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|Chrysler's Italianate Diversions, Part One: the Dual-Ghia|
|Written by Jim Brennan|
|Monday, 11 May 2009 06:35|
If you think the idea of Italian-built production Chryslers is new, you only have to look back about 50 years to see that we are not navigating in uncharted waters.
In honor of the pending merger/acquisition between Chrysler and Fiat, we though it was time to showcase other Italianate Chryslers that have been built and sold. In this four-part series, we'll take a passing glance at some of the most memorable (and infamous) Chrysler-inspired production machines including the Dual-Ghia, the Ghia L6.4, the Ghia 450SS, that modern tragedy, the Chrysler TC by Maserati, and Chrysler's first attempt to distribute Alfa Romeo in North America, the Alfa Romeo 164. First up, the Dual-Ghia, a car that was embraced by the Hollywood elite.
The idea of having Italian craftsmen collaborate with Yankee engineers is really nothing new. Many of the American automakers sought out Italian design houses to produce stunning prototypes and produce them at far lower costs than they could have here in the states. While Nash utilized Pinninfarina to design their production vehicles, Chrysler commissioned Carrozzeria Ghia. The Dual-Ghia was a favorite car of entertainment personalities during the 1950s. A-list owners included popular celebrities such as Debbie Reynolds, Lucille Ball, and Frank Sinatra. Along with a few of the infamous Rat Pack, each owned a Dual-Ghia at one time or another. Peter Lawford even drove one on his television series The Thin Man. The Dual-Ghia was a custom-built sports car featuring a perfect combination of Italian styling and Chrysler engineering.
In the early '50s, American auto shows were deluged with sporty coupe and roadster concept cars. The Corvette was the first of these to go into production in 1953, and GM also created the Oldsmobile F-88 roadster and the Olds Rocket V-8-powered Cutlass. Pontiac featured its Bonneville Special and Buick showed its Wildcat and Wildcat II. Chrysler was no exception, as it displayed a number of Virgil Exner-designed, Ghia-built show cars like this 1954 coupe--one of five that survive--built on the chassis of a Chrysler New Yorker. Most of these show cars were realistic interpretations of the automobile designer's vision of a personal sporty car. The Ghia-Chrysler connection began in 1951 with Ghia's execution of the K-310 show car designed by Virgil Exner. Chrysler continued to use Ghia's craftsmen to create other show cars, including a series based on the Firearrow. These cars were so popular on the show circuit that Chrysler investigated the possibility of producing a Firearrow on a limited basis. However, Chrysler soon abandoned the idea and Detroit industrialist Gene Casaroll stepped in. Casaroll was the head of Auto Shippers Company and Dual Motors Corporation, an enterprise that built twin-engine vehicles for the military during the war.
Casaroll acquired the rights to the Firearrow. He instructed his chief engineer, Paul Farago, to make the necessary modifications to the design for the American market. Casarole renamed his new car The Firebomb, and in 1955, the first prototype Dual-Ghia was built. Production was scheduled to begin in 1956 and unfortunately ended in 1958. The Dual-Ghia concept used rugged, dependable, and well-proven Dodge engines and transmissions. The use of Chrysler-engineered underpinnings allowed the car to be repaired locally with standard Mopar parts. The Ghia facility in Turin, Italy, headed by Luigi Segre, was chosen to craft the elegant bodies. Once complete, the bodies were shipped to Detroit and mated to the chassis. The Dual-Ghia used a shortened Dodge passenger car chassis. Dodge also provided the Hemi engine and Powerflite transmission. This made for an impressive package, especially since the optional Dodge D-500 horsepower ratings were consistently higher than those of the Corvette. Distinctive and quite fast, it had a top speed of 120 mph according to a contemporary road test.
With its peaked front fenders, single-bar grille, wire wheels, and perky blade-like rear fins the Dual-Ghia was a handsome car. The front and rear were protected by sturdy Dodge bumpers. Inside, the Dual-Ghia was luxuriously appointed, including English Connolly leather and fine carpeting. The full complement of gauges included a tachometer. The trunk was carpeted, as was the underside of the hood for sound insulation. The first phase of the Dual-Ghia came to an end in 1958 when the company's supply of Dodge components ran out. The conversion of Chrysler Corp's cars to torsion bar front suspension for 1957, and its planned changeover to unitized bodies in 1960, required massive changes by Dual-Motors if it were to continue the Dual-Ghia. The health of Casaroll, the Dual-Ghia's originator, began to fail and he chose to concentrate on his shipping business.
In the fifties, it was rare to see a show car turned into a production vehicle. This stylish car, an unlikely marriage between Chrysler and Ghia, became an instant hit with the Hollywood Elite. The Dual-Ghia was the car to be seen in. One gossip columnist even commented that the Rolls Royce was for the Hollywood rich who couldn't get a Dual-Ghia. Out of the 117 cars produced, 32 have been documented as survivors as of July 2006. Some of the American celebrities that owned one included Sterling Hayden and Richard Nixon. Desi Arnaz owned one, but he wrecked it. Ronald Reagan owned one which he lost in a high-stakes poker game with then-President Lyndon Johnson, who kept the car for several years. For some great views of another stunning Dual-Ghia, take a look at "We Love Dodges, Past, Presnt, and Future..."
So there you have it, a handsome, fast, limited-edition personal car with Italian coachwork and American components. If and when Chrysler starts building the best of Fiat here in the US, it will be the best of Italian engineering with American coachwork. A Chrysler-built Fiat 500? Well, that's something to think about, and as you will see, not unprecedented.
Coming in Part Two: the Ghia L6.4