The automobile business has spawned some rather unlikely partnerships over the years, with one of the most unusual of those coming in the early 1950s between Chrysler and the Italian coachbuilder Carrozzeria Ghia. At the start of the decade, Chrysler was saddled with a line of staid and conservatively styled cars that desperately needed an influx of excitement. Ghia was in need of business after facing heavy damage from bombing raids during World War II. So in order to encourage Chrysler to utilize their skills, Ghia built a car as an offering of sorts. That car was the Plymouth XX-500 of 1950, a stylish and elegant four door fastback based on the pedestrian Plymouth P20 chassis. The newly appointed Chairman of Chrysler, K.T. Keller along with Virgil Exner, Chrysler styling chief and a champion of Italian design, were suitably impressed and called upon Ghia to add a welcome dose of excitement into Chrysler’s product line. Over the span of the next decade, more than two dozen “Idea Cars” would be produced by Ghia for Chrysler and the relationship between these two storied firms would last well into the 1960s.
Unlike many dream cars of the era from Detroit, Chrysler’s Ghia Idea Cars were fully engineered and drivable machines, ready for the road. Yet despite the positive response and press accolades, Chrysler brass was reluctant to green-light mass production, as they were still feeling the sting from the failed Airflow project. But Chrysler’s export manager C.B. Thomas insisted he could sell Ghia-bodied Chryslers to wealthy buyers, and managed to get official approval to commission six “Styling Specials”, with further approval for Ghia to build 12 additional cars. All Chrysler Ghia Specials were powered by the 180 horsepower FirePower Hemi V8, backed by either a Fluid Torqe Drive four-speed semi-automatic transmission or a PowerFlite fully automatic unit. The first car was a sporty, short wheelbase fastback, while the second car, commissioned for C.B. Thomas himself, was a more elegant notchback coupe that inspired the limited production run of just 18 similar cars. Today, Ghia Chryslers rarely become available on the open market, and they are highly sought after by collectors for their rarity, impeccable Italian style, and outstanding performance.
This 1953 Chrysler Special Ghia was built atop a New Yorker Deluxe chassis and delivered new via Chrysler’s French importer, Société France Motors. Rather curiously, the car was first registered in a lady’s name as of 23rd of July 1953, yet by the 27th of July, it was registered to the wealthy industrialist, Leon Coulibeuf, who made his fortune in concrete electric poles during the post-war reconstruction. Coulibeuf was a motoring enthusiast and gentleman racer who competed at the Le Mans 24 Hour race, among many other events. The Chrysler was in good company, as he was also known to have a Mercedes Benz 300SL Coupe, Porsche 356 and Alfa Romeo 1900 in his stable. No doubt proud of their acquisition, the Chrysler Special was shown by Madame Coulibeuf at the 1953 concours d'elegance of Enghien-les-Bains in France, and was featured in the September 1953 issue of the French magazine L'Action Automobile.
The Chrysler disappeared for some years before being acquired by Jacques Pelve, a Chrysler dealer in Brittany. He discovered the car on a factory property, rough but complete and still wearing its original livery and the same license plate it had worn when displayed at Enghien-les-Bains in 1953. After owning the car for many years, Mr. Pelve embarked on a painstaking, multi-year restoration, beginning in the 1990s and completed in 2001. The original Chrysler build-sheet confirmed this car still wears its original FirePower hemi engine, and it is understood the body was remarkably sound when it was restored. The car was refinished in a period appropriate two-tone blue color scheme, with a complementary light blue cabin piped in white.
Today, this elegant and sophisticated motorcar presents in very good condition throughout. The restoration has mellowed slightly, showing some use, but paint finishes and detailing remain very good for a 16 year old restoration. It is an inherently gorgeous machine that eschews traditional 50’s glitz for understated elegance with its sculptured panels and intricate details. It rides on a set of lovely chrome wire wheels, wrapped in period correct wide-whitewall tires. Chrome trim and detailing remains in excellent condition, and the body is very straight with excellent panel fit and alignment.
Light blue leather lines the cabin, covering the seats, door cards and rear quarter panels. The seating surfaces do show some light use but remain very attractive overall. Carpets are very good, as are the door panels and headlining. This car features a rear seat which may have been a later addition, as most Ghia Specials were strictly two-seaters. The dash is fitted with the original radio, clock and KM-calibrated instruments. Some of the chrome on the steering wheel shows very minor pitting, which does little to detract from the overall quality of the cabin. Moving around to the front, the engine bay presentation is good, with the original matching-numbers Firepower Hemi, appearing in good and tidy order with driver-level detailing. A non-original air cleaner has been fitted for ease of service, and the engine remains in very good running condition. This car is optioned with the four-speed Fluid-Torque-Drive transmission, shifted via the column-mounted lever.
Upon its restoration, this car was invited to the Louis Vuitton concours d'elegance at Bagatelle in 2001. It also won the award for "most exciting design" at the concours d'élégance of Zoute Grand Prix in Knokke, Belgium in October 2014, and was shown at the prestigious Villa d'Este Concorso d'Eleganza in 2015. It remains in fine order throughout and is equally suited for touring or mid-level show. This Chrysler Ghia Special is a breathtakingly stylish, rare and truly international motorcar from the brief but brilliant postwar coachbuilding renaissance.