19-20 August 2011

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Lot 143

1952 Chrysler D'Elegance by Ghia

  • Chassis no. 321953

Sold for $946,000

280 hp, 354 cu. in. Chrysler Firepower Hemi OHV V-8, three-speed Torqueflite automatic transmission, independent front suspension by wishbone arms and coil springs, live rear axle with leaf springs, four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 115"

- Launched at 1952 Paris Motor Show: first of 25 Ghia D’Elegance coupes

- Uprated to 354-cubic inch, 280-hp Hemi V-8 and Torqueflite transmission

- Red metallic paint, black and cream leather interior, fitted luggage

Starting with 1941’s Newport Parade Phaeton and the 1941 Thunderbolt, a stunning retractable sports coupe, Chrysler flirted with fashionable concept cars for 20 years. The first cars hearkened back to the expensive customs of the 1930s, but after World War II an alliance was struck between Fiat and Chrysler, and it produced some remarkable designs.

In 1949, C.B. Thomas was president of Chrysler’s Export Division and having dinner with Pinin Farina in Italy when they came up with the idea of Farina building a custom 1950 Plymouth. Eventually both Pinin Farina and Ghia were commissioned to build two versions of a Plymouth sedan code-named XX-500 on chassis which were sent to Turin. The results looked like variations on an Alfa Romeo 6C 2500 limousine and were powered by Plymouth’s 97-horsepower, 217-cubic inch flathead six-cylinder.

However, they were beautifully made, at a price of $10,000 each, with unmistakable European flair. Pinin Farina had followed the design closely, while Mario Boano at Ghia thought he could improve it. Keller’s instructions to him were simple: “Do what you think best.” Ghia’s tweaks may have made the difference, as he was hired to build Chrysler’s classic concepts.

The Progression of Ghia Designs

Back in Detroit, Virgil Exner was Director of Advanced Styling at Chrysler and following K.T. Keller’s instructions to remake Chrysler’s image. Exner set out to design a bold new sports sedan, to be bodied in Italy as the first of Chrysler’s five Ghia Specials. These still fascinate car collectors 60 years later.

The first Ghia project was the 1951 K-310: K for Keller, who gave the green light. A hot-rodded version of Chrysler’s new 331-cubic inch Hemi V-8 produced over 300 horsepower. First a 3/8th-size clay model was built in Highland Park, then a plaster cast, which was shipped to Italy, where a full-size wooden buck was made, on which the body was formed. The K-310 seated five, with a 60-40 front seat, the continental spare was outlined on the trunk, and the car had 17-inch wire wheels. Finished in October 1951, the K-310 was shown at the Chrysler Building in New York City on November 2.

The second Ghia car was 1952’s C-200, a six-seater convertible. It used much of the K-310’s shape, which might be described as an Italian interpretation of an early 1950s American form. Quite elegant in light green and black, it was designed and built the in same sporty manner as the K-310, with a full instrument panel, padded dash, leather interior, well-fitted canvas top, V-8 power and new high-geared power steering. The C-200 was finished in eight months and shipped from Genoa to be launched on April 2, 1952 at the “Parade of Stars” auto show at the Waldorf=Astoria hotel in New York City.

It went on national tour with Chrysler’s show, “New Worlds in Motion.”

The third Ghia car was called the SS, for Styling Special, and with it, Exner hit his stride. Built in 1952, it’s a recognizable long-hood, short trunk, close-coupled coupe – the configuration that defined high-speed European grand tourers though most of the 1950s. The car was generally devoid of chrome trim, with brightwork around the windows and one body strip dividing the colors above and below it, low down on the door and over the radiused wheel arches. There was no trunk lid, and any luggage had to be packed into the small rear seat.

The SS was a huge hit, so much so that C.B. Thomas ordered another one to be built for him in 1953. Unlike the first two Ghia cars, both the Styling Special and the Thomas Special are known to exist. Thomas’s car is rather more conventional in form, a notchback coupe, with the same greenhouse but a normal trunk instead of a fastback.

Based on the enthusiastic response to these two concept cars, Chrysler’s Paris distributor commissioned Ghia to build 400 of them in 1953 and 1954 but with more conventional aspects. Called the GS-1, these used the longer 125-inch wheelbase, with standard bumpers, chromed-rimmed headlights, chrome side-trim and a character line along the side. They were forbidden to be sold in the U.S., but at least one found its way here – for Jacob Chrysler.


The stage was now set for the final two Ghia designs in this magnificent first series, the restrained De Soto Adventurer and the splashy Chrysler D’Elegance, which is the car on offer today.

The Adventurer bears many resemblances to the SS and Thomas Special, but Ghia shrank the bold fender lines so that the car resembles Pinin Farina’s Simca 8 Sport and Facel’s design for the French Ford Comete and Monte Carlo, which it preceded. However, all these cars are small, and the De Soto carries the proportions to full size, with extraordinary poise. It retains the shield shape bumper/grille but lacks any body trim save window surrounds and chrome-plated side exhausts. There are no chrome reveals around the wheel arches. Inside, it is a close-coupled four-seater with a handsome black leather interior with white piping and features a sporting dashboard with full instruments.

