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Forging an Italian-American motoring partnership

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At the recent Melbourne Fiat Autobella this 1955 Chrysler Ghia ST Special was among the entrants.

In its day this Italian/American model was widely recognised as a showstopper and here, Melbourne motoring writer, Chris De Fraga* recalls some of the model’s history:

I believe it was Virgil Exner’s (Chrysler’s first Vice President of styling) own car. He had given the bits to one of the Italian bodywork people – Ghia – to get their take on American size constraints.

Anyway, the Good Italian craftsmen beavered away and produced the car of which Exner was very proud – but he never went near the styling themes apart from the grille (remember the Valiant R series? and some of the early 300 models). The lashings of chrome were typical of the 1950s American approach to design.

The effect was also to focus some American makers on Europe at a time when the American stylists barely had passports. Ford went on to buy Ghia and then bolt bits from dearer designs into small economy cars without great success.

The exception was the Escort whose Ghia model’s popularity caused a shortage of the cloth upholstered Ghia seat supplies from Germany to Australian Escort assembly lines. 

The green car appears to lack much height in the cabin since it had to be built on the Chrysler chassis and they wanted to keep the roof low.

It was a showstopper in its day and refocused attention on Chrysler which was one aspect of Exner’s job.

Italian car stylists’ work never looked ungainly until they tried to clothe an American chassis!

* Chris attended this year’s Autobella and snapped the pair of Nuova 500s. As a previous owner of one, he describes them as “simple and fun.

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Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is an ItalianAmerican multinational and currently the world’s seventh-largest automaker. The group was established in 2014 by merging Fiat S.p.A. into a new holding company – Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. 

The company’s portfolio includes many well-known automotive names including Alfa RomeoChryslerDodgeFiatFiat ProfessionalJeepLanciaRam TrucksAbarthMopar and SRT

But its history goes back much further than that.

When Virgil Exner (Chrysler’s first Vice President of Styling) joined Chrysler in 1949 the car’s body was fashioned by engineers instead of designers — leading to what many thought were old-fashioned, boxy designs on Chryslers of the 1940s and early 50s.

Exner fought to change this structuring, and got control over the design process, including the clay prototypes and the die models used to create production tooling.

Working in Chrysler‘s Advanced Styling Group, Exner partnered with Cliff Voss and Maury Baldwin and also worked with Luigi “Gigi” Segre, of Italian car company Carrozzeria Ghia S.p.A.

The men created a strong personal bond, which helped link the companies closely throughout the 1950s. The alliance produced the Chrysler Ghia designs, such as the 1952 Chrysler K-310, the mid-1950s Dodge Firearrow series show cars, as well as the Chrysler d’Elegance and DeSoto Adventurer.

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