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One of six cars built for Chrysler in 1953 by Carrozzeria Ghia and based on Virgil Exner's design for the Thomas Special and 1952 Caroler Special. This superbly restored example is part of the Jerry J. Moore collection in Houston.
Text and Photos by Dennis Adler
The United States has a longstanding tradition of helping its vanquished enemies rebuild their trampled landscapes and broken economies. It is part of being a responsible nation. In 1947, General George Marshall, who was appointed US Secretary of State, established the European Recovery Program, or as it is more commonly known, the Marshall Plan. The following year the US Congress allocated $17 billion to help rebuild war-torn industries throughout Europe, and tens of millions poured into Italy, which had perhaps been ravaged second only to Germany by virtue of being the ground upon which Allied and German forces chose to stage some of their most heated battles. Italy had not only been on the wrong side in the conflict, geographically it was in the wrong place. Bombed by air, crushed by tanks, and trampled upon by millions of soldiers, it is remarkable that the Italian automotive industry was able to rebuild itself so quickly after the war. But Italy was always a country driven by its love for automobiles.
In the late '40s, Chrysler Corporation was invited over to Italy by Fiat to assist them in training their technicians in the latest American machining and assembly techniques. This same process also helped Alfa Romeo turn into a volume automaker in the early postwar years with aid from the Marshall Plan. In a very short time, Chrysler learned a great deal about the Italian automaking industry and the small but thriving carrozziere, which were among the last custom coachbuilding firms left in the world. A handful had also survived in England and France, but in America, custom coachbuilding was an art that had all but vanished by the late '40s.
Although Chrysler initially approached Pinin Farina to build prototype bodies in 1950, by 1951 an agreement had been signed with Carrozzeria Ghia in Turin to build a series of cars based upon designs by Chrysler chief stylist Virgil Exner. In the early '50s, the Chrysler Ghias were about as close as any American automaker came to recreating the coachbuilt classics of the late 1930s.
Among the rarest models produced during the 15-year alliance forged between Chrysler and Ghia, were the Exner-designed Ghia Specials manufactured from 1951 through 1954. The majority were built on the standard 125.5 inch wheelbase chassis used on all Chrysler models (except the Imperial) in 1953. Powered by Chrysler's 331cid/180hp hemi V8, Ghia models were equipped with either the new PowerFlite two-speed automatic, or the older Fluid Torque transmission, depending upon when they were built.
The example pictured, from the Houston collection of Jerry J. Moore, was delivered in 1953. According to Chrysler archives, this is one of approximately six cars based on Exner's '52 Chrysler Special and '53 Thomas Special (the latter commissioned by C.B. Thomas, then president of the export division of Chrysler Corporation).
After building six cars for Chrysler, it is estimated that Ghia produced another 12 for themselves. At one point in time there were as many as 18 similar cars. Don Williams of the Blackhawk Collection says that because of the uniqueness of the Chrysler Specials, they have a very high survival rate.
The transatlantic relationship formed between Chrysler and Ghia brought forth an entire series of limited production models, beginning with the Chrysler-Ghia GS-1 coupes in 1954, which were sold exclusively in Europe by Societe France Motors. Ghia also built the limited production 1954 Dodge Firebomb cabriolets the Chrysler-powered Dual Ghias, marketed by Dual Motors Corporation of Detroit from 1956 to 1958, and the Chrysler Crown Imperial Ghia limousines, manufactured from 1957 to 1965. However, were it not for the efforts of two men, Mario Boano and Luigi "Gigi" Segre, there would never have been a Chrysler Ghia, or for that matter, a Carrozzeria Ghia.
Originally founded in 1915 by Giacinto Ghia, as Carrozzeria Ghia & Gariglio, the firm designed and built automobile bodies for many of Italy's most respected marques: Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Italia, and Fiat. The Carrozzeria also gained a reputation in the 1920s and '30s for building innovative, lightweight aluminum alloy sports car bodies. Ghia's design for the Alfa Romeo 6C 1500 in particular, received rave reviews from the European motoring press in 1927.
The design and construction of automobile bodies for both touring and competition had been Ghia's foundation for nearly 25 years when World War II brought an abrupt end to Italy's prosperous luxury car market and impassioned love for motorsports.
Although there were no automotive chassis on which to work, there was regular income for the Turin factory throughout the early years of the war manufacturing carts for the Italian Army and a line of very stylish bicycles. There seemed little for Giacinto Ghia to do but wait for the war to end. For Ghia, the end came late in 1943 when the entire factory was destroyed during an Allied bombing raid. The loss of his buildings and all of the tooling and designs that had evolved over more than a quarter century was too much for Ghia to shoulder, and on February 21, 1944, he died of heart failure while supervising the reconstruction of the Turin factory.
