Chrysler Corporation sales sagged 29 percent in 1953, and Wall Street observers put most of the blame on styling. The corporation’s four nameplates – Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, and Chrysler (Imperial became a separate line in 1955) – were still using basically the same bodies they’d gotten in 1949.
Tex Colbert took the company’s reins from K.T. Keller in late 1950 and immediately began applying emergency first aid. He asked styling director Virgil Exner to come up with more and wilder show cars, and he asked his chief experimental engineer, George Huebner, to accelerate the company’s gas-turbine program. These were both public-relations moves, the idea being to convince the public and America’s financial community that Chrysler wasn’t really as out of touch as it looked.
Colbert’s prescription resulted in, among other things, a $250 million loan in late 1953 from the Prudential Insurance Co. This loan funded Chrysler’s massive retooling for its 1955 models.
But let’s not talk about Chrysler’s periodic money woes. This is the tale of one of the company’s many show cars, a long, low, red coupe which, it turns out, Chrysler didn’t actually design or build. But like several other show cars, the company adopted this one like a foster child and convinced the American public that here stood a glimpse, a peekaboo look, into future products.
America paid a lot more attention to show cars in those days. Detroit’s postwar show-car blitz started when General Motors put Harley Earl’s LeSabre roadster on display at the Waldorf-Astoria Motorama in early 1951. That event, and especially that car, had a tremendous impact on the nation’s growing interest in postwar auto design.
I say this from personal experience, because I vividly remember seeing the LeSabre not on any Motorama dais because, like so many other Americans in that era, I lived far from any big city. Instead, I got my first glimpse of the LeSabre at my home-town comer drug store there in rural Texas. It graced the cover of Motor Trend magazine’s March 1951 issue. I distinctly recall the tremendous rush – a feeling first of disbelief and then of overwhelming joy.
Backyard designers and shade-tree fabricators had been building kustoms and fiberglass roadsters for a couple of years by then, and most of these designs offered at least something of interest. But the LeSabre set in motion a legitimized design philosophy, backed by the largest auto manufacturer in the world. Thrust into prominence was, at last, a believable peek into the future, along with engineering feats that, at first glance, seemed tantalizingly impossible: the lowness of the car, a 300-bhp, 215-c.i.d. supercharged aluminum V-8, wraparound windshield, bucket seats, console, rain-activated convertible top, hidden headlamps, 12-volt electricals, magnesium honeycomb floorpan, cast alloy cowl and doors – ideas which, to car-conscious American teenagers like me, opened up brave new worlds of wonder. And kids weren’t the only ones impressed by the LeSabre’s magnificence. There were millions of adults around the country who obviously became just as excited as I was with the LeSabre’s promises.
The LeSabre meant, too, that GM now resumed the nation’s styling leadership. Harley Earl’s crown had been set askew by Studebaker’s then-futuristic 1947 models. But now, suddenly, GM took charge again, and Harley Earl did it so resolutely and with such ease and grace that only by some miracle could any other automaker again challenge GM. In the Motoramas that followed, General Motors pushed further into the future and, year by year, further ahead in the public’s perception of American styling leadership. While I don’t believe anyone ever conducted a scientific survey, it’s reasonable to assume that, partly as a result of styling leadership, General Motors pulled ahead in the ever more competitive postwar sales race which also began in 1951.
The K-310 took a novel approach to the business of designing and building show cars, one very unlike GM’s. The K-310 and its immediate successors looked considerably more European than anything GM was doing. The Italian flavor of Exner’s sketches and models grew partly from his admiration of the postwar Turin school of auto design, but it also had to do with economics.
Chrysler, unlike GM, couldn’t afford – or maybe just didn’t want – to throw millions of dollars into each of its new show cars. Instead, Exner managed to hold the line at $10,000 to $25,000 per job. He did this through an agreement with Luigi Segre of Carrozzeria Ghia, the Italian coachbuilder, the idea being for Exner to design and Ghia to handcraft a steady flow of coupe and roadster bodies on various standard corporate chassis. As a result, the K-310 was closely followed by the 1952 Chrysler C200 convertible, the Chrysler Special fastback coupe, the 1953 modified Special, GS01 coupe, DeSoto Adventurer I, Firearrow I roadster, and the Chrysler D’Elegance coupe.
What’s recognized today, 40 years later, but still not much talked about, is the fact that Exner & Company did not design each and every show car Chrysler exhibited. Half a dozen had their origins inside Ghia, and at least two others were done by Briggs Manufacturing Co. Briggs was at that time an independent body supplier to Chrysler Corp.
Why would Chrysler claim and publicize designs that weren’t really their own? I’ve pondered that question, wondering especially about such unlovely creatures as the Briggs 1954 Plymouth Belmont and Dodge Granada. Both were totally unlike anything conceived by either Exner or Ghia.
The reason Chrysler accepted and perhaps even welcomed outside show cars is, I think, best explained by former Chrysler designer Cliff Voss. “At that time,” Voss told me in a recent phone conversation, “Chrysler had a reputation for bad styling. Anything the company could get their mitts on to satisfy the dealers as a showpiece, they accepted.”
