Have you ever been stopped in your tracks at the sight of a beautifully designed car that was unlike any you have ever seen? If you have had this experience, more than likely the credit goes to one of the many fine Italian coachbuilders such as Giacinto Ghia and Gariglio, who founded the “Carrozzeria Ghia” of Turin, Italy in 1915.
One of the most famous names in the history of automobiles, Ghia brought to life some of the legendary car body designs of the 50’s and 60’s. This company is responsible for many of the best-selling models of Ford Motors, in addition to creating the bodies for Alfa Romeo, Volkswagen, De Tomaso and Lancia. The list of cars bearing Ghia in their name is extensive, most notably is the head-turning, cult-classic Karmann Ghia whose design has generated popularity that endures to this day with the ability to command a hefty price.
Part of the reason why the Karmann Ghia drew the rave reviews when it was introduced is because while Volkswagen had a reputation for producing functional and efficient automobiles they were not exciting or fun to drive. When Volkswagen introduced the sporty coupe and convertible models of the Karmann Ghia, it took the public completely by surprise-this type of design was totally unexpected.
From all accounts, the company was also surprised at the response, even more so at the surge in demand for this vehicle around the world. From that point forward the company gradually broadened its design appeal while maintaining its reputation as one of the most reliable vehicles in the world. From the driver’s standpoint the Karmann-Ghia brought new respect as automobile maker who values style and driving fun as much as functionality and efficiency.
Although Ghia focused primarily on pure design and engineering of the body leaving the mechanics to the experts in the field for the most part, the exception to this rule is the 1966 Ghia 450SS Spyder. This is a perfect example of the successful collaborations between this coachbuilder and the Chrysler Corporation that owes its fame to the inspiration of Burt Sugarman, a noted Hollywood producer. His love for sports cars is no secret and during this time Ghia had reached a point in fame with its success with Alfa Romeo and Fiat that had every celebrity in Hollywood swooning of their designs.
In the spring of 1965, Road & Track magazine featured the Ghia-bodied Fiat on their cover. When Sugarman saw this car, it was love at first sight and Sugarman approached Ghia, persuading them to create a production series of a similar design. This was one of the few times that Ghia ventured beyond the design of the auto body into complete auto-making territory. And as a result, even today almost 50 years after it was unveiled, the Ghia 450SS is toasted by many car enthusiasts as one of the best of its breed.
At the time, Chrysler had just unveiled its new 235-horsepower, 273-cid V-8 and this was the perfect engine to power this sleek tubular frame beauty that was offered with either a four-speed manual transmission or three-speed TorqueFlite automatic. The Ghia 450 SS Spyder’s powerful performance was reinforced by its steel panels and made almost irresistible as a convertible with a removable hard top. With these impressive stats, it’s hard to imagine how this marvel could be any better. However, this beauty became even more impressive through the actions of one of its famous owners.
Wilt Chamberlain of NBA fame and the television show host Johnny Carson were both mesmerized with the refined performance of this car. In 1966, the price for this car with air conditioning and removable hardtop was a stunning $13,000. Based on price alone, the 450 SS model was destined to be an exclusive item; only 50 copies of this design were made in three years of production. Today the Ghia 450 SS fetches an asking price almost ten times its original price.
However, another rising star in the automotive industry has to be included in this car’s history. For the late Boyd Coddington who is legend in the hot-rodding circle was hired by the late Wilt Chamberlain to replace the original Chrysler 273 V8 engine with a Chevy 350 giving this automobile fantastic agility as well as speed on the road.
Part of what makes the designs of Ghia so outstanding is their attention to the little details; an indent in the rear fender to pull it open rather than door handles, wire wheels and a handsome curved wood dash with elegant gauges. The Ghia 450 SS that Johnny Carson bought was presented to his private pilot. According to its one-time owner Gerald Quam of Santa Barbara, it has been completely restored and contrary to the reputation of limited production cars, the Ghia 450SS provides the driving pleasure and handling that is equal to its beautiful design.