Most of the concept cars we bring to you each week clearly trumpet the design prowess of a car company’s design team. They are expensive to build and the expectation is that their design and narrative will garner the attention necessary to justify their expense.
But some concepts are mysteries; their stories are either lost to us, or they have been intentionally hidden away. Such is the story of these two Cadillac coupés by Ghia, which began their life as mere chassis, sailing from New York to Europe in the hold of a freighter in 1953.
The donor cars were from Cadillac’s Series 62 line, an entry level car meant for those moving up from other GM divisions such as Oldsmobile and Buick. These particular chassis would probably have been from convertibles, a favourite of coachbuilders for their reinforced frames. The chassis, engine and transmission appear to have been stock right off the line – the cars were pulled aside before the bodies and interiors were to be installed.
When the two chassis reached Turin, the design staff, lead by the legendary Luigi Segré, set to work. The resulting shape was an elegant coupé which reflected other Ghia design work of the period including the Alfa Romeo 1900 Sprint Speciale Supergioiello (pictured above) and the Chrysler D’Elegance, first sketched by Virgil Exner and then finished at Ghia (this design would be shrunk and adapted to become the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia).
The exterior ‘hard points’ of both cars were largely defined by the Cadillac chassis and drivetrain. Over this, Segré fashioned a coupé of classic proportions – a long hood and short deck, plus a short sculptural canopy of curving glass with whisper-thin pillars.
The body featured pontoon-type fenders that gently transition into subtle chrome tail fins.
The fronts of the two cars have different grilles. The black car has a gold vertical-barred grille and the maroon car has a silver grid. Both cars feature quad headlights placed low on the front mask – a contrast to the high heavy-lidded lights of the stock Cadillac Series 62.
The side of the car is trimmed with chrome strips that reinforce the streamlined design. The high stance is typical of Italian coupés of the period and with its slight rake, lends an additional dynamic to the side view of the car.
The interiors of the two cars are very similar. The black car has two primitive bucket seats, while the maroon car has a single bench. Both cars, despite their size, are two-seat coupés. Behind said seats in each car is a bespoke set of luggage – an idea Ghia also used in the D’Elegance concept. The instrument panel in both cars is the same, with a prominent speedometer, plus a central radio and speaker. Elegance, rather than high performance, was the design intention.
The completed cars were shipped back to the United States, where they reportedly went to exclusive private owners. But before we cover that, a question which has puzzled historians for decades is whether or not these were meant to be concept cars. The cars were based on stock Cadillac chassis and drivetrains. When finished, the Cadillac crest was placed on the hood, with the Ghia shield on the sides.
It would have been very unusual for Harley Earl, GM’s legendary Vice President of Design, to commission a concept car from outside GM. Yes, did execute special projects for GM from time to time, but the design they executed was always a GM in-house project. Also, Ghia and Chrysler were close during the early fifties, with Ghia completing at least one concept per year during the first half of the decade. Chrysler would not have approved of Ghia moonlighting with Harley Earl. It would’ve had to have been a stealth project.
The more likely scenario was that the New York Cadillac dealer, who had high-end clients capable of purchasing a coachbuilt car, ordered the cars knowing they could sell them. Indeed, according to reports, the cars were sold to John Perona – owner of Manhattan’s famous El Morocco nightclub – and Prince Aly Khan, who gave his car to his ex-wife, the actress Rita Hayworth, perhaps as a peace offering or an attempt to woo her back after their well-publicized divorce…
But there are few period photographs of the cars, and none corroborate these stories.
The black Ghia coupé shown here was Perona’s, and originally sported a white-on-blue colour scheme. It was passed around between a number of private collectors before appearing on Sotheby’s auction block a couple of years ago. It sold for over $1,400,000.00 (just over £ 1,100,000.00) and is once again part of a private collection. The maroon car, Hayworth’s, was originally white and also moved from collector to collector, before being passed to the Peterson Museum in Los Angeles. It can be seen there today, except when travelling to the occasional concours.
Whatever their provenance, and long hidden history, the Ghia Cadillac coupés were instant classics, displaying the best of Ghia design as well as the talents of Luigi Segré and his team. It was proof positive that Detroit’s offerings in the 1950s could be streamlined, made more taut and athletic. This was a design era that lay some years ahead, however; Harley Earl and Virgil Exner needed to retire first. Their successors would move forward into a new design era in the ‘Soaring Sixties’.
Postscript: Rita Hayworth’s name is associated with another concept car, the Chrysler Ghia Streamline X ‘Gilda’ (pictured below). It was named after Hayworth’s character in the movie of the same name.