That opened the door to what came next. In the late 1940s, Ghia, one of Turin’s oldest coachbuilders, had established a close working relationship with Chrysler in the US. That effort was led by Ghia design chief Mario Boano and commercial director Luigi Segre, but, not too long after the Conrero project entered the Ghia works, Boano had a serious row with Segre. Boano and his son, Gian Paolo, left Ghia to form their own carrozzeria, so Segre contacted Savonuzzi, and overnight Ghia had a new design and technical director. They organized a small production run using the shape created for Conrero, calling it the Supersonic. First used with spectacular effect on nine Fiat 8Vs, a one-off Aston and Jaguar followed.
Ghia’s next project was the Supersonic-inspired De Soto Adventurer II, reflecting Segre’s strong alliance with Chrysler. Since 1950, De Soto’s parent company had shown a number of idea cars designed by Virgil Exner – director of styling at Chrysler – and built at Ghia. On a trip to America in 1954, Segre noticed an influential form-model that Exner had made in the back room at Chrysler. The form-model represented Exner’s design philosophy, it was finished in black and was a showpiece in his office. Segre really liked the clay-model and asked if he could take some pictures. He took the photos back to Ghia, and that inspired Savonuzzi. At the time, the jet rage was huge – look at the “dream cars” with wings, fighter-plane tails, and transparent canopy tops such as Ford’s FX-Atmos (1954), Lincoln’s Futura (1955, constructed at Ghia), and the turbine-powered GM XP-21 Firebird (1954). They were an object of desire, almost an object of dreams. The rocket-car had a decisive influence on the evolution of the styling of American cars in that period.
Savonuzzi used Exner’s model as a starting point. He modernized concepts he had tried nearly a decade earlier on the Cisitalia Streamliner. Any wings used weren’t mere flights of fancy for dramatic effect, but purposeful aerodynamic aids rigorously tested on a scale model in the Turin Politechnic windtunnel. At the time, designing cars was much more an adventure. The engineer also possessed a keen eye for forms, proportions and delicate surface treatment, giving his designs a sensitivity, restraint, and refinement that ran counter to most dream cars’ brashness. So even though the one-off Ghia Gilda is designed by Giovanni Savonuzzi, Virgil Exner had a great share in this design. Throughout studies of aerodynamics with windtunnel tests, conducted at Ecole Polytechnic of Turin, the Gilda was ‘shaped by the wind’. The style of the Gilda was aerodynamic in a fashion that follows a scientific logic, even though some argue that the vehicle appears aerodynamically only as a publicity stunt and that the Gilda was merely a technological illusion. The 17 feet long and only 34 inches high Gilda was originally powered by an OSCA engine that displaced 1491cc engine and was claimed to have a top speed of 140 mph, but in reality that claim was never met.
Once the windtunnel testing was completed, the last component of Italy’s ‘released spring’ came to the fore: the supporting cast of craftsmen. These highly skilled modelers and panel beaters often came from the furniture industry, so they were used to working with wood. Savonuzzi accentuated their work with a brilliant use of color – silver and orange, in this case – in a simple yet creative paint scheme that highlighted his slippery form. The result was a wind-cheating tour de force called the Gilda.
The futuristic dream car’s name was a referral to a famous b&w-film from 1946 by Charles Vidor. The name of the car was a tribute to Hollywood’s hottest (or most beautiful) and influential screen legend (and sex-bomb) Rita Hayworth, who played the character Gilda which was the title role in that 1946 movie. There seemed to be something about sex-bombs and extraordinary cars, but we will discuss that in a future article! Savonuzzi had a real sense of humor, and because of that description, the name Gilda stuck with him. He couldn’t resist calling the car the Gilda and very few vehicles have been so ‘representative of their times’ as the Gilda!
Following Turin, the Gilda made its way to America in 1955 where it was shown at the Henry Ford Museum’s ‘Sports Cars In Review Exhibit’ in 1956. It also appeared at the New York auto show, but the industry – Chrysler in particular – only felt the shape’s influence long after. Show cars based on the Gilda theme included the Chrysler Dart and Ferrari 410 Super Gilda (1956), the Chrysler Diablo (1957), and the Guzzi-powered speed-record-setting Nibbio II, done for Count Giovanni Lurani. And, per Art Center College of Design professor Strother MacMinn, the Gilda also inspired Chrysler’s entire 1957 lineup’s ‘Forward Look’ theme.After New York, the Gilda returned to the Henry Ford Museum, where it stayed until 1969. Then it went to the Reno–based museum housing casino magnate’s William F. Harrah’s collection. In 1985, the Gilda became part of the Blackhawk Collection’s group of Ghia show cars, which included the De Soto Adventurer II. The Gilda passed its life on the catwalks and at elegance competitions as the ‘queen of styling’.
Scott Grundfor, a renowned Mercedes-Benz restorer and Pebble Beach judge is the current owner of the Gilda. While cleaning the car shortly after he got it, Grundfor had a most unexpected discovery: some words etched in the belly pan under the driver’s seat floorboard, dated September 25, 1955, Ghia-Torino Italia. What makes one wonder if this miracle car is Italian or American? Written by Rosemarijn Atalante Veenenbos
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