So that became part of the reason: dealers desperately seeking “style” in any form. They wanted it to help generate interest in Chrysler products and thus create showroom traffic. Another reason: Unlike General Motors, Chrysler simply didn’t have enough staff to produce the volume of show-car designs the corporate sales people felt was needed to compete with GM (and by 1954, with Ford as well). In the mid-1950s, Voss’s own studio, whose main purpose remained the design of production Imperials and Chryslers, was asked to come up with designs for two show cars per year. Virgil Exner had by then become Chrysler’s corporate director of styling, and Mauri Baldwin, now chief of advanced design, had inherited the show-car activity. Bowing to pressure from Chrysler’s marketers, Ex welcomed – and personally approved of – over-the-transom designs submitted by Ghia and, ultimately, by Briggs.
The second Ghia-designed Chrysler show car turned out to be the 1954 DeSoto Adventurer II coupe you see here. What you have to understand, though, is that the Adventurer II was an adapted design. Its lines weren’t original, nor were they exclusive to the Adventurer II. By that I mean the design came from a look – a theme later called “Supersonic” – that Ghia had created previously and had put on other chassis before it was tailored to fit the Adventurer II. And this same “Supersonic” design would be used again afterward, like a business suit tailored and altered to fit different human forms.
Ghia and other Italian coachbuilders recycled a lot of ideas in those days, and I think the tailoring analogy works to explain why. Let’s say you’re a wealthy gentleman in need of a tailored business suit. You go to a London tailor. He takes your measurements and then shows you his portfolio, which contains photos of human models in suits that he’s done for other customers. You choose the style you like, select a fabric, and the tailor makes you up a suit.
That’s basically how Ghia designed cars in the 1950s. One of Ghia’s employees, in this case an aeronautical engineer and free-lance designer named Giovanni Savonuzzi, came up with what’s now called the “Supersonic” theme, and this he tailored, re-tailored, altered, and adapted to fit any number of different cars.
According to Ghia’s US representative Paul Farago, Savonuzzi initially created the “Supersonic look” for a 1953 Alfa Romeo-powered Conrero race car, an aluminum-bodied coupe that ran in the Mille Miglia. Soon afterward, Savonuzzi redid the same suit to fit a 1953 Fiat 8V. The Fiat was shown in Paris, and Ghia eventually built a dozen or so copies. (“8V” was Fiat’s designation for “V-8,” which the Italians believed to be a proprietary trademark of the Ford Motor Co.)
Following the Ghia-bodied Fiat 8V, according to Farago, Savonuzzi re-drafted the “Supersonic look” to fit a 1954 Jaguar XK-120, the 1954 DeSoto Adventurer II, an Alfa 1900, at least two Jaguar XK-140s, and a 1956 Aston Martin DB2/4 Mark II. So Ghia got a lot of mileage out of that particular design.
Nor was this practice of recycling a look by any means unusual. You’ll recall that Ghia’s owner and chief stylist, Mario Boano, took Virgil Exner’s design for the 1953 Chrysler D’Elegance show car and scaled it down to become the 1956 Karmann-Ghia. This again represented the altering of an existing suit to fit a totally different car.
How the Savonuzzi design ended up on the Adventurer II needs some explaining, too. Paul Farago purchased the first Savonuzzi-designed Ghia Fiat 8V for himself and brought it to this country. I should mention that Farago was born in Italy but left as a young man. After World War II, he opened an import-car repair shop in Detroit and earned a reputation as an amateur racer. Through his motorsports activities, he befriended Virgil Exner. When Exner became involved with Ghia, he called on Farago to help him deal with Turin’s visiting dignitaries, specifically Ghia’s Luigi Segre and Mario Boano.
Soon after Farago took delivery of the first Ghia Fiat 8V coupe, he drove it over to Chrysler Engineering and showed it to Exner. Ex was very taken with the car, and he apparently knew about the earlier Savonuzzi Alfa, too. Farago, whose income depended partly on how many vehicles Ghia built for Chrysler, asked Exner whether he (Ex) might be interested in having Ghia create a look similar to the Fiat 8V, but on a corporate chassis. Exner thought about this and then said yes, especially since DeSoto needed something different to hang the Adventurer name on, a name that, as you know, ended up on a 1956 DeSoto hardtop.
And that’s basically how the Adventurer II came to be. There’d been a 1953 DeSoto Adventurer I show car, designed by Exner and bodied, naturally, by Ghia. Exner drove the Adventurer I for three years as his every day car. The Adventurer II had no direct link to the first Adventurer – they were very different in concept, size, purpose, and appearance. The Adventurer I was a much purer, tighter grand touring coupe than the II. The II had more the flavor of a 1958 four-place Thunderbird, although it seated only two people.
