The Chrysler Ghia Specials of 1951-1955

I wrote this in 2006 for an American car club magazine here in the UK; it mainly concerns the two Thomas Specials that were acquired by a good friend of mine, and fellow Chrysler enthusiast, Raphael Brunet, from Paris.

Check out the Walter P. Chrysler Club...

Soon after legendary stylist Virgil J. Exner Senior was employed by K.T. Keller to head a new Chrysler Corporation Advanced Styling Studio, he launched his acclaimed series of Ghia-built “idea cars.”

While the Big Three American auto factories would spend most of the fifties building and showing “dream cars,” only the Chrysler versions were designed with an eye on possible future production, albeit, probably very limited, and as a result, virtually all were fully engineered.

Ghia chief Luigi Segre spoke quite good English, so when he travelled to America to promote his company’s 1951 Plymouth XX-500 concept car, he was well placed to make a good impression at Chrysler. But if this had still been the Chrysler of old, saddled with conservative design values adopted after the sales flop of the Airflow models in the 1930s, his visit would probably been unrewarding. However, Segre’s timing was perfect.

While the Plymouth XX-500 was a little on the dumpy side, Exner admired its execution, and saw in Ghia a opportunity to execute some design concepts of his own, with quite a few ideas that owed more to Europe than to America.

Chrysler K-310 concept carExner travelled to Turin in 1950 to examine Ghia’s facilities, and forged an agreement with Segre and his partner, Felice Mario Boano, to produce the Chrysler K-310, the first of a series of “idea cars” that Chrysler Corporation would design and build in Italy during the 1950s and early 1960s, culminating in the semi-production run of fifty-Chrysler Turbine cars delivered for public evaluation in 1963.

chrysler concept k-310The 1951 K-310 was a two-seater sports coupe in the grand touring tradition, built upon a Saratoga chassis, and powered by Chrysler’s new 180 h.p. Hemi V-8. The “K” supposedly stood for Keller, and the 310 referred to the modified engine’s apparent output.

Featuring free-standing “gun-sight” taillights, a spare tyre imprinted in the sheet-metal on the trunk lid, a prominent, almost classical grille, and asymmetrical split seats, this first “idea car” previewed styling themes that would appear on later Chrysler Corporation production models. The K-310’s paint scheme has been described as dark blue upper body over peacock blue. A convertible version was also produced, called the C-200 which was apparently finished in black over light green. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to suggest that either car has survived.

chrysler C-200 concept car

In 1952 Ghia produced another coupe called the Special. This car was built on a shortened New Yorker chassis, and two were built at the request of the then head of Chrysler export sales, C.B. Thomas. The car made its debut at that year’s Paris Auto Show. The Special has been described as a delicate cross between a Facel Vega and Mulliner Bentley Continental; it was a far less controversial design than the K-310, and won many plaudits, especially in Europe, for its overall execution.

Strictly speaking, the Special wasn’t an official Chrysler project, but rather an exercise sponsored by export boss Thomas. Virgil Exner Jr claims his father designed the car with the help of a few colleagues, in the basement of their home. According to Chrysler archives, six cars would later be built, based upon the ’52 Chrysler Special and later ’53 Thomas Special.

ghia special

After building the six models for Chrysler, up to another twelve versions were built by Ghia, and several experts have confirmed that up to 18 similar cars did exist at one time, and that due to their uniqueness, the survival rate has been quite high. These limited production cars started with the 1954 Chrysler Ghia GS-1 coupes which were sold exclusively in Europe by the Société France Motors.

Hans Ensing wrote: The Specials were also sold by Chrysler [in addition to Société France Motors]. Chrysler Antwerp was the only official subsidiary on the European Continent and C. B. Thomas, the [Chrysler US] export director hired from Hudson, was a board member [of Chrysler Antwerp]. The car was also shown by the Dutch Chrysler distributor at the Amsterdam 1954 show. Chrysler Antwerp also participated with Ghia dream cars in several Concours D’Elegance in the Belgian beach resort Knokke. ... Regarding the Falcon, distributors were invited to sell it under the name of Chrysler Sports Roadstar, saying that was a slightly modified version of the Ghia prototype.

At the 2005 Goodwood Revival meeting, where I was exhibiting my 1965 Chrysler 300L, I had the opportunity to catch up with a fellow Chrysler enthusiast Raphael Brunet from Paris. Raphael had brought across his white 1956 Chrysler 300B to Goodwood to join the line-up of 300 letter series cars, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Chrysler 300 (released in 1955). Raphael is a fairly regular visitor to the UK American vehicle show, Rally of the Giants, and has displayed both the 300B and his 1958 Chrysler New Yorker at the show. At Goodwood, he lamented that he had parted with his New Yorker and several other cars from his quite vast collection that he stores in an underground car park in the centre of Paris, to help finance the purchase of two very rare and interesting cars. The photos he showed me were of two Ghia built Chrysler coupes.

When this was written, Raphael was still investigating his two vehicle’s histories, but believes they are among the last of the series. The first of his two purchases is a green 1954 Chrysler ST Special coupe. Based on the earlier Chrysler GS-1 coupe, this was a late 1954 evolution.

brochure

The second version he has purchased is a further evolution of the ST Special built for 1955, based on a contemporary New Yorker chassis and powered by the 354 cid Hemi V-8. As you can see from the photo images reproduced in this article, the 1954 green coupe is a complete car in very presentable condition. However, the 1955 car needs a complete restoration, and this has already commenced. Raphael’s investigations have so far revealed that the 1954 ST was originally brought new by a wealthy Milanese businessman, while the 1955 version was owned by a French industrialist who was heavily involved in the plastics industry. Hopefully, Raphael will be able to bring one of these cars to a future RoG when he has them sorted and road tested.

The story of the Ghia built Chrysler “idea cars” is an absorbing and largely unrecorded story that would be a worthy subject for a book, and hopefully, in time, a qualified specialist author will undertake this project. However, I should make mention of the 1953 Chrysler D’Elegance. An evolution of the original Thomas Special, it is claimed that this car was the inspiration for the original Volkswagen Karmann Ghia coupe, and a quick comparison of the two will bear this theory out.

Check out the Walter P. Chrysler Club, which originally printed this article.

Exner is reported as saying that “I had this car, the D’Elegance, being built over in Torino in the Ghia shops. Of course, we had prepared a very detailed plaster model for them to work from. At the time, they were working on prototypes for VW for what would become the Karmann Ghia. They had done two or three and Karmann was still not satisfied. This plaster model of mine came in, and lo and behold, when the Karmann Ghia came out, it was a scaled right down to the fraction.”

The Karmann Ghia Volkswagen coupe debuted in 1956 and sold in excess of 10,000 units in its first year, and sales climbed steadily, peaking at 33,000 by the late 1960s. To put it mildly, this success proved a bit of a contrast with the alleged eighteen Chrysler “Thomas Specials” built for sale by Ghia.

— Geoff Mitchell

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