its history, in surprisingly good condition. Many original parts accompanied the XNR, but our greatest challenge was the re-creation of the missing components. Considering that this was a concept car, there was incredible attention to detail, right down to the fine leather interior, beautiful instrument cluster, and custom built hubcaps. Each hubcap was comprised of 35 individual metal pieces. We had to completely scratch-build those hubcaps. Because of the extensive information and many high quality photos available, we could not take any liberties when re-manufacturing all these components. They had to be exact.”
The restoration was aided immensely by access to Virgil Exner Sr’s archive of documentation for the XNR, provided by his son.
Edde put the XNR up for auction in 2012 (again through the RM organization) where it sold for $935,000 to Paul Gould, a New York investment banker. Gould also owns another Exner/Ghia concept car, the Dart Diablo. Both cars were on display at the 2014 Concours of America at St. John’s, which was honoring Virgil Exner Sr as the show’s “featured designer”. In addition to the two concepts an entire class at the concours was devoted to Exner era Mopars.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS
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