1952, 1953, 1954 Chrysler Special and D’Elegance

Concept & show cars have always been great attention-getters, with sales- and profit-boosting potential. This likely explains why its designer, Virgil Exner got the nod to do a series of suave GT coupes in the midst of Chrysler's cash-flow crisis of the early Fifties.

First up was the Special, which was built in two versions. The original premiered at the 1952 Paris Salon as a three-place fastback built on a cut-down New Yorker chassis (119-inch wheelbase). As a follow-up to the K-310/C-200, it sported similar "elements of Continental styling" -- long-hood/short-deck profile, big wire wheels within full cutouts -- but differed most everywhere else. Fenderlines were squared-up knife-edge types holding slim verti- cal bumperettes; headlights lived in prominent thrusting pads; the grille was an inverted trapezoid with horizontal bars. Also, bodysides curved less, and combined with a low roofline for a husky "masculine" air. Though handsome, the first Chrysler Special would remain one-of-a-kind.

So, too, the second version built in 1953 for C. B. Thomas, the head of Chrysler's Export Division, thus prompting the nickname "Thomas Special." Though similar to the '52 car, this mounted a stock 125.5-inch New Yorker chassis and measured 10 inches longer overall (214 total). Exner used the extra length to provide what we'd now term a notchback profile, with a normal trunk and external lid, plus four/five-passenger seating. There were also various detail changes, such as outside door handles instead of solenoid-activated pushbuttons.

In one sense, the Chrysler Specials were not dead-ends, for positive public reception prompted some 400 copies of a third ver- sion in 1954. This was dubbed GS-1, likely for "Ghia Special," though the styling was again Exner's. Overall appearance was somewhere between the two Specials. The main differences involved a larger and squarer grille, reshaped roof and fender- lines, and stock '54 New Yorker bumpers. All GS-1s carried the by-then familiar 331 Hemi V-8, linked to Chrysler's new fully automatic two-speed PowerFlite transmission. Sales were han- dled by Societe France Motors, Chrysler's French distributor.

Meantime, Exner returned to close-coupled fastbacks with 1953's Chrysler D'Elegance. This was more two-seater than three- place car, for its New Yorker wheelbase was trimmed to a tight (for the time) 115 inches. Though clearly evolved from the first Special, the D'Elegance was busier: gunsight taillights astride a dummy decklid spare, and a face much like the K-310's, right down to a prominently peaked bumper. Rear fenders were notice- ably bulged, with leading edges dropped down from beltline level to near the rockers, where they continued to the front wheel arch- es as a horizontal creaseline.

If the Ghia-built D'Elegance looks familiar, it should. Though little appreciated for some years, Volkswagen acquired manufacturing rights to this design, which was then downscaled by Ghia to fit the chassis of VW's small, Thirties-era Beetle sedan. Germany's Karosserie Karmann was contracted as body supplier for what was introduced in late 1954 as the VW Karmann-Ghia -- a gross misnomer, as the Italian firm had nothing to do with the original styling. It was one of the few times Ex didn't get the cred- it he deserved.

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