From inception, Chrysler was a marque best known for its engineering prowess rather than inspired styling, despite the CG and CL Imperials of 1931 to 1933 and the radical but short-lived Airflow models of the mid-1930s. Yet, during the late 1940s, Chrysler representatives were invited by Fiat under the auspices of the Marshall Plan to provide advice on the latest machining and volume-manufacturing techniques, in order to help rebuild Italy’s war-ravaged industrial base. There, Chrysler representatives learned first-hand about Italy’s custom coachbuilders, who continued to practice a craft that had largely ceased to exist elsewhere in the world.
Although quite conservative, Chrysler President K.T. Keller actually deserves much of the credit for the company’s legendary stylistic renaissance of the early 1950s. Keller, who was Chrysler’s President from 1935 to 1950 before moving up to become Chairman of the Board, was famous for his dictum that one should be able to enter and exit a Chrysler without knocking off one’s fedora. While certainly practical, this conservatism hampered Chrysler stylists from matching the exciting designs from the Harley Earl/Bill Mitchell GM Studios or even the Fords styled by Henry Ford’s postwar “whiz kids.” Nonetheless, in one of his final acts as President, Keller hired Virgil Exner away from the Raymond Loewy studios to design several Chrysler “Idea Cars,” contracting with Italy’s Carrozzeria Ghia to build them.
Exner’s resulting Italian-built dream cars were all usable and running examples, based mostly on the production New Yorker chassis with stout “FirePower” Hemi V8 engines. The first product was the K-310 coupe of 1951, with the “K” being a silent nod to Keller, followed by the C-200 convertible of 1952. Next came the Chrysler Special, a three-passenger coupe on a shortened chassis, which debuted at Paris in 1952 with “Continental-inspired” styling elements including a long hood/short deck profile, knife-edge fenders and a trapezoidal grille. The car offered here, which was extensively displayed across America and abroad, retained the overall styling theme of the Chrysler Special but featured a smart notchback profile and seating for up to five, based upon the standard-length New Yorker chassis.
The car soon became known at the “Thomas Special,” having been presented after its show duties ended to C.B. Thomas, then-President of Chrysler’s Export Division. Series-production of this highly acclaimed concept/show car was contemplated, with the responsibility for sales to be handled by Chrysler’s French distribution arm, Société France Motors.
Ultimately, just six of these vehicles were produced for Chrysler, while Ghia built another 12 examples for themselves. Over the years, these Thomas Special-based cars were known alternatively as the GS-1, the Chrysler Special and the Ghia Special. With their beautiful proportions, fully exposed wheels, minimal brightwork and powerful engines, they provided a stylistic benchmark that continues to inspire designers today, most notably reflected in today’s Chrysler 300 series.
Mechanically, the cars were basically a standard-production 1953 Chrysler New Yorker, powered by a 180-hp, 331-cubic inch “Hemi” V8 mated to Chrysler’s new fully-automatic PowerFlite transmission. Befitting its $10,000 price when new, the Chrysler Special was very well equipped with power brakes, power steering, power windows and a power-operated radio antenna. Only a few exterior components from the regular production New Yorker were used, including the tail lamp assemblies and bumpers.
The Thomas Special was ultimately sold to the well-known American restorer Fran Roxas and became his personal car, which he completely restored to concours-level condition. As a true perfectionist, Roxas later restored the Thomas Special for a second time. He then considered it one of the finest restorations in his noted collection. At the same time, he commissioned famed interior craftsman Chris Nersthiemer to completely restore the stylish interior. After years of ownership by Roxas, the Thomas Special was sold to the well-known concept and dream car collection of Mr. Joe Bortz in 1992, logging only about 1,000 miles under his stewardship of the car. Since 2005 it has been part of another highly respected private collection.
In 1992, the Thomas Special was displayed at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and, thanks to the attention and care it has received, remains in striking condition. According to a recent inspection, the engine bay and undercarriage remain excellent and in virtual show quality. The dark green leather interior is very nicely complemented by light green piping, and the straight bodywork features great panel fit, with the two-tone green paint and brightwork remaining very nice today. This historically significant automobile is a modern design masterpiece that will continue to serve as the undisputed center of any fine automobile collection. It is one of the most stylistically important designs in American automotive history.
This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in July of 2010 at the Shotwell Gustafson Pavilion at Meadow Brook Hall, Rochester, Michigan.
180 bhp, 331 cu. in. “Hemi” V8 engine, PowerFlite two-speed automatic transmission, independent front suspension with coil springs, live rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, and four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 125.5"
Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Darin Schnabel