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Coachwork by Ghia
By the early 1950s America’s “Big Three” automakers were locked in competition to capture the attention of American car buyers. While Ford and GM often took to the auto shows with full-size mockups of their “car of tomorrow,” Chrysler took a decidedly different tack. Virgil Exner and his team of stylists envisioned fully engineered “Idea Cars” to be sold to well-heeled members of the public. Following the K-310 and C-200 styling exercises, a short run of about 16 of the sleek Chrysler Special Coupes were produced by Carrozzeria Ghia of Torino, Italy. The Special’s distinctive ultra-low roofline, minimal greenhouse, sparing use of brightwork, and inspired fender treatment came together brilliantly in one of the most exclusive and influential designs of its decade.
Most, if not all, of the Chrysler Specials were retailed by France Motors, a Chrysler subsidiary in Paris. The car offered here was sold new via the Paris dealer in 1953 to famed thoroughbred jockey Johnny Longden. According to precious original documents that have remained with the car for nearly 70 years, Mr. Longden booked passage to America for his Chrysler Special aboard the SS Liberte in September 1953. It was soon registered to his address in Arcadia, California, not far from his “office” at the Santa Anita horse racing track.
For a relatively short time during the 1950s, a woman in nearby San Marino, California, owned the Chrysler Special. For added safety, she installed steel guards to protect the car’s irreplaceable, hand-formed bumpers and distinctive single-piece grille surround; the ports for their mounting brackets are still visible on the lower coachwork. By 1960, the sleek coupe was in the ownership of Chrysler enthusiast Robert Frumkin of Los Angeles, who would retain it for nearly two decades. In a handwritten letter to Mr. Frumkin, dated 1976, Johnny Longden confirmed his purchase of the Chrysler in Paris, as well as its original color combination of gray and maroon.
In 1979, the Special was acquired by the current owner, a lifelong automotive historian and collector, who has preserved it in largely the same condition for over four decades. With the car’s odometer showing just over 58,000 km, he has never performed restoration work and believes that much of the interior material is original, including the door panels and leather on the folding rear seat in the luggage area. He adds that some have mistaken Chrysler Specials as the same series as Chrysler GS-1 cars of 1954, which feature a different design, higher rooflines, full bumpers, and more standardized parts. A closer look underscores the Specials as the handmade masterpieces that they are.
Kept out of the public eye for generations, this Chrysler Special is likely the last of its kind to remain in unrestored condition. A significant automobile for both Chrysler and Carrozzeria Ghia – and created at a critical point for both companies – this rare Chrysler Special represents an important crossroads of styling and engineering. Its next owner will have the enviable privilege of re-introducing it to fans of historic automobiles the world over.