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Elwood Engel, Chrysler’s Chief Stylist

elwood engel noteThe advent of Elwood Engel replacing Virgil Exner in 1961 was a total change for the studios. Exner had separated the board designers from the clay modeling process by having separate clay rooms where the studio manager and assistant directed the modeling, guided by the chief stylists and Exner. Designers were seldom admitted to the clay rooms. We filled the display boards with sketches, and the manager and his assistant looked at them after hours to get ideas for the clays.

Engel changed the system to that of the Ford Design Office by putting the designers and clays in the same room. Now we designers directed the clay modeling.

El, as we called him, immediately redid Exner's office, and it was stunning! I had never seen Ex's office, but soon after Engel redecorated it, he brought me and other designers in to see it. The walls were covered in what looked like rough limestone blocks, there was lush carpeting, and décor that looked like it came from India. A large elaborately worked brass coffee table was in the center of the room, and a life-sized statue of a god of India (Vishnu?) stood in the corner. There was a kitchenette, a bathroom, and a small bedroom where we speculated that secretaries might occasionally rest.

elwood engel

Elwood brought his secretary over from Ford. Sally was a sultry looking beauty, and many fellows tried to date her, but to no avail. Eventually Elwood was divorced from his wife, and married Sally.

Exner had been aloof from the designers, seldom seen in the studios except when giving the top execs tours. Elwood Engel came into the studios frequently, and chatted with everyone, sometimes pitching quarters against a wall with anyone who would try his skill, including janitors. Elwood seldom input his design into the programs, unless it was done after hours with the studio managers. He often would get loudly enthusiastic over a designer's sketch.

He was proud of the Turbine car which he and Bill Mashigan designed, and when the little plastic promo models came out, he gave me one. Later he dropped the keys to a turbine car on my desk, and told me to drive it for a few days.

charger show carLater, when he had produced the “Topless Charger,” he gave it to me to drive for a weekend. I thought it was a “funny car” with only a front seat, and a huge rear deck area.

Elwood was an eccentric, and had a good sense of humor. He kept our spirits up. I never saw an Engel design sketch, and wasn't able to get an opinion of his personal design talents, but the Chrysler Corp. cars after 1965 sold pretty well.

One evening I was skiing at a nearby resort, and saw Elwood having coffee with a ski instructor. He called me to join them, and told the instructor that we were both designers of Chrysler cars. I never knew him to be pretentious. Always “one of the guys.”

When we Plymouth designers were developing the 1970 Barracuda body, El came in on a late Friday afternoon. He didn't like the fenderline on the clay model. “Has anybody got a hammer?” he hollered. A modeler brought him one, and he proceeded to hammer down the top of the front fender. The union steward ran up to him and told him only union modelers were allowed to work on full-size clay. “I'm not modeling; I'm hammering,” Elwood replied, and continued to pound the clay. “Besides, I'm creating more work for you guys!” The steward backed off.

Elwood asked Milt Antonick, who was supervising the Barracuda design, to come in the next day, Saturday, with some modelers. On that day, Elwood directed the “tweaking” of the clay model, and its design was chosen over Dodge Studio’s concept. The Challenger had to be face-lifted from the Plymouth design.

I never knew why Elwood was replaced by Dick Macadam. After that change, the atmosphere was more business-like, and not as much fun.

I always considered Exner to be the better designer, at least from a “purist” standpoint, but like all designers, he sometimes came up with turkeys. I don't think Ex had a feeling for commercial car designs of the time. El didn't seem to come up with concepts that would grace a museum of modern design, but the cars designed under his leadership sold pretty well. Anyway, that's my opinion!

engel and turbine car

I knew Cliff Voss and saw Bill Brownlie at Ford, in the early 1950s, then at Chrysler. I liked Voss, (mostly because he tried to push one of my concepts to Exner). I didn't see much of Voss's personal designs. Voss seemed to be almost always with Ex, the “right hand man.” I didn't get to know Brownlie very well; he seemed to be a good designer, and an expert promoter.