Ghia, with some suggestions from Exner, did their best to adapt “the look” to the Adventurer II, but it obviously didn’t come off nearly so well as it had on the Fiat 8V. The 125.5-inch DeSoto wheelbase stretched out the body and gave the car something of a dachshund appearance. Nor was it helped by a bumperless front end and a relatively small greenhouse – hardly larger than the Fiat’s – that perched like a peanut on a watermelon. But this lack of success had to do partly with a “long look” that was then enjoying a brief vogue among Italian coachbuilders; so the Adventurer II’s ungainly proportions weren’t entirely Ghia’s nor, indeed, Savonuzzi’s fault. It’s not even certain that Savonuzzi had much to do with the actual adaptation of the “supersonic” style to the Adventurer II.
After it had run the normal show circuits in this country and abroad, the Adventurer II was sold rather than crushed. Chrysler’s director of overseas sales, C.B. Thomas, considered it a waste to destroy show cars, and he usually managed to find homes for them in Europe, South America, and the Middle East.
In 1956, the King of Morocco, Mohammed V, saw the Adventurer II at the Brussels show and apparently expressed an interest in it. By that time the car was two years old, and Chrysler Corporation very much wanted to sell it, so C.B. Thomas put it out for bid. The Chrysler dealer in Casablanca decided he could sell this car to Mohammed V, so the dealer reportedly bid $20,000, the price of a new 1956 Rolls-Royce, and the car became his.
According to Bill Breslin, writing in Automobile Topics in 1959, the King drove the Adventurer II for about a week and then decided not to buy it. The seats didn’t frt his royal posterior. Whereupon the Casablanca dealer displayed the Adventurer II in his showroom, attaching a price tag of $25,000. A US citizen working for the military in Morocco, Art Spanjian, saw the car in Casablanca and fell in love with it. He and the dealer dickered for about three years, and Spanjian finally bought the car and shipped it to his home in Dayton, Ohio.
Spanjian lent the Adventurer II to the Dayton Chrysler dealer, who also displayed it in his showroom window, and that was where Armand Archer Sr., a building developer, saw it on Christmas Day of 1960 and fell just as much in love as Spanjian had. Archer, after negotiating with Spanjian, purchased the car and drove it to his winter home in Florida. A year later, business took Archer Sr. to Europe, and he remained abroad for the next 10 years, during which time he stored the coupe in a friend’s garage in Florida. It remained in there, in fact, for 25 years, unmoved until late 1986.
That’s when Archer’s son, Armand Jr., a pilot with Eastern Airlines, took the Adventurer II out of mothballs and got it running again. Archer Jr. noted that the car had its original tires (“Dayton Generals, and they still held air”), but needed brake work, a new carburetor, and a fuel pump. The original 30 coats of hand-rubbed red lacquer showed minor crow’s feet but still took a good shine.
Archer Jr. eventually sold the Adventurer II to an anonymous West Coast collector, who donated it to the Behring Auto Museum in Danville, California. Somewhere between Archer’s stewardship and the Behring collection, someone obviously did a bit more restoration – rechroming, a total repaint, new leather upholstery, etc. But basically this remains a low-mileage, amazingly original Ghia show car.
Underneath, the Adventurer II is all 1954 DeSoto. Ghia moved the radiator forward nearly a foot and dropped it down to make it possible to lower the leading edge of the hood. The resulting space between engine and radiator makes for an unusually long fan shroud. Otherwise, though, the car uses the 1954 DeSoto hemi V-8, two-speed PowerFlite automatic, and 3.54 rear axle.
Instruments are stock but in a special pod. The wooden steering wheel is aftermarket. The original fitted luggage nestles behind the seats and, in place of a conventional glove box, the interior has binnacles here and there around the sides. There’s a grab handle in front of the passenger, and a central console contains the DeSoto AM radio, heater controls, and an ash tray. The rear window retracts down into the trunk for flow-through cabin ventilation.
And that’s basically the car I drove. My mother bought a new 1955 DeSoto Fireflite V-8 hardtop and owned it for about 10 years, so I’m still reasonably familiar with the feel of the suspension, steering, etc. When I first slid behind the Adventurer II’s wheel, I got the impression of, hey, I’m sitting in some sort of exaggerated Italian sports car. But when I turned the key, there was that unmistakable Mo Par starter whine, and then on the road the car felt strictly and unmistakably American. It brought back all the standard DeSoto handling features: total isolation in the full-time power steering, fairly slow responses, a good measure of body roll during hard cornering, tire squeal, and touchy power brakes. But these are quirks I quickly got reaccustomed to.
Visibility is amazingly good in all directions. Unlike the D’Elegance and other hand-fabricated Chrysler show cars, the Adventurer II has a real trunk, but there’s not a lot of room inside it due to the high floor and spare tire. There’s more space inside the two pieces of fitted luggage, but those are harder to get at.
Chrysler Corporation did have fairly serious plans to put some of its show cars into production. They talked especially about producing the K-310, the D’Elegance, and the Falcon. The Falcon, an Exner design, nearly became Chrysler’s answer to the 1953 Corvette and 1955 Thunderbird. The Adventurer II, however, was merely a publicity ploy, a styling anomaly, and more of an exercise for Ghia than for Chrysler. Today it’s one of several Chrysler show cars on display at the Behring Auto Museum in Danville, California.