Sad what a little ignorance can do. Last month while wandering through RM's museum with Colin Hefferon I came upon a strikingly beautiful concept car. Naturally we stopped and looked (photo above), but surrounded by at least 100 great classics and with a train to catch I was too quick to move along. Now that I know its origins I wish I'd spent more time with the Plymouth XNR. Not only is the design unique but the car's history is remarkable. Too late to go back although I'd meet up with it if I were going to Monterey, for RM will be auctioning the NXR at the Portola Hotel and Spa, August 17-18.
Virgil Exner Sr. designed the Plymouth XNR in 1960 while he was vice-president of Chrysler styling. It was built to explore the idea of a car built around the driver's needs. The driver’s seat sat higher than the passenger’s, which could be covered with a hard tonneau when not in use, and the hood scoop, gauge cluster, windshield, headrest and stabilizer fin all occupied the driver’s side of the car. Interestingly, considering the race car influence, he chose not to use a Chrysler Hemi. Instead, Exner chose a 170-cu.in. slant-six engine built to NASCAR specifications. It featured a Hyper-pak intake manifold, four-barrel carburetor, ported cylinder head, high-performance camshaft, and split exhaust.
To get a shorter, more sporting wheelbase, he based the XNR on Plymouth’s new Valiant chassis. Ghia, in Italy, then built a body made entirely of steel. In initial tests the XNR hit 146 MPH but Exner had hoped it to be capable of 150 MPH, so Dick Burke added a fiberglass nose cone that enabled it to reach 152 MPH.
Exner had intended to keep the car for himself following its appearance on the show circuit but Chrysler sent it back to Ghia to avoid U.S. regulations that would have forced the company to destroy it if it had remained in America. (Forgive me if I suggest that the U.S. has created more dumb automobile regulations than all the world's auto manufacturing countries combined.) What happened next could be the basis of a film script.
Ghia sold it to a Swiss businessman, who in turn sold it to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. By 1969, it made its way to Kuwait, and then in the mid-1970s to Beirut, just in time for Lebanon’s devastating 15-year civil war. Beirut resident Karim Edde, who bought the XNR in the 1980s, said he had to go to great lengths to keep it from being destroyed. As he told RM: "I hid the XNR in an underground warehouse 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 flatbed 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 Lebanon war ended, he had RM’s restoration facility perform a two-year restoration before debuting it at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance last March, and then showing it in the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance last August. RM has made its pre-auction estimate for the XNR available only upon request.
So there I was, staring at a car I knew was special, too dim-witted to ask about the Plymouth XNR's history, too shy to ask the museum manager to move it to a place where I could take a better photo. Ah well, my task on that day was to see and photograph a very rare French car being restored for the 2012 Pebble Beach Concours so I mustn't complain. After all, I was the kid in the candy store.
[Photo credits: shooters.biz, courtesy RM; Philip Powell at RM Museum]