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The king of the tail fin: Paying homage to a Chrysler visionary

To the moon, Alice, to the moon, was the signature line of The Honeymooners sitcom of the 1950s. Contemporary automotive stylist Virgil Exner felt the same way about tail fins; they couldn't rocket high enough.

Whether tasteless or terrific (again, like Jackie Gleason's threat to the long-suffering Audrey Meadows), Exner's Plymouth Furys and Dodge Custom Royals influenced the industry: Ford, General Motors, Rambler and even Mercedes-Benz all featured fins as well, if never so boldly.

Exner's cars form the featured designer retrospective at the Concours d'Elegance of America at St. John's, on Sunday, in spectacular contrast with the show's more widely accepted classics such as the Duesenberg Model J (cars of the Jazz Age) and Jaguar SS100 (the evolution of the sports car). Why, you ask? Because each year the Concours identifies evidence of genius. And, this year, they fixed on Exner, who died in 1973.

Exner accounts for 22 of 300 vehicles in Sunday's Concours – and at least one more, a 1960 Chrysler 300F Convertible, among 80 cars on offer at the RM Motor City auction Saturday.

The show established itself among North America's leading classic events at Meadow Brook Hall, north of Detroit beginning in 1979, before relocating in 2011 to The Inn at St. John's, a former Catholic seminary that is today a conference centre and hotel.

Admission is $25, including parking, The RM auction cars (and boat) can be viewed for free on Friday; the auction begins at 11 a.m. Saturday, $200 for two admissions. Among other activities, the Hagerty Insurance Motoring Tour to the Roush and Lingenfelter collections on Friday costs $90 for a car and driver, and $35 per passenger.

Vehicles worth a long look:

Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions

1931 Chrysler CG Imperial Convertible Victoria by Waterhouse

A case can be made that George Weaver was the Virgil Exner of his time, modern and influential. But Weaver’s designs for the Waterhouse father-and-son coach builders in Massachusetts were never over the top: this Convertible Victoria demonstrates his eye for grand proportion. Restored in Montreal by Richard Grenon in between 2009 and 2011 after 70 years in one American family, with 6,000 hours invested in replacing much of its wood frame and repairing its lower body, the Convertible Victoria commanded $522,500 at an RM auction in Arizona in 2012. RM’s estimate this time: $525,000 to $725,000.

Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions

1938 Jaguar SS100

The first Jaguar sports car, like all that have followed, caused men to swoon and women to ask for a ride. The SS100 richly merits its place among the 33 cars the concours chose to illustrate the evolution of the sports car. Its ability to exceed 100 miles per hour accounted for the model designation; SS was William Lyons’ company, though the Jaguar name began appearing on his cars in 1936. Next step in Jaguar’s evolution: the XK120 in 1948 with gorgeous bodywork enveloping its wheels.

RM Auctions

1958 DeSoto Firedome Convertible

Hernando de Soto died on the banks of the Mississispi River in 1542. The Chrysler division bearing his name and image in its logo lasted until 1960. But each made their mark. DeSoto briefly conquered the mid-priced market with record sales in 1957, when Virgil Exner’s towering fins and triple tail light lenses commanded attention. All-out-extrovert colours - Spruce Green and Willow Green in the case of the 1958 Firedome convertible in the St. John’s designer retrospective display - exaggerated the drama. As did DeSoto’s Firedome and Firesweep model names, along with features advertised as Constant-Control power steering, Total Contact power brakes, and Electro-Touch radio.

Steve Hepburn/RM Auctions

1906 Studebaker Model G Touring

The Brass Era of American design, 1906-1915, was a time of innovation. Steam and electric cars were well established, competition intense among the dozens of small companies. But Studebaker benefitted from long experience: its first car in 1897 followed success in horse-drawn carriages. President Lincoln arrived at the theatre in a Studebaker. Come 1906 the South Bend, IN, company’s Model G Touring boasted 36 horsepower from its advanced engine (with individual headers and twin exhaust) and geared steering that made for easy cruising at 45 miles per hour. RM Auctions expects this Model G, a class winner at Meadow Brook in 2005 and Amelia Island in 2006, to sell for between $325,000 and $450,000.

Darin Schnabel/RM Auctions

1930 Gar Wood 28-foot Triple Cockpit Runabout, “Katie’s Choice”

The fortune Gar Wood made from dump trucks, having patented the hydraulic mechanism that tilted loadbeds, financed his passion for racing boats. Soon he was building luxurious, 200-horsepower cruisers; “Katie’s Choice” was crafted for his brother, Logan, president of Gar Wood Industries in 1930 in their new plant at Marysville, MI. Triple Cockpit Runabouts sold for $4,700, in the depression; RM estimates a sale price of $250,00-$300,000 in Saturday’s auction.

Teddy Pieper/RM Auctions

1960 Chrysler 300F Convertible

Only 248 of these 300F convertibles were built. It is expected to fetch between $150,000 and $200,000 at auction.

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