Chrysler was still 'the engineer's car company' in the early 1950s, with beautifully machined products that nonetheless looked like something a conservative gentleman would drive. (Chairman K.T. Keller's dictum was that all the company's cars should have enough space for a man to drive while wearing his best dress hat). It was legendary Chrysler design chief Virgil Exner's path to change that, with a series of increasingly more flamboyant showpieces designed by 'Ex' and built by Ghia of Italy.
The subtle genesis of this path was with one of the first Exner-designed and Ghia-built Chrysler show cars, the simply named Chrysler Special, which was first displayed at the Paris Salon of October 1952. Built on a New Yorker chassis that had been shortened six inches, it featured unusual high radiused wheel arches that extended almost to the tops of the fenders, smooth sides that flowed from bumper to bumper with only a small 'kick' in the rear fender curve, rounded headlights, and a broad chromed trapezoidal grille. Gentle though its impact may have been, it was beautiful enough to be the star of the show, attracting more attention than just about anything else on offer; period photographs of the Chrysler stand show the car almost continuously ringed by agog visitors.
The original Paris show car of 1952 received so much attention, in fact, that Mr. Ladouch of France Motors, the French Chrysler importer, decided that it would be good to produce a small series. In this endeavor, he had the support of Chrysler's Export Manager, Cecil Beaton 'C.B.' Thomas, who convinced the powers-that-be in Detroit that a limited production run of the cars, strictly for European clientele, would be a good idea.
The basic design of the limited-production cars was based upon the original Special but on a standard-wheelbase, 125.5-inch New Yorker platform and with a modified semi-fastback roofline, so as to seat four full-sized adults within. The first of these cars, distinguished by its unique split two-piece windshield, was Thomas's personal car, known as the 'Thomas Special.' Ghia then produced another 18 cars with one-piece curved windshields for private clients, the first six for Chrysler (France Motors) to distribute and the remaining dozen for Ghia customers.
Today, the Chrysler Special, in all of its guises, continues to influence modern design, most prominently modern Chrysler sedans, which share many of its basic lines. It is the car that sent Chrysler on its path to the famous 'Forward Look' cars produced later in the 1950s, and it finally broke 'Mother MoPar' from its stodgy styling origins. Simply put, after over 90 years of various designs, it remains Chrysler's most true design landmark, a touchstone for the company's designs both past and present.
THE SWISS SPECIAL
According to historian Raphael Brunet, the car shown here, number 7232631, was built midway through the Special production run. It was originally supplied via Neue Amag und Automobile, the Chrysler importers in Switzerland, and is known to have still been located in that country as of the early 1970s. It was eventually acquired by Leonard McGrady of Aberdeen, Maryland, and then by the renowned Chrysler collector Paul Stern of Manheim, Pennsylvania.
Around 1982, the car was acquired by renowned restorer Fran Roxas, who personally restored the car in its present color scheme: a combination of light metallic green to the upper panels with a darker metallic green roof and sill panels, inspired by colors worn in-period by the original Paris Salon show car and close to this car's original color scheme. Following completion of the restoration, Mr. Roxas sold his Special to famed 'dream car' collector Joe Bortz, who would show it all over the country during his two decades of ownership. Most prominently, it appeared in the December 1994 issue of Collectible Automobile magazine and in Peter Grist's book on Exner designs, Visioneer.
The car was sold by Mr. Bortz in 2005 and eventually joined its present (2016) owner's European stable, in which its restoration has continued to be well maintained.
Original Chrysler Specials are tremendously difficult to find, with only 18 having been built and some of them stationed in museums (including Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' own). This car is perhaps the most famous and, accordingly, perhaps the most emblematic of the Special's wide-ranging influence in Chrysler design.
Chassis number 7232631.
Engine no.: C53-8-35701.
180 bhp, 331 cu. in. OHV Hemi V-8 engine, two-speed PowerFlite automatic transmission, independent front suspension with coil springs, live rear axle with semi-elliptical leaf springs, and four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 125.5 in.
Photography courtesy of RM Sotheby's.
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