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Elwood Engel, Chrysler’s Chief Stylist

When Elwood Engel replaced Virgil Exner in 1961, it was a total change for the studios.

Exner had 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.

elwood engel note

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, redid Exner's office, and it was stunning! I had never seen Ex's office, but soon after Engel redecorated it, he brought 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. 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 put 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 car

Later, 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.

John understood and mastered form and surface development like no one else. ... I can’t say enough about him as a designer and a gentleman. — Designer Diran Yazejian

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.

1970 barracudaElwood 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.

engel and turbine car

Cliff Voss and Bill Brownlie

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

Elwood Engle biography

Elwood P. Engel was born on February 10, 1917. He enrolled in General Motors’ school of design, led by Harley Earl; then, when the war called him away for four years, he served as a map maker in both Europe and the Pacific. When he returned, Joe Oros recommended to his boss, George Walker, that he join their design firm, which handled Nash, farm equipment, household appliances, and other decidedly non-automotive products. Oros and Engel would remain strong friends.

Chrysler turbine car, rear viewWalker soon gained the contract for some Ford components (dropping Nash), and saw a preview of the 1949 Ford. He thought it likely to fail, and, on spec, created clay models for replacements.

Ford chose his design, and then Walker styled the 1950 Lincoln, 1951 Mercury, 1952 Ford, and 1955 Ford Thunderbird. Finally, Ford hired George Walker as the head of their internal styling office; he took Oros and Engel with him.

Oros worked on Ford cars while 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 1961 Lincoln Continental, essentially a four-door, four-seat version of the car. In 1961, Walker retired, and Eugene Bordinat replaced him.

Meanwhile, at Chrysler, Exner’s ever-more-artistic designs had not been well received, and they reached to Ford and hired Elwood Engel to replace him in November 1961 — according to one source, due to Walker’s own advice. One of Engel’s first projects at Chrysler as vice president for styling was designing the turbine cars, which appeared the next year. He is credited with “ending the styling excesses of the 1950s” (tailfins had already left). 

His achievements are often overlooked by those who see him merely as a foil to Virgil Exner; he encouraged Chrysler’s designers, reportedly brought out the best in them, and the cars he was personally responsible for have generally gotten critical acclaim.

He retired in 1973, staying on as a consultant through 1974. Elwood Engel died on June 24, 1986, of cancer, and is buried in Troy, Michigan, in a mausoleum.

Another view

The 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?)

1963 plymouth

It worked. The 1963 Plymouth was much better received by the public. The prominent 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 trapezoidal 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. 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.

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.

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