I knew Dick Macadam when he was a board designer in the Chrysler Studio. He had a laugh like a 50-caliber machine gun, and everyone got a kick out of it. I was Macadam's assistant when he managed the Valiant-Dart Studio. He was conscientious and fair, and a good manager. A bit conservative on designs, as he often toned down what we designers wanted.

crown coupe

1963 plymouthThe 1962 Plymouth (much like modern art, acclaimed by the critics but soundly rejected by the public) was a primary reason for Virgil Exner's quick exit from Chrysler styling. Coming in to straighten things out, with a literal vengeance, was Elwood Engel of 1961 Continental fame. Under Engel's tutelage, all Exner's beloved eccentricities were dumped in favor of straight lines and square corners. A rush job was done on the 1963 restyle, bringing in almost all-new sheetmetal for the third time in as many years. (Was the 1963 what was to have been the all-new 1964, pressed into production a year early?)

It worked. The 1963 Plymouth was much better received by the public. The prominent outboard parking lights were perhaps a bit strange to some, but the buyers liked them much better than the huge round headlight bezels of the previous year. The only holdover features were the upward-rising cowl, the pointed windshield, and the trepzoidal instrument panel (the cowl is one of the most expensive areas to engineer). That was the 1962 Plymouth, the second time around.

1966 plymouth belvedere

In 1965, the long straight lines were still there, the trademark of Elwood Engel. But more significantly, the straight lines were found on a brand new car - a big car to compete straight across bumper to bumper, wheelbase to wheelbase, with the large Fords and Chevrolets. The car was conservatively styled, especially compared to the flowing curves introduced by General Motors that year. Yet Plymouth's conservative styling was tastefully and pleasingly done. The front featured a fine mesh grille flanked by vertically stacked headlights, an industry-wide vogue initiated by the ’63 Pontiac. The rear featured segmented taillights that showed (some say Chevrolet-fashion) the model: one lamp on each side for the low and medium offerings; two for the higher priced lines.

It was obvious that Chrysler had given up trying to take the lead in styling. They had tried twice, with immediate success in 1957 and near disaster in 1962. From then on, styling from Chrysler would take its cue from others, mostly GM, attempting to offer their own version in a more pleasing and appealing manner. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't. 

Valiant, too, felt the Engel touch for 1966. Although in the last year of a long, long four year cycle, it got straight and squared-off new sheet metal for a one-year-only appearance.

Elwood Engle biography

Elwood P. Engel was born on February 10, 1917. He started out as a stylist by enrolling in General Motors’ school of design, then led by Harley Earl; then the war called him away for four years (he served as a map maker). When he returned, Joe Oros recommended to his boss, George Walker, that he join their design firm.

Chrysler turbine car, rear viewWalker handled design for some Ford components, and in that reltaionship saw a preview of the 1949 Ford. He thought it likely to fail, and, on spec, created clay models for replacements. It appears that Ford chose his design, and, following that, Walker was able to style the 1950 Lincoln, 1951 Mercury, 1952 Ford, and 1955 Ford Thunderbird. The last of that series led Ford to hire George Walker as the head of their internal styling office; he took Oros and Engel with him. (Oros was Engel’s best man when he married Marguerite Imboden).

At Ford, Oros worked on Ford brand cars, and Engel worked on Lincoln and Mercury and was chief of the advanced design studio. Oros and Engel competed for the 1958 Thunderbird design; Oros’ design won but Engel was given the project of adding two doors and seats to the car, leading to the 1961 Lincoln Continental.

In 1961, Walker retired, and Eugene Bordinat replaced him. Walker reported made contact with Chrysler people, who were seeking to replace Virgil Exner at the time. Exner’s highly artistic designs had not been well received, though that was largely because of the 1962 William Newberg debacle, where the then-Chrysler President had mistakenly thought GM was going to downsize all its cars, and rushed to downsize Chrysler’s line — ejecting a highly attractive set of car designs that were just about ready for production.

One of Engel’s first projects at Chrysler (he started in November 1961), as vice president for styling, was designing the turbine cars, which appeared the very next year. While he did not end the tailfins, which were already gone, he is credited with “ending the styling excesses of the 1950s.” His own achievements are often overlooked by those who see him merely as a foil to Virgil Exner. While his primary strengths do appear to have been in encouraging Chrysler’s various stylists, setting a lead and championing particular designs, this does not lessen his impact or skill, and the cars he was personally responsible for have generally gotten critical acclaim.

He retired in 1973, staying on as a consultant through 1974.

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