Determined that the family name would continue, Santina Ghia offered what was left of her husband's company to two of his closest associates, Giorgio Alberti and Felice Mario Boano, a successor chosen by Giacinto before his death.
An accomplished coachbuilder in his own right, Boano had apprenticed at the Stabilimenti Farina and then with Pinin Farina, before establishing his own scoccheria, an industrial carpenter's yard supplying coachbuilders, including Ghia, with the full-scale wooden bucks over which metal body panels are hand formed. It was in fact the very same business in which Giacinto Ghia had made his start. Whether it was their similar backgrounds or just that Ghia took an immediate liking to Boano, he had made it clear to all involved that he wanted Boano to head the carrozzeria when he retired.
Together, Boano and Alberti rebuilt the company from the ruins of the Turino workshops, and by the late '40s had contracts for the design and manufacture of coachwork for Delahaye, Delage and Talbot Lago, along with orders for traditional bodies from two of Ghia's oldest clients, Alfa Romeo and Lancia.
Although they were never unfriendly towards each other, Boano and Alberti did not get along, and often disagreed on how the company should be operated. The pragmatic Boano brought an end to their disputes by buying out Alberti in 1947, thus giving himself absolute control of the carrozzeria. Running the entire company was something of an eye-opener for Boano, who soon discovered that his place was in the design studio and not the front office. In 1948 he hired Luigi "Gigi" Segre, who had been the commercial director of SIATA, one of Italy's most respected tuners, to take over management of Ghia. Segre was one of those rare individuals endowed with both business acumen and a talent for design and engineering. He was both a blessing and a curse to Mario Boano, who sent Segre to America in 1949 to meet with Virgil Exner and Chrysler CEO K.T. Keller. The three quickly formed a friendship that would bond the American automaker and Carrozzeria Ghia S.p.A. together for more than a decade, but left Boano almost an outsider.
In Exner, Segre had found a visionary with aspirations that could, and eventually would, make the alliance between the
two companies one of the most significant of the postwar era, and help build Ghia's worldwide reputation. This had been one of the key issues Segre had argued about with Boano, who wanted Ghia to concentrate more on the Torinese automotive industry. Exner and his advanced styling group at Chrysler, which included Cliff Voss, Maury Baldwin, and consultant Paul Farago, who ran a specialty sports car shop on the out skirts of Detroit, were the guiding force behind the Chrysler Ghia designs. Farago, who was of Italian descent and spoke the language fluently, often acted as Exner's interpreter in meetings with Segre and Boano. Exner who was well seasoned, not only in design but in the politics of design, managed to keep himself on good terms with both Segre and Boano, despite their strong differences of opinion on the Chrysler-Ghia relationship. In 1953, things finally came to a head and Boano sold Ghia to Segre.
For Exner, Boano's departure was all too familiar. Back in 1938 Exner had joined the renowned Raymond Loewy design firm, and was in fact one of the principal architects behind Loewy's "image" as one of the world's great designers.
Loewy was loathe to give even the slightest bit of recognition to any of his associates - as far as he was concerned the designs were by Loewy Studio, and that was that. Exner finally grew weary of this practice, and in 1944 he quit and went to work for Studebaker, where he designed the South Bend, Indiana, automaker's landmark 1947 models. After doing the 1948 and 1949 facelifts for Studebaker, Exner was personally recruited by K.T. Keller, to be chief of Chrysler's advance styling studio.
Despite building a quality product, Chrysler was burdened with a stodgy, old man's car image. Having seen what Exner accomplished at Studebaker, Keller knew that he could do the same for Chrysler. Exner's first step was to commission a series of advanced concept cars, and by taking advantage of the low cost of construction in postwar Italy, along with Ghia's fine craftsman- ship, he was able to produce some of the most beautiful and influential concept cars ever to flow from a designer's pen: the D'Elegance, the DeSoto Adventurer II, the Dodge Firearrow, Chrysler Falcon, and the Chrysler-Ghia series, all of which helped put Chrysler at the forefront of American automotive styling by 1957.
A few months before the new '57s were introduced, GM stylist Chuck Jordan, who was just starting out under Bill Mitchell, went along with several other designers to peek over the wall at Chrysler's proving grounds, in hopes of catching a glimpse of a '57 model. They were blown away by what they saw. It was a Chrysler 300C, Ghia-inspired grille, dual headlights, tailfins and all. "Exner had a profound effect on everyone in Detroit," says Tom Gale, Chrysler's current executive vice president of Product Development. Exner lit a fire under Detroit and the best and flashiest cars of the 1950s came on the heels of the '57 Chryslers.
The relationship that developed between Chrysler and Ghia in the 1950s contributed to the sharing of ideas and designs that traveled in both directions across the Atlantic, creating cars that were neither American nor Italian in design and execution, but something new and wonderful. Something we might take for granted in today's era of international design, engineering and manufacturing, but in the 1950s, the Chrysler Ghias were unique.