Chrysler Corporation and Italian coachbuilder Ghia enjoyed a successful partnership alll through the ’50s and ’60s, culminating in the fantastic Chrysler Turbine Ghias. Here’s the story behind the car that started the happy combination, the 1950 Plymouth XX-500.
Actually, Chrysler’s first collaboration with Ghia of Turin wasn’t a dream car or concept in the usual sense. Rather, Chrysler President K.T. Keller was in search of a more economical means of constructing prototype and experimental vehicles, and Italy’s struggling postwar economy and considerable pool of car-making expertise presented an opportunity. In 1950, Keller commissioned two cars on Plymouth chassis, one from Ghia and another from the Pininfarina coachbuilding house, also of Turin, as a trial run for the prototyping process. Ultimately, Chrysler chose Ghia as its partner, kicking off a highly successful run of show cars and concepts.
Starting with a standard Plymouth P20 chassis with 118.5-inch wheelbase provided by Chrysler, Carrozzeria Ghia crafted a stylish but conservative four-door sedan with an elegant six-window greenhouse and sloping roofline, all in steel. Everything underneath the sleek Italian metalwork was stock Plymouth, reportedly, including the venerable 97 hp flathead six. A classic upright grille (see lead photo above) dominated the front end styling, an un-Plymouth-like feature that gave the XX-500 a bit of Maserati or Alfa Romeo flavor.
In Chrysler lore, Virgil Exner, who had just recently been appointed chief of Chrysler’s brand-new Advanced Styling Studio, wasn’t involved in the initial stages with Ghia. However, he quickly became immersed in Keller’s project, forming bonds with Ghia manager Felice Mario Boano and designer Gigi Segre, and also with Paul Farago of Detroit, technical consultant and the group’s Italian-English translator. Exner’s own idea car project with Ghia, the 1952 Chrysler K-310, quickly followed.
Nearly forgotten today is the Pininfarina part of the project, shown above. While Keller was evidently pleased with Pininfarina’s work, it was determined that the workmanship from Ghia was better overall, and all the work from then was awarded to Ghia. As the working process developed, Exner’s team would send a plaster scale model and a set of drawings across the sea to Turin, from which the Ghia metalworkers would create a full-scale hardwood buck and from that, a steel body shell.
With the Italian craftsmen executing the labor-intensive metal work, Chrysler found it could build prototypes at one-eighth to one-tenth of the cost of performing the work in-house. Dozens of memorable Chrysler-Ghia dream cars were produced by the partnership, and ultimately, the beautiful Chrysler Turbine Ghias in a limited production run of 55 units. The Ghia name exists to this day, but as part of the Ford Motor Company.
Above, the Ghia XX-500 with Chrysler personnel: From left, designer Harry King, Chief Body Engineer H.E. Cheesebrough, Plymouth Chief Engineer Robert Anderson, Plymouth President John P. Mansfield, and Plymouth Sales Manager R.C. Somerville. Below, the XX-500 on display at the Chicago Auto Show.