The car on offer is the Chrysler D’Elegance, chassis 321953, which concludes the spectacular first series of Ghia-bodied specials. Ghia continued to design show cars for Chrysler – there were four versions of the Dodge Firearrow, whose rotund form eventually morphed into the Dual Ghia, while the Fiat Supersonic shape was applied to the Plymouth Explorer and De Soto Adventurer II. There were even three examples of the still-born Chrysler Falcon, the company’s version of the 1955 Ford Thunderbird, but concept designs were gradually drawn away from the elegant simplicity of the Italian firms to lavish versions of already over-the-top late-1950s Americana.

The 1953 Chrysler D’Elegance represents the end of the Italian period but with joyful touches of American exuberance, like the bright red metallic paint, chrome wire wheels and the spare, which can be released from under the metal cap on the trunk and hydraulically lowered to the ground. Gun-sight taillights are another bit of whimsy that found its way onto 1955 Chrysler Imperials, while the bold mesh grille found its way onto late-1950s Chrysler 300s. The most significant legacy of this car doesn’t devolve to Chrysler at all. Giovanni Savonuzzi, who designed the D’Elegance for Ghia, downsized the close-coupled cabin almost verbatim when he created the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia Coupe in 1955. Virgil Exner was reportedly delighted.

Chassis 321953 is finished in a striking red metallic paint with black and cream leather interior. It is built on a New Yorker chassis, which was shortened 10 inches to 115 inches, and it is strictly a two-seater. The dash panel is perhaps the best of the Ghia designs, offset before the driver, with six large gauges with large speedometer on the left, large clock on the right and fuel, ammeter, oil and temperature gauges in the center. The dash-mounted gearshift is on the left, and there’s a Chrysler push-button radio on the right.

This Chrysler D’Elegance’s engine has been upgraded to a later 354-cubic inch Hemi V-8 with 280 horsepower – 100 more than originally offered – and a later Torqueflite transmission. Additional options include power windows and steering and Ausco-Lambert self-energizing disc brakes, which were fitted to a few Chrysler Town and Country and Imperial models in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

This car was so well received when it debuted in Paris in October 1952 that Ghia built an additional 25 examples, once again for Europe only, and a number of these do survive. However, this is the first example, and it is still a magnet for classic-car admirers wherever it appears. Few things are quite as tempting as a cross-cultural automotive hybrid, infused with American horsepower and a sexy Italian design. This Chrysler d’Elegance exudes such international character perfectly.


Please note this car’s catalog description incorrectly asserts that Ghia built an additional 25 d’Elegances in Europe. There is only one Chrysler d’Elegance and this is it, as confirmed by Virgil Exner, Jr. Exner does confirm, however, that Ghia built a second notchback “Thomas Special” coupe, after the initial fastback SS, but its whereabouts are unknown. Although this, the Chrysler D’Elegance, was introduced in Paris for 1952, it is actually considered to be of model year 1953. In Mr. Exner’s words, “the D’Elegance was one of my father’s favorite cars.”

Please contact our exclusive automotive transportation partner, Reliable Carriers, for a shipping quote or any other information on the transport of this vehicle.

Alexander Weaver

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Alexander Weaver joined RM Sotheby’s in 2011 as a Car Specialist after graduating from Furman University in South Carolina. Born... read more

Augustin Sabatié-Garat

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Augustin Sabatié-Garat joined RM Europe in 2012 as a Car Specialist after more than a decade in the collector car hobby. Gradua... read more

Barney Ruprecht

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Barney’s interest in classic cars began at an early age after being introduced to his father’s all-original 1965 Porsche 911. Barney l... read more

David Swig

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David Swig joined RM Sotheby’s West Coast division as a Car Specialist in May 2015. David is a life-long automobile enthusi... read more

Don Rose

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Don joined RM in 2006 after several years of professionally trading sports and classic cars, and after earning a reputation as a noted... read more

Donnie Gould

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Donnie Gould joined the RM team in 2002 as a partner and Car Specialist after more than two decades in the vintage automobile auction ... read more

Gord Duff

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Gord Duff began his journey with RM Sotheby’s in 1998. Since then, he has gained an intimate knowledge of a variety of marques a... read more

Jake Auerbach

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Jake Auerbach got his start in the automotive industry at an early age, spending his summers during high school working at a classic c... read more

Kurt Forry

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Having worked for Bonhams’ Automobilia department for over 10 years, Kurt Forry joined RM Sotheby’s with more than a decad... read more

Matt Malamut

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A long-time car enthusiast and Southern California native, Matt studied Automotive Technology at San Diego Miramar College and complet... read more

Michael Squire

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Michael Squire joined RM Sotheby’s European Division in the summer of 2016. He comes to RM with a prestigious racing background ... read more

Mike Fairbairn

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As one of the three founding partners of RM Sotheby’s, Mike has a long-standing interest in the classic car industry. Graduating... read more

Oliver Camelin

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With an extensive background in exotic sports car history and sales, a particular passion for American curves, and fluency in three la... read more

Paul Darvill

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Paul Darvill joined the RM Sotheby’s European team at the beginning of 2015. Paul holds a degree in French and Politics from the... read more

Pete Fisher

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Pete Fisher was first introduced to antique cars in high school, working for Classic Coachworks in his hometown of Blenheim, Ontario. ... read more

Shelby Myers

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Shelby Myers grew up with the classic car industry infused into every aspect of his life. He had the unique opportunity to watch the R... read more

Tonnie Van der Velden

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Tonnie Van der Velden joined RM Sotheby’s European division in September 2015 as a Car Specialist. A lifelong enthusiast, Tonnie... read more